Anglicans and Roman Catholics

By |2018-08-13T15:45:27+00:00October 15th, 2015|Categories: Anglican Life|Tags: , , |15 Comments

Anglicans are sometimes said to be “a little bit protestant and a little bit catholic.”  That’s probably true to some extent, as a description of what people see in a worship service. However, even though the Roman church owns the domain extension .catholic, we Anglicans see ourselves as both fully catholic and as a church of the reformation at the same time. Because we are the most visibly catholic church in the West that isn’t Roman, people often wonder about what we think of the Roman Catholics.

In fact, recently I was asked if Roman Catholics are “saved.” Unfortunately, I was asked this question in the middle of a holiday party at my son’s local public school, in front of all the other parents. Needless to say I invited the other Dad to get some coffee and discuss that some other time. The timing of his question wasn’t so great, but the question itself is important to many evangelicals and deserves a response. Even though it might feel offensive to many Roman Catholics, it shows a concern for truth that should be important for any of us.

There are official dialogues that go on between Anglicans and Roman Catholics, and you can find out about those in many places (including here and here). I’m not so much writing about the official relationships or ecumenical dialogues here though. My experience is more in how Anglicans generally talk about and think about the Romans as a part of our everyday life and experience.  And I’ll mostly address the kinds of questions evangelicals asks us. I’m sure some of my fellow Anglicans will disagree with my assessment, which is mostly positive.  I welcome other viewpoints, but I want to share what I’ve personally observed.

El Papa

The office of Pope is respected by most Anglicans. Historically, we have recognized that he is the Bishop of Rome, and that he is the Patriarch of the West. What that means practically is that many Anglicans feel comfortable admiring and learning from the teaching offices of the Roman Catholic Church. What it doesn’t mean is that we think of the Pope as infallible, even when he speaks ex cathedra.  Of course, its a myth that the Roman Catholic Church thinks that the Pope is infallible. They see his official, special pronouncements as such, and we don’t agree on that part.

Anglicans tend to admire and listen to the Pope. We tend to respect his influence. But we don’t tend to think of him as the final authority. This is in part because we don’t recognize him as the one appointed Vicar of Christ, but also because we believe in conciliar leadership. Like the Eastern church, Anglicans think the top level of authority in the church should be more like the Twelve. Jesus is the Head, and the councils are under him.  We don’t agree that one Bishop should be the final authority over the rest, even if one of them presides over the group.

A Christian Church?

Anglicans believe that the Roman Catholic Church is a true, Christian Church. We may have issues with some of their theology and practice, even serious issues, but we affirm their faith in Jesus Christ. The Roman Catholic Church affirms the creeds, Holy Scripture and the orthodox faith. They preach that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God who died for us, and who rose again. Even when we see what we think are errors, most Anglicans still affirm the true faith in Jesus that is very visible in that communion.

Salvation by Grace

Wow, this is a big one. Its almost universally believed by Protestant and evangelical groups that the Romans believe in grace plus works for salvation. My experience is that many Anglicans do think that the Roman Catholics add works to grace. I don’t necessarily disagree with that assessment. But (and this is a huge ‘but’), so do we. Anglicans, evangelicals, human beings, etc. We all add our works to God’s grace to try to appease or please him. Its human nature. So yes, there have been times in the Roman Church’s life in which it seemed to pretty clearly affirm the idea that we can add some of our good works and merit to our spiritual bank account with God. But you can find that same thinking even in, for example, the American puritans. Yes, even the puritans wrote about “proving your election.”  You proved it by your good works.

The Roman Catholic Church has changed a lot since the Reformation, especially since Vatican II. There is a conscious movement and effort to move away from semi-pelagianism (human achievement as a part of salvation).  I think most Anglicans recognize and appreciate that move, and we would be well to continue in that direction ourselves.

The Blessed Virgin Mary

There are some Anglicans who pray to Mary, who see her as “ever” virgin, and who venerate her in ways that would make Thomas Cranmer roll over in his grave. So those Anglicans don’t have a problem with the way Roman Catholics venerate Mary. Most of us agree with the Roman Catholics who have pointed out some of the idolatry associated with Mary. Yet the Roman Catholics have retained (at the very center of the Christian life) the beautiful vision of a woman, pregnant with God’s Son, delivering him into the world. Mother of God. Mother of the Church. Forever blessed, honored throughout all generations. Protestants have a tendency to ignore Mary, or only speak of her role in salvation history in the negative. Anglicans tend to talk about Mary more, to honor her, and to see her as an icon. A way to see God.

So while most Anglicans would encourage Roman Catholics who pray to statues of Mary or see her as a co-redeemer with Christ to take a chill pill, we don’t think they should abandon their honor of her, or her place as the Mother of God.


Is the Bible our only authority? We see it as the final authority, and as the unique authority (the only inspired book). Nothing can take its place. Yet unlike protestants and most evangelicals, we value other authorities, despite the fact that they aren’t equal to Scripture. Roman Catholics actually have a similar view. They see Holy Scripture as the top level, but they think that it is mediated through the Church. Anglicans think that the Church is subject to Scripture, and so this creates some interesting arguments about what Scripture actually teaches. But while the Roman system seems more practical, we fear that it ends up unintentionally subjecting Scripture to the Church. So we don’t like that.

However, its just not true that the Roman Catholic Church doesn’t believe in the Bible, or isn’t biblical. Their Catechism shows that they seek to understand Tradition in light of Scripture. So unlike many evangelical or protestant groups, we tend to understand why the Roman Catholics believe in an authoritative teaching body, even though we don’t agree that that body is authorized by Jesus himself.


We don’t believe in transubstantiation (it says so in the 39 Articles). However, what we don’t believe is really what Roman Catholics today don’t believe either. Confusing? Yeah, it is.

Anglicans believe that Jesus is really present in the Communion. We don’t believe in requiring people to believe in a particular way that he might do that.  Roman Catholics, however, do require people to believe in a formula used to precisely spell out the presence of Christ in the bread and wine, and they call it transubstantiation. At the end of the day, both churches believe that the bread and wine are a means of grace, and that Jesus is present there.

So we aren’t supposed to reserve the sacrament (except for the sick). They do. They put it in a chapel, and people pray there in the presence of the sacrament. The piety of the folks who gather there is without question, and their love for Jesus is obvious if you’ve every observed people praying in front of the sacrament. However, we believe that the eucharist wasn’t given to us as something separate from the gathered church. It is a meal to be consumed, not to be put on display.  Some Anglicans find this to be a very serious and harmful error. That said, most Anglicans respect the faith and reverence of the Romans, even if we don’t see the mechanics and use of the eucharist the same way.


We Anglicans are catholic. Why? We’re catholic because we believe in the Bible and the Creeds, and because we retain the historic pattern of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons in historic succession. We don’t see the Anglican church as starting during the Reformation. We see it as starting and continuing from the time of the Apostles, landing in England when the Pope sent St. Augustine there. It was reformed in the 16th century, but it didn’t start there. So we don’t think that a church has to be in communion with the Pope to be catholic. However, many people are only familiar with the word ‘catholic’ in association with ‘Roman Catholic.’ So when we say Anglicans are catholic, people think we mean Roman Catholic. I’ve spent a lot of hours trying to help people see that a church can be catholic without being Roman. At least we think it can.

But the Roman Catholics don’t see it that way. They sincerely believe that Jesus appointed the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, as the one person to whom every Church should be connected. And since they define catholic that way, they don’t see us Anglicans as catholic. The funny thing is, by our definition, we accept that they are a catholic church.

So we aren’t willing to drop the word catholic just because other reformational churches are afraid of the word. (Some Anglicans are okay with dropping it, but they’re wrong. Bring on the comments!) We retain it because it is ancient and important, even at the risk of seeming to agree with the Roman Catholics on the full definition of the word.

“Antichrist and Whore of Babylon”

No, the Roman Catholic Church is not the biblical “whore of babylon” and the Pope is not the Antichrist. Just no. Folks, our Roman Catholic friends believe that Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world. They believe that he is Lord. They believe in the Holy Trinity. I don’t think this needs much more explanation than that.

Big Picture

The big picture is that Anglicans tend to be friendlier to the Roman Catholics, to see them as fellow Christians, and to respect the Roman Catholic Church as the most visible, leading church in the world, especially in the West. We tend to be okay with the fact that we don’t have to agree with them on every point in order to accept them as fellow Christians. And we reject the idea that a church isn’t fully catholic unless it is recognized as such by the Pope. We also see the Roman Catholics as important partners in standing together as a witness to Christ in the world, and as leaders in formulating thoughtful theology and platforms for engagement on social issues.

Of course, there are Anglicans who would see things very differently than I’ve described them here. I’m sharing my own experience, and what I see around me most of the time. There are Anglicans who think its important for us to differentiate from the Roman Catholics at most points, and they won’t like what I’ve written here.  But my experience is that most Anglicans respect the Roman Catholics, even though we don’t always agree with them.

Photo: Monastery of the Holy Spirit, Conyers, Georgia. Public Domain. 

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.


  1. Chris Cairns October 15, 2015 at 10:16 am - Reply

    ….you could have added: “…would cause Thomas Cranmer to roll over in the grave where Roman Catholics put him….”

    Well done brother…. keep it up…. one of these days we should talk.

  2. Br. Collins October 15, 2015 at 12:24 pm - Reply

    Nice and very well constructed article Fr, I almost agreed with you on everything except on the part of reserving the Eucharist. While this may not be proven by the holy Scriptures, I argue that since we believe that Christ is always present in the Eucharist we are not in error to reserve and pray to the always presense of Christ in the elements unless you meant that he is present in it at the consecration proper and no less present after it might have been reserved.

    When a friend gives me a gift, I sincerely do not wish to wear it in his/her presense.

  3. Sean Major-Campbell October 15, 2015 at 7:27 pm - Reply

    This resonated with me. The reflections are much appreciated.

  4. Kathy Glaser October 16, 2015 at 9:53 pm - Reply

    I’m Roman Catholic but I agree with quite a bit of your article.

  5. Joshua Bovis October 18, 2015 at 5:50 am - Reply


    I have to disagree with much of what you have written here. Particularly when it comes to justification.

    You wrote, ” But (and this is a huge ‘but’), so do we. Anglicans, evangelicals, human beings, etc. We all add our works to God’s grace to try to appease or please him. Its human nature.”

    Justification by faith alone is at the heart of Anglican soteriology. In its liturgy, its view of the sacraments, in its founding documents, and in the mind of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the Church of England holds that works do not save and cannot save a person. Only the blood of Jesus Christ is effective to save. Thus Anglicans do good works because they have been saved.

    The RCC rejected sola fide at the Council of Trent and again at Vatican 2 Council. Of course I am not for a moment suggesting that Roman Catholics cannot be Christians, I believe Roman Catholics can be Christians in spite of what Rome teaches. However it is still the case that the Roman Catholic Church, despite lengthy and peaceful deliberations with Lutherans and Anglicans on the matter, still holds a semi-Pelagian view on the doctrine of justification – that is, the believer in whatever small way, still is able to co-operate with the grace of God and earn the rewards of heaven. Again this is not be supported by Holy Scripture, nor by the BCP, The Ordinal, The 39 Articles and The Jerusalem Declaration.

    • FC October 18, 2015 at 2:45 pm - Reply

      Amen. I disagreed with much of this article. If you will judge a Church for her teachings at least use their catechism. Read the 1995 catechism and its all there: salvation by merits, the co-redemptive work of Mary, the equality of tradition to Scripture, etc. Why ignore it? The Romans may be Christians but while the Church of Christ is Israel, they are Samarians, mixing the teachings of God with men and the worship of God with others. You do more damage to them by not recognizing the real differences, heretical or not, than by trying to say “well, we are not REALLY that different,” which is simply not the truth.

    • BspThomas April 22, 2016 at 4:45 pm - Reply

      Interesting rebuttal.

  6. Fr. Rob Holman April 14, 2016 at 11:49 am - Reply

    A very helpful article, full of truth and grace. Thank you.

  7. Terry Sweeney+ May 1, 2017 at 10:08 am - Reply

    Thanks Greg+. If you have not already done so take a look at the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus written by Pope Benedict XVI. Its on the Vatican website. Regarding the BVM, Edward Sri has a book out titled “Queen Mother: A Biblical Theology of Mary’s Queenship”. Lastly, one of the several theological factors that keeps me at arms length from Rome is their teaching on Purgatory. With the slimmest of apocryphal support Rome has proffered a cottage industry around indulgences – to this day. Terry+

  8. ralph waterhouse+ May 1, 2017 at 3:23 pm - Reply

    Though I lean in the direction of FC’s comments concerning salvation by merit, and Terry Sweeney’s+ comment about Purgatory…..still, this is a fine article on a topic that I’m called to address often, especially during each new Confirmation class, which lately are filled with Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail. Thanks for your writings.

  9. Fr. Adam Rick May 1, 2017 at 3:43 pm - Reply

    I enjoyed this article, and I agreed with much of what is written here. I appreciate your charitable take on our ecumenical relationship with Rome, and I agree with your core thesis. I was reminded at several points of Richard Hooker’s comments on whether Rome is a true church, contra the Puritans of his day, in his Learned Discourse on Justification.

    But on that point, I must agree with some of the comments above that Justification By Faith is the elephant in the room. Yes, Roman Catholics believe that “its all free grace” inasmuch as they recognize (rightly) that the merits of Jesus Christ procure for us any other benefit besides; and yes, Anglicans believe that “faith AND” is necessary for salvation, inasmuch as we affirm that once-and-for-all justifying grace necessarily shows itself forth in works. But we disagree profoundly in how justifying grace is applied, the manner of our “cooperation” with it, and from whence our works flow.

    As a Reformed Catholic, in accordance with our historic formularies, I believe that we are justified once and for all by faith, by which we receive the alien righteousness of Christ whole and entire, and that any works which show forth our faith are products OF this justification and not the CAUSE of it. The way Roman Catholics understand justifying grace to be applied piecemeal, repeatedly, and consequent of our use of the church’s mediatorial authority in the [“seven” so they claim] sacraments means that, however metaphysically one still maintains that “free grace” is operative behind all of it, the system necessarily amounts to faith AND works FOR justification. Their unwillingness to separate justifying righteousness from sanctifying righteousness reinforces this confusion. I often hear Romans say “we believe its all grace,” and they aren’t wrong, but the language is slippery and ultimately a bit misleading, if not intentionally so. The Reformed critique has always been “yes but your system of its application AMOUNTS to faith AND works, and that’s a real problem for the sufficiency of the Cross of Jesus” to say nothing of the undeniable biblical truth that our only contribution to the story of salvation, as the image of a shepherd and sheep demonstrates, is to be lost and helpless.

    That disagreement is at the heart of the Reformation, and despite Rome’s more charitable language of late (for which I am truly grateful), that church has not moved an inch away from its anathemas promulgated at Trent. It can’t. To do so would be to undermine not only its fundamental theology of sacraments and the mediatorial nature of the church as an institution, but it would go against the supposed infallibility of their magisterium, which in the last analysis, is really the major stumbling block to reform in that body.

    Like Hooker, I affirm Romans as my brothers in Christ, inasmuch as they affirm with me the content of “Redemption Accomplished” (the person and work of Christ). But their Gospel is a veiled one because of how we disagree on “Redemption Applied” (soteriology proper and ecclesiology). And that must justify (no pun intended) a continuing separation until they amend their teaching, which, as I understand their catechism, they really can’t. And that’s unfortunate.

  10. Jay May 26, 2017 at 11:40 pm - Reply

    I am Roman Catholic and I’m afraid much of this article is inaccurate. Much is misunderstood about the Catholic Church and it needs to be studied or practiced in order to present it in an accurate manner. This article demonstrates that this Pastor, though he is I am sure being sincere, is not knowledgeable on the Catholic Church nor the history of the Catholic Church.

    I would suggest studying the Church Fathers which would provide the necessary historical information for those who want to know how the Catholic Church began and who’s who.

    • Greg Goebel May 28, 2017 at 2:56 pm - Reply

      Thanks Jay. What are some examples of inaccuracies in the post?

  11. A.J. Boyd November 19, 2017 at 5:47 pm - Reply

    Catholics have no problem seeing Anglicans as catholic. You are just not Catholic.

    Similarly, please stop calling the Catholic Church “Roman” just because it includes the bishop of Rome. It would be like calling the Anglican Communion “Canterburian” or even just saying that it is all the Church of England. It’s just incorrect.

    Admitting that the name of the communion that recognizes the bishop of Rome as its head is properly called “the Catholic Church” (no Roman) does not diminish your own communion’s catholicity – neither in our (Catholic) eyes, nor, i should hope, in your own.

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