Anglicans are sometimes said to be “a little bit protestant and a little bit catholic.” That’s probably true to some extent, as a description of what people see in a worship service. However, even though the Roman church owns the domain extension .catholic, we Anglicans see ourselves as both fully catholic and as a church of the reformation at the same time. Because we are the most visibly catholic church in the West that isn’t Roman, people often wonder about what we think of the Roman Catholics.
In fact, recently I was asked if Roman Catholics are “saved.” Unfortunately, I was asked this question in the middle of a holiday party at my son’s local public school, in front of all the other parents. Needless to say I invited the other Dad to get some coffee and discuss that some other time. The timing of his question wasn’t so great, but the question itself is important to many evangelicals and deserves a response. Even though it might feel offensive to many Roman Catholics, it shows a concern for truth that should be important for any of us.
There are official dialogues that go on between Anglicans and Roman Catholics, and you can find out about those in many places (including here and here). I’m not so much writing about the official relationships or ecumenical dialogues here though. My experience is more in how Anglicans generally talk about and think about the Romans as a part of our everyday life and experience. And I’ll mostly address the kinds of questions evangelicals asks us. I’m sure some of my fellow Anglicans will disagree with my assessment, which is mostly positive. I welcome other viewpoints, but I want to share what I’ve personally observed.
The office of Pope is respected by most Anglicans. Historically, we have recognized that he is the Bishop of Rome, and that he is the Patriarch of the West. What that means practically is that many Anglicans feel comfortable admiring and learning from the teaching offices of the Roman Catholic Church. What it doesn’t mean is that we think of the Pope as infallible, even when he speaks ex cathedra. Of course, its a myth that the Roman Catholic Church thinks that the Pope is infallible. They see his official, special pronouncements as such, and we don’t agree on that part.
Anglicans tend to admire and listen to the Pope. We tend to respect his influence. But we don’t tend to think of him as the final authority. This is in part because we don’t recognize him as the one appointed Vicar of Christ, but also because we believe in conciliar leadership. Like the Eastern church, Anglicans think the top level of authority in the church should be more like the Twelve. Jesus is the Head, and the councils are under him. We don’t agree that one Bishop should be the final authority over the rest, even if one of them presides over the group.
A Christian Church?
Anglicans believe that the Roman Catholic Church is a true, Christian Church. We may have issues with some of their theology and practice, even serious issues, but we affirm their faith in Jesus Christ. The Roman Catholic Church affirms the creeds, Holy Scripture and the orthodox faith. They preach that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God who died for us, and who rose again. Even when we see what we think are errors, most Anglicans still affirm the true faith in Jesus that is very visible in that communion.
Salvation by Grace
Wow, this is a big one. Its almost universally believed by Protestant and evangelical groups that the Romans believe in grace plus works for salvation. My experience is that many Anglicans do think that the Roman Catholics add works to grace. I don’t necessarily disagree with that assessment. But (and this is a huge ‘but’), so do we. Anglicans, evangelicals, human beings, etc. We all add our works to God’s grace to try to appease or please him. Its human nature. So yes, there have been times in the Roman Church’s life in which it seemed to pretty clearly affirm the idea that we can add some of our good works and merit to our spiritual bank account with God. But you can find that same thinking even in, for example, the American puritans. Yes, even the puritans wrote about “proving your election.” You proved it by your good works.
The Roman Catholic Church has changed a lot since the Reformation, especially since Vatican II. There is a conscious movement and effort to move away from semi-pelagianism (human achievement as a part of salvation). I think most Anglicans recognize and appreciate that move, and we would be well to continue in that direction ourselves.
The Blessed Virgin Mary
There are some Anglicans who pray to Mary, who see her as “ever” virgin, and who venerate her in ways that would make Thomas Cranmer roll over in his grave. So those Anglicans don’t have a problem with the way Roman Catholics venerate Mary. Most of us agree with the Roman Catholics who have pointed out some of the idolatry associated with Mary. Yet the Roman Catholics have retained (at the very center of the Christian life) the beautiful vision of a woman, pregnant with God’s Son, delivering him into the world. Mother of God. Mother of the Church. Forever blessed, honored throughout all generations. Protestants have a tendency to ignore Mary, or only speak of her role in salvation history in the negative. Anglicans tend to talk about Mary more, to honor her, and to see her as an icon. A way to see God.
So while most Anglicans would encourage Roman Catholics who pray to statues of Mary or see her as a co-redeemer with Christ to take a chill pill, we don’t think they should abandon their honor of her, or her place as the Mother of God.
Is the Bible our only authority? We see it as the final authority, and as the unique authority (the only inspired book). Nothing can take its place. Yet unlike protestants and most evangelicals, we value other authorities, despite the fact that they aren’t equal to Scripture. Roman Catholics actually have a similar view. They see Holy Scripture as the top level, but they think that it is mediated through the Church. Anglicans think that the Church is subject to Scripture, and so this creates some interesting arguments about what Scripture actually teaches. But while the Roman system seems more practical, we fear that it ends up unintentionally subjecting Scripture to the Church. So we don’t like that.
However, its just not true that the Roman Catholic Church doesn’t believe in the Bible, or isn’t biblical. Their Catechism shows that they seek to understand Tradition in light of Scripture. So unlike many evangelical or protestant groups, we tend to understand why the Roman Catholics believe in an authoritative teaching body, even though we don’t agree that that body is authorized by Jesus himself.
We don’t believe in transubstantiation (it says so in the 39 Articles). However, what we don’t believe is really what Roman Catholics today don’t believe either. Confusing? Yeah, it is.
Anglicans believe that Jesus is really present in the Communion. We don’t believe in requiring people to believe in a particular way that he might do that. Roman Catholics, however, do require people to believe in a formula used to precisely spell out the presence of Christ in the bread and wine, and they call it transubstantiation. At the end of the day, both churches believe that the bread and wine are a means of grace, and that Jesus is present there.
So we aren’t supposed to reserve the sacrament (except for the sick). They do. They put it in a chapel, and people pray there in the presence of the sacrament. The piety of the folks who gather there is without question, and their love for Jesus is obvious if you’ve every observed people praying in front of the sacrament. However, we believe that the eucharist wasn’t given to us as something separate from the gathered church. It is a meal to be consumed, not to be put on display. Some Anglicans find this to be a very serious and harmful error. That said, most Anglicans respect the faith and reverence of the Romans, even if we don’t see the mechanics and use of the eucharist the same way.
We Anglicans are catholic. Why? We’re catholic because we believe in the Bible and the Creeds, and because we retain the historic pattern of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons in historic succession. We don’t see the Anglican church as starting during the Reformation. We see it as starting and continuing from the time of the Apostles, landing in England when the Pope sent St. Augustine there. It was reformed in the 16th century, but it didn’t start there. So we don’t think that a church has to be in communion with the Pope to be catholic. However, many people are only familiar with the word ‘catholic’ in association with ‘Roman Catholic.’ So when we say Anglicans are catholic, people think we mean Roman Catholic. I’ve spent a lot of hours trying to help people see that a church can be catholic without being Roman. At least we think it can.
But the Roman Catholics don’t see it that way. They sincerely believe that Jesus appointed the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, as the one person to whom every Church should be connected. And since they define catholic that way, they don’t see us Anglicans as catholic. The funny thing is, by our definition, we accept that they are a catholic church.
So we aren’t willing to drop the word catholic just because other reformational churches are afraid of the word. (Some Anglicans are okay with dropping it, but they’re wrong. Bring on the comments!) We retain it because it is ancient and important, even at the risk of seeming to agree with the Roman Catholics on the full definition of the word.
“Antichrist and Whore of Babylon”
No, the Roman Catholic Church is not the biblical “whore of babylon” and the Pope is not the Antichrist. Just no. Folks, our Roman Catholic friends believe that Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world. They believe that he is Lord. They believe in the Holy Trinity. I don’t think this needs much more explanation than that.
The big picture is that Anglicans tend to be friendlier to the Roman Catholics, to see them as fellow Christians, and to respect the Roman Catholic Church as the most visible, leading church in the world, especially in the West. We tend to be okay with the fact that we don’t have to agree with them on every point in order to accept them as fellow Christians. And we reject the idea that a church isn’t fully catholic unless it is recognized as such by the Pope. We also see the Roman Catholics as important partners in standing together as a witness to Christ in the world, and as leaders in formulating thoughtful theology and platforms for engagement on social issues.
Of course, there are Anglicans who would see things very differently than I’ve described them here. I’m sharing my own experience, and what I see around me most of the time. There are Anglicans who think its important for us to differentiate from the Roman Catholics at most points, and they won’t like what I’ve written here. But my experience is that most Anglicans respect the Roman Catholics, even though we don’t always agree with them.
Photo: Monastery of the Holy Spirit, Conyers, Georgia. Public Domain.