“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” —Matthew 16:18
Many Christians have had to transition to a new church. Such a change can be fraught with emotion, uncertainty, and difficulty. I know. I’ve recently made such a change. Is there a way to do so thoughtfully and graciously?
Jesus Christ has one church and that ecclesiastical community is holy (called out), global, and traceable back to the apostles.1 The church was birthed and flourished in light of the truth of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead. The church is also the body of Christ and our Lord and Savior promises to preserve it.
Finding Common Ground in the Journey
I think anyone who knows me would acknowledge that I’m generally a Christian peacemaker and am ecumenical by nature. I think that’s the way I’m wired. So when I meet Christians from different denominations and branches of Christendom I always start the theological discussion by examining our common ground in the Lord before moving to the sometimes significant and often contentious doctrinal differences. In fact, my favorite area of Christian theology is known as catholicity, which pertains to beliefs and practices widely accepted across numerous Christian theological traditions. Most notably, catholicity reflects the beliefs of Christians who describe themselves as catholic (intentionally lowercased and meaning whole or universal) in accordance with the historic creeds of Christendom (Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, Athanasian Creed).
Over the last couple of years I have transitioned to a different church and a somewhat different theological tradition. Many people who know me and my passion for Christian doctrine and history have inquired as to why I made the change. Christians sometimes change denominations and, on occasion, even change branches of Christendom. Making significant moves within Christ’s universal church is not an easy process so I’ve decided to explain why I changed churches. I also hope to offer a model for how to navigate this transition in a thoughtful and gracious way.
I have been attending a congregation within the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) and Reformed Episcopal Church jurisdiction (REC) for about two years. With 85 million members worldwide, conservative or historic Anglicanism is the third largest communion within Christendom after the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Also, this conservative form of Anglicanism is presently growing as fast or faster than either Catholicism or Orthodoxy.2
I’m truly grateful for, and respectful of, what I received in the previous churches I have attended including the Roman Catholic Church as a child and young man as well as the Lutheran (LCMS) and Reformed (URC) churches as an older adult. The term reformed extends beyond just the original Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed church bodies and has influenced other church traditions including Congregational, Baptist, and Anglican. Anglicanism includes people from different theological traditions and persuasions (Anglo-Catholics, for example) but I identify myself as an Augustinian or Reformed Anglican.
What attracted me to historic or conservative Anglicanism specifically is the explicit trinitarian liturgy that comes from the doxological masterpiece The Book of Common Prayer (BCP). But I was also drawn by other elements such as the sacraments, the identity of being both reformed and catholic, appreciation for history and tradition, hospitality, and my respect for certain English and Anglican priests, theologians, and apologists both in history and today (Thomas Cranmer, Richard Hooker, John Owen, E. L. Mascall, C. S. Lewis, J. I. Packer, Michael Green, Peter Toon, Gerald Bray, Gerald McDermott, Alister McGrath, etc.).
I also very much appreciate what is called “The Classical Anglican Way,” which lists the church’s five sources of authority on canon, testaments, creeds, councils, and tradition. Here’s that succinct and powerful statement:
“The Classical Anglican Way looks to ONE Canon of Holy Scripture (the Bible), with its TWO Testaments, understood with the faith expressed in the THREE Creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, Athanasian), and by the doctrinal teaching of the first FOUR ecumenical councils (Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon), within the developing life and tradition of the first FIVE centuries of the Christian era.”3
I find traditional Anglicanism appealing for its trinitarian liturgy, (from the BCP), its specific appreciation for the church fathers, its respect for church history and tradition, and its Protestant-oriented Thirty-Nine Articles. Having grown up Roman Catholic, I find in conservative Anglicanism the things I appreciate about both the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches (called Via Media: “the middle way”).
Addressing a Criticism of Anglicanism
Sometimes people are put off by Anglicanism because of its association with the controversial historical figure King Henry VIII (1491–1547). The claim is made that Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife and since he couldn’t get the pope’s approval, he created his own personal church that would allow him to divorce and called it the Church of England or Anglican church. Yet, without getting into great detail, the contemporary conservative Anglican theologians and historians I have read say that the early roots of Anglicanism go back long before the Reformation to the early centuries of Christianity.4
Moreover, they make the case that the English Reformation, which framed certain distinctives of Anglicanism promulgated by influential theologian Thomas Cranmer in the sixteenth century, took place after and in a different direction than King Henry personally or politically intended. Contemporary theologian Gerald Bray says that Henry VIII wanted a Catholicism without a pope but Cranmer—after the king’s death—presented a distinct form of Protestantism.5For good or bad, the political and theological are often interrelated in church history.
Finding where we belong in Christ’s universal church stands among the most important decisions Christians make. It is not easy to change churches nor should it be. When and if that time comes, I strongly recommend that Christians be led by three things: truth, unity, and charity. First, always be led by truth. Hold steadfastly to the truth of Scripture and of historic Christian doctrine. Second, intentionally seek to promote unity in the body of Christ by finding common ground with other believers. Third, strive to let charity or love guide all your interactions within Christ’s universal church. As forgiven sinners, we will never perform these three goals perfectly but God blesses even our imperfect efforts toward these critical ideals.
Reflections: Your Turn
Have you made a significant change of churches? How did it go?
- For a discussion of historic Christianity’s agreements and disagreements, see Kenneth Richard Samples, Christianity Cross-Examined (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2021), chapter 10.
- To study what Anglicans believe, see To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism edited by J. I. Packer and Joel Scandrett.
- To explore a distinctive feature of Anglicanism, see The Anglican Way: Evangelical and Catholic by Peter Toon.
- These are referred to as the four marks of the church and they’re found in the Nicene Creed: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.
- Gerald R. McDermott, ed., The Future of Orthodox Anglicanism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 13.
- See “Beliefs,” Christ’s Chapel: An Ancient Faith for a Modern World.
- McDermott, Future of Orthodox Anglicanism, 18–19.
- McDermott, Future of Orthodox Anglicanism, 160–161.