Sermon: What is Anglicanism?


What is Anglicanism?

Felicity O’Brien  2013

Thank you for asking me to come and talk to the U3A group today. My name is Felicity O’Brien, and I am a deacon in the Tawa Anglican Parish. Today’s talk is on the topic “What is Anglicanism?” We will start by looking briefly at the history of the Anglican Church, both in the UK and here in NZ, then we will look at the doctrines and liturgy that underpin it, noting the way doctrine is treated. We will look at what holds it all together, and then consider the way Anglicanism accords authority to Scripture, tradition and reason, the three ‘pillars’ of Anglicanism. Finally we’ll have a brief look at some of the new ways Anglicanism is responding to our times.

What is Anglicanism?  To put it in context, we will have a quick lesson in English history -‘Anglican’ comes from the Latin word for English.[1] There had been Christians in Great Britain since Roman times[2] but after 1066 England was more integrated with Europe[3] and the church was ubiquitous[4] and powerful.[5] In the fourteenth century John Wyclif[6] started to distribute an English-language version of the Bible to his followers.[7] Many people had little respect for the church,[8] which required heavy taxes, and rulers throughout Europe resented the money going to Rome. King Henry VIII, a very devout man,[9] had a problem. His wife was not able to give him a son, and he wanted the Pope to allow a divorce so he could marry again.[10] He had an Act of Parliament[11] written severing all ties with Rome, setting up what was in effect a new church, with himself as head.[12] [13]

England’s break with Rome was not isolated – Martin Luther had published his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517[14] nd religious Reformation was happening all over Europe.[15] The Church of England simplified worship, allowed easy access to the Bible and outlawed worship of relics.[16] The church affirmed its “apostolic foundation through the historic episcopal succession”[17] and ministry of priests and deacons were continued. Thomas Cromwell[18]  masterminded the legal documentation and Thomas Cranmer[19] the worship material,[20] notably the Book of Common Prayer. Thirty-Nine Articles of Faith were developed[21] which set out the Church’s Protestant position.[22] Reformers sought to preserve continuity with the past while reforming the church “in the light of scriptural truth and the challenges of the age.”[23] Richard Hooker was perhaps the most important theologian in this early period. In addition to Scripture he acknowledged church tradition and “recognized human reason as a divine gift for discerning the mind and will of God,”[24] developing an essential of Anglicanism which we’ll look at more a bit later– Scripture joined by tradition[25] and reason.[26]

The term ‘Anglican’ began to be used in the mid-seventeenth century and ‘Anglicanism’[27] became current in the mid-nineteenth century.[28] ‘Anglican’ also described the colonial churches.[29] [30] Several major movements have influenced the church – Evangelicalism,[31] Latitudinarianism,[32]Anglo-Catholicism[33]  and the Charismatic movement.[34] These strands still feature prominently, often in an ‘uneasy alliance.’[35]

The Anglican Church came to NZ with Samuel Marsden ministering to Maori[36] in 1814,[37] but when colonists arrived its attention shifted.[38]

New settlements often had a distinct denominational identity,[39] notably Canterbury, which was intended as a ‘cross-section’ of English society.[40]  NZ Anglicanism struggled because it was not ‘established’ as in the UK but had to rely on voluntary contributions.[41]

We turn now to examine how doctrines and liturgy fit into Anglicanism. A distinctive characteristic of Anglicanism is its doctrinal fluidity[42] stemming from the earliest Reformers[43]  who “refused to tie the Church of England to particular forms of dogma or discipline.”[44] While the ‘essentials’ of Anglican belief are common to Christianity,[45] when Anglicans “confess their faith in the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” they do not all mean the same thing,”[46] and theological statements are always seen as “to some extent provisional.”[47] The Thirty-Nine Articles have traditionally been binding on ordained ministers[48] but Anglicanism does not possess definitive interpretations of the elements of authority such as the Councils and Creeds.[49] “Resemblance rather than concurrence of belief is the basis of identity”[50] and doctrine can be inferred from practice and worship.[51] Anglicanism therefore has the potential for a wide range of doctrinal positions[52] from across the Catholic-Protestant spectrum, which expresses its essential historical nature,[53] and its liberal-mindedness leaves it open to new ideas[54] and creativity. An outworking of this is that “the edges of membership have always tended to be open-ended”[55] and congregations tend to include seekers as well as committed members.[56]

How then does it maintain its unity?[57] The Book of Common Prayer, being the only authorized rite, was accessible to all and has nourished many generations.[58] In keeping with modern requirements and the diversity[59] of the Church there many recent revisions[60] of BCP[61]  including ANZPB/HKMOA[62] and there is a strong ‘family likeness’ between the newer liturgies.[63] Symbols are important in Anglicanism –  “liturgical action of sacramental quality,… by being experienced over and over again [goes] deep into the soul.”[64]

Anglican spirituality is diverse, encompassing monastic, contemplative, Celtic and charismatic traditions, shaped by the rhythm of the church calendar. Music forms an integral part of worship, with hymn-singing which shapes the theology and spirituality of lay people[65] flourishing from the Reformation[66] and further developed by the Evangelicals and the Tractarians.[67] Modern choruses, part of the Charismatic Movement, focus more on personal response. The singing of psalms has been more problematical –Anglican Chant was developed but is more suitable for a trained choir[68] than for a congregation.[69] The architecture of Anglican churches is distinctive, owing much to the Gothic revival of the Victorian era.[70] [71]

Let’s now consider the structure of Anglicanism. Global Anglicanism[72] is not highly centralized or controlled like the RC Church[73] or the Salvation Army. The Archbishop of Canterbury, ‘first among equals,’ is a “symbol of unity”[74] in diversity. The global communion meets in Lambeth Conferences and Anglican Consultative Councils.[75] Indigenization[76] has occurred – provinces are autonomous while still holding to the ethos of the wider Communion. The development of an official voice of the laity[77] in the church structures such as Synods has been an important feature of Anglicanism, and this development was notable in the 1857 Constitution[78] of the Church in NZ.

The Anglican Church’s dispersed authority [79] is a vital component of its identity, as the Lambeth Conference of 1948 states.

“Authority is distributed among Scripture, Tradition, Creeds, the Ministry of the Word and Sacraments, the witness of the saints, and the consensus fidelium, which is the continuing experience of the Holy Spirit through his faithful people in the Church. It is thus a dispersed rather than a centralized authority, having many elements which combine, interact, and check each other.”[80]

In this Anglicanism differs markedly from Pentecostal churches. The three ‘pillars’ of Anglicanism are thus Scripture, tradition and reason,–which helps determine which things are adiafora – not central – and it is a feature of Anglicanism to “deal charitably with those who [take] a different view.”[81] Different ideas are held together without being merged and scholarship[82] is welcomed. There is ongoing debate about how to regard Scripture, and churches vary across the Evangelical – Liberal spectrum. Some however see this variety of belief [83] allowed as ‘flabbiness.’[84] From the seventeenth century as the Church moved away from the Protestant edge a ‘via media’, a middle way between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism[85] developed where Anglicanism is a church of compromise but not synthesis,[86] seeing many sides of any issue[87] in the challenges it has faced – in recent decades the re-marriage of divorced persons and the ordination of women[88] were debated and currently homosexuality and church leadership is on the agenda.

Anglican churches vary greatly in terms of their worship style and theology.[89] In the Victorian age as the social range of the clergy and congregations was becoming increasingly professional middle-class[90] the churches played a vital role in helping the poor and preserving ‘social and moral order,’[91] leading to an ethos of ministering to rather than through the urban poor.[92] The Methodist church which split away from Anglicanism ministered more to the poor. In NZ the working classes were largely ‘lost to the churches.’[93]

What does Anglicanism look like now? New initiatives are arising such as Fresh Expressions in the UK, which differ from traditional ‘church’[94] because they only ask people to “face the stumbling block of the cross”[95] rather than that of church culture.[96] New monastic movements such as Urban Vision are forming in poor communities.[97] Technology like Twitter, Facebook, blogs[98] and of course email helps foster closeness.[99]

Ecumenism has been explored by the Anglican Church but the movement has stalled formally, although there are many Cooperating Parishes which are practicing it in NZ. Many people no longer adhere to strict denomination boundaries, ‘shopping’ for a church that suits them.[100]

So, what is Anglicanism? It is a Christian denomination with deep historical roots, formed when Henry VIII broke with Rome, encompassing both Catholic and reformed theologies. Its sources of authority are dispersed and are open to interpretation, valuing Reason to see our way forward. This means that what works for one generation may have to be set aside for another. A sense of being the ‘middle way’ describes how Anglicanism can hold different ideas in juxtaposition, open to debate and new knowledge. Anglicanism is held together by common worship materials derived from the Book of Common Prayer and a sense of a world-wide communion, which is consultative not legislative. We have bishops, priests and deacons, and lay people have important roles both in ministering and in governance. There is great variety, which is a source of creative engagement and strength, and also of tension. Desmond Tutu described a recent Lambeth Conference in words that could well sum up Anglicanism as “totally untidy, but very, very loveable.” [101]


 “The Anglican Covenant: A Church Times guide’, Church Times, 18 March 2011

Avis, Paul 1988 ‘What is ‘Anglicanism’?’ in Sykes, Stephen, Booty, John, Knight, Jonathon (editors) The Study of Anglicanism London: SPCK

Avis, P 1989 Anglicanism and the Christian Church: theological resources in historical perspectives, Edinburgh: T&T Clark

Brown, Colin, revised Booth, Ken 2012  Anglican Studies Course Guide Christchurch: EIDTS

Baker, J. 1996 ‘Churchmanship’, in Celebrating the Anglican Way, ed.I. Bunting and others, London: Hodder & Stoughton

Battley, D. 1996 ‘Renewal in mission: the influence of the Charismatic Renewal in the Anglican Church today’, in Affirm, vol.4/1, Autumn 1996

Butler, Perry 1988 ‘From the Early Eighteenth Century to the Present Day’ in Sykes, Stephen, Booty, John, Knight, Jonathon (editors) The Study of Anglicanism London: SPCK

Cadwallader, A.D. 1994 ‘For a living Anglican spirituality’, in S. Mark’s Review, no. 157, Autumn 1994

Chadwick, Henry 1988 ‘Tradition, Fathers and Councils’ in Sykes, Stephen, Booty, John, Knight, Jonathon (editors) The Study of Anglicanism London: SPCK

Chadwick, Owen 1964 The reformation Middlesex: Penguin

The Church of the Province of New Zealand 1989 A New Zealand Prayer Book/He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa Auckland: Collins

Cocksworth, C. 1991 ‘Eucharistic Theology” in The Identity of Anglican Worship, ed. K. Stevenson & B. Spinks, Mowbray, London

Dawson, Jenny 2011 A Radical Theology of baptism: A critical investigation of the significance of baptism as the key element in the ecclesiology of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia Porirua: Jenny Dawson

Davidson, Allan 1991 Christianity in Aotearoa: A History of Church and Society in New Zealand Wellington: EFM

Davidson, Allan 2007 “’A sort of cast-off step daughter’. Established but not established: Defining Anglican Sovereignty in Colonial New Zealand”, Anglican Historical Society, Newsletter 38, December 2007

Davidson, Allan K. and Lineham, Peter J. 1987 Transplanted Christianity: Documents illustrating aspects of New Zealand Church History Palmerston North: Dunmore Press

Debuyst, F. 1986 ‘Architectural setting (modern) and the Liturgical movement’ in A New Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship, ed. J.G.Davies, London: SCM Press

Donovan, Peter (ed)1990 Religions of New Zealanders Palmerston North: Dunmore Press

Doran, S. & Durston, C. 1991 Princes, pastors, and People: the Church and Religion in England 1525-1689 London: Routledge

Duckworth, Jenny and Justin 2011 Against the Tide, Towards the Kingdom Eugene; Cascade Books

Dunstan, A. 1992 ‘Hymnody in Christian worship’, in The Study of the Liturgy, revised edition, ed. C.Jones and others, London: SPCK

The Eames Commission 1994 : the official reports, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Communion and Women in the Episcopate, Toronto: Anglican Book Centre

Gilley, S. 1994 “The Church of England in the Nineteenth Century” in A history of religion in Britain, ed. S. Gilley and W.J.Sheils, Oxford: Blackwell

Green, I. 1994 “Anglicanism in Stuart and Hanoverian England” in A History of religion in Britain, edited by S. Gilley and W.J.Sheils, Oxford: Blackwell

Hannaford, R. 1995 ‘Anglican Identity and Ecumenism’, in Journal of Ecumenical Studies, vol.32/2, Spring, 1995

Haugaard, William P.1988 ‘From the Reformation to the Eighteenth Century ‘in Sykes, Stephen, Booty, John, Knight, Jonathon (editors) The Study of Anglicanism London: SPCK

Kaye, Bruce 2009 Conflict and the Practice of Christian Faith: The Anglican Experiment, Eugene, OR: Cascade Books

Long, K.R. 1971 The music of the English Church London: Hodder & Stoughton

McGrath, A. 1993 ‘Evangelical Anglicanism: a contradiction in  terms?’, in Evangelical Anglicans: their role and influence in the Church today, ed. R.T. France & A.E. McGrath, London: SPCK

Neill, Stephen 1997 Anglicanism London: Mowbray

Norris Jnr, Richard A. 1988 Episcopacy’ in Sykes, Stephen, Booty, John, Knight, Jonathon (editors) The Study of Anglicanism London: SPCK

Perham, M. 1995 ‘A plea for poetry and common prayer’, in Church Times, 28 July 1995

Pickering, W.S.F. 1988 ‘The Sociology of Anglicanism’ in Sykes, Stephen, Booty, John, Knight, Jonathon (editors) The Study of Anglicanism London: SPCK

Pobee, John S. 1988 ‘non-Anglo-Saxon Anglicanism’ in Sykes, Stephen, Booty, John, Knight, Jonathon (editors) The Study of Anglicanism London: SPCK

Randerson, R. 1994 ‘Ripe unto harvest: the relationship between evangelism and social transformation’, in Affirm, vol.2/1, April 1994

Runcie, R.1988 Authority in Crisis? An Anglican response, London: SCM Press

Shriver, Frederick H. 1988 ‘Councils, Conferences and Synods’ in Sykes, Stephen, Booty, John, Knight, Jonathon (editors) The Study of Anglicanism London: SPCK

Smyth, C. 1962 “The Evangelicals” in The Church and the Nation, London: Hodder & Stoughton

Smyth, C. 1962 “The Tractarians” in The Church and the Nation, London: Hodder & Stoughton

Stafford, W. 1995 ‘Anglican Spirituality’, in Anglican World, Advent 1995

Stevenson, K 1992 ‘Anglicanism and liturgical change’, in A Church for the Nation: essays on the future of Anglicanism, ed. A. Warren,  London: Gracewing

Tanner, Mary 1988 ‘The Ecumenical Future’ in Sykes, Stephen, Booty, John, Knight, Jonathon (editors) The Study of Anglicanism London: SPCK

Thomas, Philip H.E. 1988 ‘The Doctrine of the Church’ in Sykes, Stephen, Booty, John, Knight, Jonathon (editors) The Study of Anglicanism London: SPCK

Toon, Peter 1988 ‘The Articles and Homilies’ in Sykes, Stephen, Booty, John, Knight, Jonathon (editors) The Study of Anglicanism London: SPCK

The United Church of England and Ireland in New Zealand; Constitution, 1857

Yates, N. 1991 Buildings, faith and worship: the liturgical arrangements of Anglican churches 1600-1900 Oxford: OUP

“Lambeth Indaba: Capturing Conversations and Reflections from the Lambeth Conference 2008. Equipping Bishops for Mission and Strengthening Anglican Identity” (accessed 18/1/12 accessed 28 October 2013




(And a note of humour to finish with)

 Top 10 Reasons to be an Episcopalian
(from the comedian Robin Williams, who is an Episcopalian, on a recent HBO special)

10. No snake handling.

9. You can believe in dinosaurs.

8. Male and female God created them; male and female we ordain them.

7. You don’t have to check your brains at the door.

6. Pew aerobics.

5. Church year is color-coded.

4. Free wine on Sunday.

3. All of the pageantry – none of the guilt.

2. You don’t have to know how to swim to get baptized.

And the Number One reason to be an Episcopalian:

1. No matter what you believe, there’s bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you.

Copyright © 2002 St. Augustine by-the-S

[1] Gregory the Great used it in his letters of Augustine of Canterbury in the seventh century. Avis 1988 p.460

[2] Neil 1997 p.9

[3] Neil 1997 p.13

[4] Neil 1997 pp.22, 23

[5]  Neil 1997 p.18

[6] with aim of restoring the position of Scriptures “as the unique and sole authority for life and doctrine in the Church” Neil 1997 p.21

[7] known as Lollards, humble men and women. Haugaard 1988 p.3

[8] “in 1502 Erasmus said that a layman was insulted unpardonably if he were called a cleric, priest, or a  monk.” Chadwick 1964 p.21

[9] “Henry VIII was said to hear three masses on days when he was hunting and sometimes five on other days.” Chadwick 1964 p.23

[10] Chadwick 1964 p.99

[11] Doran 1991 p.1

[12] Brown 2012 p.19

[13] This is why our current monarch is head of the Church of England.

[14] Wiki Martin Luther

[15] Chadwick 1964 p.97

[16] Doran 1991 p.3

[17] Avis Sykes 1988 p.465

[18] Doran 1991 p.2

[19]  He was married to a niece of Andreas Osiander, a follower of Luther. Haugaard 1988 p.7

[20] ‘Bloody Mary’ burnt him at the stake in 1556. MacCulloch 1996 p.27

[21] These were formally accepted by parliament

[22] These stated the fundamentals of faith and renounced heresy, “rather than laying down what should be believed down to the last detail.” Green 1994 p.170

[23] Davis 1995 p.30

[24] Davis 1995 pp.30,31

[25] Runcie 1988 p.36

[26] Avis 1988 p.473

[27] referring to a distinct theological position

[28] Green 1994 p.168

[29] “The growth of the Anglican Communion (the term first appeared in 1851) stimulated a desire for closer links between its parts. From the 1850s a growing pan-Anglican consciousness was becoming apparent.” Butler 1988 p.41

[30] English commercial interests saw the initial spread of the Church, with the first Church of England parish in America established in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. The Caribbean was also settled early, to be followed by activities in the Levant and India. (Butler 1988 p.39)

[31] Davis 1995 p.31

[32] who “favoured latitude of opinion in religious matters and an end to religious controversy.” Butler 1988 p.37

[33] or the Oxford or Tractarian Movements, which “called the church to its catholic heritage and fostered sacramental and liturgical reform.” Davis 1995 p.31 This movement had  great influence on Architecure with Gothic revivalism.

[34] Brown 2012 p.13

[35] Cadwallader 1994 p.11

[36] Maori Christians administered to each other (Davidson 1991 p.17) with Rota Waitoa the first deacon ordained in 1853. (Brown 1990 p.59)

[37] Brown 1990 p.59

[38] Brown 1990 p.60

[39] Brown 1990 p.68.  In Waipu Presbyterians (Davidson 1991 p.53)  and in Albertland Nonconformists (Davidson 1991 p.54)

[40] Canterbury Association in Davidson 1991 pp.51,52

[41] Brown 1990 p.62, and see Davidson 1991 for a full account of the church in NZ

[42] McGrath 1993 p.10

[43] Brown 2012 p.56

[44] Thomas 1988 p.254

[45] McGrath 1993 p.11

[46] ibid

[47] Davis 1995 p.112

[48]“although more recently the terms of assent have varied in some provinces.” Brown 2012 p.13

[49] Hannaford 1995 p.109

[50] Hannaford 1995 p.112

[51] Hannaford 1995 p.107

[52] Cocksworth 1991 p.49

[53] Cocksworth 1991 p.50

[53] ibid

[54] “The Church hath authority to establish that for an order at one time, which at another time it may abolish, and in both do well.” Richard Hooker in Dawson 2011 p.18

[55] Stephenson 1992 p.108

[56] McGrath 1993 p.19

[57] Brown 2012 p.13

[58] Brown 2012 p.83

[59] Cocksworth 1991 p.49

[60] ibid

[61] BCP persists most in Evensong, where Cranmer’s beautiful language continues to inspire. MacCulloch 1996 p.30

[62]A New Zealand Prayer Book/ He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa – the Maori rite was not translated from English but was an “original Maori production.”  Brown 1990 p.62

[63] Stephenson 1992 p.109

[64] Perham 1995 p.7

[65] Brown 2012 p.100

[66] Dunstan 1992 p.509

[67] Who translated ancient Greek and Latin  hymns. Dunstan 1992 p.516

[68] ibid

[69] The two main traditions of church music[69] have been the Cathedral Choir tradition, where beautiful and technically difficult music is offered by a trained choir on behalf of the congregation, and the parish tradition, where the congregation are able to sing simple orders of service.

[70] Davidson 1991 p.59

[71] While the Oxford Movement contributed to worship, Cambridge was the source of much architectural inspiration. Yates 1991 p.150

[72] Pickering 1988 p.405

[73] Pickering 1988 p.406

[74] Davis 1995 p.190

[75] although a recent measure – the Covenant – is seen as a mixed blessing. Church times 2011

[76] Pickering 1988 p.407

[77] Runcie 1988 p.47

[78]Constitution of the United Church of England and Ireland in New Zealand 1857

[79] Avis Sykes 1988 p.475

[80] Brown 2012 p.49

[81] Green 1994 p.171

[82] Avis 1989 p.2

[83] Pickering 1988 p.414

[84] Pickering 1988 p.415

[85] MacCulloch 1996 p.29

[86]Avis 1988 p.63

[87] Davis 1995 p.142

[88] where the change of women’s status in society meant that it was no longer a barrier – this is an example of reason in action. Brown 2012 p.67

[89] Baker 1996 p.110

[90] Smyth 1962 p.159

[91] Gilley1994 p.304

[92] ibid

[93] Davidson 1991 p.72

[94] Cray 2012

[95] ibid

[96] Groups meet to explore Christianity in cafes, pubs and police stations, to bake bread, and even Goth services have been held. ibid

[97] See Duckworth for an account of Urban Vision in the Wellington region.

[98] See,,‎

[99] Kaye 2009

[100] Davis 1995 p.54

[101] Tutu in Davis 1995 p.200

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