It seems to me that the Anglican identity revolves around seven hallmarks. In roughly chronological order as I understand them to have developed, they are:
- Sacramental Theology – Whether one affirms all seven sacraments like Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox or only baptism and the Eucharist like many Protestant traditions, sacramental theology has always been a central feature of the Anglican identity. It’s also worth noting that for Anglicans the Eucharist is the climax of their worship services rather than the sermon.
- The Bishopric – Restorationist groups like Anabaptists talk about practicing “biblical Christianity,” or this idea of leapfrogging the better part of church history in returning to the norms of the first century church. At that time there were apostles overseeing local churches. Within the epistles we see them correcting doctrinal error, settling disputes, conducting church discipline, and so forth. Minor problem: The apostles died. That makes it impossible to replicate New Testament polity. What is possible is an unbroken line of bishops, who succeeded the apostles. This practice dates back well into the first century. Anglicans are quick to point out that their bishops’ authority is stems from a direct link to Jesus and the apostles.
- Historic Orientation – Clearly the weight of and emphasis upon tradition varies among provinces, dioceses, parishes, and even individuals. Nevertheless, all Anglicans (at least in theory) lean heavily upon tradition–Patristic, Medieval, and Modern–in both doctrine and practice. There’s this innate impulse to look to the wisdom of the past to guide us in the present and maintain continuity in the future, which is most clearly evident in practices like the recitation of the creeds. The Anglican tradition has never sought to be a recreation of first century Christianity. It has sought to simultaneously and faithfully bear witness both to Christianity’s origins and its transmission through time, space, and culture.
- English Culture – There’s a never-ending debate about when the Church of England began. Many scholars argue it started in and around the reigns of King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I when Catholic England ceased to exist. This would mean the tradition proper is less than 500 years old even if its roots go back much earlier. We’ll call this the Post-Catholic View. There’s another group who think that a distinctly English expression of Christianity has existed since 35 CE when Joseph of Arimathea is said to have brought the Gospel to Glastonbury. That’s possible–even probable according to some–but ultimately unprovable. If that’s true, however, Christianity in England might well predate that in the rest of Western Europe. Whatever its actual origins, Christianity on the British isles is unquestionably ancient and over time the geographical dynamic lent itself to the development of a uniquely English cultural ethos. Thus, there are those who argue that the Anglican tradition actually preceded the Roman Catholic Church, was sustained throughout the centuries, and merely made official in the Elizabethan Settlement the autonomy that had always existed. Call it the English Christianity View. As is usually the case in such historical discussions, the truth is probably more both/and than either/or. Anyway, what is certain is that a distinctly English brand of Christianity was exported throughout the world. Even in provinces like Israel, Uganda, Japan, and Brazil, Anglican churches bear a strong, underlying English influence as their name suggests.
- Scripture’s Authority – One need look no further than the Great Schism or the innumerable divisions within Protestantism to see that the interpretation and application of the Bible is no simple or easy thing. For its part, Anglicanism has taken an interesting hybrid position regarding Scripture’s authority. On the one hand, I think just about every orthodox Anglican would acknowledge that the Bible is, at the very least, the Word of God and its teachings are, when properly interpreted and discerningly applied, the highest standard for matters of faith and practice. In this way, Anglicans have in a very real way elevated Scripture’s role above that in Catholicism and Orthodoxy. There’s distinct Reformation influence there. At the same time, Anglicans tend to concur with Rome and… whatever the Orthodox equivalent is… that Scripture cannot be rightly interpreted outside of apostolic tradition or the Church. It’s a perspective that makes groups like Baptists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans quite uneasy. I suppose it’s enough to say that Anglicans believe they’ve embraced the best of the Protestant Reformation in regards to the Bible’s authority while distancing themselves from its excesses and abuses.
- Prayer Book – Obviously this includes Anglican liturgy… The Orthodox are known for their profession that doctrine and practice are inseparable–that each so informs and flows into the other that one cannot be rightly understood without the other. This is why they so disagree with the West’s abstract and almost mechanical doctrinal formulations. Clearly Anglicanism is more influenced by Western thought for historical and geographical reasons. Yet the Church of England seems to have bridged the east-west chasm a bit. Beginning with Thomas Cranmer’s first prayer book in late 1540s, cementing with the official 1662, and continuing through all the subsequent revisions, the Book of Common Prayer has served as the source of Anglican doctrine and practice. Granted, many today don’t use it during their worship services because they’re trying to make the tradition more accessible to those from non-Anglican backgrounds, but in my experience these people still look to the BCP as their basis for their services.
- Via Media – Given the above treatment there’s no need to detail this principle any further other than to say it was conceptually (further) developed by Richard Hooker.
I think this is an interesting start. I’m curious that he didn’t mention the Creeds or Canterbury. What do you think? What would you have included? What would you have left off?