AnglicanChristian TraditionsTheology & Spirituality

Anglicanism: Catholic, Evangelical, or Both?

When someone who was raised in an Evangelical Protestant setting goes to an Anglican church, it might seem very Catholic. There’s a crucifix with Jesus’ body hanging on the cross, the altar is at the center, and the pulpit is off to the side. There may be icons and a rail to kneel at for Communion.

If they stay for the Mass, they might see something that very closely parallels a Roman Catholic service. The priest wears vestments, the Eucharistic elements are treated as the Body and Blood of Christ, etc.

Yet a Roman Catholic may not feel quite at home at an Anglican church either. Perhaps the service would be familiar to them, but the underlying theology would not be. Anglicans reject papal authority and Transubstantiation (opting for a vaguer doctrine of Real Presence). Many Anglicans (but not all) have a lower view of the Holy Mother than Roman Catholics, illustrating the point that for Anglicans, many dogmas are fluid (invocation of saints in prayer, birth control, etc.).

The strange position of Anglicanism as the via media can be illustrated in its history since the beginning of the Reformation. Prior to the Reformation era, the Church in England was in fellowship with the Roman Catholic Church (though the nature of that relationship is certainly up for debate). When the King Henry VIII formally split the Church of England from the Roman Church, he retained a significant amount of control on doctrinal issues. As someone strongly sympathetic to Catholic teaching (when it was convenient for him), he made sure the Church of England remained planted in Catholic traditions. Henry’s son who succeeded him, Edward VI, had different ideas. He dragged the English church in a more Protestant direction, going so far as to even abolish the Mass. His successor (after the nine-day reign of Lady Jane Grey), was Mary the First who was very Catholic, to the point she almost succeeded in mending the relationship between Britain and Rome. The trajectory of Anglicanism’s history is like a game of Pong: back and forth. The church is akin to a pendulum swinging between the two perceived extremes of Catholic and Protestant.

In the Anglican Church in North America, these two groups find themselves in opposition to each other. There are important issues facing the denomination (women’s ordination being one), so it is understandable that there would be tension. However, it is important for both groups to strive to learn from each other because if Anglicanism is anything, it is the via media, the middle way between catholic and Protestant.

There are three things the larger Anglican church can learn from its catholic components. The first is a high sacramentology. The sacraments are vital to the life of the Church. While most local Anglican bodies practice the Sacraments regularly, some have a lower view of them. The catholic wing of the church is a reminder that the sacraments are the focal point of our mission. We preach that people might become regenerate through Baptism and members of the church through Confirmation. The church offers them Confession and Reconciliation that they might be in right relationship with Christ. The centerpiece of the liturgy each Sunday is the Eucharistic. Without these vital components, Anglicanism ceases to be distinct from its fellow Protestant traditions.

The second significant contribution of Anglo-Catholicism is a healthy emphasis on the Traditions of the Church. Juxtaposed against continental ideals like Sola Scriptura, the emphasis of the English church is the primacy of Scripture but it needs to be interpreted through the traditions of the Church and our own Reason. Scripture is the authoritative document of the Church but it must be understood within the stream of orthodox tradition. The problem with a doctrine like Sola Scriptura is that it brought us from one Pope to many popes. Using the robust tradition of the Church for interpretation is a necessary framework to prevent unorthodox and invalid interpretations of Scripture.

The final lesson to be learned from Anglo-Catholics revolves around the liturgy. Everyone has a liturgy whether they be Baptist, Presbyterian, non-denominational, Anglican, or even atheist. It is really a question about whether our liturgy is anthropocentric or theocentric. While it may seem like Anglo-Catholics are sticklers about liturgy, it is because they are serious about making their worship reverent and focused on the Divine. Too many contemporary churches have made worship about the emotion of the worshipper. Even some Evangelical Anglican churches have relaxed their liturgy to the point that they lose the rich symbolism of catholic traditions. By emulating the reverence of Anglo-Catholic worship, the larger Church can hopefully the increasingly anthropocentric liturgy of modern worship.

If Anglo-Catholicism makes valuable contributions to the Anglican faith, so does Anglicanism of an Evangelical flavor. The first, and I think most important, is the emphasis Evangelicals place on Scripture. The Bible is already at the center of Anglican tradition via the Book of Common Prayer, but Evangelicals highlight the need to understand the need to see Scripture as a living and active document which speaks to our concerns today.

Somewhat connected to this, Evangelical preaching is usually convicting and relevant. Some of the great Pastor-Theologians in recent times tend to be from more Evangelical backgrounds. John Wesley is a solid example of what that looks like in the Anglican context. Of course, the tension is learning to balance this component out with the catholic emphasis on Tradition (and Wesley leaves some to be desired in this area). Nevertheless, for the Anglican church to thrive, it must utilize the strengths of the Protestant love of Scripture and strong preaching.

The relationship between catholics and Evangelicals within Anglicanism often feel strained. This is demonstrated by the strong emotions involved in the Anglican Church in North America’s dealing with issues like Women’s Ordination. While on that particular issue, a solution needs to be reached in which both parties can coexist, what is more important is that both those parties remain as contributors to Anglican identity. If both Anglo-Catholicism and Evangelical Anglicanism are allowed to be tributaries to the larger flow of Anglicanism, the church will maintain a healthy trajectory. If, however, one of the streams is allowed to diminish the contribution of the other, the Anglican church will be in serious trouble regarding both unity and theological quality.

Wesley Walker

Wesley Walker

Wesley is from Raleigh, North Carolina. He went to Liberty University for his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Biblical Studies where he was also on the debate team. He currently resides in Annapolis, Maryland and is a priest at St. Paul's Anglican Church (APA). He lives with his wife Caroline, their son Jude, and their two dogs. He co-hosts the podcast, The Sacramentalists.

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