September 22, 2011

On Being “Anglican”

In my last post, “A Proposed Resolution for General Convention 2012,” I suggested, among other things, that The Episcopal Church declare that “membership in the Anglican Communion is not essential to [The Episcopal Church’s] existence, its Anglicanism, or its Gospel mission in the world.”

Alan Perry, in a comment, suggested that it was a stretch to suggest that a church could withdraw from the Anglican Communion and remain “Anglican.” He suggested that my attitude was uncomfortably close to that of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), which claims to be “Anglican” but only aspires to join the Anglican Communion.

I wrote a brief comment to Alan, which I will expand a bit here.

“Anglican,” I suggest, is commonly used in at least three ways. (A fourth, less common usage is “Anglican Church” as a synonym for “Church of England.”) “Anglican,” referring to a church, can mean, as Alan suggests, being in the Anglican Communion. The word can also refer to a church that is descended historically from an autonomous Church of England. ACNA certainly qualifies as Anglican by this definition, as does the United Methodist Church in the U.S., though hardly anyone would apply the word to Methodists. Finally, there is the way I usually use the term, which I consider to be the most important, if not the most common. “Anglican” in this sense, refers to an approach to theology, ecclesiology, and possibly (though less importantly) polity (i.e., having bishops in apostolic succession). It refers to the Via Media idea of a church that is neither Roman Catholic nor Protestant, a church where a certain uniformity of worship is more important than uniformity of belief. (See my paper, “Saving Anglicanism,” which is decidedly not about preserving the Anglican Communion.) Anglicanism’s most important theologian is, of course, Richard Hooker.

One can characterize churches in terms of how well they can be described by the three kinds of Anglicanism. To do so, I offer the diagram below. (Click on graphic for a larger view.)

The Episcopal Church, and many other churches of the Anglican Communion, sit at the intersection of the three classes of “Anglicanism.”  ACNA, on the other hand,is not in the Communion, and, I would argue, not philosophically Anglican. From all I can tell, the Church of Nigeria (Anglican) is not philosophically Anglican at all, though it is in the Anglican Communion. I know of no philosophically Anglican churches not derived from the Church of England. Correct me if I am wrong. Moreover, I think all churches in the Communion are derived from the Church of England, which explains the two “NULL” labels in my diagram.



  1. I think the two Iberian Churches, viz., the Spanish Reformed Episcopal Church and the Lusitanian Church of Portugal fall into one of your Null categories. I confess that I don't know a lot about these two churches, but my understanding is that they are not descended from the Church of England, yet they are part of the Anglican Communion.

    You might get some debate on the question of whether the Scottish Episcopal Church is descended from the Church of England as well.

    I should think that if any Church were to secede from the Anglican Communion it would be a sad day, and there would have to be some very careful thought put into the implications. That said, as autonomous entities, there is no doubt that the various Churches have the authority to do so.

    ACNA is different, of course, in that it comprises clergy who were deposed or who relinquished their orders pursuant to relevant canons, and anyone subsequently ordained in ACNA does not therefore carry recognizable orders. Ongoing recognition of orders of a secessionist church is one of the questions that would have to be explored.

  2. Alan,

    I haven’t checked on the Iberian churches, but my reading of the history of the Scottish Episcopal Church suggests that it is basically not a daughter of the Church of England, though its history is somewhat entangled with the CofE. Therefore, the intersection of Communion churches and theologically Anglican churches (the magenta segment of the above Venn diagram) is indeed not null. (I am making assumptions about the Scottish church’s theology here.)

  3. I would just note, Lionel, that your notion of what constitutes "theologically Anglican" identity seems to me likely to exclude a number of both evangelical and catholic Anglicans who, over the centuries and around the world, probably have constituted the majority of all Anglicans. Hooker's vast work defending an emerging Anglican ecclesiological position against the pointed attacks of more radical puritanism is a critically important landmark in the history of our tradition. But it is one landmark among many, and one that seems to me to be often recently to be both overemphasized and distorted to serve polemical ends quite different from any Hooker could ever have anticipated.

    Bruce Robison

  4. Bruce,

    I actually considered saying something about the far Evangelical and Catholic ends of the Anglican spectrum in my original post.

    Because I consider the toleration of theological diversity an essential characteristic of what I have called theological Anglicanism, these groups can be part of the Anglican family. On the other hand, a church that includs only one of these groups might properly be considered not Anglican.

    This is why I put ACNA where I did. Bishop Duncan made it clear that he thought he was right and The Episcopal Church was wrong on just about any issue you could name. (He did, however, show a good deal of tolerance for anyone who hated The Episcopal Church as much as he did, irrespective of their theology.)

    All this may seem counterintuitive, but it isn’t crazy. I’ll spare you the discussion of whether toleration requires the toleration of the intolerant.

  5. Within the U.S. "Anglican" scene I think it might be posited that both the bodies resulting from our recent division are "less Anglican" than they were before. At least to say, if one of the results of a broad spectrum with wider polarities is to compel the structures of governance to develop "bigger tent" models, then the result of the narrowing of the polarities will be a smaller tent. Perhaps cozier for some of those who remain, but then that's always what the immediate result of division will be. For both parties, the fewer deck chairs on the deck of the Titanic, the easier they are to re-arrange . . . .

    Bruce Robison

  6. Lionel, You write: "It refers to the Via Media idea of a church that is neither Roman Catholic nor Protestant, a church where a certain uniformity of worship is more important than uniformity of belief. Anglicanism’s most important theologian is, of course, Richard Hooker".

    Your definition is by no means accepted universally as the prevailing one throughout the entire Anglican Communion. At best it is a 19th century one promulgated by the Oxford Movement. And certainty one could safely assert that Abp Cranmer is as important as Richard Hooker.

  7. David,

    If we all agreed on the essential features of Anglicanism, we would have a much easier time of it, wouldn’t we?

    In any case, I don’t claim to have the definitive definition of “true” Anglicanism. Some attempts to capture the essence of Anglicanism are easier to justify with historical evidence than others, however. Admittedly, the importance of Cranmer can hardly be overstated.

    Like other movements in history, religion, art, music, etc., giving them names (and describing them) is not a scientific enterprise. Moreover, if the movement is long-lived (as, for example, Anglicanism is), it is not really the same thing in every era. Any attempt to capture the essence of Anglicanism, then, requires a good deal of abstraction and not a little exercise of taste.

    Perhaps more objectively, defining a movement is very much a matter of distinguishing it from similar movements. Anglicanism has been distinguished by a fixed liturgy in the vernacular, national churches, and the absence of any confession of faith beyond the ancient creeds.

  8. as a practicing church musician, I wish we had a voice in such a debate. In truth, we have no reliable ally- left, right, evangelical (rarely), or Anglo-Catholic (some of them have even gone Vatican II) If you want to find a lonely person in the Anglican communion, it is the traditional Anglican church musician. 'tis a pity, because we could bring things together.....if anybody really cared about Cranmer with music. Oh....except, as it turns out, the cathedrals of England are experiencing a high water mark- and traditional church music is a focus. Anyone? Bueller?

  9. Peter,

    How about caring about Hooker with music? See my hymn “Authorities.”


Anonymous comments are not allowed. All comments are moderated by the author. Gratuitous profanity, libelous statements, and commercial messages will be not be posted.