• Revd Edward Keene

Is there a problem with the term 'Anglican'?

Consensus both scholarly and ecclesial has continued to develop in the use of the term ‘Anglican’ to describe the polity found in the Church of England and associated or derivative churches.[1] Users of the term should however remain conscious that it carries implications of denominationalism, imperialism, historical contrivance, and Tractarian partisanship.

Firstly, Anglican is a denominational term, whereas the Church of England has always emphasised, both in its formularies and its very name, its catholicity (universality). The Church of England does not exist only for a peculiar breed called ‘Anglicans’ in England, but for all Englishmen. It is thus, for good reason, not styled ‘The Anglican Church of England’, but simply ‘The Church of England’. During the heady ‘Mahogany Age’ of nonconformity, when Christians outside the church nearly exceeded those within it, this descriptor may have been more an ambition than reality, but it was a noble ambition. Until recently, those belonging to the established church were known simply as ‘churchmen’, this serving suitably to distinguish them from the ‘chapelmen’ of the various sects outside the church, in the diverse world of nonconformity. The legacy of this pattern is deeply engrained, with large swathes of the population happy to describe themselves (perfectly catholicly) as ‘CofE’, but very few (sectarianly) as ‘Anglicans’.

Secondly, Anglican is an inevitably ethnocentric term. The derivation means a Christianity ‘of England’ and of the English. When the relevant polity and practice was found mostly in England and among her expatriates overseas, this may have made some sense. Now that the centre of gravity in the so-called ‘Anglican’ Communion has shifted decisively to the global south however, the term feels increasingly archaic and inappropriate. It was similarly problematic following the 1690 Act of Settlement (in Scotland) and after the American revolution. Not without reason therefore were the relevant churches in those countries designated ‘Episcopal’ or ‘Protestant Episcopal’; terms with their own difficulties, but at least free from awkward intrinsic attachment to a powerful rival.