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Anglicanism Defined: Three Crises

By George Sumner

This text is taken from an address at Canterbury House in Dallas for the Faith Talks series of the Living Church Institute.

Let me begin by addressing several reasons why talking about the identity of Anglicanism seems a bad idea. Some non-Anglicans probably don’t have this problem, though I suspect their denominations have other issues, and can learn something by analogy. More telling is the criticism that we would better spend our time talking about what C.S. Lewis called mere Christianity, and this is surely right, though Christianity cannot avoid being of one kind or another — even the body called “the church of Christ” ended up as a denomination. If you’ve taken a seminary Anglicanism course, you know that the question may seem tired out: fair enough. It will prove worthwhile only if we can show that the answer to Anglican identity also addresses the question of being a Christian in the postmodern era.

When churches have made cases for themselves over the centuries, they have tended to give a general account: they possess the infallible see of Rome, or they have the true, threefold order going back to the beginning, or they have the true interpretation of justification, or they keep to the teachings of the early centuries without accretion. Come what may, in the things that most matter, they consider that they are right.

But one realizes upon reflection that each account is a composite of claim and historical occurrence. Churches not only witness and confess, but they do so over time, in the face of realizations and deformities. So explanations of versions of the Church have to come to terms with the place of contingency, of things that befall them. How do these figure into churches’ account of themselves? They have to work occurrences into a providential telling of their story. So, hear this my version of the Anglican story with an ear to how should and was interact.

The place to begin is with ancient Christianity in Great Britain. There is evidence it goes as far back at the second century. It contained Celtic and Roman strains. It was an integral part of Western Christendom. It is of course also a history of conflict and fractiousness — no less a figure than Wycliffe reminds us of this. But it is a continuous history nonetheless. Part of Anglican identity is looking back and remembering this fact, for example among the early Anglo-Catholics of the 19th century. Let us relate this fact, now offered as a claim, to the mark of the Church of oneness in the Creeds.

At this point I want to introduce the epistemological crisis, a concept from the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. It depends on the prior notion of a tradition, a stream of thought and practice that coheres around a shared narrative, pointed toward a shared telos and enacted by shared virtues. The idea is not necessarily religious, but works for a religious community too. Within the boundaries formed by these features a tradition is a continuing argument. Occasionally, however, a tradition runs into a major challenge to its very coherence, indeed to its existence, from without. Its truths are called into question in a basic way, and the tradition summons its collective resources to offer an answer. Christianity was such a challenge for ancient imperial pagan culture, and the latter was not up to the task.

The ancient church in the British Isles encountered three epistemological, spiritual, political, and social crises, and in response to each it had to give a continuous answer. The first was of course the Reformation, and the major artifact of the era for us as Anglicans is the Book of Common Prayer. In fact the most concise and compelling answer to the question What is an Anglican? is a prayer book Christian. Through it, British Christians heard and absorbed Reformation doctrine in a devotional mode.

In other words, using the prayer book in an ancient church is a factual, pragmatic way to say that we work out our identity between Protestant and Catholic. And of course the ensuing centuries, after the bloodletting of Henry, Mary, and Elizabeth in the 16th and Charles and the Puritans in the 17th, would reach back to retrieve or reject, to reconstrue and redefine: the great Anglo-Catholic and evangelical revivals of the 19th century are great examples. But one can still see the inheritance of this conflict amid agreement in Western Christianity in the styles of various parishes, however they recall the implications of their liturgical choices.

High and old may be the more venerable designators for Anglican churches, but the more prominent, and more conflictual, is what they make over the spiritual-epistemological crisis, since the 17th and 18th centuries, that is modernism. This one comes to the surface in issues like the recent struggle over the theology of marriage, but it also lies under the surface in what we, in a more general sense, make of authority, of the Scriptures, of the nature of symbol, of the transcendent. A great rupture took place in the early modern era, and it rumbled through the great thinkers of suspicion, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Durkheim, up to today. It is often hidden by a contemporary consumerist mindset for things religious, in which they are subsumed in a secular manner we barely notice.

The modernist crisis can be encapsulated various ways, but one is this: Do statements about God offer what Hegel called picture-thinking statements about the religious dimension of human beings? That is, is theology talking about ourselves in a loud voice, as Barth pithily said? When contemporary Episcopalians repair to the popular Richard Rohr they use a modern, psychological gloss on the traditional terms of Christianity.

The third crisis began more quietly. The 19th-century missionaries of our tradition, pure-strain evangelicals or Anglo-Catholics, set out to preach the gospel, and to do so in the right way, according to their lights. In so doing they brought Reformation issues to the Global South. What they couldn’t have foreseen was that they were a means for the birth of a truly global communion of churches, with features and influences of their own.

But in what sense should we say that the emergence of the Anglican Communion is an epistemological crisis? First, because the older churches have found it difficult to accept a real form of conciliarism, one in which we truly test and challenge one another’s expressions of Christianity. Second, because with real diversity of culture comes the temptation of relativism, to the false sense that doctrine can assume a norm-free variety of culturally determined forms. You can see here how the emergence of a global communion not only recapitulated the first crisis but the second as well. Relativism, and its attendant cultural Romanticism in Western thought, are also at stake in this third crisis. In fact, in every expression of Anglicanism, somehow or other, all three are in play, all taking form in relation to the others. Crises are not gone, and they aren’t even past.

But does this definition of Anglicanism mean they we too have fallen into a kind of relativism? Are we saying that all people have a construal, their way of putting the Tinkertoys of ancient, Reformation, modern, and global (in reception or resistance) together as they wish? I certainly hope not. Rather I am saying that these elements form the bounds within which Anglicans struggle to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. That is what all churches strive, by grace, to do. I have here a perhaps idiosyncratic reading of the marks of the church. I identify the ancientness of our tradition with oneness, and (showing my evangelical colors) reception of the central insight about justification of the Reformation amid our catholic inheritance as apostolicity. In a more tenuous reading, I identify fidelity with the gospel as we both empathize with and challenge the modern era with holiness, by which I mean the call of God for the Church to be set apart for his purposes. More obvious is the identification of the mark of catholicity with a truly global church, since the word means the whole.

The marks are goals, callings, toward which the church in its brokenness aspires. This note of humility is typical of Anglicanism at its best. We press on toward the prize of the upward call, to be a church consciously continuous with its original roots, centered on grace in Christ, apologetic in its wayward age, and in common counsel with its brothers and sisters similarly struggling throughout the world.

I hope that this way of seeing things helps to clarify the reason for the difficulties in articulating what is particular about Anglicanism. Some explanations have been substantive: for example, Lancelot Andrewes’s “two testaments, three creeds, four councils, five centuries.” Sometimes they have been negative: we don’t add extraneous bits. Sometimes they have to do with a tone or quality: common sense, or balance, or restraint. Sometimes a general quasi-theological quality has been posited: incarnationalism. At a minimum some have said the mere fact that we continue talking about it all is our distinction. But you can see how embedding three basic enduring conflicts in an ancient tradition would result in such a variety of kinds of answers, none of which would quite hit the mark.

I am not, however, saying something merely descriptive, as if any account of these three arguments will do. Anglicanism strives to be genuinely one, holy, catholic, and apostolic in this age in which we see in a glass darkly. Being Church is then a struggle to maintain continuity with the whole of our history, to see and proclaim the heart of the gospel of grace, to engage and make this apologetic case intelligently in our time, and to do so as part of a transcultural and global fellowship of Churches. It strives, fails, and sometimes by grace succeeds to do this.

To be Anglican is to be in a tradition striving to be truly one, holy, catholic, and apostolic in the wake of our particular history. Of course one quickly realizes that Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and even Roman Catholics, among others, have bumped into these same three crises, though to different effect.



  1. George Sumner, former Principal of Wycliffe College, is very conservative. Richard Rohr was quickly disposed of. Odd use of the word “Tinkertoys.”

  2. To properly proclaim the gospel of grace, it must be placed in juxtaposition to SIN, for what is God’s grace but redemption from the consequences of our fallen natures. We proclaim “forgiveness of sin” but in the modern relativistic environment we deny the existence of sin, because according to relativism there is nothing which is intrinsically good or bad, as these very concepts are social constructions and even the attempt to define some things as one or the other is to impose personal values on others and deny their freedom to create their own moral structure. If the Church is to succeed in proclaiming the Gospel of Christ and God’s grace, it must first rediscover and recommit to the reality of SIN as an objective truth.


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