“To be an Anglican is to talk about what it means to be an Anglican.”[1] This has certainly been the case so far in the twenty-first century, with no fewer than four books on the subject published in the past four years alone, three of which were released in the span of thirteen months.[2]

Charles Erlandson’s book Orthodox Anglican Identity: The Quest for Unity in a Diverse Religious Tradition contributes to this conversation on Anglican identity, but in a different way. As he puts it,

My task is a descriptive one: rather than prescribing what orthodox Anglicanism should be, I am attempting to describe the definitions of orthodox Anglicanism that orthodox Anglicans themselves are articulating and actually living out, as well as the challenges to these articulated definitions that are often unacknowledged by the orthodox Anglicans who are asserting them. (xvii–xviii, emphasis original)

Erlandson characterizes “orthodox Anglicans” as follows:

1. They accept the literal truth of the statements of the historic Christian creeds, such as the virgin birth, the incarnation, and the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ.

2. They consider the Bible to be the inspired word of God, the supreme authority in the church, and a trustworthy guide in matters of doctrine and behavior.

3. Proceeding from their view of the Bible, they adhere to the traditional biblical interpretation that homosexuality is a sin.

4. They identify themselves as orthodox. (3–4, emphasis original)

Erlandson does not focus on the identity of such groups as The Episcopal Church (TEC) or the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC), as they are not orthodox under these criteria. Rather, the “orthodox Anglicans” Erlandson has in view are the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) and the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), as well as the “Continuing Anglican” churches.

If heterodox bodies such as TEC and the ACC are put to the side, it would seem that the task of “establishing a clearly orthodox Anglican identity” (2) becomes much easier. But according to Erlandson, “The orthodox nature of this orthodox Anglican identity, fairly limited as it is, may be relatively clear; however, the specifically Anglican nature of this identity is less clear. Is there an orthodox Anglican consensus about what the proper limits for a specifically Anglican identity are?” (2–3, emphasis original)

Erlandson contends that

Orthodox Anglicans are…asserting and seeking a clear and coherent identity based on a common ecclesial structure with a clear authority and norms to limit diversity, as well as a common identity based on comprehending the diversity found in their different spiritualities. However, their actual diversity is so great and will continue to increase so that they will achieve the clear norms and markers of identity they desire only very imperfectly. (xix)

Moreover, as orthodox Anglicans seek to articulate a clear and coherent identity, their internal conflict over the substance of this identity contributes to what Erlandson calls a “‘post-Anglican’ Anglicanism in which Anglican identity has little necessary connection with the Church of England and little, collective, global coherence” (35). In what follows I will briefly survey the challenges to a clear, coherent orthodox Anglican identity discussed by Erlandson, then make a few comments by way of evaluation.

Overview

Erlandson identifies three ways orthodox Anglicans tend to define themselves: ecclesially, normatively, and practically. Ecclesially, some orthodox Anglicans continue to believe that communion with Canterbury is a necessary component of Anglican identity. But Erlandson argues that “the present Anglican Communion, with its weak bonds of unity, is unable to act forcefully to prevent innovations” (55), as exemplified by its failure to “prevent TEC from acting autonomously” (53) when TEC consecrated Gene Robinson, a practicing homosexual, as bishop.

What is more, GAFCON is no better equipped structurally to prevent or discipline innovations: “Ecclesiastically, GAFCON is a conference, and not a communion. As with the Anglican Communion, there is currently no juridical authority to limit diversity within GAFCON members, in spite of the orthodox nature of the fellowship” (65, emphasis original).

Likewise, “Due to the voluntary nature of the ACNA, and the fact that each ecclesial body retains its own autonomy, the ecclesial authority of the ACNA is, like the Anglican Communion and GAFCON, relatively weak. There is no apparent mechanism for disciplining any of its constituent members” (68). As a result of this and other issues, “Orthodox Anglicans will have difficulty establishing a clear and coherent ecclesial identity” (82).

Normatively, many orthodox Anglicans point to Scripture, the Thirty-nine Articles, and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (BCP) as sources of identity. But as Erlandson points out, “because of the different views orthodox Anglicans have regarding the role of tradition in interpreting Scripture,” they will likely “continue to allow for an increasing diversity of interpretations of Scripture that to a substantial degree undermines a clear and coherent identity” (85). For example, some Evangelical Anglicans support the ordination of women and deny that only priests can grant absolution and celebrate the Eucharist, based on a biblical hermeneutic that Erlandson characterizes as “sola scriptura with private judgment” (89), as opposed to, I gather, sola scriptura informed primarily by tradition.

Similarly, the Articles are subject to hermeneutical differences. For instance, Anglo-Catholics “perpetuate a more Roman Catholic interpretation of the Articles such as that advocated by [John Henry] Newman” (100). Meanwhile, some Evangelicals try to understand the Articles “apart from the entire context in which they were created and designed to be used” (100). This can lead to questionable readings, such as the notion that Article XIX supports a congregationalist understanding of the church (101). In addition to these hermeneutical difficulties, it is also unclear “how forcefully [GAFCON and the ACNA] will actually enforce [the Articles], especially among the clergy” (103).

As for the Prayer Book, according to Erlandson, there is a significant gap between the stated importance of the 1662 BCP and its actual use, even among orthodox Anglicans:

The 1662 Prayer Book (or its traditional equivalents such as the 1928 American Prayer Book or the Reformed Episcopal Church’s 2003 Prayer Book), which both GAFCON and the ACNA portray as a crucial theological norm, is not being used by most within GAFCON or the ACNA. This renders the 1662 Prayer Book in ACNA as a less potent force for normative orthodox Anglican identity than it might otherwise be. (112)

In short, many churches that “officially hold the 1662 Prayer Book as the standard” actually use “officially sanctioned alternative service books and liturgies” (114), e.g., Common Worship (115–16) or other “prayer books more fully revised with local theologies and cultures in mind” (118). Thus, “The turn to the 1662 Prayer Book is not likely to prove as effective as many orthodox Anglicans hope it will be” (118–19).

Practically, orthodox Anglicans define themselves in terms of what Erlandson calls a “comprehension” of various Anglican “spiritualities.” Each spirituality is distinguished by the “practices, behaviors, and ethos” of the churches within it. The historic Church of England attempted such a comprehension with the Elizabethan Settlement, where it sought to identify itself as “both Catholic and Protestant” while also excluding “Roman Catholicism and Anabaptism or Puritanism (121–22).

Today, however, Erlandson identifies four different spiritualities that contemporary orthodox Anglicans are attempting to encompass within a single “orthodox Anglicanism”: Anglo-Catholic, Evangelical, Charismatic, and Global. Without getting into the details of Erlandson’s analysis of each spirituality, he concludes that “each of the four orthodox spiritualities, to some degree, manifests a practical and sometimes official denial of the Prayer Book and Articles as Anglican norms” (160). Erlandson’s summary of examples is worth quoting at length:

Some Anglo-Catholics use the Roman Catholic liturgies and breviaries and the celebration of Roman Catholic services such as Benediction and the Assumption of Mary. Some Evangelicals employ non-liturgical worship services, a Puritan biblical hermeneutic, a congregationalist polity, a desire for lay presidency and lay confirmation, and an Anglican identity that is merely pragmatic. Some Charismatics assert a five-fold order of ministry in place of the catholic three-fold one, a substitution of experience for theology and the accompanying tendency to innovate, and a denial of the importance of infant baptism. Global Anglicans sometimes have little Catholic spirituality, are weakly Anglican, and are changing to compete with Pentecostals and more fully inculturate. (160)

Hence, “While orthodox Anglicans may be converging or working more closely together to assert a particularly Christian orthodox identity as part of the realignment they are seeking, they are also diverging from each other as each of the orthodox Anglican spiritualities is acting to move from a common, identifiable Anglican identity” (162, emphasis original).

The preceding overview of the difficulties that impede a clear and coherent Anglican identity from emerging is not exhaustive, but the takeaway is that in Erlandson’s view, for the foreseeable future, “Orthodox Anglicans will continue to desire a relatively clear and coherent identity, even while their actual lived-out identities will often be more ambiguous and messier” (163). Beyond that, it is hard to say what will happen:

One future for orthodox Anglicans…may be that they succeed in their quest for ecclesial and normative realignment, as well as practical convergence. Alternatively (though not necessarily contrarily), orthodox Anglicans may proceed, in its [sic] “post-Anglican” Anglican identity, to fulfill some twentieth-century prophecies that it is destined to work towards the extinction of its own separate identity through its unique service to the whole church in the work of Christian unity. (168)

Come what may, though, Erlandson says orthodox Anglicans should take comfort because “the fact that orthodox Anglican identity is messier, more ambiguous, and less definable than desired does not mean that an authentic Anglican identity is an impossible or fatuous thing. Religious identities are inherently complex and ambiguous while also being livable and essential realities” (167).

Evaluation

The value of Erlandson’s book lies in its detailed and soberly realistic assessment of the challenges orthodox Anglicans must overcome if they are to formulate a clear and coherent Anglican identity. Many have probably assumed that separating from TEC or the Anglican Communion would prove sufficient in this regard. However, Erlandson’s substantive analysis of the concrete realities underlying orthodox Anglicanism—crucially, not just in the West but all around the world—dispels this misconception, and in doing so he has performed a great service. The question that remains, then, is what can be done to address the difficulties Erlandson raises?

As Erlandson makes apparent, the problem of articulating a clear and coherent orthodox Anglican identity does not lend itself to a simple solution, and I am ill-equipped to weigh in on the issue. Nevertheless, I will offer a couple of tentative thoughts on the matter.

First, a key point in Erlandson’s analysis is that much of what currently goes under the name of “orthodox Anglicanism” flagrantly contradicts what are usually taken to be the authoritative norms of specifically Anglican belief and practice, namely the 1662 BCP and the Thirty-nine Articles. As such, it seems that a necessary step toward clarifying the nature of orthodox Anglicanism would be to stop using the word “Anglican” to refer to those who patently do not qualify.

Erlandson is well aware of this:

If [orthodox Anglicans] adhere to a strict, integrated definition of Anglicanism with strict boundaries, then a strong authority would likely be necessary to act forcefully in conjunction with clear norms to limit diversity and establish and maintain such an identity. Doing this…would mean restricting the current practices of some orthodox Anglicans or identifying some as outside the realm of orthodox Anglicanism. (164, emphasis original)

However, he does not think such a course of action is “particularly likely” (164) to be carried out:

There…appears to be little desire by orthodox Anglicans to deny the Anglican identity of any of the orthodox Anglican churches and groups. Diverse orthodox Anglicans such as Evangelicals in Sydney, Australia, Charismatics in the Church of England, Anglo-Catholics in the US, and Global South Anglicans in Africa, for example, generally see both themselves and each other as orthodox Anglicans. (123)

Erlandson might be correct in his prediction that greater selectivity about who gets to be called Anglican (or ecclesially affiliated with Anglicans) is unlikely to be pursued. Nonetheless, the fact that such action is required if any clear and coherent understanding of orthodox Anglican identity is to be preserved strikes me as an obvious reality that should be emphasized. Christians who deny infant baptism, promote lay confirmation and presidency over the Eucharist, and espouse a congregationalist polity may be brothers and sisters in Christ, but they are not Anglican.

Furthermore, it should not be considered uncharitable or divisive to point this out. Erlandson himself says that the present, “messy” (168) situation within orthodox Anglicanism is “what the church [has] always looked like in all places and in all times” (167). To advance this comparison further, it was hardly uncharitable or divisive of Athanasius to write Four Orations Against the Arians, or of Irenaeus to write Against Heresies, when the true nature of Christianity was in dispute. Neither should Anglicans be afraid to defend a conception of orthodox Anglicanism that includes some and excludes others.

To be sure, Anglican identity is less important than Christian identity, but Anglicans do no wrong in seeking to defend it. It only remains to be seen if Anglicans truly care about Anglicanism enough to preserve it, or whether, as M. H. Turner says, most Anglicans are content to “[celebrate their] own irrelevance.”[3] On this score, it is puzzling how Erlandson recognizes that much of what passes for “orthodox Anglicanism” these days is antithetical to Anglicanism traditionally understood, yet he concludes the book by apparently downplaying these differences. He does express the hope that the current Anglican identity crisis will “prompt orthodox Anglicans to work out their own identity with fear and trembling for the sake of the greater church” (169), but it is not clear just how seriously Erlandson thinks such internecine conflicts should be treated when he likens them to “marriage spats” (167).

It could be objected that if self-described orthodox Anglicans stop giving each other the benefit of the doubt and start arguing in earnest over who the real Anglicans are, the ensuing debate will be interminable. Turner suggests as much when he says “this conversation will continue until the great final day when there is no more Anglicanism, and our little clod is part of the main.”[4]

For my part, I do not think such a debate would remain static. As Christians we are not relativists, so it follows that some people are right and others are wrong when it comes to determining what truly Anglican orthodoxy is, just as some people are right and others are wrong with regard to whether Christianity or some other religion (or none at all) is the truth. The true nature of orthodox Anglicanism can be discerned, and moreover, doing so might well become easier over time, as some of the more obvious outliers (e.g., Charismatics) continue to develop and innovate to the point that they stop identifying as Anglican altogether.

A second potential step that could be taken to further clarify the nature of orthodox Anglicanism concerns the use of the 1662 BCP. As mentioned previously, Erlandson observes that the 1662 Prayer Book is often not used even in those provinces that designate it as “the standard for the Anglican tradition of worship.” Undoubtedly, many churches do not use it because they disagree with its theology or find its “‘formalism’” stifling (118).

But Erlandson also indicates that, at least for some churches, the decision not to use the 1662 BCP may be a problem of supply rather than demand. In his discussion of the Church of Uganda as an illustrative example of the “Global” Anglican spirituality, Erlandson notes that “some churches don’t have enough Prayer Books to go around” (152). This, combined with other common, understandable concerns about the 1662 BCP—such as state prayers not comporting with one’s own polity, or struggling with certain archaic words—lends credence to the possibility that a version of the 1662 BCP that addressed such concerns could gain greater traction in the orthodox Anglican world.

Perhaps, then, InterVarsity Press’s new 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition might fill the gap and contribute to a clear reaffirmation of truly Anglican orthodoxy around the world. It addresses the two sample concerns cited above, and it is not unduly expensive. If some Anglican churches are only hesitant to use the 1662 BCP because of such minor reservations—or if they wish to use it but are simply unable to procure one—it would make sense to sell or donate copies of this new edition en masse to those who desire them, translated into the local language if necessary.

It is too much to hope that one particular edition of the Prayer Book will be a cure-all for the muddled state of contemporary orthodox Anglican identity. Even so, it is not unreasonable to think that it could play some role in clarifying that identity. Erlandson himself voices such a hope in his endorsement of the book:

The Book of Common Prayer is and has been the Anglican rule of life for centuries. While many Anglican provinces assert the 1662 Book of Common Prayer as one of their formularies, this assertion often remains an ideal rather than a practice. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer, International Edition, makes the 1662 Prayer Book more accessible to Anglicans and others today. It will be, I pray, an integrating force among Anglican churches in a global Anglicanism that is all too rapidly disintegrating.

Quite possibly neither these initial steps, nor any others, will be taken by orthodox Anglicans to reaffirm and clarify their identity. Perhaps it will come to pass, as Erlandson speculates, that Anglicanism as such will eventually cease to be. In any event, he has shown that a clear conception of orthodox Anglican identity will not come easily even in a world where GAFCON and the ACNA exist, while also identifying some necessary components of a way forward, and for this he deserves to be thanked.

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Footnotes

  1. M. H. Turner, “The Search for Anglican Identity,” Mere Orthodoxy, 13 July 2020, https://mereorthodoxy.com/search-anglican-identity/.
  2. See Ashley Null and John W. Yates III, eds., Reformation Anglicanism: A Vision for Today’s Global Communion (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017); Gerald R. McDermott, ed., The Future of Orthodox Anglicanism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020); Winfield Bevins, Simply Anglican: An Ancient Faith for Today’s World (Anglican Compass, 2020); and Gerald Bray, Anglicanism: A Reformed Catholic Tradition (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2021).
  3. M. H. Turner, “Why Is Anglicanism a Gateway to Catholicism?” Mere Orthodoxy, 28 April 2020, https://mereorthodoxy.com/anglicanism-gateway-catholicism/.
  4. Turner, “Search for Anglican Identity,” https://mereorthodoxy.com/search-anglican-identity/.

Posted by James Clark

James Clark graduated from Princeton University in 2014 with a B.A. in Religion, and is currently a student at Yale Divinity School. His writing has been featured at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Front Porch Republic, and Themelios, as well as other publications. He can be followed on Twitter @jamesdkclark.