C.S. Lewis wrote that the various Christian groups are like rooms in a great hallway. The shared central beliefs of our Faith are the great hallway, but the various communions are the rooms. Each person finds the room that fits them best (baptist, presbyterian, Roman Catholic, etc), but must remember that we are all in the same house and share that same “mere Christianity”.
Lewis was an Anglican, but he didn’t mention that much when he was writing this in Mere Christianity because Anglicans love to hang out mostly in the hallway. This is why Lewis was so well suited to write such a classic Christian book in the first place, a book beloved by people in almost every Christian communion.
Sometimes you’ll hear someone refer to an Anglicanism as a “denomination.” Often this is used as shorthand to mean “particular Christian body.” However, Anglicanism is not a denomination. Instead, it is a Christian communion that doesn’t subscribe to denominational theology. This is probably why Lewis chooses to use the word ‘communions’ and puts “denominations” in quotes.
Denomination is not a neutral word. If we use it, there are a few assumptions that go along with it. Denominations are typically organized around a very specific theological approach, a singular historical figure or a historic experience. “Non-Denom” has become its own denomination, because it is typically organized around one of these three things but just at a more local level than the national denominations.
A Christian Communion
Instead, we Anglicans are trying to be a non-sectarian Christian communion rather than a denomination. And we think the more we Christians split into personalized denominations, the further we get from unity. If we refer to ourselves as a ‘communion’ then we are trying to stay away from the idea that we are organized around a specific speculative theology, a historic experience, or a singular person.
And that in a nutshell is why Anglicanism is not denominational, making us a truly “non-denominational” church. That’s why we aren’t the “Cranmerians.” We don’t have a confessional theology that is more specific than the creeds and we don’t consider the teachings of any one historic Anglican leader to be normative. Our 39 Articles are not a confession or creed, but guide our discipline as a church. We have calvinists, arminians, charismatics, reformed, evangelicals, wesleyans and many more among us – and we love it. We have Rome orientated Anglicans and Eastern oriented Anglicans, as well as those who emphasis the main themes of the Protestant Reformation. We aren’t sectarian, so we end up having various types of Anglicans existing among us, so long as all confess the historic creeds and remain in communion.
The Unity of the One Body of Christ
Today, despite our divisions, we believe Christians are united in baptism. Baptism in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is practiced by Christian bodies all over the world, is connected to the command of Christ, and the practices of the Church historically.
However, the unity that Christ prayed for goes beyond even this. He prayed that we would all be One, and despite our shared baptism and history, we aren’t one today. Anglicans believe that we should do our part to bring about that unity by being visibly united with the Church of the past and the Church of the present. Not just invisibly, but visibly. That’s why we accept the baptism of those who come to us from other communions.
We also try to stay in the Great Hallway by seeking to avoid requiring people to believe any particular speculative theology, or urging them to copy a previous movement or experience, or requiring them to follow a specific Anglican teacher in all things.
In practice, we fail at this. You’ll find Anglican churches that teach calvinism as if St. Paul himself was Calvin’s ghost writer, others that urge everyone to have exactly the same experience of the Holy Spirit that one particular church in Connecticut had in the 1970s, and some who make Thomas Cranmer a Protestant Pope. You’ll also find some that talk about the medieval Roman Catholic Church as if it were a golden era, fixed eternally in time as the standard. And then others who believe that the 1662 or 1928 prayer books were nearly as inspired as Holy Scripture. A few ignore everything in Church History before 1500, and others ignore everything after 1500! And of course our Communion has been fracturing these past two or three decades. Yes, we fail at the ideal, but we still strive for it and believe in it.
Occasionally, such as when Lewis wrote Mere Christianity, the fruit of this approach is borne, and we have a great gift to offer the wider Church.
Historic and Global Connection
Christ intended us to be One Church with various gifts. The best way to get back to that, over time, is to remain rooted to the Creeds, ancient church order, and historic patterns. We don’t see ourselves as a church that was newly created during the Reformation period. We see ourselves as a church that was founded in the days of the early Church, then travelled to England, then was reformed, then spread throughout the world.
We don’t mean that we are only the same as the Early Church in our beliefs, but also that we are part of the same historic, ecclesiastical body as the early church. And we are in visible communion with others across the globe, not just in one culture or country, not just in sentiment or in beliefs, but in visible communion.
So, thats why most Anglicans usually prefer not to be referred to as a ‘denomination’ but instead as a ‘Christian communion’ or perhaps a ‘Christian church’ as a way of seeking to emphasize the fact that we are part of the One Body of Christ. We appreciate, accept and love our denominational brothers and sisters, but we don’t subscribe to the ‘denominational’ approach.
Greg is the founder of Anglican Pastor. He is an Anglican Priest of the Anglican Church in North America. He served in a non-denominational church before being called into the Anglican church in 2003. He has served as an Associate Pastor, Parish Administrator, and Rector. He currently serves as the Canon to the Ordinary for the Anglican Diocese of the South.