Christianity: Anglicanism (Episcopalianism)

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Christianity: Anglicanism (Episcopalianism)

FOUNDED: Sixteenth century c.e.


Anglicanism is a tradition of worldwide churches that trace their history to the Christian church in England. It sees itself as the via media ("middle way") between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Although the Church of England broke ties with the Catholic Church during the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, the English and subsequent Anglican churches have maintained customs and a liturgy similar to those in Roman Catholicism. Also like Catholics, Anglicans believe they are connected through an unbroken succession of bishops to the early church of the apostles. The Protestant Reformation, however, has informed Anglican belief and teachings.

As a result of British colonial expansion and missionary activity from the seventeenth through the twentieth century, the Church of England spread across the world, eventually resulting in a global family of interdependent churches called the Anglican Communion. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Anglican Communion was made up of 38 self-governing regional or national churches located in 164 countries, with an estimated 75–80 million members. The archbishop of Canterbury is recognized as the titular head of the Anglican Communion. The majority of Anglicans live in the southern hemisphere, with the greatest concentration in Africa south of the Sahara.


Christianity was introduced to England in the late second or early third century. In the sixth century the Irish missionary Columba brought a Celtic form of Christianity to northern England, and in 597 Pope Gregory sent Saint Augustine to the island, where he established a Roman Catholic monastery in Canterbury, later to become the primary English bishopric. From the sixth to the sixteenth century there was tension in the English church between its connection with Roman Catholicism and its identification with the English monarch and people.

The English church officially broke ties with Rome in the 1530s. It is popularly understood that the cause was the pope's refusal to grant an annulment of King Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine of Aragon (who had failed to produce a male heir). In response, Henry rejected the authority of the pope, becoming Supreme Head of an independent Church of England, separate from Rome, though he changed little in the worship ritual. The church's move toward independence, however, was the result of a larger European development, the Protestant Reformation, and was influenced by such Reformation leaders as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli. At its heart the founding of the Church of England was based on the desire of the English monarch and people to create a national church. The competing sympathies for a church of England and a church loyal to Rome characterized the monarchies of Henry VIII (reigned 1509–47); Mary (reigned 1553–58), who sought to return the church to its Roman identity; and Elizabeth (reigned 1558–1603), who, in a series of acts known as the Elizabethan settlement, finally resolved the dispute by reestablishing the independent Church of England.

From the late sixteenth century to the present day, the Church of England has been the official church in the country, with the monarch as its supreme governor and the archbishop of Canterbury its ecclesial head. With the establishment of English colonies in other parts of the world from the seventeenth through the nineteenth century, the Church of England likewise expanded beyond the British Isles as both a chaplain to, and a criticizer of, English colonialism. In 1785, as a result of the American Revolution, Anglicans in the newly created United States of America separated themselves from the Church of England, becoming the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, the first self-governing Anglican church outside of Great Britain. Similarly, along with the decline of the British empire and Western imperialism in the mid-twentieth century, foreign missions of the Church of England and of the American-based Protestant Episcopal Church in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Pacific became autonomous Anglican churches in their own right. Consistent with the changing face of global Christianity, most Anglicans in the world today live in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Pacific and are no longer primarily identified with the English culture and language.


As part of the ongoing, universal Christian Church, Anglicans hold that the Bible—specifically the books of the Old and New Testaments—constitutes Holy Scripture and contains all things necessary for salvation. Although influenced by the sixteenth-century Reformation, Anglicans do not, like many Protestants, subscribe to a confession of faith. Rather, they believe and affirm that the ancient creeds—in particular the Apostle's Creed and the Nicene Creed—are sufficient statements of faith. In some Anglican churches the historic articulation of the Elizabethan settlement, known as the Thirty-Nine Articles, outlines Anglican belief and practice.

Anglicans believe in and orient their lives around the two primary sacraments found in the Bible: baptism and the Eucharist. Anglicans also affirm five other "lesser" sacraments of the church: confirmation, ordination, holy matrimony, reconciliation of a penitent (confession), and unction. The authority of bishops as representative of the historic episcopate (the succession of bishops dating back to the early church) is stressed in all Anglican churches. In addition to bishops, Anglicans maintain two other orders of ministry: priests (or presbyters) and deacons.

Possessing neither a confession as a point of unity nor a centralized authority structure to determine beliefs and doctrine, Anglicanism allows a certain latitude and openness in theological outlook, following the principle lex orandi lex credendi (the law of prayer determines the law of belief). All Anglicans, however, use for their liturgy the Book of Common Prayer, first published in 1549 and subsequently revised, translated into vernacular languages, and further adapted to various cultures. Fundamental to Anglicanism is the lived experience of the local worshiping community, or parish, where the Word of God is proclaimed and the sacraments are celebrated.


Although in Anglicanism the moral code of conduct is based on the Bible, most Anglicans believe that it needs to be interpreted within the unique circumstances and experiences of each local church. As a result, Anglicans read and interpret the Bible in various ways. For example, in some Anglican churches it is acceptable for church leaders to remarry after divorce, while others frown upon the practice. Polygamist men and their wives who are newly converted to Christianity are allowed to become members of some Anglican churches and not of others. Differing views on human sexuality—particularly homosexuality—have caused tension within the Anglican Communion.


Anglicans hold the books of the Old and New Testaments as their sacred scripture. In addition, they place great emphasis on the Book of Common Prayer, initially written and revised by the Church of England and subsequently adapted by other Anglican churches.


The cross, with or without the figure of the crucified Christ, is considered a primary sacred symbol within Anglicanism. Some Anglicans (often referred to as Anglo-Catholics, or "high-church" Anglicans) use symbols and ceremonies identified with Catholic practice, while other Anglicans (known as evangelicals, or "low-church" Anglicans) are more similar to Protestants and shy away from these practices.


Great leaders and thinkers of the English Reformation associated with Anglicanism include King Henry VIII (1491–1547); Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556), who created the first Book of Common Prayer; and William Tyndale (c. 1492–1536), who first translated the Bible into English. Major founding figures of the Episcopal Church in the United States include Samuel Seabury (1729–1796), the first American bishop, and William White (1747–1836) of Christ Church in Philadelphia, who was a colleague of many American patriots. The first bishop of African American origin was James Theodore Holly (1829–1911), consecrated for the Episcopal Church of Haiti in 1874. The first woman bishop in the Anglican Communion was Barbara C. Harris (born in 1930), consecrated suffragan bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts in 1989. Globally recognized Anglicans today include Archbishop Desmond Tutu (born in 1931) of South Africa, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, and Terry Waite (born in 1939), who was an envoy of the archbishop of Canterbury and held hostage in Lebanon from 1987 to 1991.


In addition to foundational church leaders, such as Thomas Cranmer and William Tyndale, other Anglican theologians include Richard Hooker (1554?–1600), author of Treatise on the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1594–97), and Frederick Denison Maurice (1805–72), a theologian of Christian socialism. The Most Reverend Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury beginning in 2002, is one of the foremost Anglican theologians today.


Each regional or national Anglican church is divided into dioceses, and each diocese is made up of parish churches. Dioceses are headed by a diocesan bishop, sometimes assisted by suffragan or assisting bishops. While headed by bishops, each diocese and national church is governed by a synod, convention, or council that generally includes both lay and ordained leaders in the decision-making process.

Each of the 38 churches of the worldwide Anglican Communion is independent, but they relate to one another with mutual responsibility and interdependence as Christians belonging to a common fellowship. As the first bishop of the Church of England, the archbishop of Canterbury is the titular, or symbolic, head of the Anglican Communion.


Anglicans worship in local communities generally known as parish churches. In some parts of the Anglican Communion—particularly in the southern hemisphere—parishes consist of multiple congregations worshiping in basic church buildings in different locations. Anglicans are particularly proud of their cathedrals. Canterbury Cathedral, York Minster, and Westminster Abbey in England and Washington National Cathedral and the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine (New York) in the United States are popular sites for both devotional visits and tourists.


Anglicans view their churches and cathedrals as holy but generally do not set apart specific items for sacred worship and adoration (although individual Anglicans might do so). Anglicans hold that there is the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist.


Anglicanism follows the traditional liturgical seasons of Christianity (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost). Christmas (the birth of Jesus Christ) and Easter (the resurrection of Jesus Christ) are the two most significant holidays. Regional and national churches have appointed various days of remembrance for major and lesser saints throughout the liturgical year. Specific biblical passages to be read in worship each day and on Sundays are assigned from a regular lesson cycle, generally put forward in the Book of Common Prayer.


Ordained individuals in the Anglican Communion usually wear clerical attire, most often black or gray (although occasionally other colors are worn) with a white clerical collar; bishops often wear purple. Liturgical dress includes a colored stole (a lengthy piece of cloth, of appropriate color for the liturgical season, worn around the neck) over an alb (a simple white gown). Other vestments include a cassock (a long black gown) worn with a surplice (a white overgarment). More ceremonial liturgical vestments, often in the color of the liturgical season, include a chasuble (an ornate garment worn during the Eucharist) and a cope (cape). Bishops often wear a cope and a miter (hat) and carry a crosier (staff) as a sign of their office.


There are no prescribed dietary practices within Anglicanism. Some Anglicans, for reasons of personal piety, will fast from time to time or before receiving the Eucharist.


Anglican worship is based on the monastic practice of regular community prayer throughout the day. Services for morning prayer, noonday prayer, midday prayer, evening prayer, and compline (the final prayers of the day) are found in most Anglican prayer books. Sunday worship is the primary liturgical celebration for most Anglicans and includes either a morning prayer with a sermon (in more "low-church," or low ceremony, parishes) or the Holy Eucharist (in most churches). Public services of common prayer and celebration are also provided for at significant transitions in a person's life, such as confirmation, marriage, and funerals. Depending on personal beliefs and practices, some Anglicans will go on pilgrimages or retreats for spiritual growth and development.


In Anglicanism baptism with water (usually not involving immersion), both of infants and adults, marks an individual's entry into the universal fellowship of the church. Most Anglican churches also provide services for confirmation (in which adolescents or adults confirm their Christian beliefs) and reception (in which people from another Christian tradition are received into the Anglican faith). Confirmation and reception services are presided over by bishops and include the laying on of hands by the bishop as a sign of the rite of passage.


In some countries, such as the United Kingdom, the Anglican church has been the state church, and citizens who do not profess some other religious identification have been considered part of the Anglican church. In most other countries membership in the Anglican church has been voluntary. Anglicans believe in the possibility of universal salvation through Jesus Christ and thus are involved in evangelistic outreach through various means, including missionary societies, websites, and social service.


Anglicanism is generally considered a tolerant Christian tradition that is open to interreligious dialogue. Anglicans have been deeply involved in and committed to ecumenism and the ecumenical movement. The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886 and 1888 was an early Anglican statement of ecumenical principles. Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple (1881–1944) and Presiding Bishop Henry Knox Sherrill (1890–1980) of the Episcopal Church in the United States were significant leaders in twentieth-century ecumenical councils.


Anglicans the world over have vigorously participated in outreach programs, expressing a concern for the social welfare of their communities. Anglican schools and hospitals have provided for the educational and health needs of all people, regardless of religious identification. Reflecting the global reach of the Anglican Communion and its presence in 164 countries, Anglicans have advocated international debt relief for poor countries and have played a significant role in efforts to combat the HIV/AIDS pandemic.


The social teachings of Anglicanism are based on the Bible but are interpreted within the specific dynamics of the local culture. For example, although Anglicans traditionally consider marriage to be a lifelong, committed, monogamous relationship between a man and a women, some Anglican churches are in countries more open to homosexuality and have considered blessing same-sex unions.


Because Anglicanism is a worldwide Christian tradition that believes biblical teachings should be interpreted within a church's particular cultural and social context, there is room for different interpretations of controversial issues. Disagreements over some issues—for example, abortion, remarriage after divorce, the role of women in ordained ministry, and the place of homosexuals in the Christian community—have caused tension within the Anglican Communion.


Anglicanism has contributed much to the development of Western civilization, especially in England and the territories of the former British Empire. Great thinkers, composers, authors, poets, artists, and political leaders throughout history have been motivated by their Anglican Christian faith. In many parts of the world—particularly in the West—Anglicans are identified with the cultural elite. Anglican cathedrals the world over stand as testimony to Anglican patronage of the arts and the intersection of the sacred and secular in Anglicanism.

The Controversy over a Gay Bishop

On 2 November 2003 the Right Reverend V. Gene Robinson was consecrated in the United States as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. A homosexual man living in a lifelong committed relationship with another man, he became the first openly gay, noncelibate bishop in the Anglican Communion. Bishop Robinson's consecration, combined with an increasing openness toward blessing same-sex relationships in some Anglican dioceses and churches (notably the Diocese of New Westminster in the Anglican Church of Canada), has exacerbated disagreements in the Anglican Communion over biblical interpretation and moral norms. Some have warned of a possible schism between the Episcopal Church in the United States and other churches in the Anglican Communion. The controversy has led to questions about what are the acceptable limits of Anglican diversity and how the Anglican Communion will continue to live together as a family of interdependent yet self-governing churches.

Ian T. Douglas

See Also Vol. 1: Christianity


Avis, Paul D.L. Anglicanism and the Christian Church: Theological Resources in Historical Perspective. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 2002.

Douglas, Ian T., and Kwok Pui Lan, eds. Beyond Colonial Anglicanism: The Anglican Communion in the Twenty-first Century. New York: Church Publishing, 2001.

Harris, Mark. The Challenge of Change: The Anglican Communion in the Post-Modern Era. New York: Church Publishing, 1998.

Howe, John. Anglicanism and the Universal Church: Highways and Hedges. Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, c. 1990.

Kaye, Bruce. Reinventing Anglicanism: A Vision of Confidence, Community, and Engagement in Anglican Christianity. New York: Church Publishing, 2004.

McGrath, Alistair E. The Renewal of Anglicanism. Harrisburg, Pa.: Morehouse Publishing, 1993.

Neill, Stephen. Anglicanism. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Quinn, Frederick. To Be a Pilgrim: The Anglican Ethos in History. New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2001.

Sachs, William L. The Transformation of Anglicanism: From State Church to Global Communion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Sykes, Stephen. Unashamed Anglicanism. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.

Sykes, Stephen, John Booty, and Jonathan Knight. The Study of Anglicanism. London: SPCK, 1998.

Wingate, Andrew, Kevin Ward, Carrie Pemberton, and Wilson Sitshebo, eds. Anglicanism: A Global Communion. New York: Church Publishing, 1998.

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Christianity: Anglicanism (Episcopalianism)

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Christianity: Anglicanism (Episcopalianism)