Anglican and/or Episcopalian

Today, Episcopal Café picked up Tobin Grant’s blog post for the “corner of Church and State” from Religious News Service. As an Anglican theologian and confirmed (although currently dormant) Episcopalian, I am interested in how people make the (false) distinctions between “Anglicans” and “Episcopalians”.  The essay was not helpful, and in fact only made matters worse.  Unless, that is, you like distinctions that are so over-simplified as to be wrong.  And the ones drawn here are indeed wrong.

If you read Professor Grant’s essay, you get an oddball idea that whether a person (or congregation) is “Anglican” or “Episcopalian” is dependent on the positions taken on the following issues:

  1. The acceptability of relationships (including marriage) between persons of the same sex.
  2. Evangelical or liturgical preferences in worship.
  3. Political liberalism or conservatism.
  4. What country (or perhaps even which church) in which a person was born and raised.
  5. Emphasis on “tradition”.

While Professor Grant may be correct in the assertion that those who self-identify as “Episcopalian” tend to  be more politically liberal, and accepting of same-sex relationships, than those (in the United States) who self-identify as “Anglican”, the holes in the distinction are so large as to be impossible to miss, especially on the other three points.

Worship preferences–“evangelical” (possibly meaning less structured along the lines of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer in the usage of the Episcopal Church) vs. “liturgical”–are misleading.  Many American “Anglican” congregations are very liturgically high, but may use an earlier form of the prayer book, or one from another province of the Anglican Communion. So, the evangelical/liturgical divide is a non-starter.

(It should be noted that the Episcopal Church is the recognized member church of the worldwide Anglican Communion, whereas many of the self-identified “Anglican” churches are not recognized by the Communion.)

While country of origin is perhaps important to immigrants, it is probably not a major factor in the difference between “Anglican” and Episcopalian.  An Anglican from another part of the Communion may not realize that “Anglican”, in the US context, generally denotes an entity (individual, congregation, diocese or some other affiliation of churches) which has willfully separated from the Episcopal Church.  A theologically liberal Church of England member emigrating to the United States will possibly be quite unhappy in most American churches with the word “Anglican” in their name.

This leads to the point about “tradition.”  Anglicans–and Episcopalians are indeed Anglicans–subscribe to a centuries-old threefold source of theological authority.  This is the combination of scripture, tradition, and reason.  But, unlike those who call it a three-legged stool (without all three, there is no stability), it is better understood as a Celtic Trinity knot. The three elements are not distinct from one another, but flow into each other and are inseparable:  for example, scripture has authority because reason has deemed it should be a significant part of the tradition.  And so on.  When you try to separate them, silly things happen. Tradition is not static–please see Alasdair MacIntryre’s  After Virtue concerning how tradition grows and changes over time, while sustaining continuity with the past.

Professor Grant did not help himself by quoting Jordan Hylden‘s distinction.  And the Episcopal Church Foundation should be deeply embarrassed that a recipient of one of its prestigious fellowships understands so poorly the distinctives of the church he serves as a priest.  Jesse Zink’s blog on the topic shows a much more nuanced grasp of the topic of Anglican identity, and I recommend it highly.

To be Anglican is to claim and demonstrate a theological, spiritual, and liturgical continuity with the Church of England that emerged in the Reformation of the 16th century.  None of Professor Grant’s–or Jordan Hylden’s–categories have much to do with theology or spirituality, and only the slimmest thread ties them to liturgy. What was offered was unhelpful and misleading, ignoring the foundational aspects of Anglican identity.

All Episcopalians are, as Professor Grant rightly points out, are Anglicans–the recognized American expression of the Anglican Communion.  But the farcical distinctions offered needed serious challenge.


11 thoughts on “Anglican and/or Episcopalian

  1. Thank you Wendy for this rebuttal. My initial reaction to Prof. Grant’s blog (I’m sorry I disagree with you, it certainly is not an essay), was “why did he write this?”, it doesn’t add anything to the debate – I was in fact left wondering what debate he might be speaking about. What saddens me most about he Episcopal/Anglican situation in the US is the hijacking of the term Anglican by churches that are not even Anglican, but purport to represent Anglicanism. The Episcopal church needs to start reclaiming the term Anglican for itself!

    1. It isn’t, for me, so much about churches that are “not even Anglican”, but about churches who began as recognized parts of the Anglican Communion (i.e., the Episcopal Church), but have distanced themselves because they believe that TEC is no longer authentically “Anglican”.

      But “Anglican” is an exceptionally broad category, and to say that a group is not “Anglican” because they do not agree with your interpretations, or have developed in ways you do not like, seems rather, well, un-Anglican.

  2. Agreed, being broad a church is what makes Anglican Churches Anglican. Not just as an international organisation but also with-in each national church. I was raised in the Episcopal Church but was ordained a CofE priest (because I live here now). I understand that TEC is also quite broad, as is the CofE – liberal to conservative and evangelical to liturgical. I like the second paragraph of your reply, it is un-Anglican.

    1. It may be necessary for me to do further reflection on what “Anglican” means. It’s got to do with some pre- and post- Reformation commitments (see my essay in the Autumn 2012 Anglican Theological Review on “Anglican Social Theology”); a theological method based in inquiry, argument, and open-endedness; and a developmental approach to the role of church in public life and civil society.

  3. Thanks Wendy for the reference, I’ve just downloaded and printed it out. Glancing over it, I note your reference to Hooker at the bottom of page 626 and his “…desire to keep the boundaries of the church as broad as possible…”; still applicable today. I’ll read it with interest.

    1. Broad boundaries are a big part of what “Anglican” means. And broad boundaries mean that we try to work with those with whom we disagree. Not the horrible “agree to disagree” (which usually means we shut down discussion about important things; I’ve written elsewhere on the blog about how much I hate that phrase and why). Working with those we don’t agree with means we’re willing to hear what they have to say, and maybe (gasp) learn something from them–and they from us. We don’t do that at all well.

  4. Some follow Apollos, and some follow Paul – what does it matter? My concern is that while we distract ourselves with debates like this, the work that Christ asked us to do is getting short-changed.

    1. Perhaps, Angie. But if people are claiming an identity, there seems to me that a responsibility follows to reflect intelligently on that identity. For good or ill, there is no such thing any more as a “generic Christian”–we all have some affiliation, whether tight or loose, and we should understand what that affiliation means.

  5. I don’t think there was every such a thing as “generic Christian.” I certainly didn’t come away from Christian History or any of my theology or bible classes with that impression.

  6. Exactly–at least not since about 90 CE, if it even took that long. But if we’re going to ask what branch of Christianity a person is a part of, it’s probably important to be intelligent about the way we categorize. Tobin Gran’ts article failed on that count.

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