Efforts to define ‘Anglican’ are various. A couple of years I noticed that someone on a social medium condemned as ‘not Anglican’ an episcopal consecration in the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) because of its use of liturgical dance and of various other neo-Anglican or charismatic liturgical phenomena. One response to this condemnation was, ‘Who are you to say something is “not Anglican”?’ This responder’s basic point seemed to be that anything that is affirmed or practiced by anyone who describes himself as ‘Anglican’ is eo ipso Anglican. This we may call the ‘kitchen sink’ definition or, alternatively, we might call it the counsel of despair. The position, whether viewed positively or negatively, was formulated most memorably by the observation of the late William F. Buckley, Jr., who said that no one from Mao Zedong to Pope Paul VI could be sure he wasn’t an Anglican.

An alternative approach is to define ‘Anglican’ rather non-theologically by emphasizing its cultural or civilizational characteristics, products, and influences. I have myself used this approach on occasions. On this view, ‘Anglicanism’ is best understood in the manner of a Cole Porter (or perhaps, depending on your generation, a Barenaked Ladies) list song: Anglicanism is Anglican chant, Vaughan Williams hymns, the King’s College service of Lessons and Carols, and the English musical and choral tradition; the sermons of John Donne and Lancelot Andrewes; the poems of George Herbert, John Keble, W.H. Auden, and T.S. Eliot; the Barsetshire novels and Swift’s satires and Robertson Davies’s Salterton trilogy and the writings of C.S. Lewis; the sons and daughters of Anglican rectories; the prose of Hooker’s Laws and the Authorized Version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer; a deeply felt but undemonstrative and unsentimental piety; Wren churches and English country parishes; the moral seriousness that outlawed the slave trade and stopped suttee and beat the Nazis; Evensong of a summer’s afternoon; the Queen’s Christmas address with its consistent, gentle emphasis on our Saviour’s birth.

This approach might look at first like the ‘kitchen sink’, as it accumulates the stuff of centuries in an apparent gatherum omnium. In fact, however, there is a good deal of definition and coherence to the list. There’s no modernism or neo-Pentecostalism in it, for one thing. For another thing, while a Roman Catholic or an Eastern Orthodox Christian might think some important things are missing from it, there’s little or nothing positively in it that he would find objectionable.

A third approach, which in fact tends to characterize the Continuing Churches, is to accept that historic Anglicanism has comprehended too much and been overly ambiguous: some of what is undoubtedly, historically present in Anglicanism has proved to be pernicious. One then might go on to say that we feel no need to affirm everything that has some presence in our history. That is, we would distinguish the history of the Anglican world, in its vastness, from the normative Anglicanism that is affirmed in, most notably, ‘The Affirmation of St. Louis’ and that we wish to continue.

Along these lines, I often return to the following statement by Canon A.M. Allchin in a little essay printed in 1963:

The position of the seventeenth-century Anglican theologians is, and in the opinion of the present writer must remain, of real importance for all Anglican theological thinking. But this emphatically does not mean that we have to follow them in every particular, nor that we are limited by their positions and conclusions. What it does mean is that we may find in them certain attitudes, certain approaches to theological problems, which are still valid for Anglican thinking to-day and, we would dare to say, still of value for Christian thinking as a whole. By their constant appeal to ‘the Scriptures interpreted by the perpetual practice of God’s Church’, to use the words of Herbert Thorndike, they provide us with a method and a starting point for our own researches. But they do not give us a complete and finished system. (1)

Anglicanism is not a distinctive and finished system, but an approach, a method, and a temper. Anglicanism is not doctrines that distinguish it from those of other Churches, because Anglicans assert that what they believe is plainly founded in the Scriptures believed by those other Churches and in the first millennium of those Churches. That same faith of the first millennium is or should be decisive in all Churches for interpreting the Scriptural deposit.

That which distinguishes Anglicans in doctrinal terms, then, is a kind of restraint concerning doctrinal commitment flowing from an unwillingness to innovate or even to receive older teachings that go far beyond Scripture and the consensus of the Churches. It is precisely this self-limitation which makes possible an openness to the great Churches of the East and the West. We assert and press nothing as essential, so far as we can see, that they do not themselves affirm, only questioning their differences from each other which seem to have no strong foundation in the Fathers or in the consensus of the first millennium.

A recent traditionalist Roman Catholic, criticizing a paper on doctrine by Bishop Chad Jones, admitted that Bishop Jones was sincere and eloquent, but asserted that Anglicanism was little better than Mormonism in its supposed theoretical claim to authority to alter doctrine. While there are no doubt self-described Anglicans who make such a sweeping claim (see my opening paragraph above), the Continuing Church exists precisely because it rejects wholly any supposed or claimed authority in any Anglican body to alter doctrine or to add to the deposit of Scripture as discerned in the first millennium of the Church. The Roman Catholic gentlemen wrote:

Bishop Chandler Holder Jones writes. Moving: heartfelt and, when applied to THE church, true. The Mystical Body and the conservative Christian society that T.S. Eliot envisioned. But (and you knew I’d have a but): the plain meaning of the Thirty-Nine Articles. I understood when I really read Articles XIX and XXI: Anglicanism’s framers believed the church is fallible. Anglicanism is Reformed Christianity, not Catholic Christianity. Articles XIX and XXI are why they have women bishops and same-sex weddings today. Not what the framers intended but logical conclusions from their premise. And Fr. Jonathan Mitchican has explained that classic Anglicans DID believe they were the true church; we “Romans” were “Catholic too” and they claimed the episcopate through us, but they thought we are in grave error.
Put another way, a Pope, even a goof like Francis, can’t change the faith. A General Synod or General Convention vote claims it can. Like Mormonism, not Christianity.

But of course the writer, Mr. John Beeler, has things exactly backwards. Anglicans are not Roman Catholics, not because of Roman fidelity and refusal to innovate, but because Rome claims, and exercises, a right to innovate, and to innovate even in the face of no biblical and little patristic support. Show us the Immaculate Conception in the Bible or in the first millennium. Explain the Immaculate Conception against the arguments of the greatest of the Western Schoolmen. Show us how Anglicans have erred in their Marian piety. Where did female altar servers come from? From whence came a host of Roman innovations, if not from the claims of Vatican I, which themselves were innovations that codified an existing, excessive, and innovative claim to authority?

The charge of Mormon-like tendencies is impolite, but if it is to be used, does it apply more to ‘a goof like Francis’ or to Bishop Jones and the Continuing Churches? Mormons claim to have a living prophet. Anglicans do not. Roman Catholics claim they do not, but can only sustain that claim for those who have made in advance a supernatural act of faith that no pope will use the extraordinary magisterium to define an error.

Calling the present pope a ‘goof’ is also impolite, but in any case is not Pope Francis merely using an authority long ceded to him by his Church? And is not the assertion that ‘a Pope…can’t change the faith’ simply a hopeful expression of trust that is actually contradicted by the facts?


[1] A.M. Allchin, ‘Our Lady in Seventeenth-century Anglican Devotion and Theology’ in The Blessed Virgin Mary: Essays by Anglicans.  Ed. by E.L. Mascall & H.S. Box.  London: Darton, Longmans & Todd, 1963.  Pp. 53-76.




2 thoughts on “Defining Anglicanism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s