Pagan claims against the Church of England

Newark’s Bede House Chapel (1556), England’s first and only Odinist temple since 2014 © The Newark Advertiser

This week’s Church Times reported that the Odinist Fellowship, an organisation representing those who worship the Norse gods, has asked for a public apology from the Church of England for ‘centuries of persecution’. The Fellowship has asked the Church of England for two churches that it can ‘turn back into temples’, and accuses the church of ‘spiritual genocide’ by converting the pagan English to Christianity in the seventh century and turning their temples into churches. The Odinist Fellowship’s claims are an intriguing case of an emerging counter-narrative of English history, although it is unclear why the Fellowship targeted the Church of England rather than the Roman Catholic Church – presumably they still share an Anglican view of the Church of England as the continuator of the Anglo-Saxon church, in spite of their repudiation of Christianity.

The Odinist Fellowship advocates ‘ethnospecific paganism’, in which each nation worships the gods of its forebears, and believes that ‘Odinism’ is the original, ancestral religion of England. In 2014 the organisation established its first temple in the sixteenth-century Bede House Chapel in Newark, Nottinghamshire (an interesting example of a Marian-era almshouse chapel dating from 1556). The Fellowship seems to work on the assumption that the gods described in the Norse Eddas are identical (apart from slight differences in names) to the gods worshipped by the pagan English before the completion of England’s conversion to Christianity in around 680. Although it is often assumed that the Norse paganism of the ninth and tenth centuries was the same religion as old English paganism, this is a contentious claim for which there is simply not enough evidence in the archaeological and historical record. Indeed, the Eddas themselves were not written down until the thirteenth century, and represent a medieval Christian view of an earlier pagan Norse mythology.

Odinism is to some extent a ‘reconstructionist’ religion, seeking to use information from archaeology and interpretations of Old Norse texts to ‘revive’ an extinct faith. On the other hand, like most contemporary pagans, Odinists distance themselves from animal sacrifice, tokenising sacrifice instead. Furthermore, unlike contemporary Icelandic pagans, the Odinist Fellowship has no distinctive priests. Although I have not seen the full text of the Odinist Fellowship’s letter to the bishops of the Church of England, the content as reported by the Church Times suggests that the Fellowship is adopting a particular reading of seventh- and eighth-century English history. They seem to see the arrival of Christianity in 597 as a form of cultural imperialism, which was imposed on the people by force and which deprived them of their indigenous beliefs. ‘Cultural imperialism’, in fact, is a very apt description of Gregory I’s mission to the English, since Christianity simultaneously boosted King Ethelbert of Kent’s imperial pretensions as Bretwalda of the English and Gregory’s papal pretensions as the guardian of imperial romanitas in the absence of a Western Emperor.

However, it would be anachronistic to apply contemporary critiques of colonial Christianity as ‘spiritual genocide’ to early medieval England. The Anglo-Saxon heptarchy was not in any way a colonial subject of its neighbouring Christian nations (Francia, Ireland, and the parts of Britain still under British rule), and Christianity’s fortunes waxed and waned as it served the purposes of Anglo-Saxon rulers (or otherwise). ‘Forced’ baptisms would certainly have taken place, in the sense that kings of the period expected the people to follow their religion, but these were acts of royal rather than ecclesiastical power. Furthermore, although Christians killed pagans in early medieval England (and vice versa), all the evidence suggests that they did so only as part of warfare when Christian and pagan kingdoms were pitted against each other – geopolitical conflicts that might well have happened anyway, whatever the religious situation. The Odinists seem to be guilty of ascribing later medieval developments, such as the forced conversion of the pagan Baltic lands by German crusaders or the Spanish reconquista against Iberian Muslims, to an early medieval period where such methods were not applied.

The Odinists’ allusion to ‘centuries of persecution’ seems to imply that paganism continued to exist in early medieval England in an underground form in an outwardly Christian society, persecuted by the church. Again, there is no evidence that this was the case. Some English kingdoms remained pagan for longer than others, with the Isle of Wight being the last to convert to Christianity, but there is no evidence that pagans lived alongside Christians for centuries in converted kingdoms, nor that such pagans were persecuted by the church. Admittedly, the evidence is so meagre that such events cannot be ruled out, but once again the Odinists seem to be arguing by analogy with later Christian persecutions of non-Christians rather than from evidence. Although Viking invaders reintroduced paganism to England in the ninth century, there is no evidence that any English people reverted to paganism – rather, the evidence points to the Vikings themselves converting to Christianity a very short time after their arrival in England (something that my forthcoming book on St Edmund will address next year). As Ronald Hutton has shown, the idea that paganism endured in some way after the Anglo-Saxon conversion is a persistent myth, fostered originally by nineteenth- and twentieth-century folklorists.

The Odinists’ claim that the church turned pagan temples into churches is founded on the well-known letter from Gregory I to Mellitus urging him not to destroy pagan temples but to turn them into churches. However, Gregory wrote to Mellitus before he left for England, and given that no archaeological evidence of Anglo-Saxon pagan temples has ever been found, it is quite likely that Gregory was guilty of ‘classicising’ English paganism. Having never been to England, he assumed that its paganism was much like Roman paganism and therefore England was littered with impressive pagan edifices. Bede makes a few references to pagan shrines, but these may have been largely indistinguishable in form from domestic dwellings. Alternatively, and perhaps more likely, old English pagan temples were tiny wooden shrines for images of the gods, with sacrifices taking place outside the temple itself.

The idea of a building set apart for worship containing a congregational space is a Christian one, which derives from the fact that the earliest template for churches was the basilica or Roman law court. It is highly unlikely that any pagan temple in England was ever ‘turned into’ a church, since the building would not have been large enough, although it is possible that some churches (such as Harrow-on-the-Hill) were built close to where pagan sites once stood. Yet the idea that every ancient church in England was built on a pagan sacred site – which many people seem to believe – is self-evidently preposterous, mainly because the population of pre-Christian England was a great deal smaller than that of medieval Christian England. Furthermore, since we know virtually nothing about old English paganism we do not know where pagans chose to locate their shrines. Did they build them on hills? In sacred groves? Near to sacred wells and springs? We simply do not know.

So does the Odinist Fellowship have a morally legitimate claim against the Church of England, or the Christian church more generally? That depends on two factors: (1) is contemporary Odinism (or the Fellowship’s version of it) in any sense the same religion practised in pre-Christian England? and (2) Does the Christian church in England owe any restitution to pagans? Since Odinism is avowedly based on the Norse Eddas, and even uses the Norse versions of the names of Germanic gods, it is closest in form to Norse paganism – a religion that made a very brief appearance in England between around 865 and 900, when the area later known as the Danelaw was settled by pagan Vikings. As recent genetic studies have shown, the Vikings not only converted to Christianity soon after their arrival but eventually left entirely – probably in the eleventh century – leaving virtually no traces of their DNA in the English population. To found an ‘ancestral’ religion on Norse paganism is therefore problematic anywhere except Orkney and Shetland, since few people in the UK have Norse ancestors, and there is no evidence that the Christian English started worshipping Norse gods under Viking rule. As we have seen, the claim that old English and Norse paganism were essentially the same is unproven and unprovable. And although the Eddas provide a good deal of detail about Norse mythology and cosmology, we remain essentially ignorant about the nature of Norse pagan religious rites. The Odinist Fellowship seems to have invented these rites largely from scratch, along with a largely invented pagan calendar. Finally, there is no evidence of the survival of any form of paganism in England beyond the end of the ninth century, precluding any claims of historical continuity for Odinism; and for Odinists even to make a claim to spiritual continuity with pre-Christian English pagans they would need to know something substantive about that paganism – which no-one does.

It is unclear why we should be expected to accept that Germanic paganism, rather than Romano-British, Iron Age, Bronze Age or Neolithic paganism is the ‘ancestral religion’ of England. The Odinist Fellowship’s notion of ‘ethnospecific paganism’ raises politically troubling questions (to put it mildly) about who exactly counts as ‘English’, yet the genetic evidence suggests that the (presumably Christian) Romano-British population of fifth-century Britain was absorbed into the new England of the Anglo-Saxons, meaning that Romano-Britons are as much the ancestors of most English people as the Anglo-Saxons. The conversion of Anglo-Saxon England to Christianity differed so markedly from more recent colonial conversions as to make any comparison with them inappropriate or meaningless. If anything, the most coercive action against pagans in British history was probably the forced closure of all pagan temples throughout the Roman Empire (which presumably applied to Britain as well) in 381, but I have yet to hear about any Romano-British pagan reconstructionists demanding restitution. When they do, I suggest they submit claims against the dioceses of London and York, which we know to have existed by the early fourth century.



What exactly is ‘fake history’? Some clarification

The famous plaque on a Trump golf course commemorating an American Civil War battle that never happened © CNN

A while back I wrote a post for history blog The Many-Headed Monster on ‘fake news’, a phenomenon which has always been with us. ‘Fake news’, however, is primarily a headache for the historians of the future. The historians of the present are having to grapple with another phenomenon, ‘fake history’. Perhaps the most egregious recent example is the plaque erected by Donald Trump on one of his golf courses claiming that a non-existent battle of the American Civil War, ‘the River of Blood’, was fought there. But ‘fake history’ has cropped up again as a trending topic on social media as a result of controversy surrounding the ethnic diversity of Roman Britain. However, widespread use of the term makes me uneasy, because people are actually talking about more than one thing. All of these things are bad for real history, but they are not the same and need to be distinguished.

  1. Egregious falsification of accepted historical fact*. Trump’s golf course plaque probably falls into the category of egregious falsification – fabrication of specific claims that can quickly be debunked by historians. This category would also include Stalinesque photoshopping of images to add or delete elements, and of course pseudo-historical claims that run counter to vast quantities of evidence and the eyewitness testimonies of thousands of living people, such as Holocaust denial. This, in my view, is ‘fake history’ proper.
  2. Generalised, unfalsifiable yet implausible historical claims. These are historical conspiracy theories, the well-trodden domain of ‘alternative history’, which usually involves the Knights Templar, the Illuminati, the Freemasons, extraterrestrials or some combination of all four. The claim that the ancient Egyptians or Mayans were taught by extraterrestrials is not technically falsifiable – the aliens might, after all, have taken careful steps to eliminate the evidence – but it is wildly implausible to most people and especially to experts in the field. Is this ‘fake history’? I think it is probably fairer to call it ‘alternative history’ – everyone with good sense recognises this term and knows that it is something to avoid, except for entertainment…
  3. Reluctance to discard discredited and obsolete historiographies. This is perhaps the most interesting category of what has been labelled ‘fake history’, because there is often a fine line between attachment to discredited historiographies and deliberate fabrication. When someone claims that the inhabitants of Roman Britain were exclusively white Europeans, that claim is as much based on prejudices imbibed from reading books based on obsolete historiography as it is on a desire to deliberately fabricate evidence. The historiography of, say, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or Green’s History of English People is outmoded, discredited and obsolete. It may also be racist. Yet many people with limited education have imbibed a version of history based on nineteenth-century historiography. This problem has been well documented – advances in historiography take many, many decades to filter down to popular perceptions of history. Take, for example, the widespread belief that megalithic monuments were associated with abominable rites of human sacrifice – a claim debunked by archaeologists forty years ago but which still has the power to stick in the popular imagination. I am not sure it is always right to accuse those whose view of history is based on popular misconceptions of peddling ‘fake history’; to do so is to misdiagnose the problem, which is ignorance and a lack of historical education rather than wilful fabrication of specific facts. However, when confronted with up-to-date historiography, many of those whose historiography is outmoded cling on to their interpretation by any means available, including outright denial of demonstrable historical evidence. This is when attachment to obsolete historiography tips into ‘fake history’ proper.
  4. Myth-making. No-one would think of describing Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain as ‘fake history’, even though it is almost all made up, because we all recognise that Geoffrey’s purpose was not to write history in any modern sense but rather to weave a national myth. This, it seems to me, is a legitimate activity – or, if not legitimate, it is an indelible part of human nature. We all want to tell stories that imbue us with a sense of identity. It is very difficult to shake people’s attachment to powerful historical narratives. Furthermore, sometimes people are able to believe simultaneously in a national myth and recognise that it is probably unhistorical, and such national myths do not lose their cultural importance when they are challenged by the historical evidence; and I am not sure that is a bad thing. It is up to historians to mark out clearly the boundary between history and myth, but it is not our job to destroy myths per se – although we should always challenge myths that perpetuate racism and harmful nationalism.
  5. Bad history. Sometimes the term ‘fake history’ is used to describe bad history – when someone has not bothered to look at all the evidence, when they stretch too little evidence too far, or when they twist the evidence to fit a preconceived theory. Some bad history is written with deeply sinister motives, and when this is the case it crosses the line into ‘fake history’ (e.g. the work of David Irving). Most of the time, however, bad history is just bad history and should be called out as such.

There is a danger that if we use the term ‘fake history’ too freely we will devalue its meaning, just as ‘fake news’ has been devalued and is now a virtually meaningless slur that can be hurled around by anybody. ‘Fake history’ needs to be applied selectively, preferably to the first kind of historical abuse described here: egregious falsification of accepted historical fact.

*Yes, I know ‘historical fact’ is a deeply contested concept, but let’s not get into that now…


Divided by historiography? Anglo-Catholics and English Roman Catholics

A particularly confident diagrammatic representation of Anglo-Catholic ‘branch theory’ at Helmsley, N. Yorkshire

I dislike both the terms ‘Roman Catholic’ and ‘Anglo-Catholic’. ‘Roman Catholic’, at least when said by English people, always seems to have a slight sneer to it, as if it implies that English Catholics are all the deluded indigenous converts of greasy Italian missionaries. ‘Anglo-Catholic’ seems to qualify the Catholic credentials of Catholics in the Church of England, as though they are a special and particular ‘type’ of Catholic rather than just part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. Furthermore, since Pope Benedict XVI’s creation of the Ordinariates ‘Anglo-Catholic’ is ambiguous. What should we call an adherent of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, for example? However, there can be no doubt that the terms are convenient. I find myself forced to use the term ‘Roman Catholic’ when writing about the history of the Church of England; not to do so risks readers confusing Roman Catholics with Anglo-Catholics. But I would never use the term in a book or article primarily concerned with Roman Catholics – then they would just be ‘Catholics’. Likewise, I am somewhat reluctant to use the term ‘Anglo-Catholic’ when writing about the Church of England, preferring to refer to ‘Catholics’ when the context makes it clear I am referring to people who conceive of the Church of England in Catholic terms.

More troubling to me than what language to use, however, is the lack of understanding there often is between English Roman Catholics and Anglo-Catholics. There are certain easy explanations of the divisions, but these fall apart when examined closely. Anglo-Catholics are almost identical to Roman Catholics in belief and practice, but the Pope is the big sticking point, we are told. Yet anyone familiar with either denomination will know that many Roman Catholics have scant regard for the Pope and that some Anglo-Catholics (perhaps we should call them Anglo-Papalists) have more interest in the papacy than some Roman Catholics. Or we are told that the ministry of women is the big sticking point, or clerical marriage. Yet, as we know, Anglo-Catholics are themselves divided on women’s ministry – as indeed are Roman Catholics in England; the only difference is that the Church of England and the Roman Catholic church have different rules on the subject. Roman Catholics who support clerical marriage are perhaps even more numerous than those who support the ordination of women, not to mention the existence of a significant number of married priests in the Roman Catholic church in England dating from 1994 or since admitted to the Ordinariate.

Anyone would be hard-pressed to find substantive theological (or even ecclesiological) differences between Anglo-Catholics and Roman Catholics, and the liturgical similarities are even closer. The reality is that both groups are Catholics, but one group feels more at home within the institutional structures of the Church of England and the other within the institutional structures of Rome. It is easy to see why even the most ardent Anglo-Papalist might still choose to remain a priest of the Church of England, no matter how heartily he despises his bishop or the General Synod. The discipline of the Church of England is so light that a priest can get away with almost anything. I have even heard apocryphal stories of Roman Catholic priests who became Anglicans after 1965 because it gave them the freedom to continue celebrating the Tridentine Mass, although I am unsure whether these stories are true.

Apart from the obvious institutional distinction between Anglo- and Roman Catholics, the main difference is cultural. Pope Benedict XVI, perhaps the Pope who understood England better than any pontiff since Hadrian IV, realised this when he created the Ordinariates. The Ordinariates allow ex-Anglicans to retain their cultural distinctiveness within communion with Rome by granting them the privilege of an alternative liturgy, and by allowing them to venerate the memory of great Anglicans such as the Caroline Divines, as well as continuing to minister as married priests. These privileges and the special status of the Ordinariates raise many questions that there is no space to discuss here – but clearly there are many Anglo-Catholics for whom the Ordinariate is not an attractive option, since there remain many committed Anglo-Papalists outside the Ordinariate. Cynical Roman Catholics may say that anyone who remains in the Church of England yet holds orthodox Catholic beliefs is a hypocrite, doing so only for the stipend, the vicarage and the nice medieval church that go with the job (although the most ardent Anglo-Papalist parish churches are usually Victorian buildings, it should be noted). I do not think this is true, although the freedom allowed by the Church of England may explain a great deal. Furthermore, many Anglo-Catholics may also be put off by the Roman Catholic church’s demand that priests undergo conditional re-ordination; it is not easy to ask someone to undergo a ceremony that implies he has not been a validly ordained priest for most of his working life. The huge cultural differences between Anglo-Catholicism and Roman Catholicism should also not be underestimated. Imagine the challenges for an Anglo-Catholic priest, perhaps used to ministering to a self-selecting congregation of mostly elderly liturgical enthusiasts, being thrust into a multicultural Roman Catholic parish whose church is packed to the gunnels on every holy day of obligation.

Yet given the infinitesimal closeness of Roman and Anglo-Catholics in doctrine and worship, it is remarkable that there is not more dialogue, interchange and socialising between them. Perhaps this should not be surprising – it is a truism that the Christian denominations who are closest to one another despise one another the most. Yet the case of Roman and Anglo-Catholics is especially tragic. Anglo-Catholics (and Anglo-Papalists in particular) strove so hard for reunion in the twentieth century, justifying their continued adherence to the Church of England by the belief that they could bring the entire institution (or at least a large part of it) back into communion with the See of Rome. Those efforts came to nothing, for many reasons – the Roman Catholic church of Vatican II was not, for many Anglo-Catholics, any longer the church they had striven so hard to unite themselves with; and the decisions taken by the Church of England to ordain women to the diaconate and priesthood in the 1980s and ’90s convinced the Roman hierarchy that union was impossible. What has followed is a retreat by both sides into their comfortable core identities, which worries me.

Fundamentally, I do not think it is doctrine, practice or even culture that creates the divide between Anglo- and Roman Catholics today, but historiography. Anglo-Catholicism is a complex and subtly graded phenomenon, ranging from ‘high and dry’ Laudian-style clergy to liberal liturgical experimenters and full-blown Anglo-Papalists (although the latter are a dwindling band). As a general rule, however, most Anglo-Catholics seem to be ignorant of the history of English Roman Catholicism – wilfully ignorant, in some cases. As Benedict XVI recognised in the way he set up the Ordinariates, Anglo-Catholics see themselves as having their own history – which, to some extent, is true. It is possible to trace a line of high churchmanship from the Elizabethan anti-Puritans to the seventeenth-century Laudians, then to the Nonjurors and those influenced by them, and finally to the Oxford Movement. But although there is a tradition of high churchmanship within the Church of England and always has been, at any point along the line high churchmen conceived of themselves differently; they certainly did not worship like, nor did they believe the same as, contemporary Anglo-Catholics. Until the 1840s, for instance, high churchmanship had very little to do with the way a clergyman would celebrate the liturgy. Perhaps the one thing that high churchmen in the Church of England have always had in common is that they are unembarrassed to see themselves as continuators of the medieval church.

But therein lies the rub: because Anglo-Catholics see themselves as continuators of the medieval church in England, they are reluctant to acknowledge the rival claims of Roman Catholics to have effected a different kind of continuity by another method (i.e. remaining in communion with the See of Rome). It does not suit their narrative that Roman Catholics continued to exist in England throughout the period before the re-establishment of the Roman hierarchy in England in 1850; even more inconvenient is the fact that some of the most avidly high church bishops were also the most eager to persecute Catholics in the seventeenth century, and that high church Tory bishops repeatedly blocked Catholic emancipation in the early nineteenth century. In fact, high church Tory opposition to Roman Catholicism made perfect sense; the Nonjuring bishops, who loyally served a Roman Catholic king to the point of giving up everything, were adamantly opposed to Roman Catholicism itself because they saw themselves as the true inheritors and not the Roman Catholics. For low churchmen it was simply a matter of Roman Catholics being doctrinally in error, like any other kind of heretic; but for high churchmen the ultimate offence of Roman Catholics was that they intruded into a space that the high churchmen considered their own. Prejudice against Roman Catholics – it would perhaps be going too far to call it anti-Catholicism, which has different connotations – is deeply rooted in the Anglo-Catholic psyche.

But the blame does not just lie with Anglo-Catholics. Roman Catholics are to blame, too, for oversimplifying the Reformation and portraying the Church of England as a monochromely Protestant institution. Most English Roman Catholic historiography (with notable exceptions such as John Lingard) post-dates the ultramontane triumphalism of the nineteenth century, which Roman Catholic historians attempted to project (with varying degrees of success) onto a complex past. The reality is that ultramontane papalism (usually associated with the Jesuits) was just one strand in the history of English Roman Catholicism. The Anglo-Gallicans, those seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English Roman Catholics who believed the church should be governed by the king after the French Gallican model, and took a low view of papal authority, came within an ideological hair’s breadth of high churchmen in the Church of England – but they were still divided from high churchman by their different perception of history. For them, Thomas More was still a hero and Elizabeth I a villain, whatever they might have thought of the papacy.

So it is my contention that it is historiography, first and foremost, that constitutes the dividing wall between Anglo-Catholics and English Roman Catholics: the two groups cherish fundamentally different constructions of the ‘Catholic’ past, and function according to different models of continuity and tradition. But both groups are in error: Roman Catholics are wrong to sneer at the Church of England’s institutional continuity on the grounds that it is a ‘Protestant’ church, and Anglo-Catholics are wrong to dismiss the Roman Catholic church in England’s failure to maintain the ancient sees as evidence of discontinuity. Church historians of both sides need to get down off their high horses and engage in more meaningful historiographical dialogue.


Negotiating the ‘A’ word in historical writing about the Church of England

Anglican wordle, courtesy of the Anglican Communion website

Something I’ve wanted to write about here for some time is the pitfalls of using the words ‘Anglican’ and ‘Anglicanism’ as descriptors of the established Church of England in historical writing. It is a personal bugbear of mine that many historians who are not specialists in church history (and, perish the thought, some who are…) casually describe the established church in England not in communion with the See of Rome as ‘Anglican’, at any time between the break with Rome (in 1534) and the present. In this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, the difficulties of accurately describing those who departed from the Catholic church in the sixteenth century are very much to the fore. Most historians are now aware of the dangers inherent in the word ‘Protestant’, preferring more precise labels such as ‘Lutheran’, ‘Calvinist’, ‘Zwinglian’ or (in an English context pre-1559), ‘Gospellers’. England poses particular difficulties in this regard, because non-Catholic English people in the sixteenth century were not usually followers of one particular brand of reformist Christianity (with notable exceptions such as the Lutheran Robert Barnes). Instead, their religion was something of a pick ‘n’ mix of reformist doctrines set within an institutional and legal framework inherited from the medieval church.

The term ‘Church of England’ is an English translation of the term ecclesia anglicana used by Thomas Cranmer to describe the fiction he wove of an English ‘imperial’ church free from papal influence in times past, over which the pope was supposedly claiming a usurped authority. Understood in these terms, the ‘Church of England’ was an English version (or English flavour) of the Catholic church, headed by the monarch instead of the pope, and use of this term implied no doctrinal deviation from Rome on the part of  the English church. Although the term ecclesia anglicana was also used in Latin by Catholics to refer to English Catholicism, Catholics then and now tended to translate it as ‘the Church in England’ – a subtle but important difference. Today, the term ‘Church of England’ is acceptable to all adherents of the established church in England because it implies no doctrinal affiliation; Anglo-Catholics may be more content with the ‘Catholicism in an English style’ of Henry VIII, and evangelicals with the austere and thoroughgoing Edwardine reform of the 1550s; both are equally ‘the Church of England’.

‘Anglican’ and ‘Anglicanism’, on the other hand, are nineteenth-century coinages. They are more problematic than ‘Church of England’ (which can be both a noun and a descriptive adjective, as in ‘I’m Church of England’) because they imply the existence of a distinctive theology, an ‘-ism’, associated with the Church of England. Anyone acquainted with the Church of England will know that there is no such thing; the Church of England is more notable for its divisions and factions than for anything that can realistically be described as a unifying theology. Although theologians spill much ink every year attempting to define a distinctively ‘Anglican’ theology, one is always left with the impression that all they have done is to describe the theology of a narrow majority of adherents of the Church of England rather than outlining a universally shared common approach. It is almost as though the very existence and use of the term ‘Anglican’ condemns theologians to the Sisyphean task of trying to define it.

Once the global dimensions of ‘Anglicanism’ are taken into account, the picture becomes even more murky. There is, of course, an ‘Anglican Communion’ – a (very) loosely constituted global association of national churches in communion with the See of Canterbury. It is well known that many of the churches that form part of the Anglican Communion are barely in communion with each other, and by the same token the See of Canterbury is in communion with churches that are not considered part of the Anglican Communion, such as the Old Catholic Church of Utrecht and those Lutheran churches that are part of the Porvoo Agreement. The use of the term ‘Anglican’ to describe the communion is troubling, because it has overtones of colonialism when applied to those episcopal churches in former colonial territories that were once under the jurisdiction of the Church of England. It is also troubling because other churches in the communion have no ‘genetic’ link to the See of Canterbury. The Church of Ireland, for example, sees itself as the continuator of St Patrick’s ancient mission in Ireland just as the Church of England sees itself as the continuator of St Augustine’s ancient mission in England. Although the Church of Ireland was reformed under English royal authority in the sixteenth century, Ireland was then a separate kingdom and the Irish church remained independent of the Church of England until 1801; Irish independence in the twentieth century led the Church of Ireland to play up its indigenous Irish credentials. To describe the Church of Ireland as ‘Anglican’ is to subordinate it to Canterbury in a way that is potentially offensive to many Irish episcopalians; it would be better described as ‘Hibernican’ – along with those churches, such as the Spanish Reformed Episcopal Church, that were founded by the Church of Ireland.

The sense in which the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Church of the USA can be considered ‘Anglican’ is even more attenuated. The Scottish church briefly came under the influence of Canterbury in the 1620s and ’30s but the Scottish and English reformations were essentially independent of one another, and the origins of the Scottish Episcopal Church are distinctive. Since it was Scottish bishops who consecrated the first bishop of ECUSA, the two churches are better described as ‘Scotican’ than ‘Anglican’.

Aside from the very doubtful validity of any global concept of ‘Anglicanism’, some adherents of the Church of England do not like to be called Anglicans. This may be because they identify, first and foremost, as Catholics and evangelicals. At the Catholic end of the spectrum, some prefer to self-identify as Catholics within the Church of England, tracing a direct descent from the medieval church and part of the one, holy, catholic church of which the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches are also a part. They are not Anglicans, or even Anglo-Catholics, but Catholics who happen to worship in a Church of England parish church. At the evangelical end of the spectrum there are individuals with little or no interest in episcopal government who consider themselves no different from the Presbyterians or Baptists down the road apart from the fact that they worship in a Church of England church. For both of these groups, the ‘Anglican’ label serves no purpose because there is nothing distinctively ‘Anglican’ about how they believe or worship.

Returning to history, the problem with the use of the term ‘Anglican’ is that it implies a unique and specific theological identity for the Church of England and its adherents. The Church of England has always been riven with faction, first between conservatives (Henry VIII-style Catholics) and reformists in the period 1534-1553, then between Puritans and anti-Puritans between 1559 and 1646 (when the Puritans finally won and the Church of England was abolished), then between conformists and Non-Jurors in the period 1688-1788, then between conformists and Methodists (before the Methodists separated in 1794), then between various varieties of low and high churchmen throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Furthermore, for most of ‘Anglican’ history, scarcely anyone in England would have thought of their beliefs and practices as a distinct variety of Christianity. Most described themselves as just ‘Protestant’, and worshipped in the parish church in the way that the Prayer Book directed in the way their fathers and mothers worshipped before them. A strong Nonconformist presence in the locality sometimes led people to self-identify as churchmen and churchwomen (often with connotations of the prestige attached to conforming to the religion of the king and squire), but this was as far as ‘Anglican’ self-awareness went until at least the 1830s.

Nevertheless, some historians apply the term ‘Anglican’ from the very beginning of the English reformation – although I don’t think anyone with even an inkling about church history would presume to call Henry VIII an Anglican. Others take 1559 as the terminus post quem of Anglicanism, on the grounds that the Church of England of today can be traced from the Elizabethan religious settlement. This latter statement is not incorrect, but it does not mean that the ‘Anglican’ neologism can be applied to the 1560s. Others are more circumspect, declining to use the term before 1660, the year of the Restoration of the monarchy which heralded the re-constitution of the Church of England. Still others begin to refer to ‘Anglicanism’ only after 1688, when toleration of dissenters meant that the Church of England ceased to be the national church in the true sense and therefore ‘Anglicans’ acquired an identity (but, as we have seen, this identity was very limited indeed). Others might wait until the separation of Wesleyan Methodism as a separate denomination. Yet it was only in the mid-nineteenth century that the term actually came into use.

Worse than inappropriate use of the ‘A’ word by historians is what they leave it to imply. I shall not name names, but some distinguished historians have made use of such phrases as ‘Anglican moderation’ or ‘Anglican scepticism’ in discussions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as if ‘Anglicanism’ was an ideology that predisposed people to certain patterns of thought. This is nothing less than an historical fallacy; I am very doubtful that anyone can make a case that such a thing as ‘Anglicanism’ existed before the nineteenth century (if indeed it really exists now), but even if it did it was a phenomenon too fractious for us to presume to associate particular modes of thought with it. Of course, I know what these historians are trying to get at when they talk of ‘Anglican moderation’ – clergy of the established church, on the whole, were inclined to rationalism in the eighteenth century – but the choice of words is an historiographical faux pas at best and gravely misleading at worst.

So should the historian ever write about ‘Anglicans’ and ‘Anglicanism’? On one level, it seems difficult (and perverse) not to do so when ‘Anglicans’ themselves self-define in this way (which some – but not all – adherents of the Church of England have since the middle of the nineteenth century). But to use the term before the 1830s is, in my view, misleading unless the historian takes care to justify his or her actions very carefully. Writing a book covering the totality of ‘Anglican’ history (like my Inferior Office: A History of Deacons in the Church of England) poses a particular challenge – to what extent is it historically valid to reify the Church of England, or perhaps more importantly a Church of England (or ‘Anglican’) tradition? How do we tell that history against a background of shifting models of self-definition by adherents of the Church of England/’Anglicans’? I am not sure I have any easy answers to these questions, but they are worth investigating – and it is time for historians to drop the lazy use of the deeply problematic ‘A’ word when writing about early modern English religion.