Ask an Anglican: What’s in a Name?

Romeo_JulietThat’s what Juliet asked in Shakespeare’s famous love story gone wrong. And in our own love story gone wrong, the modern Church, it is a question that gets asked fairly often as well. Thus, Matty writes:

With all the different denominations out there that claim to be Anglican, who are considered truly Anglican? I am a member of the Episcopal Church. Am I an Anglican?

The Way, way Back

In the earliest days of the Church, followers of Jesus did not call themselves Christians. They were known instead as followers of “the Way.” When the Church spread to Antioch, the people there began to call followers of Jesus “Christians” and the name stuck (Acts 11:26). It is easy to see why the earliest disciples found this to be an edifying title. It is simple, straight forward, and Christ is right at the head of it.

It did not take long though for divisions to creep into the Church and for people to begin to preach a gospel other than what the apostles had received. The term Catholic is one of the oldest and earliest names used by orthodox Christians to differentiate themselves from those in schismatic bodies. Many people have been taught that Catholic means universal. That is not an inappropriate translation, but it does not quite do the word justice. It comes from the Greek words κατά which means about and όλος which means whole. Catholic means that which is of the whole. A Catholic Christian is someone who believes the whole doctrine of the apostles, the whole deposit of faith as it has been handed down, without addition or subtraction. For a very long time, this moniker was sufficient. There were Catholics, who were the authentic inheritors of the historic Christian faith, and then there was everybody else.

Schism, Schism, and More Schism

But then came the Chalcedonian Schism, and then the Great Schism, and finally the Protestant Reformation. In each of these developments, groups of Christians became more divided from one another and therefore felt the need for even more precise terminology to define who they were. There were suddenly people called Roman Catholics who believed they were the only true Catholics because they maintained communion with Rome. There were also Orthodox Catholics, who believed they had the right doctrine and practice, unlike the silly Latins who continued to live under the rule of the pope. Within the Orthodox emerged the titles Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox to distinguish between those who accept the Council of Chalcedon and those who do not (despite the fact that in many ways both groups are saying the same thing with different words, which only underlines the irony that eastern and oriental are synonyms). And of course, there emerged the idea of Protestants, those who protest against the abuses of the Church of Rome, which led to Evangelical Protestants, Reformed Protestants, Calvinist Protestants, Presbyterian Protestants, Lutheran Protestants, and all the other labels under the sun.

Reformed and Catholic

In England, where the Reformation took on a distinctly different character, those who held to what we might call today classical Anglicanism only used two terms besides Christian to identify themselves, Reformed and Catholic. By Reformed, they meant that they were part of a church that was self-critical and that sought to be free from novel teachings and practices by appealing to the teachings and practices of Holy Scripture and the early Church. By Catholic, they meant just what the earliest Christians who called themselves Catholic meant, that they believed in the whole apostolic doctrine of faith and that they were linked organically with the apostles themselves through the Church’s apostolic order. They juxtaposed being Reformed Catholics and being part of the Church of England to being Roman Catholics and being part of the Church of Rome.


By the late eighteenth century, those who came together to form what would become The Episcopal Church found that just two words were not enough. The official name of the newly independent American church was the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. That name was chosen carefully and each word in the name was important. Early American Episcopalians wanted to embrace continuity of both doctrine and practice with the Church of England, but in America there was not going to be an established church. Episcopalians would stand on equal footing with those of all other churches. We needed a way to differentiate ourselves. Episcopal meant having bishops. Protestant meant not Roman Catholic. In the United States of America, as opposed to of the United States of America, announced our independence from the mother Church back in England and also let people know that we had no intentions of asserting ourselves as the official church of the land. Episcopalian became the short way of saying all of that, but for the founders of the American church all those words were precious.

Anglican Etymology

Anglican is the most recent and the most narrow term of all. Though it was first used in the 1630s, it did not become a commonplace until the late nineteenth century. Strictly speaking, it refers only to one who is a member of the English Church – Angl coming from Anglo-Saxon. The rise of its popular usage corresponded with the spread of English colonialism and the development of Anglican churches in other parts of the world, originally still under the authority of Canterbury and the crown. As time went on and the colonial churches received first autonomy and then independence, the name Anglican became a way of marking both the heritage and doctrine of these new churches as well as the continuing relationship of full communion between these churches and the See of Canterbury. It was this ongoing connection which gave birth to the Anglican Communion as a global ecclesial fellowship. Even in America, many Episcopalians became eager to refer to themselves as Anglicans, not because they were particularly enamored with being English as the name suggests, but because they wanted to emphasize that the Episcopal Church is not simply another Christian sect. We are part of a body with deep roots that are not only historical but tangible in the here and now. The Archbishop of Canterbury continues to be our spiritual father. When we call ourselves Anglican, we are saying that we are every bit as much the descendants of Saint Augustine’s mission in 597 as is the current occupant of his throne in Canterbury Cathedral.

Will the Really Real Anglicans Please Stand Up?

Years ago, I joked with a friend that when I started my own official Anglican church, it would be called “The Orthodox Anglican Communion” (which, as it turns out, is a thing that actually exists – Who knew?). His reply was that he was going to start a counter church called “The Real Orthodox Anglican Communion.” This led me to threaten founding “The Really Real Orthodox Anglican Communion.” And on and on it goes.

A century ago, that joke would have been impossible to make. The idea that there would be so many different bodies claiming to be the true inheritors of Anglican identity would have been ludicrous. Outside of the Reformed Episcopal Church, which was not a body particularly interested in Anglican distinctiveness at the time, there were as yet no great break-offs. The Anglican Communion was the only game in town. And it was a good game to be a part of. There was a great sense of optimism about the Communion’s future. Nobody had invented the Anglican Communion. It came into being by accident. But people were starting to see that accident as providential. Anglicanism had a foot in both the Catholic and Protestant worlds, with a unity that many other Protestant traditions lacked.

Today, the idea of Anglican unity is almost seen as a contradiction in terms. In America, there are almost more Anglican bodies than there are Anglicans. One can hardly keep up with the ever expanding list. On the global level, the drawing of battle lines between groups of provinces within the Anglican Communion has been continuous for more than a decade. What happened to get us here? Some blame the rise of liberalism, particularly within the Episcopal Church in America, but that is an overly simple explanation, and one that is far to easy to use to flatter one’s self for placing yet another stake in the ecclesial sand. Look at me, I’m not like those people. I’m a real Anglican. It says so right here on my website.

Not that those of us in the Episcopal Church, or in any of the western provinces of the Communion, have any right to boast. We are living under judgment today, as our numbers continue to plummet and our theological acumen continues to shrink. Anyone who thinks this is not the case is either willfully blind to what is happening or living under a giant rock.

Matty’s question deserves a straight forward answer, but it won’t get one. Who is considered the real Anglicans? Well, that depends on who you ask. Is the Episcopal Church Anglican? Sure. But what does that mean? Ask ten people and you will get ten different answers. And in the absence of genuine conciliarity, there is no one to adjudicate between them.

People sometimes mistake my love of the Anglicanism of the seventeenth century and my fidelity to the formularies as a desire to recreate the past. Nothing could be farther from the case. We do not study history so as to be captured by it, but so that we come to understand that we live in the middle of a story that is far larger than our small context would dictate. I have no wish to live in the seventeenth century, but I cannot abide the historical amnesia about our own roots that has taken hold so fiercely in the contemporary Anglican world. In the end, it matters very little what we call ourselves – Christian, Catholic,  Episcopalian, Anglican – these are all just words. What Juliet says holds true, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose  by any other name would smell as sweet.” What makes the rose what it is has little to do with the linguistic symbol we assign to it. And what makes us who we are is the union we have with Jesus Christ through His Church. He is the only Word that matters.

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2 Responses to Ask an Anglican: What’s in a Name?

  1. Hear Hear! Well said, and Shakespearean, too!

  2. Derk says:

    “Reformed” means repentance from and rejection of the abuses and apostasy of the Roman Catholic Church. It is, without question, always in reference to Roman Catholicism.

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