Anglican vs. Catholic? Is Anglicanism Catholic, Reformed, or Protestant?


(Roman) Catholic? Reformed? Protestant?

Most American evangelicals experience a church world that is either protestant/reformed or catholic. You have to be one or the other. For many ‘catholic’ means “Roman Catholic”; ‘reformed’ means “Calvinist”; ‘Protestant’ means “Not Roman Catholic.” The Orthodox churches are kind of silently off to the side in most of these schemes.

Anglicanism, however, had a unique history that wreaks havoc on these neat labeling systems.


Anglicanism is both Reformed AND Catholic

Anglicans tend to define their church as both catholic and reformational, or both catholic and evangelical. Here’s the fun part though: when we say ‘catholic’ we don’t mean we are “Roman Catholic,” and when we say ‘reformed’ we don’t necessarily mean we are all “Calvinists.”

For example, I have two portraits hanging on the wall in my study. One is a picture of Pope Gregory commissioning Augustine of Canterbury to go to England to establish communion between the Church in England and the catholic church. The other, next to it, is Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, first reformational Archbishop of Canterbury, and a father of the Reform movement.

From L to R: Catholic, Reformed

Both are there, side by side, with no seeming contradiction. I have books on my shelf by John Stott and John Henry Newman. I have a crucifix sitting next to an ESV Study Bible. I believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and I also believe in the priesthood of all believers.


Some Anglican History

A little bit o’ history might help here.

The British Isles are the isles where the Anglican church was originally planted (Anglican comes from the germanic tribe the “Angles”). Christianity came to these Isles at some time in the late first or early second century, possibly along with the Roman army, or through some early eastern/Celtic missionaries. Later, Pope Gregory sent Augustine (Bonus fact: not Augustine of Hippo) to evangelize the British Isles in A.D. 596. Point is, the church in that part of the world came into communion with the catholic (i.e. worldwide) church at that time, but had previously existed.

So when we say we are catholic, we are saying that our church is a continuation of the church in those early days in which the Christian Church was undivided and universal.

Skip ahead a thousand years. Now it’s the Reformation. The Church in England went through a reformation period, initiated in full by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, that was influenced by both Geneva (Calvinists) and Germany (Lutherans). This, plus the next hundred years of arguments, persecutions, wrangling, and disputes shaped a reformed and yet still catholic Anglican church.

Now, the English Reformation was clearly a split with Rome in certain respects. Consider that the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion state that

“As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred, so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.” (Article 19)

“The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.” (Article 22)

However, rather than leaving behind the catholic faith and becoming only protestant, the Anglican reformation ended up reforming the existing catholic church in England. This is why Bishops were retained, and priests, along with sacramental theology and liturgy.

It’s fair to say that Anglicans have, on the whole, a stronger sense of the authority of the Church and of church traditions than some other Protestants do. And yet, though the authority and traditions of the Church carry weight within the Anglican tradition, Scripture is clearly recognized as the final arbiter in all matters.

Consider that Article 20 of the Thirty-Nine Articles reads:

Of the Authority of the Church: The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.

Eventually, Anglicans sought communion with the Roman church and the Orthodox churches, alongside continuing fellowship with protestant churches. We have something in common with all of these traditions.

Catholic Pope Gregory commissions Augustine in A.D. 596 as Thomas Cranmer looks on with that distinctive Reformed gaze.
Catholic Pope Gregory commissions Augustine in A.D. 596 as Thomas Cranmer (16th c.) looks on with that distinctive Reformed gaze.

And of course, the English ruled the seas and began to colonize the known world. They spread this reformed catholic faith all over the world, not always in nice ways (to put it mildly). The American revolution ended up leading to an Anglican church in the United States that was independent politically, but remained in communion with the Church of England. This ended up being a pattern all over the world during decolonization.

In some phases of its history, the Anglican church has emphasized its protestant or reformed reality and de-emphasized its catholic nature, such as the evangelical revivals of the 18th century. At other times, such as the 19th century Oxford Movement, there has been a revival of the catholic spirituality or vision. But both of these influences have remained.

Maintaining the Anglican Tension

So the Anglican church is a reformed catholic church. We don’t see a fundamental conflict between the words evangelical and catholic, or feel the need to choose between our catholic ancestors and our reformational ones.

This can really mess with the mind of a person who has always thought of these things as polar opposites. For us, though they are often in tension, they are both necessary to retain and to live into.

I know this church history and identity stuff can get confusing. But hey, at least I didn’t try to explain how we also see ourselves as charismatic!  (that’s for another day).

Published on

June 11, 2015


The Anglican Pastor

A classic resource from the founding team of Anglican Compass.

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