Most American evangelicals experience a church world that is either protestant/reformed or catholic. You have to be one or the other. For many ‘catholic’ means “Roman Catholic”; ‘reformed’ means “calvinist”; ‘Protestant’ means “Not Roman Catholic.” The Orthodox churches are kind of silently off to the side in most of these schemes.
Anglicanism, however, had a unique history that wreaks havoc on these neat labelling systems.
Anglicans tend to define their church as both catholic and reformational, or both catholic and evangelical. Here’s the fun part though: when we say ‘catholic’ we don’t mean we are “Roman Catholic,” and when we say ‘reformed’ we don’t necessarily mean we are all “calvinists.”
For example, I have two portraits hanging on the wall in my study. One is a picture of Pope Gregory commissioning Augustine of Canterbury to go to England to establish communion between the Church in England and the catholic church. The other, next to it, is Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, first reformational Archbishop of Canterbury, and a father of the Reform movement.
Both are there, side by side, with no seeming contradiction. I have books on my shelf by John Stott and John Henry Newman. I have a crucifix sitting next to an ESV Study Bible. I believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and I also believe in the priesthood of all believers.
A little bit o’ history might help here.
The British Isles are the isles where the Anglican church was originally planted (Anglican comes from the germanic tribe the “Angles”). Christianity came to these Isles at some time in the late first or early second century, possibly along with the Roman army, or through some early eastern/celtic missionaries. Later, Pope Gregory sent Augustine (Bonus fact: not Augustine of Hippo) to evangelize the British Isles in A.D. 596. Point is, the church in that part of the world came into communion with the catholic (i.e. worldwide) church at that time, but had previously existed.
So when we say we are catholic, we are saying that our church is a continuation of the church in those early days in which the Christian Church was undivided and universal.
Skip ahead a thousand years. Now its the Reformation. The Church in England went through a reformation period, initiated in full by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, that was influenced by both Geneva (calvinists) and Germany (Lutherans). This, plus the next hundred years of arguments, persecutions, wrangling, and disputes shaped a reformed and yet still catholic Anglican church. Rather than leaving behind the catholic faith and becoming only protestant, the Anglican reformation ended up reforming the existing catholic church in England. This is why Bishops were retained, and priests, along with sacramental theology and liturgy. It is also why (eventually) communion with the Roman church and the Orthodox churches was sought, alongside continuing fellowship with protestant churches. We have something in common with all of these traditions.
And of course the English ruled the seas and began to colonize the known world. They spread this reformed catholic faith all over the world, not always in nice ways (to put it mildly). The American revolution ended up leading to an Anglican church in the United States that was independent politically, but remained in communion with the Church of England. This ended up being a pattern all over the world during de-colonization.
In some phases of its history, the Anglican church has emphasized its protestant or reformed reality and de-emphasized its catholic nature, such as the evangelical revivals of the 18th century. At other times, such as the 19th century Oxford Movement, there has been a revival of the catholic spirituality or vision. But both of these influences have remained.
So the Anglican church is a reformed catholic church. We don’t see a fundamental conflict between the words evangelical and catholic, or feel the need to choose between our catholic ancestors and our reformational ones.
This can really mess with the mind of a person who has always thought of these things as polar opposites. For us, though they are often in tension, they are both necessary to retain and to live into.
I know this church history and identity stuff can get confusing. But hey, at least I didn’t try to explain how we also see ourselves as charismatic! (that’s for another day).
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.