A One Sentence Definition of Anglicanism

| October 27, 2011 | 9 Comments More

A One Sentence Definition of Anglicanism

So far in my blogs on Anglicanism, I’ve offered a 2 word definition of Anglicanism (“Reformed Catholicism”) and explained both of these words.  Over the course of the next several blogs I want to develop a more sophisticated and extended definition of Anglicanism, based on my Ph.D. thesis.  Definitions of Anglicanism have become exceedingly important in contemporary Anglicanism.  The dominance of liberal Anglicanism in The Episcopal Church and the Church of England has necessitated a renewed vision for Anglicanism at precisely the time in history when all identities are becoming fuzzier.  In an age of fragmentation and confused authority, it’s hard even for orthodox Anglicans to answer the question, “Why be Anglican?”  Too often, orthodox Anglicans assume they all mean the same thing when they refer to themselves as “Anglican,” but, as we’ll see later, they may not always be talking about the same identity.  While “Reformed Catholicism” is an excellent short definition of Anglicanism, we’ll also have to be more specific.

Let me now offer “The one-sentence definition of Anglicanism,” after which I’ll explain its parts:

“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 by the Evangelical and Catholic revivals and other historical movements of the Spirit; and that has now been inculturated into independent, global churches.”

O.K., I know it’s sort of cheating to use semi-colons, but really, they were necessary!  It took me three years or more to arrive at this definition, and I’m still not happy with it, but it’s the best I can do and (I hope) a lot better than most of the vague definitions or non-definitions that others have offered.

I’ll begin with the question, “When did Anglicanism begin?”  The usual answer given is that it began during the reign of Henry VIII as a result of his desire to get rid of his old wife and get a new one.  I know a professor of Anglicanism who threatened to flunk any student who gave this bogus answer! The assumption is not only that Anglicanism was the creation of something new by Henry but also that it is based on a historical whim of an immoral political leader.  The truth is, however, that the Church of England has a long and venerable history long before Henry and that Henry, for all of the changes he brought, did not create an entirely new church.  Later, I’ll spend an entire blog discussing this question in greater detail.

In reality, Anglicanism today is an extension of the Catholic Church that was planted in England very early on.  While many changes have taken place in that Church (what church hasn’t undergone sizeable changes since the early Church?), there is also an important continuity that is often missed.  This Church, which had already undergone many radical revisions since the days of the early Church by the time Henry VIII was in power, was, in fact, given a decisive shape by the events of the English Reformation.  While the continuity with the early Church should be acknowledged, there is also some truth in the notion that something definitive and different took place during the sixteenth century.  Exactly what happened will be covered in later blogs.

It has become customary for some to tend to leave Anglicanism back in the sixteenth century, as if nothing of great import has happened in the past five centuries.  This tendency is especially true among traditionalist Anglicans, but it’s not only historically naïve but also unhealthy to think in such a way.  The English Church that was planted in the first century after Christ and given a definitive form by the English Reformation has also been influenced by a series of historical movements that have shaped and reshaped Anglican identity.  Among these movements are the Evangelical Revival, the Oxford Movement, and the rise of the Global South.

The one-sentence definition of Anglicanism offered above is therefore based on the historical establishment of the Church in England from the first century A.D. and acknowledges the continuity that Anglicanism has with the Catholic Church wherever it is found but also with the particular church that was planted in England.  On the other hand, the one-sentence definition of Anglicanism acknowledges a series of revisions that we must not ignore.

As Anglicans seek to define themselves in the 21st century, they should pay special attention to three historical contexts: the Catholic faith of the early Church or patristic era; the English Reformation, out of which the normative formularies of the Prayer Book and 39 Articles were produced and which clearly manifested the Reformed Catholic nature of Anglicanism; and the contemporary context, in which the identity of Anglicanism is being challenged from many quarters (and not just by liberalism).

Next time, I’ll look at why multiple definitions of Anglicanism are necessary and will offer a “normative” definition of Anglicanism.

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  1. charles says:

    hello Fr. Charles,

    Thank you for noting two things about English reformed catholicism: 1. the sixteenth century was definitive. 2. The Henrician was important.

    I look forward toward future commentary on this latter point about Henry VIII’s reign. Sadly, the Henrician period is often ignored, remembered only for the execution of Boleyn and Henry VIII’s several divorces. Indeed a black stain, this reduction of the 1530-1540’s to royal scandal ignores the briliantly successful church reform that occurred under Henry, his patronage of Cranmer especially at critical junctures, and Cromwell’s canons introduced through the first decade.

    During the Henrician, the Church of England really established the basic tenets of the Settlement upon which Edward and Elizabeth would mostly fine-tune. The Henrician saw the 1536 Ten Articles as well as the 1537 and 1543 catechisms. Commentators often miss the more reformed character of the 1543 vs. the 1537, so despite the six articles in 1538, we see an actual progression of theology. One can also argue the six articles said nothing contrary, nor did it retract the Ten, and should be understood for the time as no more conservative than some of German principalities that were under the Augsburg. Nevertheless, the ten articles lay the basis for ‘justification by faith’ and were the product of ecumenical dialogue, illustrating areas of agreement, with Wittenberg and the Germans. Curiously, this would be the only official dialogue with the continent until the synod of Dort, and the exchange happening with Lutherans at this formative period is extremely important to understand in relation to other confessions and concordats. Most importantly, the two catechisms and Ten Articles applied justification to worship, and this would continue as the main theme through later revisions of Settlement.

    Furthermore, to provide examples of the definitive nature of the Henrician, in 1544 Henry sets forth the english litany; a vernacular bible is authorized in 1537, and in 1542 Henry commissions reform of the liturgy, which, unfortunately, is not systematized until 1549. However, prior to Henry’s death Morning and Evening prayer was finished by Cranmer, found in the 1545 Primer. And, Cranmer begins the education of clergy by the circulation of Justin Jonas’ catechism starting in Canterbury. I think we can say much is placed in movement by Henry.

    This is a substantial amount of work, without discussing the theology found in Cromwell’s canons, incredibly important for any discussion on early Anglican adiaphora, pointing us toward later Puritan controversies and Hooker’s seminal defense. Cromwell’s canons also outline the boundaries of the Ornament’s Rubric which would be of recurring significance, as well as the early acts of supremacy which mark distinctives in polity.

    I personally believe the Henrician is foundational, and recommend reading his formularies to grasp the very heart of Anglican theology. Henry laid the main elements of our Settlement, proving a period later Tudors and Stuarts would draw as a reservoir for catholicism and high church doctrine. For those of us who grimace at Henry’s reign, perhaps we should opt to call it “cromwellian” or ‘cranmerian’, avoiding the controversies that Puritans and Papists usually stir in order to derail Anglican self-identity. It’s extremely unfortunate divorce is all most folks see when Henry is spoken even when Elizabeth had expressed adoration of her father.

    Sincerely, Charles Bartlett
    Refomed and United Episcopalian

    • Charles says:

      I’m not as familiar with Cromwell’s canons. I feel that Henry’s reforms were important and that he’s an enigmatic figure, theologically speaking. But it’s still Cranmer’s reforms under Edward that are most important.

  2. charles says:

    yes, under Edward it’s all collated and bound together, arriving in a most visible form. Communion in two-kinds is legalized; priests are allowed to marry; and the 1549 and 1552 communion service is finally written. Pretty major, but the ground work and general motion was laid under Henry. Henry is probably a lot more protestant than we like to think. He hand picked Edward’s tutors, promoted the Seymour family, and protected Cranmer from the machinations of the old catholic party. Henry’s stature was something we give little credit, but his children seemed to have kept his church policy as a compass through faction. I’d say Henry’s reign is more fundamental than most writers are ready to admit. Justification and the right use of ceremony already begin under Hnery, and this seems to be the heart of reformed Anglican thinking, not soteriology, etc..

  3. Fr. Charles:

    I’m a new Anglican, having only been confirmed (from evangelical Presbyterianism) in 2010. I have a seminary education (’09) from Reformed Theological Seminary–and was blessed to spend 3 summers in Wittenberg, Germany studying the German Reformation with Dr. H.O.J. Brown. I’ve read that 16th Century Anglican theology is better understood as a union of Lutheran and Reformed theology–instead of the typical Roman-Protestant “via media” description. Of course Lutheranism is arguably the most conservative of the Reform movements, so a Lutheran-Reformed union would also imply a Roman-Protestant, or, Reformed-Catholic resolution. It seems to me that Luther was better able to accept mystery than Calvin–and was loath to always giving an explanation for things beyond that of scripture (e.g. the early Luther’s Real Presence in the Eucharist description: Jesus is there, but we do not comprehend how). I am curious to know your take on the integration of Luther’s (not necessarily later Lutheran) theology with Calvin’s in 16th Century Anglicanism–given the influence of the Marian exile?

    This question is part of the reason I became Anglican–as I have a rather high view of the Eucharist (almost Lutheran), but I still maintain a lot of Calvinist theology too. Anglicanism seems to have room for that, unlike conservative Presbyterianism.

    It’s interested me that both conservative (LCMS type) Lutherans and conservative Calvinists (say Richard Pratt) are still VERY suspicious of the orthodoxy of each other…and seem to still use 16th Century mischaracterizations of each others’ theologies.

    • Charles says:

      Ralph: welcome to Anglicanism! It’s sometimes frustrating to understand what it means to be an Anglican, but as most of us have discovered, it’s often frustrating to be in any church! Anglicanism has had both Lutheran and Calvinistic influences. Cranmer and others read Luther fairly early on, for example. The Calvinistic influence comes a little later but is still present. Perhaps the best way to see what was happening in the 16th Century is that in the beginning of that century there was a great deal that most Reformers had in common. In many ways, Calvin, Luther, and Cranmer weren’t that far apart. The commonalities of the early Reformers has been greatly obscured by the subsequent developments among both Lutheranism and the Reformed churches. For example, Calvin would probably not recognize the Presbyterian churches or Reformed churches as being “Calvinistic”! Anglicans can speak to both Lutherans and Presbyterians, as well as to Roman Catholics and Orthodox brethren.

      Anglicanism has room for a fair amount of diversity (although it’s allowed too much in recent decades). That’s one of its glories! It attempts to allow the somewhat generous parameters of the catholicity of the Church Fathers and has refused to over-define things.

      • Jeremiah says:

        Fr Charles
        Thanks for a great website! I know that i will spend alot of time here reading and studying Anglicanism (being a farily new Anglican like Ralph).

        I appreciate your words emphasizing the comprhensiveness of the faith we Anglicans hold. I am glad to see someone who has deeply studied things to come to my meager conclusions about the wideness of Anglicanism. It has been frustrating for me to see so many other Anglicans act as though it is really purely Calvinistic or purely Evangelical or purely Catholic in doctrine when it comes to what Anglicanism embraces. Really it is a balance of these or an eclectric gathering of the main reformers from the 16th cent alongside the Church Fathers understanding of doctrine. In many ways as we forget about this ecleticness we do ourselves harm and end up in our own little theological ghettos ignoring the wealth of theological thoughts out there in greater Anglicanism because they don’t line up with us some singular point if doctrine. I know that I am guilty of this attitude sadly enough.

        There is much for me to yet learn. Thanks for this blog once again.

        • Charles says:

          You’re welcome, Jeremiah: it’s my pleasure to write about Anglicanism and dialogue with others about it. I find that too often Christians (and not just Anglicans) settle for having only small parts of the whole. I’m definitely NOT saying that anything goes: I’m just saying that there’s room for diversity outside of the essentials and the truly important things. Anglicans should be ecumenically minded without giving up our distinctives.

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