Anglican History

The Church of St. Peter
The Anglican Church - A Tradition of Traditions

Have you ever wondered why Anglican worship can be so different from one church to another? Why do some Anglicans have churches and services that look Roman Catholic while other Anglican churches might look and pray like a United Church? The answer may be found in the history of the Anglican Church itself. Anglicanism has often been compared to an experiment, a dialogue or a discussion. Anglicanism from its very roots has been an ongoing search or a continual conversation among Anglican thinkers trying to find the best way to live the good news of Jesus Christ. Every generation of Christians within the Anglican Tradition has added their own voice and experience to that ongoing discussion. Each generation has left its mark on what we call the Anglican Tradition today. 

Catholic and Reformed - the 1500’s
In Europe during the 1500’s several groups of people began to break away from the Roman Catholic as they felt that the Church had strayed from the teaching of Christ. People like Martin Luther protested against what were believed to be errors in Church practices and teaching. Those who protested against these errors came to be called Protestants and the era in which they were trying to reform the Church came to be called the Reformation. Unlike some of the revolutionary changes in the Church in Europe at this time, the Church of England (Anglican Church) took a much less radical approach to change. It kept many of the familiar and ancient customs. Anglican reformers like Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) sought to maintain what was best in the ancient catholic and apostolic Church while introducing the best of the protestant reforms such as having the Bible and worship services in English. In the 1500’s England and Europe were marked by religious struggles and tragic bloodshed between reformers and traditional catholics. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603), an attempt was made to make both sides happy within the English Church. This compromise resulted in what is called The Elizabethan Settlement. It attempted to create some sense peace between those who wanted change and those who wanted to conserve the traditions of the past. Anglican’s “Via Media” or “Middle Road” between protestant and catholic traditions was born. The Via Media reflects an early example of Anglicanism’s ability to live with different Christian expressions within one body.
The High and Low Church Traditions - the 1600’s
However, not everyone within the Church of England  felt that the reforms had gone far enough. Some felt that the Anglican Church should be stripped of everything that resembled the old catholic traditions. These people came to be known as Puritans as they wanted to further purify the Anglican Church of what they saw as unscriptural worship and customs. The Puritans who decided to stay within the Church of England could be considered what would later become Anglican’s “Low Church” tradition. It was referred to as Low Church as it had a low regard for aspects of the ancient church such as bishops, doctrine and creeds and ceremonial worship. Low Church thought emphasized the reading and preaching of the Bible. Today Low Church Anglicans prefer to worship in unadorned churches with simple services. In Low Church parishes you may find that Morning Prayer is the more common service on Sundays. Morning Prayer consists of scripture reading, sermon, prayers, and hymns. The Low Church tradition within the Anglican tradition resembles many mainline protestant denominations such as some United Churches of Canada and some Lutherans. The Low Church tradition reminds the Church to keep things simple and to read your Bible.

Anglicans who saw themselves as a continuation of the catholic, although reformed, tradition came to be known as being “High Church” as they placed a high value on such things as the order of bishops and priests, the Book of Common Prayer with its rituals and calendar of feasts and saints days. The High Church placed an emphasis on continuity with the past and held that the creeds and councils of the early Church Fathers were important and instructive to the faithful. High Church worship is known for its reverence and dignity. Modern Anglo Catholics see the High Church tradition as part of their spiritual heritage.

The Age of Evangelism 1700 - 1800’s
By the 1700’s the Anglican Church was in rough shape. Its clergy were frequently absent from the care of their people, and worship in local churches was infrequent and sloppy. This was also the Age of Enlightenment where philosophy and science were the new gods and shook the foundations of the Church. Then in the 1700’s along came the brothers Charles (1707-1788) and John Wesley (1703-1791). John and Charles were Anglican priests who decided to come out of a Church that was quickly becoming irrelevant to many. They went into the highways, barns and marketplaces of the common folk. They reminded people that God could be a powerful and living presence in their lives. John and Charles Wesley left a legacy within the Church which emphasizes the need for a personal conversion of the heart to Jesus. They reminded the Church of its primary mission to go into the world to bring others to the knowledge and love of Christ. Evangelical Anglicans were responsible for creating Sunday schools, reviving the Sacrament of Confirmation, and more frequent celebrations of the Holy Eucharist. Anglican Evangelicals would play crucial roles in abolishing slavery and child labour, and establishing public health and education. Although the Wesley brothers lived and died as Anglican priests, some of their followers later broke away and formed the Methodist Church. The Wesley brothers composed some of the Anglican Church’s favourite hymns. The Evangelical tradition within the Church is often associated with the Low Church tradition. The Evangelical tradition reminds Anglicans that through our lives we are called to bring others to Christ.
The Oxford Movement and Anglo Catholics 1833-
Beginning in 1833 a group of Anglican priests from Oxford University in England created what would be called the Oxford Movement. They began to publish a series of sermons, articles and pamphlets that changed the Anglican world. The most well known of the movement were John Keble, John Henry Newman and Edward Pusey. Their writing and sermons were published in 90 tracts (pamphlets) and the Oxford Movement members also came to be known as “Tractarians”. Their writings discussed a variety of issues but with an underlying theme that the Anglican Church was solidly rooted in Scripture, the Church Fathers and the catholic tradition as shared with our Roman Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters (the “Three Branches of Catholicism” theory).This period is also called the Catholic Revival as it sought to rediscover the traditions and spirituality of the pre-Reformation and early Anglican Church. It emphasized celebrating the Sacraments (especially the Mass or Holy Eucharist as the central act of worship) with the use of beautiful symbols, art, architecture, and vestments. It honoured the saints as heroes of the faith, and introduced organs, choirs and choral music to many parishes. In the 1840’s Anglo Catholics re-established the monastic orders of monks and nuns within the Church. We might not recognize a modern Anglican church today if it were not for Anglo Catholicism’s contributions to enrich the Church’s worship life and reconnecting it with some of its own early Anglican roots.

Anglo Catholic spirituality emphasizes the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Through Jesus, the Word made human, we could see, hear and touch God. Similarly today, through God’s Holy Spirit, he still uses his creation (bread, wine, holy oil, holy water etc.) as ways we can know and experience him. The Anglo Catholic way encourages us to use our whole selves and all of our senses in worship so that the whole self, both body and soul, is lifted up in prayer and praise of God.
The Charismatic Movement
The Charismatic movement began within the Anglican Communion in the 1960’s and 70’s but dates back to various spiritual movements in the United States from the late 1800’s. The movement takes its name comes from the Greek word charisma meaning “gifts” and refers to recieving the gifts of the Holy Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 12:1-11). Charismatics emphasize an openness to the power of the Holy Spirit moving in their lives and in their worship. Charismatic worship can be noted for its emotional intensity and its spontaneous outpouring of praise and celebration. The Charismatic movement in Anglicanism often shares some similarities with the Pentecostal churches.
The Broad Church
Probably the majority of Anglicans would fit somewhere in the middle of the High and Low traditions. This is often described as being “Broad Church”. The Broad Church approach came out of the Latitudinarian movement of the late 1600’s. This group avoided the strife caused by religious differences of the Reformation and encouraged people to respond to God no matter what way you worshipped him. They did not ignore issues of teaching or doctrines, but rather emphasized a life of prayer and personal holiness. It got its tongue twister name as they allowed for a wide latitude of thought and practice in the Church. Later, the same wide latitude of thought allowed these thinkers to reconcile Christian belief with the modern and scientific age.

Today a large percentage of Anglican churches draw (hopefully) from a broad choice of  the best elements within Anglicanism’s “tradition of traditions”. How Anglican! For example, most Anglican parishes appreciate the importance of having rich and meaningful “catholic” worship with the Holy Eucharist as the main act of worship, but they also have a clear vision of their evangelistic mission to share the Gospel. Broad Church naturally follow the Scriptures, but not in a literal sense in all places and can allow for various interpretations. Broad Church folks may be open to explore and incorporate diverse aspects of spirituality and draw them into their own spiritual life (eg. liturgical dancing, yoga or meditating on icons). Bishop Frank Griswold, an leading American Bishop said, “The Anglican Church was created during the Reformation to be a home for both passionate reformers and traditional catholics. The important thing is that the church and its members reflect Christ’s risen body.”
As you can see, the Anglican Tradition is really a tradition of traditions welcoming a broad spectrum of Christian experiences and expressions within one Anglican family. Anglicans have jokingly described their Church as being “Low and lazy, High and crazy, Broad and hazy.” Like most families this diversity can be an enriching experience, but at the same time it also can lead to lively discussions and hurtful divisions.

If Anglicanism is indeed an ongoing discussion or dialogue seeking the will of God, may we continue to be open to listen to each other with love and respect and to listen to the voice of God as he leads this unique family of faith.

By Dean Rose.

Permission is granted to use and replicate this or parts of this article with the following ascription;
From an article by Dean Rose, St. Peter’s Church, Oshawa, Diocese of Toronto.