What is an Anglican?

The Rev. Ed McNeill
St. James Anglican Church

An Anglican is a member of the Anglican Church, or more properly the Anglican Communion.  The word “Anglican” derives from the word “Angles” meaning English, and indeed the Anglican Church began in England.  Today, many centuries later, The Anglican Communion is made up of 38 Provinces that include 77 million members in 164 countries.  Some Provinces, such as the Anglican Church of Canada, are national churches, while others cover several countries.  The Worldwide Anglican Communion is the world’s third largest Christian Denomination and the largest and most unified Protestant denomination.  

In the summer of 2006 the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams very helpfully identified three things that when held together make Anglicanism distinct from other Christian denominations and contribute to the essential character of our church.   Other denominations share one or two of these things.  What makes Anglicanism unique is the balanced presence of all three. They are:

  1. A reformed commitment to the absolute priority of the Bible for deciding doctrine.
  2. A catholic loyalty to the sacraments and the threefold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons,
  3. A habit of cultural sensitivity and intellectual flexibility that does not seek to close down unexpected questions too quickly.

These three points clearly linked to our reformation heritage, our catholic heritage, and our intellectual heritage nicely capture the core strength of the Anglican way of living out our Christian Faith.

So there we have it: a commitment, a loyalty, and a habit; three marks of Anglicanism.  When these three elements are in balance we have Anglicanism.  Problems within Anglicanism occur when they get out of balance.

1. A reformed commitment to the absolute priority of the Bible for deciding doctrine.

The word “Doctrine” means a belief or set of beliefs that is taught.  For Example, the Doctrine of the Trinity is taught by all Christians.  In Anglicanism all Doctrine is based on the Holy Bible.  We approach the Bible as the word of God given to us for our instruction and formation.  We believe it is easily understood in its plain language.  Like the reformers of the 16th century we also believe that the disciplined application of our best intellectual ability will lead us to deeper and richer understandings of God’s Holy Word and so God’s Will.  This results in the reworking of our doctrine, as it did in the abolition of the English Slave Trade and in allowing the remarriage of divorced persons.  Our buzzword for the fearless application of our best intellectual ability is “Reason”.  In addition to Scripture and reason, we also take very seriously the opinion of Christians who have gone before us.  Particularly the teachings of the very first Christians.  We call these teaching “Tradition”.  Our approach to Doctrine is commonly summarized by the phrase “Scripture, Reason, and Tradition”.  Scripture is the basis for our doctrinal reflection, to which we apply our Reason –that is our best intellectual ability – in light of what those who have gone before us have taught: “Tradition”.  

We are cautious about changing doctrine that has been taught for hundreds of years.  We will do so and have, but only when we are convinced that a deeper understanding of God’s unchanging Word requires such a change.

By basing our teachings on the Bible, we are freed from the temptation to dress God’s will in culture of the moment.  The spirit of every age is a siren call that is hard to resist and the temptation to say that every new thing is acceptable to God is very great indeed.  However, even the most cursory reading of the Bible reveals that God’s will for the world and the ways of the world are always in conflict on some level.  Upholding the authority of Scripture in determining doctrine provides us with a solid foundation from which we may invite the culture to conversion.  Our use of Reason frees us from a simplistic or fundamentalist use of Scripture. Our appeal to tradition forces us to remember the genius of those who have gone before us and helps keep us humble as we reconsider our teachings.

Our approach to Doctrine invites us into a constant cycle of improvement of our understanding of God’s Will, and into a process of personal and corporate transformation as our attitudes, beliefs and behaviors increasingly reflect God’s own.  Let me put that very simply “our approach to doctrine challenges us to become more Christ like.”  

2. A catholic loyalty to the sacraments and the threefold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons,

The second distinctive of Anglicanism has two parts: a catholic loyalty to the Sacraments and the threefold order of ministry.  I’d like to explain sacraments by first explaining a word that is very important to all Christians:  Grace.

The Meriam Webster Online Dictionary offers this definition of Grace “unmerited divine assistance given humans for their regeneration or sanctification.”  Grace is the power to change lives.  God gives it to us.  We cannot earn it and we do not deserve it. God gives it to us so that we can become holy people.

We receive Grace in an encounter with God.  A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward invisible grace.  Sacraments are means of receiving grace.  Sacraments are encounters with God.  Because God created everything, everything is potentially sacramental.  Some people are drawn closer to God as they stand atop mountains and marvel at the awesomeness of God’s creation.  As they open their hearts to God they receive a gift of grace.  While all things are potentially sacramental, we Anglicans talk about two major sacraments and some of us talk also of five minor sacraments.  The two major are Sacraments that Jesus gave us and which are available to all believers: Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.  The five minor are called minor only because not everyone experiences them.  These include Ordination, Marriage, Confession, Last Rites, and Confirmation.  

Baptism is a sacrament for the beginning of our faith journey and Holy Communion is a Sacrament for the journey.  In Baptism and Holy Communion we receive grace and our faith is strengthened.  We receive the power that equips us to live transformed lives.  Everyone who comes to Holy Communion with open hands and a hungry heart will receive the Grace of God.  Sometimes the experience is profoundly moving and othertimes it feels more like a dutiful participation.  What we feel isn’t as important as knowing that the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is working in us as we participate.

Very early in the church’s history it became necessary to get organized and decide who would do what.  The church was growing rapidly and some order was necessary to manage things.  This need for order resulted in the ordination of Bishop’s, Priests, and Deacons.  This traditional division of roles has proven helpful over the centuries.  In the very early church there were different patterns of ministry developed, but over time the threefold pattern emerged.  Other churches have other patterns of ministry and other titles, but Anglicans continue, along with the Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Church, with this traditional pattern.  This chain of bishops ordaining bishops, priests, and deacons ties us to the very early church and is a living reminder of our tradition.  We call this chain of ordination the “Apostolic Succession” and believe that the chain began with the first apostles.

3. A habit of cultural sensitivity and intellectual flexibility that does not seek to close down unexpected questions too quickly.

Anglicanism is a Reformation Church, and reformers like change.  An openness to change has been a habit of Anglicanism from the beginning.  This is expressed in two main ways.  The first is an openness to local responses to local challenges.  The church in Asia worships God a little differently than the Church in Africa or the Church in North America.  Anglicanism places a high value on finding local solutions to local challenges and opportunities.  Anglicanism has also always found much good to celebrate in society even as it calls culture to a wholeness of life in Jesus Christ.  The first two marks of Anglicanism that I described – a commitment to the absolute priority of the bible for deciding doctrine and a catholic loyalty to the sacraments and the three fold order of ministry- safeguard Anglicanism from becoming too reflective of local culture.

Intellectual flexibility is a companion to cultural sensitivity, and results in a church that is open to unexpected questions that can result in a change in doctrine.  Anglicanism has never been afraid of critical examination of its core teachings, and indeed welcomes unexpected questions as an opportunity to critically reflect upon and reexamine our faith and doctrine.  

So there we have it.  Three marks of Anglicanism.  There remains the question of Balance.  Each of the three marks of Anglicanism are shared with many other churches.  Held together they give Anglicanism its unique flavor.  Holding the three in a balance is how the character of Anglicanism is maintained.  When one mark is emphasized at the cost of others, the church becomes less Anglican and more like another denomination that stresses that particular mark.  

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams explained what happens to Anglicanism when one of the three marks is emphasized above the others when he wrote  “The reformed concern may lead towards a looser form of ministerial order and a stronger emphasis on the sole, unmediated authority of the Bible. The catholic concern may lead to a high doctrine of visible and structural unification of the ordained ministry around a focal point. The cultural and intellectual concern may lead to a style of Christian life aimed at giving spiritual depth to the general shape of the culture around and de-emphasising revelation and history. Pursued far enough in isolation, each of these would lead to a different place – to strict evangelical Protestantism, to Roman Catholicism, to religious liberalism.”  

The Anglican Way of being a Christian has much to commend it.  It encourages thoughtful reflection while remaining faithful to God’s word.  It maintains a strong link to historic Christianity that helps keep us humble about our contemporary views and opinions.  And it encourages local innovation in response to local needs and opportunities.  It is a grace filled way of living out a Christian faith.