Lent an evolving tradition, says professor

Hayes: “The collect that most English Catholics had at the eve of the Reformation for Ash Wednesday talks about fasting, and then when Cranmer writes his collect for Ash Wednesday he takes all of that out, and it’s about having a penitent heart.” Photo: Ahna-Ziegler-m7U6Zk- wU4Munsplash
Published March 9, 2020

Anglicans may seem inconsistent when it comes to Lent: for every Anglican who gives something up—striking chocolate, swearing or Netflix off the list—there’s another for whom such practices don’t seem essential to the season. Some might attend a weekly Lenten reading group, seeking to increase fellowship and awareness. In some churches, Anglicans might try to increase giving for a specific cause or purpose. Others can dip into Ash Wednesday services and otherwise tend to business as usual until Good Friday.

So where does this variability come from?

The answer could lie in the origins of the denomination itself, which arose in a time of theological wrestling about the relative importance of faith and good works, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Wycliffe College says.

The Anglican idea of Lent, born with the Church of England in the 16th century, meant something of a break from the past, says Alan Hayes, professor of church history at the theological school.

Lent was problematic for some early reformers because of the importance it had traditionally given to fasting. Some, such as Martin Luther (1483-1546), were concerned that people might view fasting and other external practices (or “works”) as more important than faith, which these reformers considered the true heart of Christianity.

“There was this strong sense in Germany and Switzerland and England of justification by faith alone, and so if you went out and tried to make yourself more acceptable to God by doing good things, or giving up things that you don’t need or something like that, that was putting the emphasis in the wrong place,” Hayes says.

Alan Hayes. Photo: Contributed

“It was making you think you were in charge of your spiritual life and that you were not recognizing God as loving, and someone you could trust, and someone who oversees you, and someone who cares for you and makes sure that things are okay for you.”

At the same time, the reformers saw some value in Christian discipline—John Calvin (1509-1564), Hayes says, was more enthusiastic about fasting than Luther— and were reluctant to dispense with it completely.

This debate, Hayes says, seems to have shaped the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, written by English reformer Thomas Cranmer. The prayer book’s Ash Wednesday prayer shifts the emphasis of Lent away from fasting to the inner life of the Christian.

“The collect that most English Catholics had at the eve of the Reformation for Ash Wednesday talks about fasting, and then when Cranmer writes his collect for Ash Wednesday he takes all of that out, and it’s about having a penitent heart,” Hayes says. “So he’s changing it from what you do to how you understand your relationship to God, and how you examine yourself and so on.”

In the nearly half-millennium since the Reformation, it’s possible Anglicans’ and other Christians’ attitudes toward Lent have continued to evolve, Hayes says. For example, there may have been some increase of Lenten practices among Anglicans during the 20th century as a result of the Liturgical Movement, which

had the tendency of softening historical Protestant suspicions of Roman Catholic tradition.

Among Anglicans, Hayes says, the Liturgical Movement “probably did free people to think about certain kinds of mildly ascetic practices differently,” neither as a means to salvation nor as entirely misguided, but rather as “something that can help us think about our dependence on God in a healthy way, and re-think our comfortable bourgeois lives, and realize we don’t need to depend on the materialistic culture and that kind of thing.”

In more recent decades, he says, some North American evangelicals seem to have taken an increasing interest in Lent— several U.S. mega-churches with more than 10,000 people attending a week, for example, have made it part of their worship.

A possible explanation for this, Hayes says, is that the focus of some congregations around charismatic preachers has left them longing for a source of stability, which they’re now seeking in church tradition. For these congregations, he says, there may seem to be “something tried and true about the traditions of the church,” and church life that incorporates tradition may appear “not quite so dependent on the interpretations of one individual who speaks terribly well.”

In a 2014 opinion piece on U.S.-based website Christianity.com, “Why has Lent become cool with evangelicals?,” Doug Ponder, a founding pastor of a Virginia church, wrote that in the previous 10 years he had seen “an explosion of evangelical observation of Lent.”

Ponder speculated that three factors seemed mostly to be driving the trend: the increased spread of ideas about religious practice made possible by the Internet; a yearning among many Christians, in the face of rapid societal change, to connect with “something certain and unchanging”; and a widespread desire in today’s culture for “unique experiences.”


  • Tali Folkins

    Tali Folkins joined the Anglican Journal in 2015 as staff writer, and has served as editor since October 2021. He has worked as a staff reporter for Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His freelance writing credits include work for newspapers and magazines including The Globe and Mail and the former United Church Observer (now Broadview). He has a journalism degree from the University of King’s College and a master’s degree in Classics from Dalhousie University.

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