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Six Theses on Anglican Identity

By Fr. Mark Perkins

James Clark’s review of Orthodox Anglican Identity by Charles Erlandson in Mere Orthodoxy finishes with a call to more clearly define the boundaries of Anglican identity. “A necessary step,” he says, “would be to stop using the word ‘Anglican’ to refer to those who patently do not qualify.” He follows his own advice explicitly in relation to “Christians who deny infant baptism, promote lay confirmation and presidency over the Eucharist, and espouse a congregationalist polity.” According to Clark, they “may be brothers and sisters in Christ, but they are not Anglican.” Clark refrains from explicitly declaring Anglo-Catholics “not Anglican,” but earlier he cites Erlandson’s judgment that Anglo-Catholics also fail to uphold classical Anglican identity.

While agreeing with much of what Clark writes, I would add that understanding our Anglican heritage and identity is of supreme importance — and is a necessary precondition to defining boundaries.

To that end, here are some theses for disputation:

(1) There is a distinction between entirely jettisoning the Articles — and relativizing them as constituent but not finally authoritative features of Anglican identity.

American Anglicans have always done at least a mild version of the latter since the very first BCP of PECUSA. (Of course, “relativizing” has nothing to do with “moral relativism” but is about relating and subordinating the authority of Anglican distinctives to greater authorities, about which more below.)

(2) All Anglicans relativize their Anglican identity.

The only partial exception is those I tend to describe as canonical-century fundamentalists — those who see Anglican identity as completely and exclusively defined by the years 1552-1662. But even this exception is partial, because none of them actually believe that the Anglican Formularies are finally authoritative — despite the occasional tendency to imply that the Bible’s authority rests in the teaching of the Formularies.

(3) The key question, then, is not whether elements of Anglican identity are relativized — related, that is, to greater authorities and other features of identity formation — but rather how and to what they are relativized.

Progressives relativize Anglican identity to the regnant culture. The lay-presidency congregationalists relativize Anglican identity to the Bible-and-me individualistic piety of 19th-century evangelicalism. Even the canonical-century “reformed catholicks” relativize Anglican identity — at the very least, they subordinate Anglican identity to the authority of Scripture, as understood by the broader Magisterial Protestant tradition. Anglo-Catholics seek to subordinate Anglican identity to the authority of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church — itself understood as the authoritative interpreter of the finally authoritative words of Scripture.

(4) In every instance, so-called Anglicans seek to retain those features of Anglican identity that are not in conflict with whatever they view as finally authoritative.

Progressives seek to retain that which does not conflict with the regnant culture, congregationalists that which does not interfere with Bible-and-me individualism, canonical-century folks that which does not conflict with Magisterial Protestantism, and Anglo-Catholics that which does not interfere with (what we see as) the tradition and authoritative teachings of the undivided Church.

(5) None retains all; Anglo-Catholics and canonical-century “reformed catholicks” retain the most.

Progressives and congregationalists ultimately retain the least substantive Anglican identity, because what makes them distinct runs deeply contrary to historic markers of Anglican identity. None retains all because elements of the Formularies are actually at odds with the Anglican spirit of Catholic Ressourcement, and so in certain circumstances you have to choose between letter and spirit. Without question, the “reformed catholicks” retain the most from the Formularies themselves, but that retention is underwritten by a “canonical-century” spirit that arguably puts them at odds with the animating spirit of our Anglican forebears. Anglo-Catholics retain that spirit most fully and thus discard elements of the Formularies that conflict with Catholic Christianity. Judgments of what actually conflicts will vary among Anglo-Catholics, but we are capable, in my mind, of retaining almost everything from the Formularies, so long as it is interpreted in subordination to the teaching authority of the Church writ large. I have made this argument more fully before.

(6) Though polemics between “reformed catholicks” and Anglo-Catholics are inevitable (see #5 above), we ought also to uphold the common ground we share.

Granted, Anglo-Catholics recognize insufficiencies in the classic prayer books — a need to augment and adjust elements of the tradition to better align with the broader Western tradition. Nevertheless, we share with our “reformed catholick” brethren a rootedness in the classic prayer book tradition absent from the congregationalists. Likewise, we share a commitment to historic orthodoxy and orthopraxis not found among the progressives.

And that, these days, counts for quite a lot. The very proximity of our traditions makes our differences disportionately galling, and the disputes over them quickly become irrationally contentious. There’s no need to paper over our disagreements. A false pretense of superficial accord is not something that interests me, as I am sure is obvious to all of our readers. Nor does honoring our common ground require a rush to intercommunion between the old high churchmen and the Catholics. But, at the very least, it does mean resisting contempt. And it probably means resisting the urge to deny to the other camp the right to be called Anglican.

Fr. Mark Perkins is Curate at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida and Executive Editor of Earth & Altar.


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