For me, it is much easier to understand what Anglicanism is by first understanding what it is not. I am convinced of this helpful principle because my own personal journey into Anglicanism is an illustration of it.
Catholic and Protestant: Neither, but Both
Let’s be honest, most people think one of two things—perhaps even both!— whenever they hear “Anglicanism”:
- How do you say it? And
- Isn’t it basically Catholic, kind of like Lutheranism?
Broadly speaking, Anglicanism is neither Roman Catholic nor your typical Protestant denomination. To be sure, Anglicanism is unmistakably a denomination that stems from the Reformation era and has had various levels of continuity with the Roman Catholic church throughout its roughly five-hundred-year history.
Anglicans believe that God has shown Himself to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit eternally through:
- the Bible,
- the worship of the Church,
- and the Church’s primary summaries of the Bible’s message of salvation (known as creeds—the Nicene, Apostles, and Athanasian Creeds).
In other words, Anglicanism is distinguished from these other groups of the Christian faith by its explicit, concerted expression of the gospel message (as we understand it) through worship: that God the Father gives himself to us and makes himself known through his Son and Holy Spirit – who are continually present to, through, and within his Church.
As Anglicans, we believe that we worship in accordance with how the Church has always worshiped and that we worship in accordance with what the Church has always believed.
As a result, Anglicanism is not so much a postulate as it is a posture – a way of life more than a system of belief. Anglicanism is a corporate way of living, speaking, and thinking about God rightly. We believe that the integrity of this corporate existence — of proclaiming and demonstrating the gospel — is preserved in Word and Sacrament, particularly through the exercise of the office of the Church’s bishops.
The Importance of Bishops
It is in our unique understanding of the office of the bishop (also known as the episcopacy) that we as Anglicans, too, differ from Roman Catholics and other Protestants.
Whereas Catholics believe that the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, is the essential head of the Church, Anglicans believe that the Pope is merely one bishop of many.
And whereas other Protestant denominations — with the exception of American United Methodists and rare Lutheran groups — do not believe in bishops, Anglicans see the necessity of bishops as the faithful representatives of the Church and the Church’s teaching, the ones through whom and to whom the proper interpretation and practice of the Bible is handed down by the laying on of hands.
In short, Anglicans believe that the tradition Jesus gave to the apostles – the tradition the apostles then wrote in Scripture – is preserved by bishops.
Anglican, by Process of Elimination
My own coming into Anglicanism was itself more of a result of a process of elimination, coming to a better understanding of who I am and where I fit denominationally by knowing what I am not.
I come from a Southern Baptist background, but through my undergraduate studies at Judson University (Elgin, IL), and especially through interacting with figures like John Calvin, Martin Luther, Karl Barth, Kevin Vanhoozer, and George Lindbeck, I knew at best that I was a peculiar Southern Baptist, more sacramental than most. That is, I believed that there is something more to baptism and the Lord’s Supper than them being merely outward symbols of invisible realities.
Following my undergraduate studies, I came to Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, AL, which simply provided the occasion to “put the pieces of the puzzle together,” so to speak – to put some beliefs into practice in a more consistent way than I was used to in typical low-church (not sacramental), evangelical Protestant churches.
Given my small town and private, evangelical college background and then Southern Baptist heritage, I wanted to worship in a small Southern Baptist congregation. Since Birmingham is in the heart of the Bible belt, however, such an ideal setting was not easy to find. In my limited knowledge of churches in the area when I moved to Birmingham, I found one small Southern Baptist church, which I felt, for better or worse, would not have been a good fit for me.
So then, on the following Saturday night, I was anxious over where I would attend the next day and hastily grabbed my laptop to explore some options of where to attend. I found a few Baptist churches, a few Presbyterian churches, a few Lutheran churches — but I did not feel compelled to attend any of them because I am too Reformed to be Lutheran, too Lutheran to be Reformed, and too Reformed/Lutheran to be Baptist (or Roman Catholic)!
Then, through what in hindsight seems like a dawn of revelation, I remembered a passionate, gritty professor from my preview day at Beeson Divinity School the previous fall, Lyle Dorsett, who I recalled saying he was an Anglican pastor. (Although we say “priest” in Anglican settings, I’ve noticed that you can find much more continuity with other evangelical Protestants by saying “pastor.”)
I researched Anglicanism by briefly reading the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Anglican Church’s rough equivalent to other Protestant denominations’ confessional statements of faith, like the Westminster Confession of Faith for Presbyterians.
I worshiped at Christ the King Anglican Church the next morning and have not left since. I am currently serving there as an intern, and although Anglicanism, as much as the gospel embodied in its worship of the Triune God, is still in many respects a mystery to me, I am committed to worshiping under and learning from the guidance of the Anglican Church.
Tyler is an M.Div. candidate at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, AL. He serves as an intern at Christ the King Anglican Church in Birmingham, AL.