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.

14 replies on “Negotiating the ‘A’ word in historical writing about the Church of England”

Very interesting! I shall be more circumspect in future! Just one thought: you say ‘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.’ Having worshipped for many years in both Baptist and Anglican churches, with a husband who moved from being Baptist to being Anglican, I would say it’s y more than this. The prayer book is a huge difference and both denominations would point to the fact that having a written liturgy sets the Anglicans apart from the others. I would also highlight the place of sacraments and the parish system as being fundamental differences.

Mind you, non-conformist churches may not have written down their liturgy but the pattern of their worship is definitely liturgical! A theme for another day, perhaps?

I take minor exception to your claim that ECUSA should be more closely aligned with the SEC than the C. of E., i.e., more Scotican than Anglican. While the historical associations between the churches are more than a historical accident that was leveraged as a 20th century Scottish cathedral fundraising ploy (as some have it), the connections between England and America before and after the Revolution were stronger than the connection with Scotland. Before the Revolution, American clergy regarded themselves as being under the jurisdiction of London and thus Canterbury. They went there for ordination until the Revolution and three went there for consecration after the Revolution. The Archbishop of Canterbury even seems to have been consulted on Prayer Book revision and other matters. One may read the letters of William Smith (first Provost of the University of Pennsylvania and almost-Bishop of Maryland), who grew up in the persecuted SEC, but frankly reveled in his connections with the Bishop of London and other English ecclesiastics and would seek funds in Ireland before he would in Scotland. Yes, there are a few liturgical idiosyncrasies that came from Scotland, but Seabury’s Loyalist history reduced his influence in early ECUSA.

One possible interpretation is to look at early ECUSA as being split regionally with the Southern States being dominantly aligned with the mainstream Church of England, the Middle States tending Methodist, and New England being Scotican.

Yes, you’re quite right that there were close connections between the American and English churches; had the American Revolution not happened, there is no doubt in my mind that a bishop would have been consecrated for the colonies under the authority of Canterbury, as later happened in Canada. It was to a large extent an historical accident that Seabury ended up being consecrated by the Scots. Your suggestion of regional differences in ECUSA is fascinating.

I do agree with you about the use of ‘Anglican’ to describe the Church of England. Another problem that I see with the word, in relation to Anglicanism world-wide is its association with the former British Empire. But that is another topic altogether.

Impressionistically, I’m thinking that perhaps evangelicals in the CofE did not refer to themselves as Anglicans until … when? -relatively recently?
If that impression is about right, then it prompts questions as to why the label has been claimed by at least some (as against ‘churchmen’, for example). I’d hypothesise that it’s to do with staking a political claim to represent the tradition (as against ‘those splitters/innovators’). But I don’t know if that suspicion on my part has traction.

I can’t tell you when evangelicals in the CofE started calling themselves Anglicans, but I think your instincts are right that it was probably quite recently; certainly post 1960

I didn’t know that, and it is good to see it, I am a new convert to the R C Church, which I love, so I am not always as up to date as some others. I converted in 2011 at age 61, but it was the best thing I ever did ! Thanks for your information J.
Jo Norfolk UK

Scotican’ I like that! Anyway, ‘Anglican’ began to become popular in the late eighteenth century, though as you intimate, Scottish and American adherents use the more ancient term ‘Episcopalian’ to define ourselves. Of course, as deacongill points out, the Prayer Book liturgy itself bespeaks of our theology; I consider myself a ‘Prayer Book Catholic.’

Kurt Hill
Brooklyn, NY

Small point:the Spanish Reformed Church got its orders from the C of I but it was an indigenous movement like it’s sister in Portugal and the similar very small breakaway in Italy which hardly got off the ground ( it appealed for help to Gladstone) The American Church helped a similar movement in Mexico.Anglican involvement in Catholic reform movements in the 1880s would make a good PhD thesis.
Vol1 of the new History of Anglicanism deliberately eschews any idea of “Anglicanism”…surely No serious historian has used Anglican pre 1662 surely since the early 60s …we must thank Pat Collinson for showing us just how much part of Reformed world the C of E was in the 16th and 17thc

No serious church historian who is a specialist in the field, certainly – but I often encounter the term among non-historians, e.g. writers on English literature, and historians of unrelated fields

The Church of England was not abolished in 1646 – the government of the church by bishops and archbishops was, but the two are not necessarily the same thing. There are plenty of presbyterians in the 1640s and 1650s who declared that they were ministers of the Church of England – and they continued to do so after their ejection in 1662.

I take your point, but many (perhaps most) contemporary Anglicans would regard episcopacy as the sine qua non of the Church of England as conventionally understood

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