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an essay for Anglicans Online
31 July 2011

What is Anglicanism?
The Rt Revd Pierre W. Whalon, D.D.

'Anglicanism' is a funny word, perhaps even a little more droll than 'Presbyterianism' or 'Roman Catholicism'. It is also a bit strange, since the word 'anglican' has only been in regular use since the nineteenth century, while the reality it names has existed since the second century in embryo at least, and the sixth century saw that reality finally established. 'Episcopalian' antedates it in usage, yet the majority of members of the Hmm-Hmm Communion do not refer to themselves that way.

Too many syllables, perhaps? I met a man once who told me he couldn't be an Episcopalian because there were too many syllables. 'So what did you become?' I asked. 'A Presbyterian,' he replied cheerfully. 'One less'.

Be that as it may, it is true that 'Anglican' has a crisp ring to it that 'Episcopalian' does not. Its pedigree is interesting, in that it has a Latin root, albeit post-imperial. According to the Venerable Bede, Pope Gregory I referred to some Angles taken as slaves in Britannia as 'Non Angli, sed angeli' — 'They are not Angles, but angels' (because of the fair skin and colouring). Move to the Magna carta, which refers to the Church of England as Ecclesia anglicana. Anglicana appears a few times in the sixteenth century. Then we come to John Henry Newman, who coined the word we now use so ubiquitously, 'Anglicanism'.

So is Anglicanism what Anglicans believe, like Roman Catholicism defines what those Christians are? It is true that as '–isms', both terms are of recent origin. However, the Church of Rome has since Gregory VII centered itself more and more on the office of the Bishop of Rome as supreme leader. This is as much political as theological, and its logical conclusion is the decree of Vatican I (1870) declaring the pope's 'universal immediate ordinary jurisdiction', thus making that office in effect the only bishopric in the world, with diocesan bishops functioning as its prefects.

This may be why, despite 45 years of ecumenical dialogue, Roman Catholics cannot seem to stop repeating that Henry VIII 'founded' the Church of England. Historically that is manifestly false: Henry founded nothing. But if one subscribes to the notion that submission to the papacy equals the Church, then it makes some sense.

Anglicanism is a different approach to being church. Rather than a doctrinal construct like the Westminster Confession or a theologico-political entity like the Church of Rome, Anglicanism is a method for being Christian. Not the method — we know better. We have endured too much at the hands of those who claim to be the unique way to Christ. Anglicanism identifies the Bible as the supreme tradition on which Christianity lies, while pointing out that there is a lot more tradition to take account of, as well, in order to interpret the Scriptures. The theologico-political entity it identifies as 'the local church' is the diocese, the basic unit of the church. Not much can supersede the authority of the synod of the diocese — the clergy and laity of its parishes taking counsel with their bishop. One thing that does is the Book of Common Prayer, from which the basic identity of Anglican Christians derives. 'Prayer Shapes Believing' is the title of a popular book on liturgy, and also a shorthand description of how Anglicans (and Episcopalians, of course) determine doctrine. Understanding, mind you, that large chunks of the Scriptures are always prayed aloud and expounded in our services.

As a method, Anglicanism invites all people to encounter Jesus Christ in a community, the parish, that is shaped by the common life of its congregants and clergy, in communion with its bishop and diocese. That invitation is wide: "come and see." And it is conscious of the command that we must love God with all our mind, among other things. Part of the method is therefore to treat people as adults who can and indeed must think for themselves.

Along the same lines, there is little emphasis on converting people to Anglicanism. Anyone can find Christ among us, and follow him as Lord with us. But we are profoundly convinced that it is the Spirit who converts. Our evangelists are content to lay out the message and issue the invitation to accept Christ, but with confidence that God will move. And the invitation is to become a Christian first, not an Anglican. Whatever you may think of the Alpha Course — a popular program presenting the catechism as a series of questions — it should be noted that its pastoral style is very Anglican. Guests are to be allowed to say what they want without contradiction, and should not be subjected to browbeating or other manipulative tactics.

We are also confident that the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, faithfully administered and faithfully received, are vital to every Christian's life. And we make available as needed the other sacraments as well. Our method for being church includes therefore a strong emphasis on God’s action in our communal life, celebrated ritually. As all human beings are creatures of ritual, we see this as natural. Furthermore, we are not interested in doctrine as an intellectual exercise so much as shaping a way of life.

Another aspect of the Anglican method is an emphasis on education and scholarship. Of course, we share this with other Christians: a church that does not teach is no church at all. But our peculiar approach to tradition requires communal reasoning, and we think this must be as widely informed as possible. We have deep respect for our elder brothers and sisters in the Faith, but we also know that bearing forth the Faith into the future requires living it in our own generation. Thus when we sense that reforms are necessary, we cast an eye back to the Tradition for inspiration, but not uncritically. And when change is necessary, we can go forth when we have convinced ourselves that such change is essentially consonant with the Faith as we have received it. The ordination of women is an example.

Another example is slavery. The Bible can be invoked to defend slavery and deny ordination to women, but it can and did inspire the abolition of slavery and the recognition of the equal leadership of women. Reasoning together, informed by scholarship, we believe we can and indeed, must overturn received convictions when they become clearly contradictory to the Gospel.

At the same time, and this is a clear mark of Anglicanism, there must be a certain modesty about our way of being Christian. The development of our way began as a historical accident, the result of a sordid struggle for power between venal popes and monarchs. It took place during the explosion of the Western church, to which we contributed. As a catholic church with roots in the ancient church, we know that the disunity of Christians is profoundly wrong. Anglicans began the ecumenical movement for this reason. At the same time as a church that has learned over time that it has to reform itself, we understand the provisional nature of all the Christian '–isms' that enable the schisms to endure. So Anglicans are very leery of our own who might proclaim the superiority of Anglicanism. It is simply out of place. As St. Paul said, we should make Christ our boast, and only Christ.

To sum up, Anglicanism is about meeting Christ in everyday life, through a community of prayer, sacrament, study, and service, sharing life together with all the saints who have gone before, and learning to follow Jesus in the way we live and how we love. As a method, it has great flexibility, which is why it is a global phenomenon — the average Anglican today is a young woman of color who does not speak English. We have become fairly competent at understanding how the Gospel transforms a culture to forge a national Christian identity.

It also has some drawbacks. We tend to wait for people to 'come and see' rather than go to meet them where they are. Often, we are unable to see how elitist this can appear. And while the genius of Anglicanism is the ability to inculturate the Gospel, we can become all too comfortable with the access to the powerful that we have traditionally enjoyed. And finally, seeing Christian life as a process can be a temptation to become unbalanced, emphasizing one aspect over other, Bible over sacrament and vice versa, a lazy acceptance of a certain minimum rather than striving for spiritual excellence, tolerance of injustice for the sake of (false) peace, and other kinds of distortions that have appeared from time to time. 

But at its best, Anglicanism is a way of being Christian that is viable everywhere. Its works for 'all sorts and conditions of men' — and women. Like other Christian "–isms" it will get you to heaven, though we like to joke that Anglicans will already know which fork to use at the Celestial Banquet. Like all the other '–isms', it is imperfect, flawed and partial.

Yet the Spirit of God works through it to redeem people, and through the saints thus produced, to transform creation and make it new. Historical accident though it be, Anglicanism is therefore a part of God’s providence for the life of the world. If you are searching, Gentle Reader, come and see.

THE RT REVD PIERRE W. WHALON is Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe. welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at