Book Review: “Orthodox Anglican Identity”

Orthodox Anglican Identity: The Quest for Unity in a Diverse Religious Tradition. By Charles Erlandson. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2020. 224 pp. $47.00 (cloth), $27.00 (paper).

Books on Anglicanism nowadays often read like eulogies. Charles Erlandson’s Orthodox Anglican Identity might be included in this genre. He is not irenic like, say, Alistair Redfern, who, in Being Anglican (2000), repeats several times that “Anglicanism exists in the eye of the believer.” Neither is he serrated and despondent like Edward Norman in Anglican Difficulties (2004) which reads: “Anglicanism: a body without definition…a body uneasily held together by equivocation and paper compromise; a body, furthermore, with little idea of where it is going, in the increasingly alien cultural circumstances of modern society.” There is also no memoir or first person perspective—an approach realized most powerfully by Roger Scruton in Our Church (2012). Instead, Erlandson is more forensic, carefully outlining the church with chalk. His work, therefore, lacks the polemical quality that often characterizes books of this kind. It reads like a sober reflection on a recently deceased body of belief.

“Anglicanism,” writes Erlandson, “is the life of the catholic church that was planted in England in the first few centuries after Christ; reshaped decisively by the English Reformation that reformed the received catholic traditions and also by the Evangelical and Catholic Revivals and other historical movements of the Spirit; and that has now been enculturated into independent, global churches.” Thus, Erlandson refers to England, the religious movements of the early to late modern period, and the Spirit.

Within Erlandson’s definition are three reasons for factionalism that are developed in the book. The first is the way that he takes the Anglican church to be an ongoing narrative—it is a cathedral never finished, an enormous sight to behold. It cannot be reduced to a set of pillars or a figure or even a single place or building. Erlandson tells the Anglican story in “roughly three stages”: its formalization from 1533 to 1833, its global “multiplication” from 1833 to the mid-twentieth century, and its “third and current state…from the mid-twentieth century to the present” which is largely one of fragmentation. In a sense these stages describe a complete lifecycle—a development, flowering, and eventual withering—of Anglicanism. The greatest sign of decay, in Erlandson’s view, is the ongoing dispute over “the consecration of Vicki Gene Robinson, an openly homosexual man, by the Episcopal Church as a bishop in 2003.” It was controversial at the time: within the Episcopalian Church 63 bishops voted for, 42 against, 2 abstained; and within the worldwide Anglican communion 22 of then 38 provinces declared their communion with the Episcopalians either “broken or impaired.” By this point, Erlandson’s narrative is a tragic one.

Edmund Burke famously said that “all Protestantism, even the most cold and passive, is a sort of dissent.” And this tendency, what Erlandson refers to as reformation and revival, or in other places as innovation, is another cause of faction. Nowadays there are two main groups, what he terms the “Orthodox” and the “Liberal.” The Orthodox “accept the literal truth…of the historical Christian creeds,” “they consider the Bible to be the inspired word of God,” “they adhere to the traditional biblical interpretation that homosexuality is a sin,” and “they identify themselves as orthodox.” The Liberals disagree with one or all of these points and tend toward “unilateral innovations…and an unwillingness to discipline theological heterodoxy or heresy.” In other words, the groups differ in attitude as well as belief.

New alliances have formed to galvanize this division in ways that run parallel to tradition—and this too has cast Anglicanism into uncertainty, elaborating an already complex narrative. Erlandson finds that many institutions now belong to the Liberals. The Orthodox have responded by setting up the Global Anglican Future Conference in 2008 and the subsidiary Anglican Church in North America in 2009. Yet the capability of these new groups to maintain “the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Church of England” remains to be seen. The recent disciplining of the North American church on various issues by African bishops of the Conference could be taken as a sign of strength. But at the time of publication, which preceded the advent of the coronavirus, Erlandson believed that Anglicanism may well be entering “a fourth stage of ecclesial identity” in which church organisation is “complex, messy, and…relatively weak.”

The division within Anglicanism is far from a binary contest between Orthodox and Liberal, however. In his final chapter Erlandson describes the various spiritualities found within the Orthodox: the Anglo-Catholic, the Evangelical, the Charismatic, and the Global. All struggle in their own way with the Book of Common Prayer, the Thirty-Nine Articles, and church governance. Their sole form of unification is an abstract sharing of “a particularly Christian orthodox identity.” In this sense, orthodoxy has its own disintegrative power. Orthodox Anglicans are unified not so much by a church hierarchy or text or culture but by beliefs shared with those outside the denomination.

The third reason for faction in Anglicanism is another aspect of identity within the church, one that cuts across all previously mentioned categories: the way that Anglicanism is increasingly considered dislocated from any nation or union of nations. Erlandson does not refer to this trend directly but it is found within his book. Returning to his definition of Anglicanism, one notices the trajectory: what is planted in England eventually escapes, putting down roots abroad. Yet it does not seem to have adapted to the national identity of its respective climates. It exists everywhere and nowhere. This might be termed a “Global Anglican Spirituality” but Erlandson already uses this phrase to describe Anglicanism as it “has been enculturated into the former English colonies.” Even in these countries there would appear to be a trend towards diffusion. Erlandson describes the church in Uganda in detail where “orthodox Anglicans often have more in common with other Christian traditions and identities than they do with Anglicanism.” The church is neither national nor international. As a result, it lives disembodied and homeless. A tragic fate indeed for a faith which believes that the divine became man. Yet all the more reason to treasure his death—a death which was never eulogised because he was resurrected.



Steven McGregor is an ordinand in the Church of England.


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