Is the Anglican Church “catholic”, “protestant”, or both? How does it describe itself, and does that matter?
Regulars will know, I am always particularly wary of uses of the categories: catholic, orthodox, charismatic, protestant, evangelical. Often what one person says, using one of these terms, is quite different to what another person hears – sometimes the exact opposite. And individuals (and tribes) claim these words for themselves and for their tribe in an attempt to prevent others from using them. Even the word “Anglican”, not yet appearing in this paragraph, is now also subject to debate – with new tribes using it for themselves, and others (who are certainly rightly holding the title) asserting these have no right to use this term.
I have recently been involved in a somewhat lighthearted thread which developed from someone’s surprise at a listing of “Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Anglicans”. Anglicans, this person presumed, were included in “Protestants” and so, for this person, the listing must have sounded something akin to, “dogs, cats, and poodles”.
In the banter that followed, I pointed out that the word “protestant” does not appear (as far as I know?) in any of the formularies (the official, agreed beliefs, teachings, and practices) of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia. The word “catholic”, of course, occurs regularly.
There are some serious points under the repartee. There is an important model in what I realised in the previous paragraph. At its core “catholic” refers to positive concepts – what we are for. And “protestant” refers to what we are against. The Anglican Church, in its formal self-understanding, works from what we are for (“catholic”), and makes no reference to what we are against (“protestant”).
The irony, for me, is that Christians appear to be better known, beyond the church, for what we appear to be against rather than what we are for. [Recent TV programme I watched: Christianity portrayed as anti-marriage-equality, anti-evolution, anti-science; recent conversations: one young person who would not be able to name the four gospels lectured me that the Bible says homosexuality is unnatural; another person, in his sixties, had never even heard of John 3:16, the only Bible quote he could recite and reference was Leviticus 18:22].
Protestantism is understood as “continuing our protest against the Roman version of Western Catholicism”. One problem with that, of course, is that in most of those protests, Anglicanism has capitulated or positively acknowledged that “the Roman version of Western Catholicism” (can) be followed. The nineteenth century battles against vestments, elevation of the eucharistic elements, incense, candles, wafers, making the sign of the cross, adding water to the wine, processions, statues, icons, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei, all feel precisely that – so nineteenth century! Other issues, significant at the time of the Reformation, also feel just that – so sixteenth century! [Spoiler alert: I am working on a blog post looking at the conceding to Roman understanding over Reformation issues]. The lectionary we follow is essential the Vatican one, the liturgies we use are generally distinguishable only by people obsessive about subtleties. Those who persist in earlier energies that Roman Catholics are not Christian, or that the Pope is the Antichrist, appear more and more as minority fringe nutters. The protestantism of Anglicanism as a “continuing protest against the Roman version of Western Catholicism” can be seen to be a protestantism of the gaps, and they are rapidly shrinking gaps.
“Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Anglicans” is not akin to “dogs, cats, and poodles”. It is closer to “mammals, birds, and platypuses”.
I conclude by stressing my primary point: It is time for us to be known more for what we are for than what we are against. Official Anglican teaching presents the model – now we have to live it.