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Anglicans & Episcopalians: Seeking a Middle Way between Catholicism and Protestantism

Sometimes if you want to understand something you’ve got to dig down deep to get at the roots. In order to understand the diversity of today’s American denominations, we must dig deep into the roots of history in search of a sound starting point.

Long before the American Revolution, the Great Awakening, and even the Pilgrims, the Church of England, otherwise known as the Anglican Church, emerged in the wake of the English Reformation. This denomination will serve as an entryway into our survey of American religion simply because the very origins of many denominations we know of today—Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, Baptists, Methodism—partially began as movements that originally rejected Anglicanism.

What is Anglicanism, and where did it come from?

Anglicanism (Anglo simply means “English”) emerged in the midst of England’s tumultuous 16th-century Reformation. King Henry VIII’s quest for a male heir, as well as many other factors, led him to sever the ties that existed between the English churches and Roman Catholicism in the 1530s. This separation, however, was not a complete success, and over the following decades the Church of England went through a remarkably turbulent power struggle where its allegiances sometimes veered strongly toward Reformed Protestantism (under Edward VI) and then strongly toward Roman Catholicism (under Queen Mary). In the end, it was the long, steady reign of Queen Elizabeth I who helped establish Anglicanism in a form that proved both successful and enduring.

The most striking feature of Anglicanism is perhaps its hybrid nature, combining both elements of Catholicism and Protestantism. On the one hand, the Anglican Church took a strong stand on central Protestant concerns.

We can see this in its confession, The Thirty Nine Articles (1563). There,

  • justification by faith alone is clearly articulated.
  • a Protestant stance toward Scripture—namely its sufficiency and a Protestant listing of the canonical books (denying the Apocrypha)—is set forth.
  • we also find an explicit denial of certain Roman Catholic teachings, including purgatory, transubstantiation, the invocation of saints, and adoration of images and relics.

These points placed the Church of England clearly in alignment with the international Protestant reform movement of the 16th century.

On the other hand, pre-Reformation patterns of worship and church polity remained prominent features within the Church of England.

  • First, Anglicans stress the centrality of the office of the bishop. Similar to Catholicism, Anglican bishops claim the lines of apostolic authority run through the historic chain of its bishops (a doctrine known as apostolic succession).
  • Second, Anglicans prominently feature the sacraments. Many Anglicans understand baptism to be closely associated with regeneration, and the Lord’s Supper is the culmination of the weekly worship service where churchgoers receive the bread and cup kneeling at the front of the sanctuary from the hand of an ordained priest.
  • Third, Anglican worship services follow a structured liturgy-guide known as The Book of Common Prayer, a manual that prescribes the order of both weekly church services as well as baptism, marriage, ordination, and funeral services. This “Prayer Book,” as it is known by Anglicans, follows the ancient calendar of the church year, prescribes specific prayers to be read at weekly services, as well as Scripture-readings for every day of the year. The Book of Common Prayer has had an effect on the English language as several well-known phrases associated with church services found their origins in its pages.

Well-known phrases that originated in The Book of Common Prayer:

  • “Speak now or forever hold your peace” from the marriage liturgy.
  • “Till death do us part” from the marriage liturgy.
  • “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” from the funeral service.

Evangelicals of a Free Church orientation (including most Baptists), often find Anglicanism—and its American counterpart Episcopalianism—to be a puzzling mix. They may resonate with its Protestant concerns, but they also find its pre-Reformation sympathies to be somewhat out of step with the ethos that pervades much of modern evangelicalism.

Anglicanism was a prominent denomination in America’s colonial period. Many of America’s founding fathers, such as George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, were associated with the Church of England in varying degrees prior to the American Revolution. After the Revolution, when American Anglicans could no longer approve of the English monarchy, the church broke official ties with the Church of England and formed the Episcopal Church in America in the 1780s. Today, though America’s Episcopal Church is still a self-governing entity, it sees itself as a glad participant in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

For the last 200 years, Anglicans around the world has been composed of three identifiable groups.

  • First, there have been “High Church” Anglicans who have cherished the historic roots of Anglicanism: its Episcopal polity, its connection to the ancient church, its creeds, liturgy, and affirmation of orthodoxy.
  • Second, there has been a significant group of Evangelical Anglicans who have prized the Protestant features of its heritage. These “Low Church” Anglicans, as they have been known, cherish solid biblical preaching, evangelical piety, evangelism, and missions (see the list of well-known representatives below).
  • Third, there has emerged a “Broad Church” movement in Anglicanism that has sought to align Anglican thought with current intellectual and social trends. The openness that American Episcopalians have recently displayed toward the ordination of women and homosexuals derives in part from the ongoing influence of this group. This liberalism has aroused sharp controversy. For instance, some conservative American Episcopalians have tried to realign themselves with conservative bishops in other parts of the world, like the conservative Anglican Church of Rwanda, central Africa, in order to avoid remaining under the authority of a liberal bishop.

Today, the worldwide Anglican Communion boasts 60-80 million adherents, of which 2 million are American Episcopalians. Clearly, its unique blend of Catholicism and Protestantism has appealed to many. Yet historically, this mix has repelled just as many individuals as it has attracted, for as we shall see in the upcoming installments, several major denominations were formed when many Christians could not come to terms with Anglicanism’s middle course between Protestantism and Rome.

We’ll begin that story next month when we turn our attention to Presbyterianism.

Read other articles from this series on American Denominations and Other Religious Movements.

Well-known Anglican Evangelicals:

  • George Whitefield (1715-1770) – preacher and revivalist of the First Great Awakening.
  • John Newton (1725-1807) – hymn writer, former slave-trader, and author of “Amazing Grace”
  • John & Charles Wesley – founders of Methodism
  • J. C. Ryle (1816-1900) – bishop of Liverpool and writer of the book Holiness.
  • C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) – Christian apologist, essayist and creator of The Chronicles of Narnia
  • John Stott (1921-2011) – international Bible teacher and writer.
  • J.I. Packer (born 1926) – author of Knowing God.

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Robert Caldwell

Robert Caldwell

Assistant Professor of Church History at Southwestern Seminary Currently writing Theology of the American Revivalists: The Theology of the Great Awakenings from Edwards to Finney. IVP Academic, forthcoming 2014.

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