Isn’t it obvious, like asking if the Pope is Catholic? Sadly not: it depends on what you mean by ‘the Church of England’, and what you mean by ‘Anglican’.

But wait! Who cares? Why does it matter?

  1. It matters when you start thinking about Anglican churches outside the Church of England. Anglicans ought to be in close communion with each other. But this requires some way of telling whether or not a church is genuinely Anglican. Who actually belongs in the Anglican Communion? Which churches should we recognise as being Anglican?
  2. It matters when you think about the Church of England itself. If ‘Anglican’ is part of your identity, and if the Church of England changes (or has changed) beyond recognition, then you might decide that the Church of England is no longer Anglican. That realisation might have significant implications for you.

So let’s examine the question.

First, what is the Church of England? What do people mean when they say ‘The Church of England…’? Here are a few possible answers:

  1. The Church of England is what it says on the tin, i.e., in its legislation. Of particular importance would be the Canons. For example, if the Canons declare that ‘The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures’ and ‘is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal’ (A5), then that is what the Church of England believes, plain and simple. Let us call this the legal view.
  2. The Church of England is whatever the people at the top say it is. So if the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the central communications team, clearly state something, then that is the official ‘party line’ for the whole Church of England. For example, if the archbishops call for ‘a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church’, then that is what the Church of England is committed to. Let us call this the institutional view.
  3. The Church of England is whatever its ministers say and do. What is the Church of England’s teaching, or doctrine? Go and listen to the preachers! Let us call this the ministerial view.
  4. The Church of England is whatever its people say and do, particularly in the context of worship. So we might say that the Church of England believes what the laity say in the liturgy. For example, they (generally) recite the Apostles Creed on various occasions, particularly for baptisms and confirmations, and they (generally) recite the Nicene Creed when they share the Lord’s Supper. Let us call this the liturgical view.

So which is the ‘correct’ answer? I’m not sure it’s possible to say. For what it’s worth, I think the legal and institutional views get far too much attention. Who cares what the Canons or the Articles say, if no one follows them? And who cares about the press releases from the central institutions, when the real action takes place in the parish churches? My money is on the ministerial and liturgical views as being the most helpful, and certainly the most undervalued.

(Of course, if the Church of England started to exercise discipline in a less haphazard and half-hearted manner, then the legal aspects would indeed be more relevant, because they would be reflected in practice. But we’re stuck in a stalemate, whereby the legislation is unsuitable, unenforceable and substantially unchangeable.)

Second, what does it mean to be Anglican? If a church is an Anglican church, then what does that mean? Again, there are several answers.

  1. An Anglican church is one that is in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury. This is traditionally taken to define the Anglican Communion (though it’s more complicated than that). Let us call this the Canterbury view.
  2. An Anglican church is one that upholds Anglican standards of doctrine, liturgy and order (such as in, respectively, the Thirty-nine Articles, The Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal). Let us call this the formularies view.
  3. An Anglican church is one that fits within the Chicago–Lambeth Quadrilateral, defined by the Scriptures, the Creeds, the Sacraments (of baptism and communion), and the historic episcopate. Let us call this the Quadrilateral view.
  4. An Anglican church is one the shares a family likeness with the Church of England. For example, it may be episcopally governed, and have a recognisably ‘Anglican’ form of liturgy. Let us call this the familial view.

So which is the ‘correct’ answer? Again, it is difficult to say. The Canterbury view is clear, but useless: how is the Archbishop supposed to decide whether or not to recognise another church as Anglican? The formularies view is also clear, but both arbitrary and inflexible. Why is it the 1662 BCP, and not the 1552 edition? Was there no Anglican church in existence prior to 1662? Or prior to 1571? Are the formularies flawless? Does nothing need to be added to them? What counts as a substantial departure from them? Who decides? This turns Anglicanism into an essentially confessional kind of church, and completely ignores its organic and institutional nature. The Quadrilateral view is also clear in what it excludes, but does it include too much? Does it really work to say that anything that falls within the Quadrilateral qualifies as Anglican? I’m not sure it does, and nor does that seem to have been the intention, which is to do with ecumenical relations with non-Anglican churches. The familial view has a certain intuitive appeal to it. It makes it possible to attend a service somewhere and say, ‘This doesn’t feel very Anglican.’ The difficulty is that what ‘feels very Anglican’ to one person might not ‘feel very Anglican’ to another.

So is the Church of England Anglican? Here’s the answer…

Legal Institutional Ministerial Liturgical
Canterbury Y Y Y Y
Formularies Y Y? (1) (2)
Quadrilateral Y Y Y? Y?
Familial Y Y (3) (3)

In other words, the answer is ‘yes’ or ‘maybe’. Here are the big maybe’s…

  1. Clearly some ministers teach doctrines contrary to the formularies. I doubt more than a handful would teach the formularies as a whole.
  2. Few now use the BCP. And ‘I believe in the Thirty-nine Articles’ is not part of any authorised liturgy!
  3. There is so much variety within the Church of England today, in terms of ministry and liturgy, that it is barely possible to discern any kind of family likeness. It certainly doesn’t always ‘feel very Anglican’ to me!

But perhaps we have been asking the wrong question all along? As above, why does it matter?

  1. In order to decide whether the Church of England should be in communion with another church, does it matter whether that other church is Anglican? Why do we need an Anglican Communion? Compare the Porvoo Communion, within which the Church of England is in full communion with various European Lutheran churches. Specifically, what about GAFCON? If it is trying to be a ‘reboot’ of the Anglican Communion, then why does it need to be Anglican? Can’t it just be a family of churches, with roots in the Anglican tradition, in full communion with each other, and open to entering into full communion with other churches that fit within something like the Chicago–Lambeth Quadrilateral? Would GAFCON consider something like the Porvoo Agreement, for example? Or is it unable to consider being in full communion with a church that isn’t Anglican, according to some arbitrary and inflexible criteria?
  2. If you are thinking of leaving the Church of England, then why should it matter whether the Church of England is Anglican or not? Surely what matters is whether or not it is faithfully Christian?

I don’t think we should give up using the word ‘Anglican’ altogether. But it seems to be a fuzzy-edged concept, like ‘evangelical’, ‘Western’, or ‘modern’. We basically know what we mean by ‘Anglican’, but it’s a pointless exercise to try to draw a line around its borders.