Tract I: What Is Anglicanism?

This entry is part 3 of 16 in the series Erlandson: Tracts for the Times 2.0

Tracts for the Times 2.0

I’m often asked the question, “What is Anglicanism?” To which I respond: “Do you want the two-word answer, the long one-sentence answer, or my book on Anglican identity?

 Avoiding having to answer the question of what Anglicanism is has been a favorite Anglican hobby for decades, and when we do get answers to this question, they are often vague or partial. When I was pursuing my Ph.D. (my topic was Orthodox Anglican Identity), I had originally wanted to study the possible 21st century revival of Anglicanism. But reform and revival are necessarily predicated upon a clear identity: to reform you must know who you are and who you want to be. And so I embarked on a five-year quest for Anglican identity.

 I was at a notable meeting of Anglican clergy and educated laity, at which, in one of the breakout sessions, the dreaded question was asked. What ensued was an illustration of the famous story of the elephant and blind men. Some told of their personal preference for liturgy, reverence, or organ music. Others gave good but partial historical or theological answers. But there was clearly a sense of fumbling over dumb numb tongues.

That same year, I took an intensive course on Anglicanism. After two and a half days of lectures on Anglicanism, there was a brief time for Q & A at the end. The students made the mistake of momentarily hesitating, thus allowing me to rush into the silence with the dreaded question: “What is Anglicanism?” 

 You could hear a pin drop.

The professor who taught the course hesitated for a few seconds with the classic deer in the headlight look and then did what any good teacher would do in such a situation: he threw the question back at the class. “What do you think Anglicanism is?” The students labored valiantly to answer but the effects were similar to the other situation I described above.

Even Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, in his book Anglican Identities (notice the plural), ducked out of answering what Anglicanism is. In that book, he forswears “any aim to provide a fresh rallying-point for Anglican identity in these pages.” Williams’s title itself even seems to concede that defining a single Anglican identity may be an impossibility. 

But “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” and so here I am, with a definition of Anglicanism in my hand, in my head, and in my heart.

I’ll begin with the two-word definition. Anglicanism is “Reformed Catholicism.”  

There are, of course, two parts to this definition: “Reformed” and “Catholicism.” “Reformed” is the adjective which modifies the noun “Catholicism.” The fact that the “Catholic” part of Anglicanism is the noun means that it is the essential thing that is being reformed.  In this sense, although Anglicanism is also Protestant, it is a Catholic Christian tradition, keeping the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Church as practiced by the one, undivided Church in the early centuries after Christ. And yet it’s not only Catholic because in the Western Church it became necessary to reform some of the abuses and errors of the medieval Roman Catholic Church.

 Anglicanism has characteristics of catholicity which bear a certain similarity and relationship to the catholicity of the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. But it also has characteristics of being Reformed which bear a certain similarity and relationship to the churches that proceeded from the Continental Reformation, such as Calvin’s Geneva or Luther’s Germany.

As we’ll see in the next two tracts, the Catholic Church planted in England came to the British Isles in the first few centuries after Christ and was well-established long before Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine of Canterbury to England in A.D. 597 and before the Synod of Whitby was convened to “Romanize” the British Church. Anglicanism is, therefore, Catholic without being Roman Catholic, although the English Church came more closely into the sphere of the Roman Church for approximately a millennium.

Because of the Reformed Catholic nature of Anglicanism, Anglicanism has, over the centuries, taken the Catholic Church planted in England and inculturated it into a variety of cultures, diverse both temporally and geographically. It is this Reformed Catholic nature of Anglicanism that has made it particularly dynamic over the centuries.

 Before I present my one-sentence definition of Anglicanism, I’d like to articulate my theory of religious identity, which I’ve found accomplishes three significant things simultaneously: it provides a 3-D picture of Anglicanism and explains its complexity; it explains why Anglicans have a hard time saying who they are and why we see different parts of the same organism; and it provides encouragement that there is such a beast as Anglicanism after all.

 When I examined the different species of definitions of Anglicanism that scholars were offering (hoping all along someone would define Anglicanism so I wouldn’t have to), I discerned four different kinds of definitions. My final synthesis of these four kinds of definitions into a single, nuanced definition embodies the belief that only if all four definitions are taken together and harmonized will we have an adequate description of Anglicanism (or any religious identity, for that matter). These four kinds of definitions are the ecclesial, the normative, the practical, and the historical definitions. Historically, Anglicanism has been held together in large part by the common doctrine (normative definition), discipline (ecclesial definition), and worship (practical Anglicanism) proceeding from the Catholic Church planted in England (historical definition).

Ecclesial definitions focus on official relationships between churches that claim a shared identity. One specifically ecclesial definition of Anglicanism states that Anglicanism is the churches of the Anglican Communion. However, this is an insufficient definition of Anglicanism because not all Anglican churches are in the Anglican Communion and some churches in the Anglican Communion are in the process of becoming less identifiably Catholic or Christian. Still, churches who claim a shared heritage and identity need some ecclesial authority to shape and guide their common life.

Normative definitions of religious identities are based on certain norms or standards that are deemed to be essential or important aspects of a religious identity.  Such normative definitions of Anglicanism are useful because they provide clear boundaries and therefore make the acts of definition and identification more possible. Being Anglican has historically meant not just a current being in communion with but also a being in continuity with the common life on which the present Anglican Communion largely has been based. Christians in general hold certain norms in common: Scripture as the highest authority, the historic Creeds, the two dominical Sacraments, and the episcopacy as locally adapted. To these terms of the Lambeth Quadrilateral, most Anglicans would traditionally have added the dogmatic decrees of the General Councils and the writings of the Church Fathers as the record of the mind of the Church in reading Holy Scripture. Specifically Anglican norms have included The Book of Common Prayer (which was given its most abiding classical form in the 1662 Prayer Book), the Thirty-nine Articles, and the Ordinal.

Practical definitions center on matters of a particularly Anglican ethos, behavior, and practice. These might include Anglican notions of comprehension, a dispersed authority (as opposed to, for example, the Roman Catholic magisterium), or a distinctive theological methodology. One of the most useful ways of envisioning practical definitions of Anglicanism is to think of it in terms of the distinctive spiritualities or churchmanships that have emerged over time, as well as distinctive historical movements within Anglicanism. Such spiritualities would include the High Church, Anglo-Catholic, Prayer Book Evangelical, Reformed Evangelical, Charismatic, and Liberal spiritualities. Historical movements that are part of the practical definition of Anglicanism would include the Evangelical Revival of the eighteenth century and the Catholic Revival of the nineteenth century, as well as the English Reformation in its various stages.

Historical definitions of Anglicanism help locate Anglicanism in the context of the Catholic and apostolic church and also help to highlight the continuity between contemporary and historical Anglicanism. Since religious identities develop over time as the Church interacts with culture, and since decisive reshapings of Anglican identity have occurred within the context of particular historical circumstances, a historical component is an important aspect of definitions of Anglicanism. However, historical definitions by themselves (as with the other species of definitions) are insufficient, because they can only tell us what is and what has been, and not what should be.

 The most comprehensive, useful, and encouraging definition of any religious identity (including Anglicanism) will employ and synthesize all four of these kinds of definitions: ecclesial, normative, practical, and historical.

Finally, we are in a position to offer a robust definition of Anglicanism that will offer hope, clarity, and stability to Anglicans and which will help guide us in our collective prayerful thinking, such as that expressed in the Tracts for the Times 2.0 Project.

 “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.”

 A close inspection of this definition will reveal that all four kinds of other definitions are synthesized into a complex religious identity. My hope and prayer is that such a definition will be used by God to renew and revive one of the authentic Catholic Church traditions (Anglicanism), which has a unique ecumenical charism in the world today.

Series Navigation<< Announcing Tracts for the Times 2.0Tract II (Part 1): When Did Anglicanism Begin? >>

Charles Erlandson

Fr. Charles Erlandson served as rector of St. Chrysostom’s Reformed Episcopal Church in Hot Spring, Arkansas. In 2009, God called him back home to Tyler and Good Shepherd Church and School, to teach high school and serve as assistant rector. He teaches at Cranmer Theological House and is the Church History Department Head. Fr. Erlandson also writes a daily Bible devotional, available online or through e-mail subscription, called Give Us This Day. He has written several recent books: Orthodox Anglican Identity, Love Me, Love My Wife, and Take This Cup.

'Tract I: What Is Anglicanism?' have 3 comments

  1. September 11, 2019 @ 9:13 am Father Tom Reeves

    Like most Anglicans, this author left out the THEOLOGICAL definition that should shape our core and clearly articulated beliefs. No Anglican “stream” gets to change or interpret the Holy Scriptures and our Christian Tradition/history in their own individualistic, sectarian, hermeneutical, and historic bubble.

    The Patristics would have been befuddled by any definition of a CHRISTIANITY that did not clearly DEFINE our essential, non-negotiable theological beliefs. The Creeds in their historical contexts as understood by the Fathers that shaped them should be our starting place, and YET we would all prefer to start with our Medieval, Reformational, Pietistic, Sectarian, Revivalist context – using these lenses to read the PATRISTICS and what should be believed today. This will result in nothing but the continuous sectarian bankruptcy that is our most CONSISTENT pattern of behavior as Anglicanism in the 21st century in every part of the globe.

    There is a way to unity as Anglicans but it will only come by a theologically defined CORE that EVERYONE IS ACCOUNTABLE TO, and only through Godly and courageous Bishops willing to engage this work “ecumenically” (in Council like fashion) within the Anglican Communion.

    In this Commentator’s opinion, ALL of the terms used in the author’s definition are worthless as they can be defined by an individualistic Anglican as they see fit. Until those terms have accountable and thus shared – koinonia- meaning, this definition is nothing more than another Anglican slogan to be heaped on the growing pile.


  2. September 11, 2019 @ 5:56 pm Lambert

    Well, there’s obviously a lot of work and thought that has gone into this, and it’s loads better than a redefinition of Anglican identity along the lines of “Now Let Us All Praise Tract 90.” But alas this is still not a very good definition. A few things: it gets off on the wrong foot by suggesting that what’s being defined is one of the “lives” of the Catholic Church. How many lives does it have? Has anyone ever defined a church as a life of the Church?

    “Reformed Catholic” is good as far as it goes. But the definition makes the mistake of suggesting that that means “Catholic” like the Roman Catholic and Orthodox, and “Reformed” like the Lutherans and Genevans. But that misunderstands the claims of the reformers (Swiss, German, and English). They all claimed to be “Reformed Catholics”–that’s the essence of Luther’s claim and Calvin’s. There are plenty of ways that the Church of England through her formularies and practices charted a different course from the other churches of the Reformation. Good, that could be spelled out. But because the definition botches the “Reformed Catholic” part, and so it never really gets there.

    Finally, the idea that “the Evangelical Revival” and “the Catholic Revival” both get to be definitive for Anglicanism is odd and anachronistic. Those in those “revivals” would not have agreed. It’s like the old story about the cleric who came across two men in an argument. The first one told his side, and the cleric said, “You’re right.” Then the second one told his side, and the cleric said, “You’re right.” Then the cleric’s wife said, “My dear, they can’t both be right.” To which he replied: “You’re right, too.” This is a “you’re right, too” definition of Anglicanism.

    In fact, it’s odd what period gets left out of the final definition, which is insistently chronological. The mid-Sixteenth Century is there (Reformation). The Eighteenth is there (ER). The Nineteenth is there (AC). But there’s an Elizabethan-Settlement-shaped hole. A better definition would find the constant center of Anglican identity in its ever-fruitful gifts to the Church: the Book of Common Prayer, the Articles, the Homilies, the Catechism, and Jewel and Hooker. There’s a there there, we just have to know where to look.


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