There are five sibling branches of the Catholic-Orthodox apostolic traditions of Christianity. We have our disagreements, and we do not always play well together. But as faithful followers of Jesus the Christ, we strive to bear true witness to the Gospel. Together we preserve the historic Christian faith, which we engage through scripture, tradition, and reason. The five siblings:
- Eastern Orthodox
- Oriental Churches (Coptic, Syriac, Nestorian, Malabar, etc.)
- Roman Catholic
- Anglican (Episcopal)
- Old Catholic
According to most ancient writers the ancient Catholic-Orthodox faith arrived on British shores even before it arrived in Rome. British/Celtic bishops were in attendance at the first Ecumenical Council, witnessing to an active Christian presence in Britannia hundreds of years before the Rome sent its first mission under of Augustine of Canterbury to “evangelize” the British in 597. The Church of England has one of the most ancient and continuous histories of any local expression of the One Church on earth.
While a non-papal Catholic Church in England was made possible by the political wrangling between King Henry VIII of England and Pope Clement VII, it was the insight and wisdom of Henry’s daughter Queen Elizabeth I and Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer that mid-wifed this strand of the Catholic faith and shaped the method of cautious yet critical reform. And it was the insightful writing of Richard Hooker that articulated the unique character of Anglican path as a reformed Catholicism.
Defining Anglican *
The sectarian politics within the Anglican world particularly since the 1960s have shown how the breadth and majesty and subtlety of the Anglican tradition can be fragmented by those on the left and the right seeking black-and-white defensible ideological positions – tragically overlooking how this very effort betrays and wounds our tradition as a whole.
Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey (1904-1988) has written that the particular Anglican expression of Catholic tradition is not a system or confession, but is ‘a method, a use, and a direction’. Ramsey points to the threefold engagement with the Gospel, Catholic Tradition, and sound learning (rephrasing Hooker’s “3-legged stool” of scripture, tradition, and reason), to engage the life of faith in each new generation. **
At the 1930 Lambeth Conference (the every-ten-years gathering of Anglican bishops from around the world), the assembled bishops wrestled with the essential question of Anglican identity. Brushing aside the facile answers (adherence to the Book of Common Prayer, the 39 Articles, etc.), the bishops articulated four hallmarks of the Anglican expression of a reformed Catholic faith. They further humbly acknowledged that as Anglicans we have always lived these ideals imperfectly.
To be Anglican is to live faithfully towards:
- An Open Bible: invites and demands that we hear the Good News in our own language, and discover in each new generation what wisdom and truth the Spirit is revealing to us through the scriptures.
- A Pastoral Priesthood: is an expression of our common priesthood in Christ through baptism. Anglican priests are pastors, as in servant leaders: caring for all the people of God and ensuring none get lost along the way.
- A Common Worship: is community worship, where all the people participate with understanding and commitment. This is why all our worship texts are contained in the “Book of Common Prayer”.
- A Fearless Love of Truth: dares to ask hard questions and challenge assumptions – with equal measures of courage and compassion. Anglicans have led the way in biblical studies, ethics, theology, the ‘hard’ sciences and the humanities.
* We are indebted to the chapter “What is Anglicanism?” by Paul Avis, in the book “The Study of Anglicanism”, edited by Stephen Sykes, John Booty, and Jonathan Knight. Fortress Press, 1998.
** Archbishop Ramsay’s essay “What is Anglican Theology?” first appeared in the journal Theology, January 1945.