Book Review: “What is the Anglican Church?” by Anthony Waterman

Depending on who one asks, the response to the question “What is the Anglican Church?” will elicit quite an array of answers. When posed to Dr. Anthony Waterman, the question has resulted in a compact little book with a decided focus on the history of the church in England over the past five hundred years, casting a particular eye to its liturgies and worship practices. The book was written at the request of Brent Neumann during his tenure as the Incumbent of All Saints Church and published by the parish as a resource for visitors, enquirers, and even parishioners who might not have a working knowledge of the roots of the Anglican Church. In his introductory commendation for the book, Bishop Geoff Woodcroft characterizes it as “an insightful, and even playful, well-written history lesson,” adding, “I must admit, that in reading it, I felt as though I was brushing-up on my lessons.”  That’s hardly surprising, as not only is Dr. Waterman a careful and knowledgeable thinker, but he also had the assistance of Diarmaid MacCulloch in producing the final draft of the book. In this introduction, Dr. Waterman characterizes Professor MacCulloch as “the leading authority on the English Reformation,” adding “If this were an academic publication, he would be co-author.”

While What is the Anglican Church? is not an academic publication, it is not without substance. The format of this forty-three-page book might strike some readers as being something of an extended FAQ sheet, as it follows a question-and-answer format. That format, though, long predates the FAQ sheet, dating back to the “Socratic Dialogues” produced at the turn of the fourth century BCE, and utilized in such theological classics as Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man) and Aelred’s De spirituali amicitial (Spiritual Friendship), from the 11th and 12th centuries respectively.

Dr. Waterman begins with a brief chapter called “Origins,” in which he opens with basic questions such as “What is a diocese?” and “What is a bishop?” and then gradually moves to the matter of the break of the Church of England from the Church of Rome, which folds neatly into chapters tracing the history of the church in England, from the Reformation through to the 20th Century. It must be noted that it is the English church that is most in view, which may disappoint readers who were looking for something more focused on the Anglican Church of Canada. Yet knowing those English roots is important in understanding where our own worship patterns have come from, and why, for instance, surpliced choirs and processional crosses had become so very common in Canadian parishes by the 1960s.
What is perhaps most striking is his emphasis on the place of worship, which surfaces on the first page of his introduction:

“The Anglican Church is unique among the other ancient churches of Christendom in having no ‘denominational doctrine of its own; moreover it has always been far less interested in doctrine of any kind than in worship.”

This view is explored in some detail in his closing chapter, “Doctrine and Worship,” which opens with the statement, “Christianity is what we do: not what we say about it.” In Dr. Waterman’s view, “Worship of God in the ‘breaking of the bread’ is still the definitive work of the Church.” Not that this is the only thing that we do, for as he notes, the breaking of bread requires that we be “in love and charity with [our] neighbours, and intend to lead a new life.” No small work!
I would have to say that this volume is probably best suited to the person who wants to know more about the tradition in which he or she is already a participant, or indeed to those of us who—like our bishop and this reviewer—have been in holy orders for decades and quite appreciate the “brushing-up on our lessons” offered by Dr. Waterman.

Jamie Howison, Rector of saint benedict’s table in Winnipeg

Copies of the book are free while they last and can be obtained by contacting Joy Peters, Church Administrator, All Saints Church, [email protected], 204 786-4765.


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