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Focus on Anglican Identity: Anglicanism and Protestantism - Alister McGrath

Focus on Anglican Identity: Anglicanism and Protestantism

A Gazette exclusive
by Alister McGrath
October 19, 2007

In a remarkable article in the London-based Church Times (13th April), Canon Gregory Cameron, the Deputy Secretary-General of the Anglican Communion, publicly distanced Anglicanism from Protestantism. Canon Cameron spoke of an Anglican "dialogue with the Protestant traditions," making it clear that he regarded Anglicanism as lying beyond the pale of Protestantism. Many in Ireland will regard his views with puzzlement, and perhaps not a little concern. So will many historians.

We need to appreciate that the sixteenth-century Reformation was a complex phenomenon. There was no single Protestant 'template'. Rather, a variety of reforming movements emerged during the sixteenth century, whose specific forms were shaped by local politics and personalities, as much as by the broader commitment to a recognizably Protestant agenda. The forms of Protestantism which emerged in the great imperial cities (such as Strasbourg), territories (such as Saxony) and nations (such as England or Sweden) had their own distinct characteristics. Some, for example, retained the episcopacy and a fixed liturgy; others discarded one or both. Yet each represented a local implementation of the Protestant agenda.

Historians generally consider that one of the most remarkable and influential forms of Protestantism emerged in England, and has come to be known as 'Anglicanism'. Reformers in the reign of Henry VIII did not refer to themselves as 'Protestants', partly because this was seen to have foreign associations at the time. (Henry VIII, it will be recalled, disliked foreigners having influence over English affairs.) Yet from the reign of Edward VI onwards, English Church leaders began to use this term to refer to themselves, and see themselves as being connected with the great reforming movements and individuals on the continent of Europe.

Of course, many Anglican writers sympathetic to the nineteenth-century High Church 'Oxford Movement' (often known as 'Tractarianism') were generally dismissive of any suggestion that Anglicanism could be considered 'Protestant'. After all, they argued, their 'Anglo-Catholicism' could be traced back to developments in the early seventeenth century. They pointed to a group of writers during the reigns of James I and Charles I who, they argued, show a much more 'catholic' outlook than their colleagues in the reigns of Edward VI or Elizabeth I. Anglicanism was never Protestant; it retained its Catholic identity and resisted any temptations to become part of the Protestant movement.

Historians now regard this account of Anglicanism as an unfortunate aberration. It is certainly true that some significant members of the Church of England during the reigns of James I and Charles I laid greater emphasis on its sacramental life than some of their contemporaries. Some also showed themselves to be critical (at points) of the first generation of Protestant leaders in the English Reformation. Under Charles I, this group began to gain the ascendancy, with William Laud (1573- 1645) becoming Archbishop of Canterbury and Richard Neile (1562-1640) Archbishop of York.

Yet such figures cannot be thought of as 'Catholics', nor can their Protestant identity be denied, for that reason. In the first place, they were generally affirmative of their Protestant credentials. In the second, their sacramental and ecclesiological views can easily be accommodated within the spectrum of Protestant possibilities. Protestantism is a 'big tent' movement, offering a surprising variety of possibilities within its vision of Christian thought and life. Luther, it must be remembered, had a much 'higher' view of baptism and the eucharist than Zwingli - a fact which is reflected in modern Lutheranism at this point. Yet nobody has seriously suggested that Lutheranism is not a form of Protestantism on account of these sacramental views.

Some point to Charles I as the classic representative of this 'Anglo-Catholicism'. Yet they too easily overlook the awkward fact that, on the evening before his execution, Charles told his thirteen-yearold daughter, Elizabeth, that he was to die for "maintaining the true Protestant religion", and urged her to read the works of Lancelot Andrewes and Richard Hooker "to ground [her] against Popery". Others suggest that Anglicanism is a 'middle way' (via media) between Protestantism and Catholicism. For that reason, it is argued, it is neither Protestant nor Catholic, but combines the strengths of both. Yet historians such as Diarmaid McCulloch have rightly pointed out that the 'middle way' developed in England in the late sixteenth century was between Lutheranism and Calvinism - two quite distinct versions of Protestantism. The 'middle way' which resulted was neither Calvinist nor Lutheran - but it was certainly Protestant.

From an historical perspective, the English national Church must be regarded as a Protestant variant - the 'Protestant Episcopal Church of England and Ireland', as state and parliamentary documents regularly describe it. And, as many readers will recall, the body which now prefers to describe itself as 'The Episcopal Church' was originally entitled 'The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.' (Indeed, this remains the Church's legal title).

Canon Cameron appears to belong to the revisionist school of thought which is trying to airbrush out Anglicanism's Protestant heritage and tradition. (The same agenda can be seen in the 1977 decision of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America to drop the word 'Protestant' from its name in common usage.) It is an unwise strategy for two reasons. First, it is historically indefensible. Cameron may wish that Anglicanism was not Protestant; he cannot, however, rewrite history to suit his tastes. His form of revisionism has itself been revised, and found to be untenable. But, much more importantly, understanding Anglicanism's history allows us to appreciate what may be about to happen within the Anglican Communion, in the face of renewed tensions over issues of sexuality. To understand this point, we need to consider the Protestant concept of a 'denominational family'.

The emergence of this idea can be seen in the history of Lutheranism in the United States. Here, Lutherans gradually coalesced into three distinct bodies: the Lutheran Church in America, the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, and the American Lutheran Church. The American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America and a third group, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, united in 1987 to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. The Lutheran World Federation, founded in 1947, aims to provide a forum in which the world's diverse Lutheran bodies can discuss issues of mutual concern. We see here the emergence of a 'denominational family' - a group of Churches which arose from a common Protestant origin through schism, division or geographical separation. These Churches within the same denominational family generally form alliances, confederations or other joint groups for consultation and sharing of resources. A good example is the Geneva-based World Alliance of Reformed Churches, a fellowship of 75 million Reformed Christians in 218 Churches in 107 countries. Other examples include the Baptist World Alliance, the World Lutheran Federation, and the World Methodist Council. These bodies seek to sustain their distinctly denominational vision of Protestantism, while allowing their member-Churches flexibility in how they actualize that vision in their local, specific situation.

Anglicanism has in the past defied the decentralizing trend seen within other Protestant denominations. The 'Anglican Communion' regards itself as a single denomination, not a 'denominational family'. But is this about to change? The surprising degree of cohesion within Anglicanism in the past has rested on a number of historical factors - the British colonial legacy, maintained more recently through the 'British Commonwealth of Nations'; the British crown as a symbol of unity; the English language as the Anglican Communion's lingua franca; the King James Bible of 1611 and the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 as unifying texts. Yet all of these have been subject to historical erosion, with growing cultural, linguistic and political diversity within Anglicanism eating away at any sense of a shared identity. Although recent debates over homosexuality have exacerbated this process, they have not actually been its cause. It now seems very likely that Anglicanism will go the way of other Protestant groups, and transmute into a denominational family, characterised by a federalist structure, perhaps presided over by a symbolic figure of unity, almost certain to be the Archbishop of Canterbury. The cultural differences between North American liberalism and West African traditionalism may well catalyse this process of fissure, and the absence of strong international leadership probably makes the situation worse than it need be. Yet these tensions have simply highlighted the theological fissures and fatigues which have been part of Anglicanism from its origins.

Weaknesses and vulnerabilities often lie unnoticed, until new stresses and pressures place them under such strain that a structure finally ruptures. From the 1990s, Anglicanism has found itself being confronted with the tensions of its own heritage, long shielded from view by a benign and static cultural environment. Happily, this does not mean the end of Anglicanism, nor even the beginning of its decline. It need do no more than usher in a period of local visions of Anglicanism, each faithful to its tradition and adapted to its own specific environment. Paradoxically, the future of Anglicanism is thus actually likely to be characterised by overall growth, rather than contraction.

Understanding Anglicanism's Protestant heritage thus allows us to understand what is going on at the moment, and what its possible outcomes might be. Might Anglicanism come to be much more like Methodism or Lutheranism in the future?

And what of the situation in Ireland? If the analogy with Methodism or Presbyterianism has any validity, it would seem that the future might not be all that different locally from the present. Certainly, there is no shortage of independent Churches in Ireland claiming a denominational heritage - especially within the Presbyterian and Baptist traditions. Yet, Irish Presbyterianism and Methodism (to give only two examples) have remained relatively cohesive entities. As I pointed out earlier, the importance of local factors in shaping regional forms of Protestantism must be noted and appreciated. The history of the Irish context suggests that, if an Anglican 'denominational family' does indeed emerge, the Church of Ireland will probably remain as a stable cohesive body, even if the broader Anglican context becomes more complex.

Now none of this may happen. But it is definitely a real possibility, and one which must be prepared for. Canon Cameron's disinclination to take the Protestant nature of Anglicanism seriously, in my view, is more than historically inaccurate; it also ignores how history can return with a vengeance to shape the present. The Church of Ireland has the potential to be far more than a bearer of cultural memories; it can be a transformer of its own cultural context. The capability of the Protestant vision of the Gospel to adapt to local situations has been one of Protestantism's great strengths in the past. It might yet be a strength in the present for Irish Anglicanism.

---Alister McGrath is Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Oxford, and Senior Research Fellow at Harris Manchester College. His book, Christianity's Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution, is published this month by SPCK.

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