Yesterday’s essay drew more attention than anticipated, and so it seemed a good idea to expand on what “Anglican” might mean. This is in no way definitive or final (partly because Anglican theology tends to be provisional), and is only based on my own personal study, experience and reflection over the last 20 years or so.
The central claim put forth yesterday was that “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.” It probably needs a little expansion, and that is what is on offer today. It won’t be particularly scholarly; you may check my “about” page for references to my more detailed and rigorous research.
English Christianity, of course, has a rich history prior to the Reformation, and certain commitments emerged between 597 CE when Augustine of Canterbury undertook his mission to re-Christianize Britain, and the events which led to the separation from the Roman Catholic Church. Among these are a care for local contexts, restoration of relationships between persons and between God and humanity, suspicion of clerical privilege, and concern for good temporal governance. These were not replaced at the Reformation, but were deepened with questions concerning what role the church would have in supporting these commitments; the specific answers to the questions have changed as the relationship between church and civil society has evolved to where the two are no longer coterminous, and any given church (or the whole of Christianity) is one of may spiritual societies sharing public space and hoping to influence culture.
One of the first, and most enduring, features of Anglican Christianity to emerge during the Reformation period, was a strong liturgical tradition which reinterpreted the monastic offices and sacramental celebrations in the vernacular language–as the 39 Articles so charmingly claims, “it is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the custom of the Primitive Church, to have public Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments, in a tongue not understanded of the people.” (Article XXIV) This tradition held to the threefold order of bishops, priests, and deacons, rejected transubstantiation, declared all minsters unworthy to administer the sacraments or preach the Word, refused to demand either clerical celibacy or marriage, and (Article XXXIV) allowed for a fair amount of local diversity so long as the common order of the Church was still honored. Obviously, then, Anglican identity has scope for a wide variety of practice, and embraces both catholic and evangelical theological and spiritual principles.
The tight identity in the 16th century between a national English church and civil society raised questions about who was a member of the church and who was not; this had implications for one’s place in secular life, as it was hardly distinguishable (with a monarch as Supreme Governor of the Church). Richard Hooker asserted that all members of society who did not definitively repudiate Christian faith were members of the national church. Obviously, this is no longer the case, but it meant that the English church had a duty of care to all of the monarch’s subjects–and this is still a strong ethos in England today.
As the age of exploration and colonization went forward, English dissenters fled to other shores, notably North America–but Anglicans also sought to make their fortunes in newly discovered lands. As separation from the mother country became a reality, a new nation was forged where an established church was not a part of the law of the land. Anglicans had to learn to work with people who practiced their Christian commitments differently. Simultaneously, penalties for dissenters in England were relaxing (it took quite some while, however, for full religious equality to take root in Britain), and by the early 19th century, such thinkers as Thomas Arnold and FD Maruice were challenging the lack of Christian unity.
Possibly the most important and attractive thing, for me, about Anglican Christianity, is that there is an unfinished quality to the enterprise, a sense that the church is not ultimate–that the end of the church is literally the end of the church. When the church has accomplished what it was sent to do, it will no longer be needed and will cease to exist. At least, that is what comes across in my readings in Anglican ecclesiology, which are, of course, idealized, church-at-its-best. We are rarely that, and too often slip into a sort of ecclesiolatry, where we confuse church with God.
But to work with others, both inside and outside our church, to eventually end our own existence as church-as-we-know-it, is uncomfortable. Perhaps that is the best hallmark of Anglican Christianity: it is an uneasy way of being church.