Who are Anglo-Catholics?

Who are Anglo-Catholics?
Part I
Sermon Preached at the Anglican Church of the Transfiguration
Phoenixville, PA.
Timothy K. Lent, Ph.D.
7 June 2016

 The Meaning of “Anglican”

In the Prayer Book, there are references to the word “Catholic.” For instance, in the Apostles’ Creed, Anglo-Anglicans confess their belief in “The Holy Catholic Church.”1 Another example is the Bidding Prayer, which refers to “Christ’s holy Catholic Church.”2 Still another example is the prayer for God’s “holy Catholic Church.”3 The Prayer Book, then, teaches Anglo-Catholics that they are members of the Catholic Church.

Who are Anglo-Catholics? They are Anglicans. The word “Anglican” means “English.” Thus, Anglo-Catholics are Christians who have an English liturgical and theological heritage. They can trace their beliefs back to the Church of England. Anglicans may or may not be Episcopalians, for although Episcopalians are Anglicans, not all Anglicans are Episcopalians.

The Meaning of “Protestant”

The Anglican Church is “Protestant,” but only in the legal, historical sense of its meaning from Maryland in 1780, when the title was proposed and adopted by the Episcopal Church to distinguish it from the Roman Catholic Church. But the word “Protestant” itself is often too simplistic in attempting to describe Anglicans. E. J. Bicknell, an Anglican scholar, explains why:

“The popular antithesis of Catholic and Protestant is often misconceived. All true protest against error is based on a knowledge and love of truth. A Catholic love of truth is bound to protest against all error that limits or denies the truth.”4

The First Meaning of “Catholic”

When the Eastern and Western bishops met together at the Second Ecumenical Council, the First Council of Constantinople (381 A. D.) to write the second part of the Nicene Creed, they used the word “Catholic” to describe the Church, saying, “And [we believe] on one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.”5 In church history, the first meaning of “Catholic” referred to the Undivided Church of the East and West, which was united in a common faith.

Typically, Anglicans, especially Anglo-Catholics, accept the teachings of the Undivided Church, the Church of the first millennium of church history. From the Day of Pentecost, when the Church of Christ was born, to the Great Schism in 1054 A. D., the Church was truly Catholic: one in faith and doctrine, even though there were liturgical differences between the Eastern and Western Christians.

The Second Meaning of “Catholic”

Must Anglicans be under the authority of the pope to be Catholic? Not necessarily! Although all Roman Catholics are Catholics, not all Catholics are Roman Catholics.  For example, millions of Christians in the Orthodox Church are not under the authority of the pope. But that does not mean they are not Catholics. In fact, Orthodox Christians are Catholics. But they would not regard themselves as Roman Catholics. Similarly, Anglicans are Catholics but they are not Roman Catholics.

The English Rite of the Church

There are several Rites in the Church. For example, Firmilian, Bishop of Caesarea (circa 256 A. D.), writes,

“[C]oncerning the celebration of Easter, and concerning many other sacraments of divine matters, … there are some diversities among them, and … all things are not observed among them alike, which are observed at Jerusalem, just as in very many other provinces also many things are varied because of the difference of the places and names. And yet on this account there is no departure at all from the peace and unity of the Catholic Church.”6

A Rite, then, refers to a form or worship (liturgy) of a group of people who belongs to a certain ethnic or geographical location. Anglicans are a Western Rite, namely, an American, English Rite, deriving their liturgy from the Church of England. Liturgies from different Rites in the Church can be translated into the English language. But the Anglican Liturgy is truly English, because it comes from English-speaking people in England and America.

The Catholicity of the English Reformers

In the 16th century, there was a Reformation in the Church of England. However, the intent of the English Reformers was not to start a new Church but to return to the faith of the primitive Church, the Undivided Church. Anglican liturgical scholar Stephen A. Hurlbut, referring to the English Reformers, wrote, “Their appeal in matters of liturgy as well as theology was to that which was Catholic as opposed to Roman, and to the early Fathers as opposed to medieval scholasticism.”7 In other words, the basic thrust of the English Reformers was to be Catholic, but not necessarily Roman Catholic.8

In at least two respects, Anglo-Catholics are Reformed Catholics, following the tradition of the English Reformers, not the Continental Reformers, such as John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli. First, Anglo-Catholics “deliberately retained the title ‘priest.’”9 In other words, they retained a sacerdotal ministry, accepting the Catholic teaching on Holy Orders, particularly, an ordained priesthood and apostolic succession.

Second, the center of worship for Anglo-Catholics is the altar, not the pulpit; the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ by the priest, not the sermon.10 Of course, reading and preaching the word of God are important to Anglo-Catholic worship. However, the most important aspect is receiving the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ. As Jesus himself says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:54, NIV).

The Third Meaning of “Catholic”

Anglo-Catholics are constantly reminded that Christ has founded the Catholic Church and that they belong to her when they confess, in the words of the Nicene Creed, “We believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” Thus, Jesus Christ founded the Catholic Church, because she is “from ever tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9, NIV). The Gospel is to be preached “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8; cf. Matthew 28:19). The mission and ministry of the Church are universal in scope and, therefore, the Church is Catholic.


1The Book of Common Prayer, 1928 American ed. (New York, N.Y.: The Church Hymnal Corporation/ The Church Pension Fund, n.d.), p. 15.

2Ibid., p. 47.

3Ibid., p. 37.

4E. J. Bicknell, A Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, 3rd. rev. ed. (New York, N.Y.: Longmans, Green and Co. Inc., 1955, 1961), p. 247.

5“The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed,” in The Second Ecumenical Council: The First Council of Constantinople (381 A. D.). 2016. Translated by Henry Percival. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 14. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Buffalo, N.Y.: Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1900). Revised and edited by Kevin Knight. New Advent. [Web:] http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3808.htm [Date of access: 6 June 2016].

6Firmilian of Caesarea to Cyprian of Carthage. 2016. Epistle 74, 6. Translated by Robert Ernest Wallis. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, N.Y.: Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1886). Revised and edited by Kevin Knight. New Advent. [Web:] http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/050674.htm  [Date of access: 6 June 2016].

7Stephen A. Hurlbut, The Liturgy of the Church of England Before and After the Reformation (Grand Rapids, MI.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1941), pp. 1-2.

8Edward Lambe Parsons and Bayard Hale Jones, The American Prayer Book: Its Origins and Principles (New York, N.Y.: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1937), p. 29.

9E. J. Bicknell, A Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, op. cit., p. 336.  The reason the New Testament did not use the Greek word for priest (hiereis) to describe Christian priests was “… to avoid confusion with the Jewish and pagan priesthood” (ibid., p. 335). Cf. Claude Beaufort Moss, The Christian Faith: An Introduction to Dogmatic Theology (New York, N.Y.: Morehouse-Gorham Co., 1943, reprinted 1949), p. 287:  “The Continental Reformation rejected or dropped the principle of apostolic succession (except in Sweden),” that is, bishops, by virtue of their consecrations, are successors of the apostles, tracing a straight link back to them throughout history.  But the English Reformation retained apostolic succession.

10Claude Beaufort Moss, The Christian Faith: An Introduction to Dogmatic Theology, op. cit., p. 290.

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