“Fools rush in where angels dare to tread.” – Alexander Pope, An Essay in Criticism
Entering into the virtual (and, I hope, “real life”) debate over whether Anglicanism is Catholic or Protestant seems a little like an illustration of Pope’s epigram. But since I’ve already manifested the foolishness (or is it audacity?) to attempt a definition of Anglicanism, I figure – why not?
I’ve been pondering this issue since I became an Anglican in 1988, and I remember getting a kick out of the fact that the World Encyclopedia c. 1989 counted Anglicanism as something other than a Protestant body, which annoyed my Presbyterian twin brother to no end.
So is Anglicanism Protestant or Catholic or some tertium quid or via media?
It turns out that the answer to this question all depends on when you think Anglicanism began and which aspect of our English Church heritage you value the most.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to define Anglicanism, especially in my Orthodox Anglican Identity but also dealing with the issue in my forthcoming book, English Church History in 4 Acts: From the Beginning to Henry VIII. Particularly in English Church History in 4 Acts, I will emphasize the element of continuity in the English Church tradition, which I believe is one of the keys to understanding who we are as Anglicans.
For the record, I consider that the English Church tradition began in the first few centuries after Christ, even if it has undergone significant transformations over the centuries. This should not trouble us as Anglican Christians because Christianity writ large has undergone tremendous changes over the centuries, including each and every Christian Church tradition. We acknowledge the Roman Catholic Church to be the Roman Catholic Church, even though it is vastly different than it was in previous centuries.
The definition of Anglicanism I offer in Orthodox Anglican Identity is that Anglicanism is: “the Catholic Church that was planted in England in the first few centuries after Christ; reshaped decisively by the English Reformation and its formularies 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 inculturated into independent, global churches.”
Such a definition allows for both a fundamental Catholic identity and a Protestant re-shaping of this Catholic English Church tradition. In other words, Anglicanism is a kind of Reformed Catholicism, where Catholicism is the noun and Reformed is the adjective that modifies it.
Why Do We Disagree?
If Anglicanism is a species of Reformed Catholicism, then we should expect that Anglicanism has two primary ways of thinking about itself, one which looks to its Catholic heritage in terms of the Creeds, Councils, ancient liturgies, and writings of the Church Fathers, and one which looks at the English Reformation and especially her formularies of the Book of Common Prayer and the 39 Articles.
What all of this means for our current discussion about Anglican identity is that one of the reasons why Anglicans disagree about whether Anglicanism is Protestant or Catholic is because we disagree about which aspect of Anglicanism has the greatest weight.
If you especially value the patristic consensus as more fundamental than the English Reformation, then you’re likely to believe that Anglicanism is a Catholic tradition. If, on the other hand, you give more weight to the English Reformation, then you are likely to believe Anglicanism is fundamentally a Protestant tradition. And if what you value most is your own individual attraction to various bits of Anglicanism, then you are likely to believe Anglicanism is a vaguely ancient, reverent, and beautiful tradition without necessarily comprehending the whole.
Protestant and Catholic
There is undoubtedly more than one way to think about how Anglicanism is both Protestant and Catholic, but allow me to meditate on the ways in which we are both Protestant and Catholic but, ultimately, an especially Catholic tradition.
As an aside, one testimony to the Protestant and Catholic sides of Anglicanism is the succession of revivals that the Church of England experienced in the 18th and 19th centuries. When the Church of England needed a greater emphasis on the Scriptures, the heart, and conversion, God providentially sent the Evangelical Revival of the 18th century, and when the Church of England in the early 19th century was beginning to drift from the Catholicity of the Prayer Book, God sent the Catholic Revival.
In what ways, then, is Anglicanism a Protestant tradition?
To begin with, at the time of the English Reformation, Anglicans were part of the same variegated movement to reform the Western Church which had become infested with errors, abuses, and innovations. In addressing these issues, the English Reformers shared much in common with other Protestants: they did not consider the pope to have universal jurisdiction, they upheld the supremacy of Scripture, they adhered to the doctrine of justification by faith alone, they rejected transubstantiation, indulgences, and the penance system of the late medieval Church. among other things. Furthermore, the theology of the English Reformers was deeply influenced by the Continental Reformers.
So far, it looks a lot like Anglicanism is just one species of magisterial Protestantism.
But we also need to consider in what ways Anglicanism is also, and especially, a Catholic tradition. While much could be said about the Catholic face of Anglicanism, for the purposes of this essay I’d like us to consider one highly significant point that has great power to explain why Anglicanism is different from other Protestant traditions.
That point is this: at the time of the English Reformation, an entire national and ancient Church regained its independence from the Church of Rome. The Church which emerged from the English Reformation was not a new Church but truly a re-formed pre-existing Church and one that had been in existence in some form since at least the second century if not before. The DNA of this pre-existing Church was still present at the time of the English Reformation which, we should remember, began under Henry VIII, who effectively repealed the Papal Revolution of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, issued a vernacular Bible, and reduced the influence of monasteries, relics, and pilgrimages.
The English Church that came out from under the domination of the Roman Church remembered a time when, for 500 years or more, she was in communion with Rome but independent of her and was also able to reach further back into her history to remember a time when, for 400 years or more, she had very few associations with the Roman Church. In part, Henry VIII made an appeal to this ancient Church and its rights of kings as heads of the Church. He understood that the Church of England he reformed was still the Church of England.
This pre-existing Church had a long institutional memory which was embedded in almost every aspect of the life of the Church. Built into the DNA of Anglicanism is its very Catholic heritage of the threefold ministry, a revised ancient liturgy, an ancient Sunday lectionary, a revised ancient Church year, a continuity of educational systems, an architecture that reminds us of our past, and many other things. Even after the reforms under Edward VI, the Church of England was identifiably the same Church, with almost completely the same bishops, the same parochial clergy, the same university professors, the same diocesan and parochial structures, and more.
This essential fact of the pre-existent and ancient nature of the English Church means that in spite of similarities in theology, the English Reformation had a fundamentally different starting point than did the Continental Reformations. Unlike the Continental Reformations, in England, an entire national and ancient Church was intact, and it did not have to re-think everything, reforming primarily by looking at the Bible and, to varying degrees, apart from Tradition.
Even the similarities in theology between the English Reformation and the Continental Reformations are somewhat deceptive. While the Continental Reformers looked at the Church Fathers, they often did it in a different way than did Anglicans. The English Church Reformers appealed to the patristic consensus not only to criticize the errors, abuses, and innovations of Rome but also to defend aspects of the English Church which were ancient and which the reformed English Church retained.
The English theological method is also significantly different from that of the Continental Reformers. While Anglican theology is, at times systematic and propositional, this is not its only theological mode. Because of the continuity inherent in the intact English Church, her theology has tended to see more continuity with the Western theological tradition. Even the Anglican propositional theology enshrined in the 39 Articles is not the same theology, in method, as the Westminster Confession or Book of Concord, for the Articles make no attempt to be comprehensive.
Furthermore, the other great Anglican formulary of the English Reformation, the Prayer Book, is as much a theological norm and method of theology as are the Articles, and the Articles must be read with the theology of the Prayer Book in mind. However, the theology of the Prayer Book is not systematic or propositional but liturgical and, in many ways, pre-modern, reflecting a way of doing theology before the scholastic and university theologies that shaped all of the Continental Reformers became dominant. The theology of the Prayer Book (and the Articles to a lesser degree) is built upon the foundation of the Catholic faith of the early Church.
Additionally, theology (in its more academic sense) in Anglicanism is not seen as the primary task of the Church but is done in conjunction with the ancient ecclesial structures and practices of the Church. Finally, Anglicanism has no one theologian that has a uniquely privileged status: there’s a reason Anglicans are not usually called Cranmerians in the same way that Calvinists are Calvinists and Lutherans are Lutherans.
Even where the English Reformers agreed with the Continental Reformers in matters needing reform, there was a difference in tone. For example, Anglicans were less likely to believe that the Roman Church was a false Church, perhaps, in part, since this would mean denying a part of their own history.
Because of the fundamentally Catholic nature of Anglicanism, it was practically inevitable that when this Catholic deposit was in danger of being eroded too severely, a Catholic response emerged. One example was the reaction of the “avant-garde conformists” of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, including the Caroline Divines, when Puritans threatened to envision Anglicanism as being more purely Protestant. The other notable example is that of the Oxford Movement (I prefer the term “The Catholic Revival”) when the Prayer Book Rule of Life had been lamentably emaciated by the beginning of the 19th century. Such revivals are not extrinsic to Anglicanism but are attempts to reclaim and retain what had been there from the beginning, long before 1549.
Is it not possible, therefore, to cherish the 16th-century Anglican formularies and English Reformation while also acknowledging that they themselves are founded upon something deeper and more ancient? They are not the only starting point for Anglican identity and theology because Anglicanism did not begin in the 1540s but sometime in the first two centuries after Christ. Anglicans are Catholics because our ecclesial structures, theological method and content, and practices are but reformed versions of the Catholic faith of the early Church. We are also Protestants because the Catholic faith once delivered to the saints has, in the English Church tradition, been shaped decisively by the English Reformation.
- By dissolving them. ↑