What’s ‘Anglican’?

A visitor once asked, “What’s ‘Anglican’, anyway?”

First of all, we are first and foremost Christians. ‘Anglican’ is but one way of expressing the Christian faith. We have never claimed to be the only way to be Christians (though most of us think it is a pretty good way).

The name ‘Anglican’ comes from “Anglo-“ meaning ‘English’, and reflects the fact that our roots are in Christianity that was brought to England (before it was England!) in the fourth century A.D. (or earlier) by missionaries. The fact is that today most Anglican Christians live in the Global South (Africa, South America, and southern Asia). As Anglicans, we belong to a family of over 70 million Christians on six continents (and there are probably from time to time Anglicans on Antarctica, too). Not all Anglicans speak English, either, and ways of ‘doing church’ vary from region to region, though there are certain common elements maintained throughout the world.

In the sixteenth century, a reform movement swept through the Church in many countries in Europe, including England. While influenced by figures like John Calvin and Martin Luther on the Continent, in England the movement was led by some of the bishops and other clergy of the Church (and yes, King Henry VIII was involved, but he did not ‘start the church.’) The Reformers, English or Continental, were not starting a new church; rather, they sought to reform the life and teaching of the Church, based on their understanding of the Scriptures. The printing press had recently been invented, and helped to promote the translations of the Bible in the languages of the people. One of the early efforts of the Reformers in England was to also put the worship services of the Church in the language of the people. Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, put together the services of the Book of Common Prayer: the first complete edition in 1549, and revised in 1552. The 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer is still the standard of worship and doctrine for most Anglicans  (including Spirit of Christ Church).

Before it was ever called ‘Anglican’, this way of being Christian was characterized as being ‘reformed Catholicism.’ ‘Catholic’ in this sense does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church, led by the Pope from the Vatican City. Rather, it refers to the universal faith from the earliest days of the Christian Church (as opposed to various heresies that have arisen).  In England, the Reformers did not ‘throw the baby out with the bath water,’ when it came to reform, but rather sought to retain elements of the faith and practice received, as long as they were helpful and did not go against Scripture, as Scripture was recognized as the ultimate authority. So Anglicanism is ‘catholic’ in one sense, embracing the historic and universal Church, and ‘reformed’ in the sense that its teaching and practice have to be consistent with Scripture, brought under the authority of Scripture. The Articles of Religion (or Thirty-Nine Articles), which are part of the Book of Common Prayer, express the biblical faith that Anglicans believe.

Being Anglican does not mean everything has to be done or thought of in one way, and one way only. Under the authority of the Scripture, and with due appreciation for its heritage, the Church expects unity in essentials, but permits a measure of liberty in non-essentials, while looking for charity in all things.

Anglican churches are led by bishops, with the involvement of other clergy and lay people at various levels. Anglican churches are not independent congregations, but always part of a larger, visible church, in which there is mutual accountability for its life and mission.