What is Anglicanism?

An Anglican refers to an individual being "of or characteristic of the Church of England or any of the churches related to it in origin and communion, such as the Episcopal Church." (link) The word itself, derived from the late Latin word Angle, refers to a "member of a Germanic people that migrated to England from southern Jutland in the [fifth century CE], founded the kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia, and Mercia, and together with the Jutes and Saxons formed the Anglo-Saxon peoples." (link) That is probably more than you wanted to know. But I think understanding the word Anglican, and its origins, is important as a means of identity.

What do Anglicans believe? What sets them apart from Lutherans, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Methodists, Baptists and others? Anglicans, known mostly in the States as Episcopalians, are unique as they identify themselves as both Catholic and Protestant -- not Roman Catholic, but catholic, referring to the ancient Western Church tradition (prior to the mid-sixteenth century Council of Trent). Anglicans retain many traditions practiced in the ancient catholic church, while holding to Reformed theology, at least with regard to justification by grace through faith, spiritual presence during the Eucharist (rejecting transubstantiation), and maintaining two primary sacraments rather than seven (as in the Roman Catholic tradition). Anglicans also reject the authority of the Roman Catholic Pope.

The root of Anglicanism is the Medieval Church tradition but within a Protestant paradigm. They hold tenaciously to an episcopal form of church government, apostolic succession, praying and ordering worship from a common prayer book, maintaining and using words such as "Priest" for the shepherd of a congregation, "Bishop" for those who govern parishes within a given area, "Presiding Bishop" for the leader of The Episcopal church in the States, and "Archbishop" for the leader of the Church of England, and the wearing of vestments during worship, among other traditions within the ancient and broadly catholic church. Within the Anglican tradition are those who prefer a high-church environment, including a procession with smoke, and addressing Mary, the mother of Jesus, with utmost respect (while not offering her divine worship); while there are also those who prefer a low-church setting, that more resembles an evangelical worship service. (I prefer a high-church environment.) Anglicans afford themselves preferential grace.

Evangelicals tend to argue that an episcopal form of church government is not taught in the New Testament and they use Acts 6:1-6 as a proof-text for allowing a democratic process to unfold for a congregation in choosing its own pastor. But Acts 6:1-6, if context matters, addresses deacons and not pastors. How can evangelicals, like Baptists and Pentecostals, assume from this passage that a congregation is also granted a self-governed privilege of choosing its own pastor? Moreover, what if this circumstance was pragmatic, not to be repeated? There is no command that follows this passage indicating that all congregations are to choose their own deacons.

In the New Testament we have explicit evidence of a hierarchical practice regarding the ordaining of pastors and deacons. Note at Acts 6:6 that the apostles are the ones who ordain these deacons and not a pastor or a congregation. More significantly, we find in the New Testament that congregations did not choose their own pastors, but pastors (or elders or priests) were appointed by the apostles. We find Paul and Barnabas in Antioch (in Syria) appointing pastors in the surrounding churches (cf. Acts 14:21-23). We discover the apostle Paul continuing this tradition through his servant Titus: "I left you behind in Crete for this reason, so that you should put in order what remained to be done, and should appoint elders in every town, as I directed you." (Titus 1:5, emphasis added) Congregations, in the New Testament tradition, did not appoint their own pastors; pastors (elders, priests) were appointed to a church by an apostle.

So, you might argue, "Well we don't have apostles today so we can appoint our own pastors." Contrarily, however, the tradition that was passed on by the apostles to the first-century bishops of the Church maintained an episcopal form of church government. If a sense of democratic congregationalism was practiced, then that tradition would have been passed on to the successors of the apostles, but that is not what history records. This is why Anglicans, in common with Roman Catholics, maintain a belief in apostolic succession -- the notion of the "uninterrupted transmission of spiritual authority from the Apostles through successive popes and bishops." Though such may make most Protestants and evangelicals uncomfortable, a hierarchical structure was the norm for the ancient church, and believers considered certain men as a leader (head, father, pope) of the catholic (universal) church of Christ Jesus our Lord, Savior, and King.

There are other marks of the Anglican church and many practices held by all churches, such as baptism (and infant baptism), and the Eucharist (or Communion, Lord's Supper, Mass). But what sets Anglicanism apart from all Protestant churches is the hierarchical structure of the governing body, maintaining a doctrine of apostolic succession, and ordering worship contained in a prayer book. What sets the Anglican church apart from Roman Catholicism is rejection of the authority of the pope, rejection of transubstantiation, rejection of Mary as co-redemptrix, co-mediatrix, and advocate; as well as other significant doctrinal distinctions, like justification by grace through faith in Christ, maintaining two sacraments in lieu of seven, and allowing priests to wed. I, of course, view the Anglican faith as the most faithful expression of the ancient Church as handed down through the ages by the apostles of Jesus Christ.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.