I wonder if we acclimatized Anglicans get so caught up in the normalcy of church routine sometimes that we forget what a gift our church is. Over the last couple weeks I’ve spent a fair bit of time with students who newly identify with Anglicanism- or Anglican communities- and I have been refreshed to hear about the life they’ve discovered in our parishes. “I feel accepted here,” one young man informed me, and, “I love learning about the liturgy” a grad student explained.
What is the best of our communities that these students connect with? Each one is different, but a common thread I notice is that students feel at home in Anglican churches because here they are free to wrestle with questions and with doubt. Their academic disciplines are welcomed into conversation with Christian thought, not opposed to it or threatened by it. In our communities they often find others like themselves who have wrestled with the worlds of faith and reason and found that they are, contrary to what might be heard elsewhere, highly compatible.
Alongside the freedom to doubt and ask questions is the sense that students don’t need to have all their confessional ducks in a row when they find themselves in our pews. They are quite welcome to disagree, to struggle, and to read everything from Nouwen to Hauerwas to Spong as they seek to know the Holy One. “Doubting Thomas” is an archetype rather than a bad example. Theirs is a generation which often seeks right questions rather than right answers.
Anglicanism, as a liturgical, creedal family (rather than a confessional one) has spent much of its history pursuing questions rather than answers. Students seem to like the diversity of ideas surrounding the sacraments in their congregations and the possibility that they can fall anywhere along a spectrum of conviction concerning, say, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and still belong very much in the Anglican family.
Academics are also draw into the mystery of the liturgy, undoubtedly because they are aware that even after a lifetime of learning and study, there is much in this world that they cannot understand. In the ancient liturgy, students are invited to enter into the realm of the inexplicable, to physically engage that which cannot be put into words with water and wine and bread and oil. They love the symbol and embrace the ritual which seems to gather them up into another time and space.
Perhaps it is the marked absence of the sacred in their culture that causes students to hunger so deeply for mystery. Perhaps it is the fullness of their lives, with classes and work and dating and iPhones, which makes them want to stop all of it entirely for a couple hours on a Sunday morning to rest in an ancient world they struggle to make sense of.
But beyond all of this, what brings students through our doors again and again is the sense that they belong. They long for connections with people who care about them- with aunts and uncles, grandparents and children- who will embrace them as one of their own. When a lay person (one who is not paid to be friendly!) goes out of his or her way to listen deeply and carefully to the things happening in a student’s life, this is what creates belonging. When an elderly couple invites a group of exchange students over for dinner, or when a warden drives a young man to the airport, they are the hands and feet of Christ to my students. College is a time of life when belonging can be particularly difficult, especially in big universities far from home. Through the gifts of liturgy, hospitality, and Sacrament, our churches have the opportunity to be home for students.
Finally, students come through our doors in search of people to guide and engage them as they wrestle with their questions. Belonging for them also means being stretched and challenged as they grow more fully into God even as they grow into their academic disciplines. In the best of our parishes, they find mentors and friends who welcome their doubt but do not leave them there to wrestle alone.