What does “Anglican” mean? This is a great, common, complicated question!

First, let’s get this out of the way: It’s “ANGLican,” not “ANGELican.” We don’t worship angels!

“Anglican” Means “English”

Next, let’s go to Merriam-Webster. On its own, the word “Anglican” simply means “English”—“of or relating to England or the English nation.” When applied to a segment of the Christian Church, it means “of or relating to the established episcopal [meaning ‘led by bishops’] Church of England and churches of similar faith and order in communion with it.”

So, historically speaking, “Anglican” refers to the branch of the Christian Church that traces its roots back to the Church of England.

Although the Church of England emerged as something distinctly separate from the Roman Catholic Church during the 16th-century English Reformation, Christianity has been present in the British Isles since at least the fourth century (there were British bishops present at the Council of Arles in 314). So, although the word “Anglicanism” wasn’t coined until the 19th century, and although the 16th-century English Reformation undoubtedly shaped Anglican identity (the 17th century was also very important!), the roots of the Anglican tradition go back much earlier than the 16th century.

The “Anglican Communion”

Today, there are Anglican churches all around the world, and not just in England, because the Church of England basically went global with the British Empire. This global family of churches is known as the “Anglican Communion,” and its history is intertwined with the history of colonialism and post-colonialism. As the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church [ODCC] puts it,

For the first 250 years after the Reformation, the Anglican Communion, except for the Episcopal Church in Scotland…consisted solely of the one (state) Church of England, Ireland, and Wales. Efforts to found sees [“see”=“jurisdiction of a bishop”] in the colonies…were hindered by supposed legal objections and real political ambiguities, and priests working there, who were for the most part state chaplains rather than missionaries, were placed under the jurisdiction of the Bp. of London.

So, as the Church of England went global with the British Empire, the churches in the colonies were under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London. This situation began to change, however, after the American Revolutionary War made having a “Church of England” in the USA an untenable position! Again, as the ODCC narrates things,

In 1784 the Scottish bishops accepted an invitation to consecrate S. Seabury as the first bishop of the Church in the United States. … With the episcopal succession secured, the Episcopal Church in the United States formed itself into an autonomous body in full communion with the see of Canterbury by the action of its first General Convention in 1789, when it also produced its own revision of the BCP.

Other colonial churches eventually secured their independence from the Church of England, resulting in the global network of mostly national Anglican churches that we have today (with names like “The Anglican Church of Australia,” “The Anglican Church of Canada,” and “The Anglican Church of Papua New Guinea”).

The Anglican Communion is Divided

The Anglican Communion has been held together by four “Instruments of Communion”:

  1. The Archbishop of Canterbury (viewed as a “first among equals” [primus inter pares] of Anglican archbishops)
  2. The Lambeth Conference (first held in 1867, held roughly every ten years)
  3. The Anglican Consultative Council (first met in 1971)
  4. The Primates’ Meeting (first met in 1979, “Primate”=“head bishop or archbishop of a Province”)

However, as Terry Brown notes, there’s long been division within the Anglican tradition.

At different times in Anglican history, strong proponents of various Anglican ways have differed enough with the recognized Anglican or Episcopal body to leave it—for example, the Puritans, the Non-Jurors, the Methodists, the Reformed Episcopal Church, and others. (“Anglican Way or Ways?,” The Oxford Handbook of Anglican Studies, 631)

Nevertheless, things have really started to heat up (and break up) since the early 2000s. Despite the upholding of a traditional sexual ethic in Resolution 1.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference, the main flashpoint issue has been sexuality and same-sex unions—especially related to the shifting positions of The Episcopal Church (in the USA) and the Anglican Church of Canada (and now other Provinces) in defiance of a traditional sexual ethic. But other theological issues are at play in the conservative/liberal divide within the Anglican Communion.

The GAFCON Movement Defines Anglicanism Theologically

The Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans was formed in 2008 when the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) was held in Jerusalem as a conservative alternative to the 2008 Lambeth Conference. “The Jerusalem Statement and Declaration,” a product of GAFCON 2008, called for the creation of a GAFCON Primates’ Council and a Province in North America. The Anglican Church in North America was founded in 2009.

Notice the theological definition of Anglicanism that’s proposed in the 2008 Jerusalem Statement and Declaration.

“Our fellowship is not breaking away from the Anglican Communion. We, together with many other faithful Anglicans throughout the world, believe the doctrinal foundation of Anglicanism, which defines our core identity as Anglicans, is expressed in these words: The doctrine of the Church is grounded in the Holy Scriptures and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. In particular, such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal. We intend to remain faithful to this standard, and we call on others in the Communion to reaffirm and return to it. While acknowledging the nature of Canterbury as an historic see, we do not accept that Anglican identity is determined necessarily through recognition by the Archbishop of Canterbury.” (Emphasis added)

Instead of communion with Canterbury defining what it means to be Anglican, the GAFCON movement insists on adherence to Scripture, the Ecumenical Councils, the Creeds, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and Ordinal. (Note that the 39 Articles, the 1662 BCP, and its Ordinal are what are known as Anglican “formularies,” the foundational documents of Anglicanism.)

For an overview of the recent history of the Anglican Communion since 1998 from the GAFCON perspective, see the timeline at “Anglican Reality Check.

Others Still Define Anglicanism around Polity and Canterbury

For a description of recent events from the other (non-GAFCON) side of the debate, in which stable polity (“polity” meaning “the way that the/a church organizes itself”) and communion with Canterbury are key, consider Terry Brown’s assessment in The Oxford Handbook of Anglican Studies:

More recently, divisions within the Communion have resulted in a few bishops, dioceses, and congregations leaving their canonical Anglican or Episcopal jurisdictions and placing themselves under the metropolitical authority of Anglican or Episcopal provinces in Africa and South America sympathetic to their beliefs. Sometimes these receiving provinces have accepted bishops and congregations in contravention of their own constitutions and canons. This process has resulted in many lawsuits and increased the tension between all the parties concerned. These breakaway groups have consecrated additional bishops and hope to replace the Episcopal Church and Anglican Church of Canada within the formal structure of the Anglican Communion. […]

Given current Anglican and Episcopal structures, whether domestic or international, it is difficult to regard these breakaway groups as anything other than schismatic, in the tradition of Anglican schisms that have gone before them, from the Puritans to the Reformed Episcopal Church in the USA. Like their predecessors, they regard themselves as the true church and the bodies from which they are withdrawing the heretical or schismatic ones. However, from the perspective of the Anglican Way, with its rootedness in history and stable church polity, one can only let them go and leave the door open for their return. Such groups, as a result of their perfectionist and congregationalist theologies, have frequently divided further after leaving the Anglican Communion. … Therefore, it is important to resist those who would dismantle the Anglican Communion (including its individual provinces and dioceses) or make conditions for their remaining in it, such as the expulsion of bishops, dioceses, or provinces with which they do not agree. (“Anglican Way or Ways?,” The Oxford Handbook of Anglican Studies, 631–32)

As you can tell from that quote, defining what it means to be “Anglican” is a contentious issue!

Conclusion: “Anglican” Means More Than Just “English”!

Yes, the simplest way of defining “Anglican” and “Anglicanism” is “the branch of the Christian Church that traces its roots to the Church of England.” But this historical definition, valuable though it may be, does little to reflect or address the theological divides within the Anglican Communion today.

Thanks to their English heritage, Anglican churches around the world still share a familiar and formal resemblance when it comes to liturgies and Books of Common Prayer. But the theological fragmentation of the Anglican Communion is becoming increasingly hard to ignore.