There are countless definitions of Anglicanism, but these seven points by the Rt. Rev. Stephen Andrews, the current principal of Wycliffe College in Toronto (my alma mater), are quite succinct and sound. Taken from Principal Andrew’s comments on the opening of Wycliffe’s fall 2023 term.
- It is a Reformed tradition – Anglicanism is a product of the sixteenth-century Reformation that sought to redress erroneous doctrine and the abuse of power invested in the Pope. Its Protestantism is, however, eclectic, borrowing as it does from other traditions like Lutheranism and Calvinism, and adopting the humanism of scholars like Erasmus and Zwingli. One of the consequences of this is that the Anglican tradition is not confessional. While being thoroughly creedal, no adherence to anything like the Westminster Standards, the Heidelberg Catechism or the Augsburg Confession is required for membership in the Anglican Church.
- It is a biblical tradition – The Reformation is itself a product of Bible reading and the conviction that holy Scripture is “God’s Word written.” Anglican reformers believed that the Bible should become the possession of the whole Church and not just the priesthood. Tyndale’s determination to ensure that “the boy that drives the plough [should come to] know more of the Scriptures than the Pope himself” led him to translate the Bible into plain English, and this is one of the reasons more Scripture is read in Anglican worship services than in many other Christian traditions.
- It is a liturgical tradition – The English reformers rejected erroneous Roman Catholic doctrine, but they kept many of its forms of devotion, and some of the prayers most familiar to Anglicans come from the earliest days of the Church’s existence. While the shape of modern liturgy has evolved – to the extent that there is now very little uniformity in Anglican worship – a family resemblance can still be recognised in the focus on the ordered reading of Scripture (often including congregational responses), in standardised forms for confession of sin and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, in the offering of absolution and blessing, and in the observance of a liturgical calendar.
- It is a continuous, episcopal tradition – While the Church in England broke politically from Rome, it nevertheless retained an episcopal order and thus traces its genealogy to the practices of the ancient Church. At the same time, as the Wycliffe College Six Principles state, “Non-Anglicans should note that [subscription to the principle of the historic episcopate] does not assert the exclusive validity of an episcopal polity.” Consequently, Anglicans respect and enjoy fellowship with a number of non-episcopal traditions.
- It is a synodical tradition – While the Anglican Church has not been immune to the abuses of clericalism, its governance is undertaken by synods in which the laity take an active role in the Church’s administration.
- It is an intellectually curious tradition – Anglicans are drawn to historical and theological debate because of a conviction that “truth is larger and more beautiful than our imperfect minds are able to apprehend or to conceive,” states Stephen Neill. One of the greatest virtues of Anglicanism therefore is what J. I. Packer called “a rational temper,” a willingness to stay in dialogue with those from whom we differ, until intellect, conscience, and will become persuaded that we have reached a better understanding of the mind of Christ.
- It is a global tradition – The product of a Catholic mission from Rome to the British Isles in the seventh century, Anglicanism has an evangelistic legacy. Wycliffe College itself has played an important role in the global reach of the gospel, and today the Anglican Communion is the largest Christian fellowship after the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, with 85 million members organised into a web of 42 autonomous and independent – yet simultaneously interdependent – churches spread across the globe, and each in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury. The national, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity of its members makes for a rich engagement with the work of God’s Church around the world.