Are you Anglican, or Episcopalian? As an Episcopalian interloper studying at a Methodist seminary, I get the question a lot from my puzzled friends. Each time Im asked, part of me wants to launch into a mini-primer on Anglican ecclesiology¯to wit, that Episcopalians are Anglicans, since the Episcopal church is just the American province of the global Anglican communion. Which means that, technically, the question shouldnt even make sense¯its sort of like asking, Are you American, or Texan? But, of course, I know just what the question means¯it does make sense, because it reflects the sad divisions that have roiled the church over the past five years. Quite simply and sensibly, my Methodist friends want to know whether Im a member of the liberal Episcopal church, or one of the conservative Anglican groups that broke off. And as saddening as it is to admit, Ive come to think that their common-sense perception is more accurate than my attempts at ecclesiological theory. Their question can only be asked, and answered, because of the reality on the ground in the United States: Episcopalians are one thing, and Anglicans are another.
Popular understanding is usually much wiser than theoretical wishful-thinking, and nowhere more so than here. The divisions in the church have led the American public to attach the meanings to the words Episcopalian and Anglican that they actually bear in their usage¯namely, that to be an Episcopalian means to be a member of an pro-gay, autonomous American denomination, more liturgical than most churches but firmly within the theological orbit of liberal Protestantism. To be an Anglican, by contrast, means to be part of a conservative evangelical church with bishops, connected somehow with Africa and opposed to homosexuality. The definitions have by now become quite distinct and firmly fixed in the national lexicon¯ask almost any church-going American what the words mean, and you will get an answer something like the above.
Some Episcopalians and Anglicans (myself included) strongly dislike these characterizations¯to be genuinely Episcopalian, they believe, means to be in fellowship with the Anglican communion, and to be authentically Anglican is to be part of a global communion of catholic Christians united by creedal orthodoxy and a commitment to read Scripture, pray, and worship together in the historic Anglican tradition. But although this sounds wonderful in theory, it is simply not what has happened, by and large, in the American context. Because of whats taken place over the past five years, Episcopalian is now understood to be a term set in opposition to Anglican, and Anglican refers not to a global catholic communion but rather to an American-African evangelical phenomenon. Whether we think the words ought to bear these meanings is not the point¯my point is that this is what the words actually do mean, in newspapers and conversations and pulpits across the country.
Take, for instance, the widely publicized formation just this month of a new conservative Anglican province¯the so-called Anglican Church in North America, with Robert Duncan as its new archbishop and primate. By taking the name Anglican for themselves, the clear implication is that the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church are not in fact authentically Anglican, since they need to be completely replaced. In this, they are only following the practice of previous breakaway groups, such as the Nigerian-based CANA (Convocation of Anglicans in North America) and the Rwandan-based AMiA (Anglican Mission in America). The commonplace notion that Anglican means “not Episcopalian” is no coincidence; this is precisely the conclusion that the average church-going American would reasonably draw from following the news.
Moreover, the vision of Anglicanism here in play clearly gives very little weight to catholic order and global communion. The new Anglican church was created, as it were, by fiat¯ Duncans forthcoming elevation as archbishop, and the new groups status as an Anglican province, are thus far only self-declared realities. And although Duncans group and his supporters have asked for approval from the global Anglican instruments of communion, they have also made it clear that they do not consider such approval to be necessary. Duncan and his allies enjoy the support of five evangelical Anglican primates, mostly African and all associated with the confessional GAFCON movement. This is, forthrightly, all the approval that the new church supposes itself to need; apart from this, Duncans group considers itself authorized to go it on its own. If ordinary Americans are expected to suppose that Anglican means something other than a conservative evangelical movement with liturgy and bishops, it cannot be from reading the daily headlines.
Episcopalians, for their part, genuinely do see themselves first and foremost as an autonomous, liberal American denomination. Their election of Gene Robinson as the churchs first openly gay bishop, of course, along with their practice (in many dioceses) of liturgically blessing same-sex unions, has led to a great deal of turmoil. But despite being asked many times by the Anglican instruments of communion to reverse course for the sake of Anglican unity, Episcopalians show little sign of doing so. By and large, Episcopalians like Bishop Robinson; as one friend of mine remarked, the thing about Robinson isnt that hes theologically unique as an Episcopalian, its that hes so typical. Most Episcopalians are very content with their churchs position on homosexuality, as well as with the churchs general doctrinal haziness; such things are not about to change anytime soon. Even though holding to such positions may well mean walking apart from other Anglicans, the majority of the church views this as an unfortunate but acceptable necessity. In short, it seems clear that for most Episcopalians, the core of their identity lies elsewhere than their status as Anglicans.
All in all, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the commonplace definitions of Anglican and Episcopalian in the American public lexicon have their roots not simply in confusion or misunderstanding, but in what has actually happened on the ground. Many may view these realities as unfortunate, but that does not change the fact that they have indeed become realities. If these words are to change in their popular meaning, they will have to change also in fact. And to do so will mean fighting an uphill battle against the forces that have given them their current definitions.
So far, so gloomy. Im home from seminary at the moment, visiting family and friends in North Dakota. When I get asked¯as I undoubtedly will¯whether Im Anglican or Episcopalian, what will I say in reply? As of right now, believe it or not, I still think that my answer can and should be, Both.
The answer depends not on the probability of being understood; given what I have just laid out, I have little reason to think that. My reason has much more to do with necessity and hope. As I made clear to my diocesan standing committee last summer, I understand myself to be an Episcopalian precisely because I am an Anglican; if I did not believe in the vision of a genuinely catholic and reformed global fellowship of Christians that the Anglican communion, at its best, holds out, I would have little interest in joining up with a denomination that, frankly, is more committed to their openness toward diverse beliefs and practices than to orthodox Christian doctrine. If I cannot say that I believe myself to be an Anglican first and Episcopalian second, then my place in the church makes little sense.
And that, in turn, is dependent upon being able to hope that Anglicanism actually means something beyond the local and the ad hoc; that there actually is, in fact and not only in theory, a global fellowship of Anglican Christians committed to the creedal faith and to common prayer, worship, and reading of Scripture. In short, despite the general futility of my hand-waving attempts at explaining Anglican ecclesiology, I have to stick to my guns¯even though I think that the terms Anglican and Episcopalian have almost entirely left the barn, I cant accede to what the words have come to mean in their near-universal American usage.
Is there still reason to hope that the words will somehow change their meanings? As for Episcopalian , I dont see how it could. Next summers General Convention will be important to watch; many expect that it will further underscore the churchs autonomy and commitment to theological liberalism. Even so, the valiant Communion Partners, the group within the Episcopal church committed to both catholic order and doctrinal orthodoxy, remains forward-looking and vocal. If the status quo remains unchanged, their long-term future in the Episcopal church is dubious, but they intend nevertheless to remain committed to both Anglicanism and the Episcopal church so long as it is possible.
What about the definition of Anglican ? In the October issue of First Things , I expressed the hope that last summers Lambeth Conference, and particularly the leadership of Archbishop Rowan Williams, gave strong evidence that the center of the Anglican communion intended to hold together; that the Episcopal left and the GAFCON right would not, in fact, carry the day and so lead the communion ever-further down the road to fragmentation and incoherence. Since that time, most of the action has been on the GAFCON and Bishop Duncan side; and the more influence they have, the less chance there is of an eventual coming-together of things.
But the ball is now in center court, as it were¯this Februarys meeting of the Anglican primates will be crucial, as will the meeting of the Covenant Design Group in April and the Anglican Consultative Councils meeting in May. If Anglicanism is truly to mean something beyond the local, these meetings will carry forward the Lambeth vision of a genuinely covenanted global and catholic church, with its ministry, faith, and sacraments united and interdependent throughout the world, as Rowan Williams has put it.
There are, of course, no guarantees. The forces of dissolution and division right now are strong, and it is always much easier to pull apart than it is to hold together. The question Anglican or Episcopalian? may always be with us; but at the least, we may still be able to hope that the question What kind of Anglican are you? will not become just as common.
Jordan Hylden, a former junior fellow at First Things , is a graduate student at Duke Divinity School.
” What Lambeth Wrought ” by Jordan Hylden (October 2008)
For further reading:
An Emerging North American Province , by Bishop Robert Duncan
A New Province in North America: Neither the Right Nor the Only Answer for the Communion , by Dr. Ephraim Radner