The 2 Word Definition of Anglicanism

| August 27, 2011 | 10 Comments More

I’m often asked the question, “What is Anglicanism?” To which I respond: “Do you want the 1 long sentence answer, the 1 paragraph answer, the 1 page answer, or my Ph.D. thesis? Later in this post, I’m going to give you the 2 word definition of Anglicanism.

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. 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, liturgy, or organ music. Others gave good but partial answers. But there was clearly a sense of fumbling and tumbling over dumb numb tongues.

That same year, I took an intensive course on Anglicanism. After 2½ days of lecture 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 my raised hand. You guessed it, I asked the dreaded question: “What is Anglicanism?”

You could hear a pin drop: “Oh no he didn’t!” I could tell some people were thinking. The professor who taught the course hesitated for a few seconds with that 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 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.

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”  Have any of you been the fool who rushes in? I can’t say that I exactly rushed in to define Anglicanism because it was more like being dragged kicking and screaming. But after trying unsuccessfully for 3 years to make my Ph.D. thesis about John Keble’s The Christian Year I was obliged to pursue a thesis concerning the identity of Anglicanism. Four years or more spent trying to define Anglicanism has given me a lot of time to come up with a good answer to the question: “What is Anglicanism?”

I promised that today I’d give you the one phrase definition of Anglicanism. Actually, I can do even better than that. I can define Anglicanism not in 10 words or 5 words or even 3 words. I can define Anglicanism in 2 words: “Reformed Catholicism.”

Anglicanism is, in its essence, Reformed Catholicism. There are, of course, two parts to this definition: “Reformed” and “Catholicism” or “Catholic.” In calling Anglicanism “Reformed Catholicism” the two words stand in a distinct relation to each other. “Reformed” is the adjective which modifies the noun “Catholicism.” This is an important point to grasp, and I’ll be coming back to it in some of my later posts.

The fact that the “Catholic” part of Anglicanism is the noun means that it is the thing that is being reformed. In this sense, although Anglicanism is also Protestant, it is essentially a Catholic Christian tradition. 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.

Anglicanism is sometimes called the via media, or middle way. In its simplest sense, Anglicanism is seen as the via media between Protestantism (especially certain advanced forms of it) and Roman Catholicism. Just which of these two Anglicanism is actually closer to is a complex subject I can’t adequately address here. But it is true that in some ways Anglicanism looks more like Protestant churches and in some ways it looks more like Roman Catholicism.

The reasons for and consequences of this will have to be addressed in later posts.

In my next post I’ll discuss just what Anglicans mean when they say that they’re “Catholic.”


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  1. Charles says:

    What is Anglicanism? Reformed Catholicism does seem like the best definition. I’ve tried to make the case that it’s the King’s Religion or King’s church. I’ve come across that phrase before in Jacobean literature, but it’s really hard to swallow today. What’s nice about falling back on the ‘king’s church’ is that the term quickly directs folks to the royal seal and acts of uniformity, and therefore those standards historically appointed for the churches.

    I’ve considered putting together a chart outlining the “king’s religion” in relation to the ‘whole church’, ranking documents by their relative adoption by crown, parliament, and convocation. You could even further rank such standards by the margin of support each body granted. Jewel’s Apology seems to suggest this method. Of course, this opens the field to a plethora of texts, but even the lesser sort could be measured by the university or cathedral from which they were issued, or which diocese promulgated them, etc.. Quite a bit of work, so I normally stick to Whitgift-Bancroft’s simple terms of subscription when it comes to the Crown’s confession.

    Nonetheless, it seems in modern Anglicanism we have a tendency to promote pet divines (usually late-19th & 20th century) against the historical standards, and I thought this might be one, fairly objective, way to set things in a logical or graded order. The nice thing about Anglicanism, is that it was an ordered society, not an anabaptist commune. So, we can actually rank things by their issue. But perhaps this is too archaic way to deal with church anarchism today?

    Another way is to start binding certain texts together. This was one of the beauties of the prayer book. Though the psalter, ordinal, and articles are not official parts, they were bound ‘together with’. It has thus become a custom to think of the bcp w/ articles and Ordinal as “one book”. So, pointing to the “prayer book” rather than Crown might be another approach.

    • Charles says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Charles. While it’s true that the Anglicanism that was forged in the Reformation (and even earlier) was “the King’s Church” and Erastian, today it has mostly moved on. Our normative texts are the Scriptures, the creeds, the first 4 Councils, the Prayer Book, the Articles, and the Ordinal. To a lesser degree there is then the authority of the texts of provincial, jurisdictional, or diocesan canon law. Determining the authority of such disparate sources as the Church Fathers and texts such as Jewel’s Apology are more difficult to determine but do have their role to play.

  2. Charles says:

    Hi Fr. Charles,
    Without supremacy the question is how to enforce these standards? I certainly think we should remember the nursing role under Tudors and Stuarts of the Crown-in-church . They allowed a uniform reformation to proceed in England, developing along more conservative lines than what transpired on the continent. If not for their royal tutelage, we’d probably wouldn’t have the bcp, ordinal, articles, or a high view of catholic practice. The Crown preserved such things. Now it is only a memory, but one I wish we’d keep alive by voluntary contract to old terms of Settlement.

    • Charles says:


      I agree with you. Both the Prayer Book and the Articles were State-sponsored, authoritative documents. Without the power of the State, the Church will now have to re-discover how to make authoritative statements and enforce authoritative norms by their own authority. I think this opens the way for a new conciliar movement, which Anglicanism has always appreciated.

  3. JeniferR says:

    Nicely written Father.

    Am I missing the Facebook/Twitter share button? I found the one that takes me to your Facebook page but can’t seem to find one that will “share” the article.

  4. Lee Poteet says:

    If ‘Reformed Catholicism’ on the basis of Holy Scripture, the earliest bishops and Catholic fathers, the three Creeds and the theological decisions of the first four general councils, then simply Catholicism because anything which is not tied to the preceding list is simply “not according to the whole.”

    Nice work, Father.

    • Charles says:

      Thanks for your words, Lee. I’m hoping more Anglicans will come to realize who we are supposed to be and will find a sound basis in our Reformed Catholic identity for realigning and reforming.

  5. charles says:

    Here’s another attempt, “right use” or “justification in worship”. Perhaps this was on the object of Reformed Catholicism in England, but I think it sums our system nicely? If true, then we can read the 39 articles as a treatise on worship, less an exact study on soteriology.

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