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  • 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.

Thirdly, Anglican is an ahistorical imposition. The Church of England decisively broke from Rome in 1534 but it was over three centuries before the term ‘Anglican’ was commonly applied to it. There was some earlier use of the term, but this use was restricted to reference to the bishops of the church rather than the whole entity and was usually only coined by foreign observers such as the French and Scots. In 1646, for example, David Calderwood, the chronicler of Scottish church history, quoted James VI as using the phrase ‘Papistical or Anglican bishops’ in a session of the General Assembly in 1598.[2] If this was verbatim, rather than an anachronism, it may be the earliest known use of the term as an English adjective. As Diarmaid MacCulloch has repeatedly argued however, the Church of England was decisively part of the Reformed family of churches in the century following its Reformation and was not widely considered at all sui generis until at least after the Restoration. Unnuanced use of the term Anglican to describe the church prior to this stage is misleading, whilst its use in a modern context is an unwelcome departure from our ecclesial foundations.

Fourthly, Anglican carries considerable baggage a partisan term. Gradually, use of the adjective evolved from describing the English episcopal system in general, to denoting a party particularly defensive of episcopal polity. William Conybeare’s influential 1853 essay on parties in the Church of England offered a now familiar three-fold division of High, Low, and Broad. Conybeare did not treat the term ‘Anglican’ as synonymous with the church at large, but rather used it to classify the ‘normal type’ of High Churchmen. ‘Anglicans’ were those who emphasised baptismal regeneration, church authority, and apostolic succession.[3] Evangelicals in the church were naturally opposed to such emphases and would have been horrified to be described as Anglican. Still today, very few evangelicals serve within the Church of England because of a high confessional commitment to episcopal government, but instead due to desires to minimise barriers with their communities, to minister widely, to maintain the highest degree of unity possible with other Christians, to apply the sound doctrine of the formularies in ministry, and to stand in the ecclesial shoes of Wycliffe, Cranmer, Ussher, Whitefield, Ryle, and Stott. Moreover, many evangelical churchmen also rejoice in Puritan heritage and, though submitting to the present dispensation of English church government, would gladly side with the moderate Presbyterians in seeking further reformation along the lines of ‘the best Reformed churches on the continent’.

‘Anglican’ is thus a compromised, contested, and confused term. What is the value of striving to redefine a term so loaded with historical shortcomings? Semantic guerrilla warfare is ongoing across multiple fronts in the modern West and contestation is not a reason in itself to concede. If the prize at stake is ownership rights to catholic Christianity (in certain parts of the world, at least) then it is no surprise that several parties lay claim to being ‘the true Anglicans’. But is that condition is engaged (as implied by the growing consensus noted above) – or is the strife in vain?

[1] Rowan Strong, ‘Series Introduction’ in The Oxford History of Anglicanism Volume I (Oxford, 2017), xviii [2] David Calderwood, The History of the Kirk of Scotland (1646, Woodrow Society edn 1849), 418 [3] William Conybeare, ‘Church Parties’ in Essays Ecclesiastic and Social (London, 1855), 102


Revd Edward Keene is curate of Little Shelford in south Cambridgeshire and reviews editor for the English Churchman newspaper. Edward previously worked as a lawyer in London and served as a Lay Reader in the City Deanery. He has wide interests in church history and ecclesiology, undertaking research on late-stage Calvinistic methodism while at Wycliffe Hall prior to ordination.



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