Friday, December 28, 2012

A Question of Identity

Anglican identity has become a buzz word, perhaps even a type of science, that being trying to actually understand what it is.

It's interesting that the word "Anglican" isn't quite as ancient as some would hope or perhaps expect, in the sense of having a theological implication. As Nockles summarizes, "'Anglican' took a long time to acquire and -ism" (40). Besides having purely geographical connotations, pertaining to membership in the reformed Church of England, the use of "Anglicanism" in the (somewhat) modern sense has been traced to Edmund Burke in 1797, however, even in Burke's usage, it had little theological connotation, other than referring to members of the reformed Church. What is of particular interest is that the theological association came with none other than Newman, who began to associate the term "Anglicanism" with his dubious concept of via media in 1837 in the Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church. The term "Anglican" began to acquire a particular association, not with the Church of England, in general, but, rather, with a particular school within that Church. In the beginning that was with general High Church sentiments but over time came to be associated with Tractarianism. Conversely, the "Anglican" badge was also adopted by traditional High Churchmen as a badge of differentiation from the new Tractarians and their mangling of the true nature of Church of England. However, this was more of a re-appropriation of the Newmanian designation of "Anglican" as a marker of Tractarian identity (interestingly enough, "Anglo-Catholic" was originally a designation of all members of the Church of England and not a party term). Overall, the term "Anglican" has an interesting history and has been (for the most part) a party word, designating either the new Tractarian party or the traditional High Church party, not that this is necessarily a bad thing but it is to be noted as this article proceeds. In addition, it is primarily a geographical term, referring to the nation of England and her Reformed Church.

This line of thought and investigation into the history of the term "Anglican" has led me to ponder if modern attempts at defining Anglican identity have focused on the wrong things. However, before considering that thought, I'd like to explore some of the alternative terminology utilized in the past to describe the Anglican tradition. "Anglican" was not, apparently, the preferred terminology to describe just what this Church of England and her daughter churches were (and are). Other terms were used equally. One of the more popular terms it seems was Protestant Episcopal, which is also the name of the Province of the Church in these United States. This name was utilized because it accurately and precisely defines what it means to be part of this Christian family. We are a Protestant Church, unlike most other episcopal Churches, such as Rome and Constantinople, because we proclaim the unadulterated and pure Gospel. However, unlike many other Protestant communions, we have maintained the historical episcopacy, an ancient and desirable form of polity. I like this terminology because of its efficiency. Other terms which were commonly used were "Reformed Catholic" and "Reformed Episcopal" both of which were attempts to define what it meant to be an Anglican, using theological and ecclesiastical terminology, instead of the geographical word Anglican.

Returning to the point made in the last paragraph about the (perhaps) misunderstanding of Anglican identity or attenuation of the wrong things as constituting Anglican identity. The focus of these types of discussions tends to rest on the episcopacy, liturgy, and perhaps some stylistic preference for the choir dress of clergy. Now, these are all splendid things, things which I love and cherish and do promote, however, I do not think that they (alone) define Anglicanism. The real identity of Anglicanism is the proclamation of biblical truth in a particular setting, that being the English setting. These things need not necessarily be the same in all places but the universal proclamation of the Gospel does not change due to time or place, like these secondary matters can.

Perhaps it's time to begin to reconsider what it means to be an Anglican.