What is Anglicanism?

Anglicanism is a type of Christianity that has its historical roots in England. Historical records mention the presence of Christianity in England as far back as the 3rd century AD.

During the Reformation in the 16th century the Anglican Church separated from the Roman Catholic Church (making it technically part of the Protestant category of churches). This is often oversimplified as being due to the desire of Henry the 8th to divorce his wife (a complicated political situation in itself). The truth is much more complex. Europe was experiencing many changes. One of these changes was the Reformation led by people like Martin Luther and John Calvin. The church has always been in a constant state of growth and reform, but the Reformation was a time in the Western church’s history when there was a sharp confrontation regarding the excesses and misuse of authority of the Medieval Church. This pressure was felt all across Europe, and there were those in England who were looking for any opportunity to separate from the Roman Catholic Church. The opportunity eventually presented itself in the form of the king’s desire for a divorce/annulment, which the Pope was unwilling to grant probably due to political allegiances more than for moral reasons.

Once the English church separated from the Roman Catholic Church they soon began making changes to their worship. Like other Protestants (those who “protested” the Medieval Roman Catholic church), Anglicans began making the Bible more accessible to the people by translating it into the language of the people (rather than Latin). They also began using the common language in worship services. This lead to the formation of the Book of Common Prayer. This book gave daily spiritual guidance to the people- primarily by leading them in prayer and through a system of Bible readings.

While some Protestant churches made drastic changes, the Anglican Church followed a kind of ‘middle way’- avoiding the extremes of some Protestant Churches (still maintaining the same basic structure and leadership under bishops), but neither were they entirely Roman Catholic (they did break ties with the Roman Church and reformed much of its practice, such as using the common language of the people in worship and Bible translation).    

The Anglican Church has often understood itself as guided by a “three-legged stool”- Scripture, tradition, and reason. What is plainly stated in Scripture (reading it as a whole) is to be followed. Where Scripture is silent we are to follow the traditions handed on to us by the previous generations of Christians. Where both Scripture and tradition are silent, we use our reason, which has been formed by both Scripture and tradition and which is used by the Holy Spirit to help us deal with the issues of our generation.

The Anglican Church has an amazing amount of diversity. The worship of some Anglican churches will look like many other Protestant Churches, but some will look a lot like very traditional Roman Catholic churches. Most Anglican churches, however, will have a strong pattern of worship (sometimes called a ‘liturgy’). This structure is ancient (parts of it may go back to back to 1st century Synagogue worship or even further back). Liturgical worship uses a lot of symbolism and can draw on all the senses to assist us in worshipping God. This structure for group worship is one way that we maintain unity with the church through history and the church throughout the world (and Anglicanism is truly a worldwide religion). Many elements of our liturgy parallel Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some Protestant churches (such as Lutherans). Like many other churches, Anglicans use liturgical forms as a vehicle for worship, which is a very Biblical way of worshipping that preserves our beliefs and protects the congregation from some of the peculiarities of the clergy. Through the dialogue of the liturgy it also attempts to assist the congregation to participate in worship, rather than passively observing the words and actions of leaders. Much like a favorite hymn, repetition reinforces the words in our hearts and allows us to reflect more deeply. While there is a danger in the words of the liturgy being merely unthinking repetition, the task of the worshipper is to be mindful in the midst of worship and to say the words consciously, rather than unconsciously.        

Anglicanism also tends to see itself as a geographic Church. The old word “parish” doesn’t necessarily refer to the church building, but rather the neighborhood the church building happens to be in. Traditionally, Anglicanism doesn’t see itself as hiding away from the surrounding culture. At its best it engages with it. As part of a parish, Anglicans feel a responsibility to serve their surrounding neighborhood. Many older church buildings didn’t have much provision for parking because it was assumed that the congregation mainly lived in the neighbourhood. This parish concept extends through the diocese to care for the city and province, through the national church to care for the country, and through the worldwide communion to be concerned for the issues of others in the world.

Anglicanism does not view itself as the “one true church”. It views itself as “a” church, but does not deny the validity of Eastern Orthodox practice and worship, or Pentecostal, or Baptist, or Roman Catholic (etc.) worship or practice. While we will not agree on everything, we should find much more in common to celebrate and be inspired by in the various practices of our Christian brothers and sisters from other denominations.