Anglican History

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

Have you ever wondered why the worship and the interiors of Anglican churches can be so different from each other? Why does one Anglican church have incense, ritual, and choirs chanting away while another Anglican church down the road has a full band doing Christian rock music with very informal worship? What does “High”, “Broad” or “Low” Church mean today, if anything? The answer to this question may be found in the history of the Anglican Church itself. Anglicanism from its very roots has been an ongoing search or a continual conversation among Anglican thinkers trying to find a way to live the good news of Jesus Christ in their day. Every generation of Christians within the Anglican Tradition have added their own voice and experience to that ongoing discussion. Each generation has left its mark on what we call the Anglican Tradition today. 

The Reformation

During the 1500s, several groups of people in Europe 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, Zwingli, and John Calvin protested against what were believed to be errors in Church practices and doctrine. Those who protested against these errors came to be called Protestants and this era of dramatic change in Christian life came to be called the Reformation. 

English Reforms – The 1500s 

Henry VIII (reined 1509-47)

England’s break from the Roman Catholic Church during the reign of King Henry VIII is a complex story that is still debated to this day. Henry denied Papal authority yet did not see himself necessarily breaking away from the Church as a whole. Many scholars view his break with Rome motivated more by his desire for total control over England’s politics, power and wealth (e.g. succession to the throne, closing the monasteries) more so than over significant differences in doctrine. During Henry’s reign, little change occurred compared with the reformations in Europe. The reforms divided his subjects. In 1536 Henry almost lost his throne in a rebellion called the Pilgrimage of Grace largely over issues of Church reform.

King Edward VI (reigned 1547-53)

It was not until the reign of Henry’s son, the boy King Edward, that wider reforms began. Many of the reforms were cautious, at least at first. Unlike some of the revolutionary changes in the Church in Europe, the Church of England (Anglican Church) kept many of the familiar traditions. Anglican reformers like Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) maintained many of the customs of the catholic and apostolic Church while introducing protestant reforms such as having the Bible and worship services in English (i.e. The Book of Common Prayer 1549.) Still not everyone was happy with these changes, most especially those still faithful to the Roman Catholic Church. Even those in favour of reform were heavily divided as to what their Church should look like.

Mary Tudor (reigned 1553-58)

Mary, Henry’s daughter with Catherine of Aragon, was widely popular at the beginning of her reign for establishing stability on the throne and many rejoiced for her returning England to full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. However, her childless marriage to King Philip of Spain, a foreign king of a rival power, did not endear her to the people. Her execution of protestant leaders and “heretics”, though not unusual by European standards of the day, was viewed with horror by the English.

Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603)

Elizabeth I, Henry’s daughter with Anne Boleyn, inherited a fragile kingdom. Sixteenth century Europe was ravaged by religious struggles and bloodshed between Reformers and Catholics. Queen Elizabeth I, ever the pragmatist, sought to avoid the religious bloodshed within her realm and attempted compromise between reformers (change everything) and conservatives (maintaining the familiar) within the English Church. This compromise resulted in what is called The Elizabethan Settlement. It attempted to create some sense of peace between those who wanted change and those who wanted to conserve the traditions of the past. Anglicanism’s experiment of the “Via Media” or “Middle Road” between protestant and catholic traditions was born. 

The “High” and “Low” Church Traditions – The 1600s

Some within the Church of England felt that the reforms had not gone far enough. Some felt that the Anglican Church should be stripped of everything that resembled the old catholic traditions. Bishops, the Book of Common Prayer and all ceremonial should go, altars, candles, crosses and choirs removed from churches, to be replaced with whitewashed walls where scripture, preaching and congregational psalm singing would be the norm. Those who sought these reforms came to be known as Puritans as they wanted to further purify the Anglican Church of its errors. For a time the Anglican Church was essentially illegal after the Puritan government of Oliver Cromwell overthrew and beheaded both the King, Charles I, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. After the Restoration of the Monarchy, some Puritans left the Anglican Church, but those who stayed 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 ceremonial. Today, “Low Church” Anglican worship and theology would have much in common with many mainline protestant denominations. The Low Church tradition reminds the whole Church to that it finds its source and life within Holy Scripture.

Many Anglicans during this period saw themselves as a continuation of the catholic, although reformed, tradition. This group within the Church became known as being “High Church” as they placed a high value on such things as the ordained orders (bishops, priests, deacons) and 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 and works 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 – The 1700-1800s

By the 1700s, the Anglican Church was in a lull. Its clergy were frequently absent from the care of their people, and worship in local churches was often unfulfilling and sloppy. This was also the Age of Enlightenment where philosophy and science were the new gods that rivaled Christianity as a source of wisdom and understanding in people’s lives. In the 1700s, the brothers Charles (1707-1788) and John Wesley (1703-1791), two Anglican priests, began a mission to preach and pray outside of the Church. They went into the highways, barns and marketplaces of the common folk. Their message or “method” was that people could experience God as a powerful and living presence by living lives of holiness in prayer, meditation, self-examination and through frequent Holy Communion. 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 catechumenate and 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 

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 both the pre-Reformation and early Anglican Church, especially the works of the Anglican Divines of the 17th century. 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. We might not recognize a modern Anglican church today if it were not for Anglo Catholicism’s ongoing contributions to enrich the Church’s worship and liturgical life. 

The Oxford Movement reminded the Church to honour its saints on its Calendar, and introduced organs, choirs and rich choral music to many parishes. Beginning in the 1840s, Anglo Catholics re-established the monastic orders of monks, nuns and friars, returning an invaluable witness to the communal life of prayer and simplicity within the Church. 

Anglo Catholic spirituality emphasizes the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. That is, through Jesus, the Word made human, we can see, hear and touch God. As Christ is truly present in the Sacraments so Christ is truly present to us in our brothers and sisters. Christ who is among us and still suffers in those in need has prompted the Anglo Catholic Tradition to have a strong commitment to social justice, poverty and welcoming the outcast. The Anglo Catholic way encourages us see Christ’s incarnation as infusing all creation with his presence , hence Anglo Catholics use their whole selves and all that is beautiful in creation to worship God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

The Charismatic Movement

The Charismatic movement began within the Anglican Communion in the 1960s and 70s, but this movement dates back to various protestant spiritual revival movements in the United States from the late 1800s. The Charismatic movement takes its name comes from the Greek word charisma meaning “gifts” and refers to receiving the gifts of the Holy Spirit (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. The Charismatic movement within Anglicanism often shares some similarities with 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 evolved from Latitudinarian thought of the late 1600s, a group which allowed for a wide latitude of theology and worship within the Church. This group avoided the strife caused by religious differences and doctrine and encouraged people to respond to God no matter how you worshipped him. Later, this latitude of thought allowed the Church to reconcile Christian belief with the modern and scientific age. The inheritors of this understanding of the Christian faith gave birth to what we would today call “Liberal Anglicans.”

The Anglican Tradition Today 

 In many ways Anglican churches are less bound by their past divisive history, parties and their suspicions of other Christian traditions (only to be replaced with new divisions.) Anglicans have been freer to draw from the deep well of ancient traditions as well as from vibrant and creative new ones. Most Anglican have come to appreciate the importance and value of a having rich and meaningful liturgical life that embraces sign and, symbol, sacrament and mystery especially as we experience this in the Holy Eucharist. Most Anglicans have a vision of their evangelistic call by Christ to share the Gospel in new, creative and risky ways. Many Anglicans are whole-heartedly embracing traditions from icon painting to Christian yoga, from ancient practices of prayer and meditation to liturgical dancing. Bishop Frank Griswold, a former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the US 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.” Some Anglicans embrace this ability to welcome this “grey zone”, while others would be happier in an Anglican Church that had very clear doctrinal boundaries. Like most families, this diversity can be an enriching experience, but at the same time it also can lead to painful struggles and hurtful divisions. If Anglicanism is indeed an ongoing discussion or dialogue seeking the will of God, may we continue to be open to listening to each other with love and respect and to listening 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.