Defining Anglicanism Today

Tower at Long MelfordAnglicanism was characterized by common worship and common prayer.

The Diversity of 'Classical' Anglicanism

Those who have studied Anglicanism closely know that Anglican history shows several broad strains of tradition, all of which can plausibly claim to be classically Anglican in that they have a long pedigree within the Church of England and her daughter Churches. Yet no one of these strands can claim to be Anglicanism in an exclusive sense if that claim means to imply that most Anglicans in fact historically held to that particular strand. Furthermore, these strands were and are often mutually contradictory and hostile. Nevertheless, classically the various parties within Anglicanism were united by at least two important factors.

First, virtually all Anglicans recognized a common ministry under the authority of bishops who united Anglicanism "horizontally" by their fellowship with one another and "vertically" by their authority within their own dioceses. Secondly, most Anglicans were united by common prayer, by liturgical worship rooted in the Authorized Version of the Bible and in the Book of Common Prayer. While some Low Churchmen, for instance in the Diocese of Sydney, and some Anglo-Catholics, particularly in England, did not use the Prayer Book very much, it at any rate functioned at least as a kind of norm from which departures were made.  It is now commonplace to note that radical liturgical revision in the 1960s destroyed any semblance of common prayer or of a liturgical norm and that the ordination of women since the 1970s has destroyed the former universal mutual recognition of ministries. With the glue of common ministry and common prayer dissolved, only inertia held the show together. And inertia is not enough.

A More Useful Definition

So how is one to define Anglicanism in this situation? There are two live possibilities. One possibility is that Anglicanism be defined precisely by reference to its multiplicity of traditions and lack of uniformity, by its "comprehensiveness." This definition, however, reduces Anglicanism to liberal Protestantism and to the current state of collapse. The irony of Anglicanism-as-comprehensiveness is that persons with theological integrity have no desire to be comprehended by such a communion.

The other possible definition is in fact something of a redefinition: one may redefine Anglicanism by reference to one of its classical strands or parties and then assert that that single tradition should henceforth be normative to the exclusion of the other classical Anglican parties. If one takes the first option, as the old Anglican Communion has done, one is doomed. The ACC, therefore, has adopted the second approach. This approach does not, of course, require ACC members to reject everything ever thought or prayed or developed within the other classical Anglican traditions. However, it does establish a norm and it does reject the longstanding Anglican tendency towards "comprehensiveness" or, if you prefer, vagueness. What the ACC says, in effect, that what was once merely a party within Anglicanism is the sole legitimate form in which Anglicanism can continue, and that form is Anglo-Catholic.

That said, "Anglo-Catholic," like "Anglican," has nowadays come to mean almost anything and, therefore, nothing. It may help then, to characterize Anglo-Catholicism more precisely by specifying three beliefs to which the ACC has committed itself. All three of these were believed by many Anglicans before the ACC, but none was unambiguously taught by the whole.

The Central Tradition

"A Church" essentially is a community of Christians gathered around a bishop in the Apostolic Succession in a given territory. "The Church" is the community of bishops, and of Christians in union with them, throughout the world. Since ancient times bishops and their dioceses have been grouped under the authority of metropolitans in provinces. Metropolitans and their provinces in turn have been grouped under primates (or patriarchs) in "Churches," which often have had national or ethnic identities. While the patriarchs of Rome and Constantinople have ancient primacies of honor over other patriarchs, no primate has universal jurisdiction or infallible authority apart from the whole Church and the community of other bishops.

There were seven Ecumenical Councils in the undivided, ancient Church whose doctrine, discipline and moral teachings bind us. There have been no Councils of similar authority since.There are seven sacraments, as both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches teach. Two of these sacraments are "generally necessary for salvation," but the other five are no less sacraments.

One could add to this list of beliefs, but these three are sufficient to explain why the ACC is Catholic, why it is not Roman Catholic, and why it finds itself in substantial agreement already with Eastern Orthodoxy. The ACC is "Anglican," and not Russian or Greek or "Eastern" Orthodox, because it is culturally Western, and because its worship and devotion are rooted in the Authorized Version of the Bible and in the Book of Common Prayer,and because its members are heirs to the great English tradition of spirituality, literature, ecclesiastical arts and architecture, and music.

People used to speak of Anglicanism as the "bridge Church." Usually they meant that Anglicanism united Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Perhaps the ACC is a bridge Church, but if so it bridges East and West rather than Protestant and Catholic.

No one in the Anglican Communion really seems to be able to agree on what Anglicanism was or is, and this points to the heart of the current Anglican problem. The Anglican Catholic Church, however, can and does say what it is now and what its members believe. This belief leads back to the central tradition of Christendom represented by the Eastern Orthodox and the ancient ecumenical councils, and therein is the chief justification of the ACC.