You Should Read: Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail – A Review by Renada Thompson
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We all know the Canterbury Trail is a place for stories. In his book Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail [affiliate link], Robert Webber follows Chaucer’s example by presenting a collection of tales leading us to reflect on our own spiritual journeys. Through his own story and others, Webber shows why people from evangelical churches find themselves drawn to Anglican and Episcopalian traditions. In the spirit of the book, I will briefly share my own journey on the Canterbury Trail.
My Own Trail
Raised in a nondenominational church on the West Coast, I had little exposure to traditional liturgy until my college years. As an English major, anything with ties to Great Britain interested me, and I attended a few Anglican services. I took my first trip to England with a group of classmates, and one afternoon we visited Canterbury itself. The majesty of the cathedral, along with so many other beauties of Britain, enraptured me completely. Even before our plane left JFK Airport for London, I told my mom that I felt like I was going home, not leaving it. (Perhaps not the most sensitive thing for a college student to say when leaving parents!)
That feeling of homecoming crystallized during our class’s short visit to the university town of Oxford. I was giddy to think that I had just eaten dinner at The Eagle and Child, the haunt of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Sitting in the hostel bunk bed that night, I knew I had to return to Oxford.
And so a year later, I moved into student housing at Oxford Brookes University, right down the road from C. S. Lewis’s home in the suburb of Headington. I met a graduate of my course, and she introduced me to the place that became my home in many ways: an Anglican church called St. Aldates.
Though I would soon meet my husband there, the church was formative in many other ways. At St. Aldates I found something I didn’t even know to look for: an undeniable sense of God’s presence in a place where believers had worshipped since the 12th century. This parish in the Church of England took me under its wing, and though I attended for only a year before moving back to the States, St. Aldates remains a spiritual home for me.
Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail
Attending an Anglican church in England is as natural as watching football in the South. Here in the States, though, that decision takes some explaining. For Robert Webber in the 1980s, the choice to join the Episcopal church was a radical one. His description of that journey illuminates how far we have already come toward one of his goals: greater unity between different branches of the church.
Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail traces three themes common to the stories of many who have joined a liturgical tradition. Webber describes them as the need for “historic identity, an ecclesiastical home, and a holistic spirituality” (xix). He holds up the mystery of the liturgical church as a necessary counterpoint to evangelical rationalism, saying, “what we need is not answers about God, but God himself” (8).
Webber also examines the role of the sermon during corporate worship, and shows how sacramental Christianity has surprising parallels in evangelicalism.
For anyone with a sacred view of the “quiet time,” this quote will ring especially true:
“I had always believed [from an evangelical background] the scriptures somehow mysteriously represented the means through which God became present to the reader. All I had to do was extend this principle to all of life and to specific signs of God’s acting in the church” (39).
Far from urging evangelicals en masse to the liturgy, Webber laments “how suspicious we are of other Christians who are not from our immediate culture and context” (64) and encourages all of us to learn from each other. His values of curiosity and openness fit well within the Anglican tradition, but by no means does he say Canterbury is the trail for all.
Several other pilgrims share their stories in the second part of the book, and they speak to many different experiences relatable to evangelicals. But I lit up when I read that Stephany Webber Welch, the author’s daughter, also attended the Oxford church of St. Aldates. She expresses exactly what I found so irresistible:
“The church had the historical rootedness of the liturgy, which tells God’s story every week; the evangelical emphasis on personal devotion and spiritual growth; and the charismatic emphasis on the indwelling and outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Together, they expressed a holistic ideal of the narrative of God in the world and in our lives” (103).
As much as I love St. Aldates, and my church here in Birmingham, I don’t think I’ve ever told someone “I’m an Anglican.” I’ll say that I attend an Anglican church, and if appropriate, share the reasons why. Maybe the evangelical in me still resists the Anglican label, but maybe it’s because, as the third part of the book points out, our trail as Christians leads beyond Canterbury.
The revised edition of Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail ends with three authors’ reflections written well after the book’s publication in the 1980s. They speak to difficult questions about the wider Ancient Future movement, and how to define authentic Anglicanism in the United States moving forward.
Speaking toward a growing convergence among churches, Barry Taylor writes,
I love the Anglican sense of mystery as well, but to be honest, I find it in many places today where it was once unwelcome. The hunger for a more open and inquiring faith, rather than abstract believing, has drawn mystery out into the light a bit more (180).
I recommend Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail as a powerful bit of family storytelling: the history of how many of us came to be at the table together, and why it feels like home.
Renada Thompson is a graduate of Grove City College and Oxford Brookes University. A Christian publishing professional, she lives in Birmingham with her husband, Chris, where they attend Christ the King Anglican Church. Renada blogs at thesedaysrenewed.wordpress.com.
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