Is Anglicanism Catholic or Reformed?

By |2018-08-14T10:42:11+00:00June 11th, 2015|Categories: Anglican Life|Tags: |16 Comments

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.

augustine_cranmer

From L to R: Catholic, Reformed

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.

Confused?

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.

Catholic Pope Gregory commissions Augustine in A.D. 596 as Thomas Cranmer looks on with that distinctive Reformed gaze.

Catholic Pope Gregory commissions Augustine in A.D. 596 as Thomas Cranmer (16th c.) looks on with that distinctive Reformed gaze.

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.

16 Comments

  1. Dale Jones June 11, 2015 at 7:18 pm - Reply

    Appreciated “Info”, There’s more to the “History”. A study of history of Glastonbury,England, Joseph of Aramathia, and the rest of the book of Acts (29th CH.with it’s Amen) should provide “The rest of “The” Story”! Blessings, DJ

  2. JOverton June 18, 2015 at 11:19 pm - Reply

    Enjoyed your piece. A lot.
    IMHO, the tension you refer to at the end surely exists but should be expressed as: the tension is a creative force, built in by Cranmer and many others, instead of being a negative one. It is necessary to maintaining a healthy if occasionally deeply worrisome and contentious balance between equally important, competing elements. After all, who promised us in its pursuit and application of Anglican understanding in a broken world a neat, tidy, static form of the faith expressed? No one. Our enemy has always been the mistaken, corrupting pursuit of Christ convenient, Christ controlled and Christ comfortable which the evil one dangled before Jesus. Those who discovered the essentials of the Anglican Tradition understood this well, even if they never said so. Their dedicated faith, multifaceted gifts to us and its durable strength against repeated assaults say so, tension, vision and all.
    The pain caused by the tension is just weakness leaving our spiritual body.

    For us, though they are often in
    tension, they are both necessary to retain and to live into.

  3. Joshua Bovis June 22, 2015 at 10:20 pm - Reply

    Greg,

    Something I have realised over the years is that labels mean different things to different people in different places. In answer to your question in your OP, I would say “it depends” on what you mean by the term ‘Catholic’. If you mean it as it is defined in the Apostle Creed, meaning Universal, then I would say yes we are catholic and reformed. However if the term catholic implies thatthe Anglican Church is reformed Catholicism (the middle way between Rome and Geneva),then I disagree. The Anglican Church is protestant and reformed, and the via media is more accurately described as a via media between Martin Luther’s Wittenberg and John Calvin’s Geneva.

    Not trying to start an argument, I am just a fellow Anglican Priest from Australia offering a view.

    Grace and peace
    Joshua
    p.s Love your website.

    • Greg Goebel July 9, 2015 at 8:26 pm - Reply

      Thank you for sharing that perspective. And thanks for reading! Blessings on your ministry.

  4. Elizabeth P July 4, 2017 at 10:02 am - Reply

    This is great, Greg! This is a very confusing thing in a world that likes to divide and draw lines. Thanks for writing it and sharing it again!

  5. Lyn Goss July 4, 2017 at 3:10 pm - Reply

    I’ve been an Anglican for 6 1/2 years. In that time I’ve had some great teachers who’ve helped me understand Anglicanism.You really summed it up in an easily understood way. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your writings and those of your fellow pastors. I always learn something and I feel like I have a deeper understanding of Anglicanism because of this website. May God bless you all!

  6. Tom October 31, 2017 at 3:52 pm - Reply

    Most importantly, where can I get a crucifix like the one in the photo?

    • Greg Goebel October 31, 2017 at 4:02 pm - Reply

      I believe that’s a Benedictine cross. They do have them at our local monastery bookstore here.

  7. Jim Needham November 2, 2017 at 9:34 am - Reply

    Great article and quite helpful.
    I think the readers comment that the tension of these ways of being faithful precedes the reformation (going back at least to Patrick, Celtic missionaries and such) is also a good one. Though we are and have always been catholic, we’ve not always been Roman.

  8. Simon Reilly November 6, 2017 at 5:37 pm - Reply

    Sorry to have to disagree but the Anglican Church was thoroughly Protestant from its beginning in 1559 up until the middle of the Nineteenth Century: I’m afraid the historic Catholicity of the Anglican Church is an illusion largely created by Victorian Restorationism. Before that period, Churches were whitewashed and devoid of any adornmenthird apart from a chained Bible and two boards with the.Ten Commandments printed on one, and the Our Father and Apostle Creed on the other. Priests wore no vestments apart from a cassock and surpluses (or rochet if they were a bishop) and an academic scarf. The liturgy was strictly from BCP and couldn’t possibly be mistaken for a Catholic liturgy, and the official doctrine was Calvanist.

  9. John Paluska November 22, 2017 at 11:46 am - Reply

    True Anglicanism is best described as a reformed church with catholic hierarchy an democratic voting on leaders. To me, the 39 articles are what defines Anglicanism, and those 39 articles defininitely fit within the reformed sphere of churches. For anyone who is interested in learning about what Anglicanism is, I would recommend reading the 39 articles of our faith.

  10. […] is to say, I try my best to care about Western/Latin Roman Catholicism, Eastern/Greek Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, Protestantism/Evangelicalism, Stone-Campbell Restorationism, & whatever other groups or […]

  11. James Ford October 9, 2018 at 4:28 pm - Reply

    Ditto to John and Simon. There are so many errors here it’s difficult to know where to begin. This article represents the American evangelical romantacism in the ACNA that is not only confused, but contradictory at heart. Being “Anglican” means almost anything you want it to mean because ‘Anglican’ is whatever you throw in the ecclesiastical pot and mix up. It is a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’, which is why you can put an icon next to an iconoclast and quote with approval both Martin Luther and a theologian who rejected Protestantism (Newman) without grimacing. This is not a sign of strength — it is a sign of confusion. We really need to read our primary sources. Can you locate a single Anglican for the first several hundred years after the English reformation(s) that uses the word ‘catholic’ to refer medieval precedents and practices? Even Laud – the highest ‘church’ ever got – was a Protestant. Lancelot Andrewes thought eucharistic adoration was an abomination. John Jewel argued Protestantism is MORE catholic than catholicism. By the early 17th century, the Anglican church was clearly aligned with the continental reformation. The 39 Articles are strongly Calvinistic. There are no scholars or historians who deny this. It is only romanticized evangelical converts who think the Anglican church is the Disney land of the Christian church where every theological dream comes true. Anglicanism has confessional boundaries. Why do ACNA folks convert to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy? Its because their ACNA church is a theological playground that plays Roman Catholic dress up.

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