Of the Ecclesia Anglicana

Part 1 in a continuing series about the Anglican faith.

The “Anglican Church” is a collection of churches worldwide that are “in communion” with the See of Canterbury (The Church of England). How the Church of England came to be is an exciting story in itself.

It’s a common mistake that is repeated in textbooks and classrooms everywhere: most of us were taught that England’s King Henry VIII wanted to get a divorce from his wife Katherine of Aragon. The truth is, Henry sought an annulment from her. In case you don’t know the difference, a divorce is a legal instrument that ends a marriage but an annulment is a legal declaration that a valid marriage never took place. Back in Henry’s day, it was quite common for the Roman Catholic Church to grant such annulments – especially for Europe’s royal families.

Here’s yet another half-truth you were taught in school: most people were taught that Henry wanted the annulment because Katherine had not given him a male heir. Which is technically true. But the reason that Henry felt that he had not been blessed with a male heir is because of the “unclean” nature of his marriage to Katherine. You see, Henry had been more or less forced by his father (Henry VII) to marry Katherine for purposes of keeping an alliance with Spain. Katherine had originally been the wife of Henry’s older brother Arthur – and Arthur had died prematurely due to illness contracted whilst crossing the English Channel. Marrying your brother’s wife is specifically forbidden by the book of Leviticus (Chapter 18, verse 16: “Turpitudinem uxoris fratris tui non revelabis, quia turpitudo fratris tui est.”) In fact, the prohibition was taken so seriously that Henry was required to get special permission from the Pope just to get married in the first place!

Henry’s case for an annulment from the Pope was essentially more or less open and shut, save one tiny detail: Clement VII was being held hostage by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V – who just happened to be Katherine’s nephew. Charles would never have insulted his aunt by granting the divorce yet Henry would not let the Tudor dynasty die.

The end result of this impasse was the Act of Supremacy of 1534, which formally dissolved the link between the England and the Roman Church (the Church in England) and made Henry the head of the new Church of England. But you must keep one thing in mind about the “English Reformation”: for all his faults, Henry was a good Catholic. Henry was a stanch defender of Catholic orthodoxy against the “heretic” Lutheran and Calvinist hordes on the continent. In fact, the aforementioned Pope Clement VII gave Henry the title “Defender of the Faith” (fidei defensor, which still appears on all English coinage as “Fid:Def”) for writing the book In Defense of The Seven Sacraments. Although Henry mercilessly plundered the Roman church’s wealth in England and made life difficult for any remaining Roman clergy in England, Henry’s church was decidedly Catholic in both outlook and in form.

After Henry’s passing, England’s religious life was filtered through a sieve of successive Catholic and Protestant monarchs. This constant “back and forth” resulted in the glorious via media that is the true genius of the Anglican church. But more on that soon.

What is the Anglican faith?

To understand the actual faith of Anglicanism, you need one last history lesson.

At one time, the Christian church in Europe was united under one faith. However, tensions built up between the Western (Roman Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) churches for centuries, culminating in the Great Schism of 1054. Several issues caused the churches to split, among them the insertion of the filioque clause into the Nicene Creed; the use by the Western church of unleavened bread for the Eucharist; and disputes in the Balkans over whether the Western or Eastern church had jurisdiction. In all of these actions, the Western (Catholic) church acted independently on issues that the Eastern (Orthodox) church felt has been agreed upon universally. And if these things were agreed upon universally, they couldn’t be changed by a faction of the church. So the Eastern churches left.

One of the first things that Protestant Anglican Church would do would be to go back to the beginning: the Old and New Testaments were declared ‘as containing all things necessary for salvation’ and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith. In the absence of a clear indication on a matter of theology or practice, the Anglican founders either discarded the practice or looked to Church history to see what had been done in the days of the “Universal Church” – the days before the Great Schism.

As a result, many medieval practices – some would say excesses – of the Roman church were therefore jettisoned: the doctrine of Purgatory, the use of Latin instead of the vernacular and the celibacy of the clergy serve as just a few examples. All of these were removed from Anglican theology. An example of how the Church of England deferred to the Gospels instead of Roman tradition is in the Anglican interpretation of the sacraments. The Roman church recognizes seven sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, Matrimony. In the Anglican interpretation, only two actual sacraments are recognized: Baptism and the Eucharist, since these are the only two sacraments commanded by Christ. The other things are referred to as “sacramental rites” because while important, they were not ordered by Christ.

If you are familiar with orthodox Christianity, you can get an excellent idea of the differences between the medieval Roman and Anglican views by reading the Anglican “Declaration of Independence”: The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.

All of these differences might seem like splitting hairs to some, yet they form the basis of the great Anglican via media: the Middle Way. Rather than hold the faithful to rigid dogma, the Middle Way means that Anglicans are free to believe or disbelieve in many aspects of “orthodox” Christianity. You may believe (or not believe) in the Immaculate Conception or participate (or not participate) in Confession. And this has affected the Anglican church as a corporate body, by leading to the creation of three “subchurches” within the Communion: high church, broad church and low church:

High church – this is the “orthodox” part of the Anglican church, typically being very Catholic in faith and practice. Most “high church” parishes hold “mass” not “services”, complete with a sung mass and incense. Most have confessionals and hold Evensong and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Generally opposed to the ordination of women and “gay rights” within the church. High churches are sometimes referred to as “smells and bells” for their use of incense and the Angelus bell.

Broad church – this is the “standard” Anglican church; most American Episcopal churches fall into this category. They typically hold spoken “services” instead of “mass” with far less ceremony than high churches. Typically consider themselves to be “inclusive” while others consider them to be “wishy washy”. Broad churches are sometimes referred to as “brass and class” for their fine decorations and “classy” atmosphere.

Low church – Sometimes called “country churches”, these churches keep “ceremony” to a minimum and are the most evangelical of the churches. Low churches are in a unique position as they are typically far more “conservative” than a broad church, but far less “orthodox” than a high church. They are sometimes referred to as “pine and pain” for the rustic pews in these churches.

These types of churches might seem to be quite different, but they are all held together by a common thread: the Book of Common Prayer (BCP). The BCP serves as the Anglican “missal” – the book containing all the prayers and responses necessary for celebrating the Mass throughout the year. Every church in the Anglican communion follows the BCP, thus ensuring that the same words are spoken every Sunday in every church in Christendom. More or less. Every national church has its own version of the BCP, but all are based on the English 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Some churches even have more than one BCP – in the USA, conservative Anglican parishes tend to use the “pre-women’s ordination” 1928 BCP instead of the “official” 1979 BCP.

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