Is This Anglicanism? Brief Reflections on Tract I

I wish to start by wholeheartedly expressing my appreciation that the writers of The North American Anglican have sought to offer a new series of tracts for the 21st century, and I commend the author of Tract I, Fr. Charles Erlandson, for attempting a definition of Anglicanism. Global Anglicanism is in need of a definition, and as Fr. Erlandson notes the current attitude is that no singular definition can be adequate. So by attempting to define Anglicanism, Erlandson is taking on an important and difficult task. I also commend his succinctness. We should hope that the basics of our Anglican faith can be expressed in a few sentences.

I do, however, feel compelled to express dissatisfaction with the definition offered and suggest some improvements. In the spirit of clarity and dialogue, I’ll briefly offer a few thoughts on what I take to be the role of such a definition — which will partly answer the question ‘Why do we need to define ourselves explicitly?’ — before going on to say exactly why I believe the proposed definition falls short.

When a group – any group, at all – attempts to define itself, one of its goals is to make explicit a set of norms which members of the group will abide by. Joining a group brings about certain commitments; for instance, joining the Boy Scouts brings about the commitment to being honest and thrifty. These commitments are interpersonal: members of the group will hold each other accountable and will censure each other in various ways for failing to honor these commitments. A Boy Scout who fails to respect the outdoors or do community service is a bad Boy Scout, and it is expected that other Boy Scouts will disapprove of or censure his actions.

Anglicanism needs a definition that explicitly states these norms because, as many conservative Anglicans often say, we have lost many of our commonalities. We pray from different books, we read Scripture differently, and we have a vast range of theologies being taught from the pulpit. Part of the reason for this radical diversity is that we have too often left the norms which partially constitute Anglicanism implicit. A good definition will take the implicit and make it explicit.

Fr. Erlandson seems aware of all of this; he writes of normative definitions, and he lists the appropriate sources of normative guidance in the Anglican tradition: Scripture, the Book of Common Prayer, the historic Creeds, and so on. But when we arrive at his final definition, we see that it focuses almost exclusively on the historical element. The definition he proposes:

Anglicanism 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 renewed by the Evangelical and Catholic Revivals and other historical movements of the Spirit; and that has now been inculturated into independent, global churches.

This may uniquely pick out Anglicanism as a tradition, in the same way that I can define myself for others as the only son of my parents. But these purely historical definitions seem to miss the point. They may uniquely pick out a referent for a term, but they do not capture the essence. The definition proposed does not synthesize the normative, ecclesial, practical, and historical in the way that the author would suggest.

From this definition, I cannot glean what Anglicanism takes to be sources of authority. There is no mention of the Book of Common Prayer as either a rule of life or as a source of common worship. There is no mention of the fact that Anglican theology has often primarily been expressed through common prayer rather than works of systematic theology. I cannot determine what exactly the role of the Anglican Communion is in Anglicanism’s identity, nor the prevalence of medieval Roman theology or 16th century Reformed theology across global Anglicanism. Most importantly, I cannot tell from this definition how an Anglican would pray or worship. So much of our Anglican identity comes from the Book of Common Prayer or, as Peter Toon would’ve put it, the Common Prayer Tradition. To make no reference to this tradition of common prayer and worship seems to leave out something absolutely essential to Anglican identity.

I offer these words in the constructive mode. I share with the author of Tract I a desire to have an explicit definition of Anglicanism available to all, and in general I desire a renewal of a Tractarian movement in Anglicanism. I welcome robust dialogue over what Anglicanism is and what it will be in the 21st century. Because of this, I look forward to future tracts as part of Tracts for the Times 2.0, and I hope they will edify the Church.

Jared Henderson, PhD

Jared Henderson is a writer based in Austin, TX. He holds a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Connecticut.

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