I was asked to write a one-sided essay on Anglicanism. Let me know if you think I succeeded!
Perhaps one of the most striking features of Anglicanism is its breadth. It is hard to think of any other church, denomination, communion or network of churches that contains within it such diversity. There are Anglican churches that are staunchly Protestant, or that are almost indistinguishable from Roman Catholic churches, or that are overflowing with charismatic renewal, or that adhere to all sorts of novel schools of theology, or that lie almost anywhere in between. Together, these churches constitute the Anglican Communion, a family of 38 provinces spread around the world, counting within its number an estimated 80 million Christians. What makes these churches ‘Anglican’ is their connection with the Church of England, which is both historic and continuing. The provinces are autonomous, but held together (somewhat precariously) by four ‘instruments of communion’: the Archbishop of Canterbury, and three consultative bodies or conferences.
But is that all that needs to be said? Does Anglicanism have only an organic nature, which may be stretched and remoulded without constraint? Or are there any normative characteristics of Anglicanism?
To be faithfully Anglican is, surely, at least to be Christian. But that only begs the question of what it means to be ‘Christian’. Is there unlimited room for disagreement on that point? I think not. One universal feature of Anglican churches is their episcopal form of government. Each ordained Anglican minister must be licensed to practise by his or her bishop, and must be willing to recognize that bishop’s oversight. This places limits to the level of disagreement over what it means to follow Jesus. It places severe strains on the fabric of the Communion if, for example, some bishops are not prepared to recognize other bishops as genuine disciples of Christ. Such strains are being felt at the moment regarding the place within the Anglican Communion of The Episcopal Church (TEC) in the USA. In the eyes of many Anglicans, this province has significantly departed from the faith, to the extent that a sizable part of the Anglican Communion now recognizes the new Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) in preference to TEC. It is difficult to imagine that this situation can continue for very many years, and it would seem that global Anglicanism is entering a period of significant re-formation.
The classic Anglican statement on the essentials for unity is the ‘Lambeth Quadrilateral’, which was adopted by the Lambeth Conference in 1888. As well as two principles related to the our common life together—the historic episcopate, and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper—there are two principles related to the doctrine of the church. These are the Holy Scriptures ‘being the rule and ultimate standard of faith’ and the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, ‘as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith’.1 These principles are perhaps the best way of defining the limits of Anglicanism.
But, within those limits, Anglicanism does have certain characteristic features.2 There has, from 1549 until recent generations, been almost universal use of the Book of Common Prayer, and its influence is still evident, both liturgically and theologically. Anglican churches as a whole have a clear sense of continuity with the church throughout history, and a clear sense of connectedness with the present global church. And there does appear to be a clear, even stubborn, desire to remain together, and for Anglican churches to be broad enough to embrace all who genuinely seek to respond to the call of Christ.
1 Quoted by Paul Avis, The Anglican Understanding of the Church, SPCK, 2013, p. 75.
2 See Stephen Neill, Anglicanism, Penguin, 1960, p. 418–427.