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This page last updated 15 April 2007  

Bishop Pierre Whalon summarises the situation
from the perspective of a bishop within the Episcopal Church in the USA.

What is the difference between
Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism?

In many respects, there are no differences between the two churches. They are both Christian churches, springing from the same ancient source as the Eastern Orthodox churches. As such, Anglicans and Roman Catholics read the Bible with not only the two Testaments but also the Apocrypha, those books of the Hebrew Bible written in Greek. Both churches recite the Nicene and Apostles Creeds. Both administer Baptism and Confirmation, and celebrate the Holy Communion, as well as the four other sacramental rites of Penance, Matrimony, Anointing of the Sick, and Holy Orders. Their clergy are ordained deacon first, then priest, unless they are called to be perpetual deacons. From the priests bishops are chosen and consecrated by no fewer than three bishops belonging to a scrupulously conserved line of bishops that reaches back to the earliest churches.

There are Roman Catholic and Anglican shrines to Mary. Some Anglicans pray the rosary. Both churches maintain calendars of saints, with special prayers and readings for their feast days. Both churches have orders of men and women religious, vowed celibates who live in monasteries and convents.

If you were to visit an Anglican parish (they both use the term for a congregation) and then a Roman Catholic parish, you would observe many other similarities. In the United States, at least, the liturgies are almost identical, as are the customary vestments worn by the clergy and lay assisting ministers.

The differences are in the details, for the most part. These differences flow from one central issue: who is in authority. The Roman Catholic Church has over the centuries steadily increased the power and prestige of the Pope, the Bishop of Rome. In our day, the combination of an extraordinarily gifted pope, John Paul II, with the mass media and globalization, have raised the office of pope to its highest level ever. The peripatetic pontiff has traveled far more than any of his predecessors. When he visits a country, it is to speak, not to listen, however. His bishops around the world act more as his prefects than as overseers of the regional Christian community. St Augustine's famous saying, Roma locuta causa finita est (Rome has spoken and that settles the matter) has never been more true than today.

Despite the attempts of Vatican II to create local synods at the diocesan and national levels, they serve still in a purely advisory capacity. No other body has any authority over the pope, either. For example, when Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanæ Vitæ forbidding birth control, he ignored the recommendations of the commission he had appointed to advise him. The Vicar of Christ holds all the reins. Authority flows from him down and outward.

The churches of the Anglican Communion have resolutely sought to disperse that absolute authority among several places. A famous report on authority in Anglicanism spoke of this peculiarly Anglican view of authority, which flows, it says, from the edges to the center. Each Anglican Church belongs to the Anglican Communion because it is in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury and seeks to uphold the catholic faith and reformed order inherited from the Church of England. Yet each one is independent. The Archbishop has no legal authority outside of the Diocese of Canterbury. He serves as spiritual leader and symbol of unity.

The laity have real power at all levels of the Anglican churches (though with local variations). Anglicans look to their diocesan and national synods of bishops, clergy and laity to interpret matters of faith and order. Unlike the Church of Rome, with its admirable clarity of decision-making, the Anglican churches are messy and often disagree with each other. For instance, some churches ordain women to all three orders of ministry. Many do not at all, and the Church of England ordains women to the diaconate and the priesthood, but not the episcopate at this time of writing. Women bishops were present at the 1998 Lambeth Conference, the worldwide gathering of Anglican bishops every ten years. But since the decisions of Lambeth have no authority other than as recommendations, their presence was not disruptive.

This 'messiness' means that Anglicans have greater latitude officially than Roman Catholics do both individually and in their dioceses and national churches. In general, the laity are expected to use the resources of the church, especially regular common worship, in developing a Christ-like character, and ability to reason morally. The different emphases present in Christianity find their adherents among Anglicans. Thus some Anglicans have elaborate liturgies modeled on medieval English worship. Others emphasize evangelistic preaching and relatively simple worship. Still others show the influence of the Pentecostal movement, or the iconography of the Eastern churches. Some Anglicans are mystic; others are intensely concerned with social justice. Moreover, each national church adapts the faith and order to its own culture.

Since Roman Catholics tie membership in their church to the person and authority of the pope, they do not ordinarily allow intercommunion. They do not recognize the validity of Anglican Orders, and so re-confirm and re-ordain Anglican converts. Anglicans on the other hand tend to practice open communion, and do not re-confirm or re-ordain Roman Catholic converts, because they recognize Roman Orders as valid. The difference is being in communion with the pope for Roman Catholics, and for Anglicans, it is adhering to the catholic faith as it has been inherited from the earliest Christians. One permanent feature of Anglicanism has been seeking to restore the faith and order of the primitive church. This is the principle of its reformation, while Rome's counter-reformation was to restore and enhance the medieval concept of papal authority.

In the most recent document of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Consultation (the ecumenical body devoted to helping the two churches come closer), entitled The Gift of Authority, Anglicans are asked to consider the role of the Bishop of Rome in the life of their churches, while Roman Catholics are asked to begin to take seriously the collegiality of synods called for in Vatican II. Perhaps this too emphasizes in a nutshell the differences between these two churches, both branches of the early church, so close and yet so far.

(For further reading, see a brief historical perspective by the same author.)

Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at

THE RT REVD PIERRE W. WHALON is Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe.