In a Hub of Evangelicalism, Liturgy Takes Hold
For some in the Wheaton community, Anglicanism provides a missing link.
By Haleigh Olthof | Features Editor
When Laura Chelsen (‘91, MA ‘96) visited Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton for the first time in 1991, she struggled to keep up with the instructions to sit, stand and kneel during the specified times in the service. She was a Wheaton student at the time and her Baptist upbringing had not prepared her for such active participation. “As a Baptist, you sit in your seat and even communion is passed to you, so I was distracted, thinking, ‘What are we doing?’” Chelsen said.
But midway through the service came a portion called the passing of the peace. Chelsen stood and shook hands with the people around her, repeating the simple phrase, “The peace of the Lord be with you.”
“That was something I could enter into easily,” Chelsen said, even though it was also new to her. “It piqued my curiosity.”
One of hundreds of Wheaton students who encountered liturgy for the first time in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Chelsen was guided by several influential faculty, such as former theater director Jim Young and English professor Joe Hill McClatchey. Students also flocked to the Anglican Church of the Great Shepherd in Wheaton, which was led by Wheaton professor of Christian formation and ministry Lyle Dorsett. Perhaps the most influential was theology professor Robert Webber, who taught at Wheaton from 1968 to 2000. Webber assigned his students his 1985 book, “Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail,” in which he describes how the Anglican tradition — with its focus on sacraments like the Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper) and its connection to the historical church — fills the gaps he felt in his evangelical background.
Anglicanism and evangelicalism both have roots in the 16th-century Protestant Reformation in Europe, which fostered several splits from the Catholic Church. The Church of England broke off in 1527 when King Henry VIII of England wanted to annul his marriage but could not under the teachings of the Catholic church. In the following decades, Protestant reforms challenged doctrines like transubstantiation and affirmed salvation through grace alone. After the American War of Independence, American colonists who were Anglican established the Episcopal Church in the United States. (The Episcopal and Anglican denominations in the U.S. are now differentiated mostly by politics; the Episcopal church is more progressive, particularly on the issue of homosexuality.)
Today, the Anglican church has a strong presence in the United States and Africa. While Anglicans range theologically from Anglo-Catholics to evangelical Anglicans, they have in common the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, a focus on the presence of God and expression of theology in the liturgies practiced as a church body, and an authority structure headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The Anglican church is similar to Catholicism in some areas; the two churches both have a calendar with feasts and holy days, a leadership structure that includes priests and bishops, and an emphasis on the importance of sacraments. However, Anglicans are not under the authority of the Pope and remain theologically Protestant on issues such as transubstantiation, the Catholic belief that the Lord’s Supper becomes Jesus’ literal body and blood.
Unlike Anglicanism, evangelicalism refers not to a denomination but rather to a movement sparked by eighteenth-century revivals in the U.S. and Britain. These revivals were led by preachers like Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield and other ministers from various Protestant denominations. In 1989, British historian David Bebbington famously defined evangelicalism as a combination of built-upon-biblicism (a focus on scripture’s authority), crucicentrism (a focus on Christ’s atoning work on the cross), conversionism (a focus on bringing individuals to faith) and activism (a focus on lived-out faith).
While some individuals are committed to both the movement of evangelicalism and the church tradition of Anglicanism, for others, they are irreconcilable. Although churches and individuals vary, many evangelicals have reservations about liturgy. Growing up in a fundamentalist Baptist church, philosophy professor James Gordon was warned about liturgy’s repetition and structure. “I remember hearing my pastor talk about liturgical practices being a kind of meaningless formalism that you could disengage from,” Gordon said. He now attends All Souls Anglican Church in Wheaton.
Some evangelicals are also concerned that liturgy is too reverent of the objects used in worship: visual art, priestly robes, candles and even the Bible. Junior English writing major Kathleen Parker experienced this discomfort the first few times she attended Church of the Resurrection, known as “Rez” to members. At services at Rez, the Bible is carried in a procession to the front of the sanctuary and held up while the congregation sings before the reading of scripture. “I thought, ‘This is totally unbiblical; this is heresy. We’re worshiping the Bible right now,’” Parker said. Rez is now her home church.
Yet for the last several decades, some evangelicals — including Parker, Gordon and Chelsen — have found a spiritual home in liturgy. Part of the evangelical acceptance of liturgy requires realizing that any church background, even a non-liturgical one, has intrinsic patterns and intentions. Around the time Chelsen attended her first Rez service in 1991, Robert Webber taught her Christian Thought class to consider this reality. Chelsen remembers journaling in response to questions like “How do I worship on a Sunday morning? What happens? Even if a church doesn’t consider itself liturgical, the service follows a pattern. What does that mean?”
Since the publication of “Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail,” Webber has been cited in other articles and books about the continuing movement of evangelicals into more liturgical traditions. Occasionally these individuals end up Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, but those in the Wheaton community more often stick with Anglicanism or Episcopalianism. (Rez’s youth pastor estimates that more than 100 Wheaton students regularly attend that church alone.) They find that these traditions fill worship needs they have felt in their church backgrounds while remaining Protestant theologically.
I joined a group of such Wheaton students on a Friday afternoon in Wheaton’s Adams Hall 301. Icon paintings of saints line the walls in the southeast corner, and incense swirled and dissipated from its angled stick. An Anglican Book of Common Prayer waited on each of the sleek plastic chairs that faced each other in a square. More than a dozen students had gathered for one of six weekly, Anglican-style prayer services held by art professor Matthew Milliner throughout Lent, the six weeks preceding Easter.
Senior physics major Genevieve Nelson led the liturgy that day. She invited students to stand for an opening scripture verse, then kneel for confession, then stand again. “Now as we come to the setting of the sun, and our eyes behold the vesper light, we sing thy praises, O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” Nelson read as latecomers trickled in. During the Psalm reading, as half the room recited the odd verses and the other responded with the even, President Philip Ryken (who does not attend a liturgical church) walked in and took a seat.
After the twenty-minute liturgy, as students chatted and drifted out into the weekend sun, Nelson sat with me on a couch near the front of the classroom. She told me how during her freshman year, family friends drove her to Church of the Resurrection in their minivan with their five children and made the church feel like home. Still, “it was disorienting at first,” said Nelson, who grew up living at Hume Lake Christian Camps in California. “What’s with the robes?” she asked, referring to the priest’s unfamiliar style of dress. But eventually, she grew to love the liturgy’s poetic ring and the repetition that helped her memorize the words based on scripture. The exuberance of Rez’s worship — hand-raising is common, and priests are known to dance during Holy Week — reminded her of the joyful spirit of camp worship. She stayed.
Nelson joins a strong contingent of past and present Wheaton students and faculty who have visited, joined and even pastored Anglican or Episcopalian churches. Anglican influences have become visible on campus: first-year students read “Simply Christian” by N.T. Wright, a prominent Anglican scholar who spoke at Wheaton most recently in 2019. The graduate school is developing a Master of Arts in Ministry Leadership in partnership with the Anglican Church in North America. The program is still in its beginning stages, but nine current faculty in the denomination have been recruited to teach in the program, which will train students to be spiritual leaders while teaching them Anglican ecclesiology. In addition to faculty from the Bible and Theology Department and the School of Mission, Ministry and Leadership, other faculty in the program include a professor of art and a professor of literature. Their involvement points to the high value Anglicanism places on art as a way to engage the worshiper’s imagination.
Although few current Wheaton students would recognize Robert Webber’s name, his legacy as a person who ventured from evangelicalism into liturgy remains among Wheaton’s Anglican faculty. The son of Baptist missionaries, Webber began teaching at Wheaton in 1968. When he became disillusioned with the style of worship he knew, Webber discovered St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Glen Ellyn and soon transitioned to Anglicanism. (This was before the Episcopalian Church ordained its first openly gay bishop in 2003, at which point the more conservative Anglican Church in North America split off.) His insights in “Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail,” which documents his personal journey and tells the stories of six other evangelical “pilgrims” who converted to Anglicanism, have proven helpful to Wheaton students drawn to liturgy ever since.
One major draw of Anglicanism is its focus on the continuity of the church over time. Rick Richardson, a Wheaton professor of Evangelism and Leadership, is a priest at Cornerstone Anglican Church in Chicago. Richardson, who didn’t grow up going to church, said he is grateful for the Bible church contexts where he started worshiping when he came to faith in ninth grade. But he didn’t hear from his pastors about church history.
“It was like, church history: Jesus died and rose again, and then the Reformation started,” Richardson said. “For instance, before Constantine and his initial edict of toleration in 311, there were years of people who died for their faith and lived for their witness. They are incredible examples, and I didn’t have access to any of them.”
Parker, who grew up in a nondenominational church and has attended Rez since the fall of 2020, remembers hearing an English professor her freshman year talk about the church calendar and realizing she hardly knew what that was. “I had a lot of Bible knowledge, and I had a lot of Christian culture education, but when it came to church history and theology, there was still a lot to learn.”
Webber, who died in 2007, writes in “Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail” that before he discovered liturgy, he was “of the opinion that the church had gone apostate around 100 A.D., at the close of the New Testament age, and wasn’t recovered again until the Reformation.”
While some evangelical denominations incorporate historical elements like creeds and hymns into their services, the Episcopal and Anglican traditions more expressly emphasize continuity with the church’s whole history. Liturgies read in church and during other prayer times have been in use for centuries, and feast days throughout the year celebrate saints through the ages. Webber writes in “Canterbury Trail” about a graduate class he took at Reformed Episcopal Seminary in Philadelphia where he learned about the Apostolic Fathers, which are Christian leaders from between 100 and 150 A.D. “I felt like I had found my family tree in the attic,” he said.
Many Wheaton Anglicans also value what Webber called a “sacramental viewpoint,” the idea that God communicates to people in tangible signs such as baptism and the Eucharist. In contrast, many evangelical churches view these signs as merely symbolic and as expressions of the worshiper’s obedience rather than God’s presence.
Philosophy professor James Gordon’s first Anglican experience was an Ash Wednesday service at All Souls Anglican Church in Wheaton, which was filled with such tangible signs. “I went forward to get the ashes on my head, and I interpret that instance as the first time I went to a church service where my body made a difference,” said Gordon, who grew up in a Baptist fundamentalist church. “It was a reminder that our physical lives matter.”
Daniel Carroll Rodas, the Scripture Press Chair of Biblical Studies and Pedagogy, has attended Anglican churches with his wife in England, Denver and Wheaton and now attends Rez. Something he appreciates about the services is the whole-body participation. “You stand, you kneel, you confess your sin, you move forward for the Lord’s Supper and you’re given something, the body of Christ and the blood of Christ. My wife and I have really enjoyed that kind of involvement,” said Carroll.
The use of art in liturgical traditions also invites worship through creativity. “Sometimes our backgrounds haven’t taught us to love God with our imagination,” Richardson said. “We go to churches and there’s nothing that draws our hearts to the beauty of God. Symbols” — like the sacraments, visual art and even incense — “can really do that.”
Many evangelicals find that by engaging worshipers as a whole person, liturgy takes pressure off churchgoers’ intellect. Webber writes in “Canterbury Trail” that when he was a seminary student, he believed “the main point of the service… was to get to the sermon. The sermon was the food that nourished the people, and transformed them.” But as a churchgoer, he writes, “I seldom found what I was looking for, [and] I quickly became disenchanted with this kind of worship.”
English professor Christina Bieber Lake, whose husband is interim priest at Cornerstone Anglican Church, echoes that sentiment. “For someone who is intellectually oriented, it’s tempting to critique the pastor and see whether he’s right or wrong,” Bieber Lake said. “That’s not a good faith position to be in.”
Liturgical traditions, by their nature, alleviate the pressure on sermons alone to foster worshipers’ spiritual growth. “In the Anglican church, the sermon is tangential,” Gordon said. “It’s fifteen minutes at the beginning of the service before the thing that really matters, which is the Eucharist.”’
Parker has felt liturgy relieve the intellectual pressure in her own church life. “I’m not going into the service feeling like I need to defend or affirm my theological beliefs,” she said. “And if the sermon doesn’t hit today, maybe confession will or communion will. There are so many other ways to worship and connect, so there’s less pressure.”
Chelsen has found experiential faith meaningful not only in church but also in her home. As she and her husband, Vice President for Student Development Paul Chelsen, raised their three children, the family regularly prayed morning and evening prayers together. They also celebrated feasts like Epiphany, a January event which celebrates the arrival of the wise men in Bethlehem. In each season of the church calendar — Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Ordinary Time — Chelsen decorated her home with the season’s liturgical colors, the same colors as the priests’ vestments and the cloth covering the communion table during those seasons. “I love the way the liturgical calendar gives me a way to join into the life of Christ, on Sunday mornings but also throughout my days,” Chelsen said.
Despite the apparent differences between Anglicanism and evangelicalism, Richardson says that the liturgy of Anglicanism helps evangelical students to explore their faith in a different way.
“Whatever students grew up with, it’s not going to deliver all that it promised, so sometimes they need fresh parts of who they are opened up to love God,” said Richardson. “When that happens, there’s a renewal and an excitement about faith, and there’s a recovery from cynicism. I don’t think that hurts their evangelical background; I think it fills it out and renews it.”