Book: Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals Are Attracted to the Liturgical Church

Robert Webber. Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1985, 174 pp., $13.95.

During the seventies Thomas Howard of Gordon College was the guru to those who grew tired of Baptist testimonies and altar calls and who longed for the rich incense of Anglicanism. Since Howard has journeyed beyond Canterbury to Rome, his voice has become somewhat suspect ("See, I always told you, 'First Episcopal, next Catholic' "). So Robert Webber of Wheaton College has taken over Howard's role as guide to Canterbury. His two earlier books Worship Old and New and Worship Is a Verb, explained the history and ideals of worship. The books were tilted towards patristic worship and high church practices, and offered gentle nudges to fundamentalists and evangelicals to go and do likewise.

Evangelical: on the Canterbury Trail makes a clearer statement of ways in which the author finds evangelical worship wanting. The book tells the story of Webber and six others who left their evangelical churches and joined Episcopal congregations.

Webber summarizes the reasons for the change by citing six needs that the Episcopal Church fulfilled for him: mystery, worship, sacraments, historic identity, ecclesiastical home, and holistic spirituality (pp. 15-16). These reasons and needs are echoed in varying degrees by the other six contributors.

The litany of shortcomings and faults in the fundamentalist community is longer. It includes exclusivism, rationalism, evangelistic services, preaching as a substitute for worship, entertainment during worship, the focus on the preacher, and false spirituality (see especially Part I).

This listing may make the book sound too theological and controversial for nontheologians. But, actually, the book makes very good reading. The autobiographical mode, the intense emotional struggles, the shock of family and friends, the contrast between the folksiness of fundamentalism and the splendor of Anglicanism—all of these contribute to a significant story in the lives of these people.

Rather than summarizing Webber's work further, let me make a few comments on the tone and arguments of the book.

One wonders how much education, social status, and cultural development have to do with the attraction that the Anglican Church holds for these former evangelicals. Probably much more than Webber and the others allow. In an attempt not to appear snobbish they deemphasize the educational, cultural reasons for their move and stop short of calling the Episcopal tradition superior. But sometimes a note of condescension at Baptist banality does creep in. Webber's opinion of his home church is apparent in some of his descriptions; for example, he tells of a man "sitting down the row from me, tapping his foot to the music and keeping time with his gum-chewing mouth and bouncing head" (p. 17). And his constant reference to the dignity of the Episcopal Church is certainly a cultural judgment.

Fundamentalists are fond of conversion stories in which a person comes from a cold, impersonal, formalistic worship tradition (Roman Catholic or Episcopal) and, after a tearful conversion scene, finds a home and lasting peace in the warm fellowship of the local Baptist church. It's wonderfully ironic to see a Baptist go through a reverse tearful conversion and find such rest in the Episcopal Church.

Webber is occasionally guilty of worst-case/best-case argumentation. He often portrays the fundamentalist church at its cantankerous worst and the Episcopal Church at its dignified best. Such portrayal hardly seems fair. Certainly both traditions have a wide spectrum of styles and a great variety of people.

Reformed and Presbyterian readers will often experience a sense of being in between. Their worship style can usually not be characterized as fundamentalists; but neither do they have the grandeur of high Episcopa-lianism. Their sermons fall somewhere in between the Anglican 15 minutes and the Baptist 48 minutes, as clocked by Johnson (pp. 106,109). Calvinists may thus have a sense of a blessed golden mean or of having the best of both worlds. Perhaps so. But aren't there many restless folk in Reformed churches? Some of these restless members have found the Anglican tradition attractive and have traveled from Geneva to Canterbury Others have been wowed by the Gaitherized strains of evangelical worship and have traveled the road to Nashville.

Webber frequently praises the pluralistic home he has found. Unlike Baptists, Episcopalians are not fond of heresy hunting and enjoy a marvelous openness to exploring theological issues in complete candor. Of course, such elasticity has a downside. A report from the Anglican Church in Canada engages in some self-criticism by charging, "For too long, Anglicans have appeared willing to evade responsible theological reflection and dialogue by acquiescing automatically and immediately in the coexistence of incompatible views, opinions and policies."

A number of other issues invite comment, but enough said. I recommend Webber's book to those interested in other Christian worship traditions.

Harry Boonstra ( is former theological editor of RW and emeritus theological librarian of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 3 © March 1987 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.