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The Origins of Anglicanism

It is often characteristic of those who are hostile to or ignorant of Anglicanism to say that this particular segment of Christendom originated in the 16th century, when King Henry the Eighth quarreled with the Pope over the matter of the King’s desire to remarry. Henry is thus said to have “founded” the Church of England, from which the Anglican Communion has developed. Nothing could be more mistaken.

The Christian Church is known to have existed in England and elsewhere in the British Isles at least as early as the fourth century and probably much earlier. The practice of the Christian religion and work of the Church in Britain were continuous through succeeding centuries. The Pope sent Saint Augustine there in A.D. 597 and from at least A.D. 664 the Church in England was allied to and under the spiritual authority of the Pope in Rome.

The Church of England, as an organization, may be said to have come into existence in 1534 when the Act of Supremacy made the King the head of the Church rather than the Pope. There was no separation from the Church Catholic. Anglicanism continued the ancient faith and worship as they had always been and simply cut its ties of authority with the Roman Pontiff. A prepositional change turned the centuries-old Church in England into the Church of England.

A little later, Britain was swept by the tides of unrest which had changed the face of much of the religion of the European continent. The preachments of Luther, of Calvin and Zwingli – the great Protestant reformers – without doubt had their followers in England. Protestant ideas brought about certain reforms adopted by the Anglican Church. However, it is also of the utmost importance to note that the faith and practice of the Church of England never ceased to remain in true and loyal continuity with the Catholic and universal faith and practice of the Church inEngland as that faith had existed previously for more than twelve centuries.

Anglicanism, as represented in the Mother Church, the Church of England, continued to believe the essentials of the Faith, as set forth in the Bible, the Creeds and the teachings of the Fathers and decrees of the Ecumenical Councils. Its services were somewhat reformed and altered but they remained recognizably in the pattern of the services in other parts of the Catholic Church.

From England, Anglicanism was carried and spread by evangelization to most other parts of the world. A strong circle of national churches developed which were allied in faith and practice to the Church of England and which looked to the See of Canterbury as their spiritual center. Thus Anglicanism today is found in the United States, Canada, the West Indies, South America, the Middle East, Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand, Polynesia, China, Japan, the Philippines and elsewhere. Because of heresies in doctrine and deviations in Order which were adopted in 1976 by the Episcopal Church, thitherto the representative of Anglicanism in the United States, a “continuing Anglican” movement sprang up in the Untied States and Canada and the Caribbean to preserve orthodox Anglicanism.

Anglicanism is not a faith. It is rather a simplified, purified and reformed expression of the Catholic faith, the ancient faith of the Apostles and the early Church. It omits nothing of the essentials – Biblical, Creedal, Sacramental or of Order. It has added nothing to the Faith once received by the saints. It is a Church of ritual and solemn form as embodied in one of the great treasures of Christianity and the English language, the historic Book of Common Prayer. Anglicanism has merely cleansed itself of excrescences and impurities which had crept in. It respects the Bishop of Rome as a great leader of the Christian faith, but does not accept any claim of supreme authority by him. It is thus a Catholic faith, Protestant only in its separation from the Pope.



A real mental stumbling block to many people seems to be the use of the word “Catholic” in any description of Anglicanism. This undoubtedly is one of those emotional prejudices dating from the days when “Catholic” described solely the Roman Catholic Church, and “Romanism” was sorely feared and disliked by non-Roman Catholics. A more sober look in the light of the full sweep of developments since the Reformation will perhaps help to develop a broader and less emotional attitude, at least among Anglicans.

It is unfortunate that the word “Catholic” ever came to be exclusively associated with the Roman Catholic Church. It is also the proud possession of the Eastern Orthodox Churches and of the Old Catholic Church, and it should be equally be the proud possession of Anglicans. For what does “Catholic” mean? It means the Christian religion which is full and complete and clearly continuous with the primitive Church established by Jesus Christ and continued through the Apostles. Without any question, Anglican Churches fit into the bounds of the description.

The Church of England, from which all Anglicans descend, was the Catholic Church in England as it derived from the Apostles through the early Celtic Church, the Church of St. Augustine, and the Church of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I of England. It was THE continuous Christian Church in England. It was separated from the Roman Pope by Henry VIII and in succeeding reigns it was simplified, purified and purged of the Roman excesses of that period. It never ceased to be demonstrably “Catholic.” It came in that character to America.

Anglicanism retained at the Reformation, and retains to this day, all the marks of the Catholic Church. It looks to the Scriptures as the base for all its teachings; it remains in the Apostolic succession of bishops; it recognizes the two Gospel Sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Communion and the five lesser non-Gospel Sacraments of Confirmation, Penance, Holy Orders, Matrimony and Unction (however they are variously described and called), and it recognizes and uses the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. These are the fundamental elements which Anglican Churches share with all other parts of the Catholic Church.

In the Apostles’ Creed, we Anglicans confess our belief in “the holy Catholic Church,” in the Nicene Creed, in slightly different terms, we confess our belief in “one Catholic and Apostolic Church.” Every time we say these words, we reaffirm our claim to be Catholic.

Because to be Catholic means to be a full and complete Christian, then it follows that to be Catholic means to be loving, charitable, broadly inclusive, and tolerant within broad limits. To be Catholic means to seek the unity of all Christians and especially to draw within the broad limits of the true and original Christian faith all who may now stand outside those limits because of ignorance, prejudice, misunderstanding or rejection.

Anglicanism claims its priceless heritage of Catholicism. It is, to be sure, a part of Catholicism which is Protestant Catholic insofar as it has “protested” against the supreme authority of the Pope. It is also Reformed Catholic insofar as it has always sought to remove from its faith and from its practice and from its worship those abuses and excrescences which crept into the Church as various times from the Dark Ages to Modern times. But whatever adjective is additionally applied, Anglicanism always retains the basic adjective of Catholic.

Let all Anglicans be proud to call themselves Catholic. Let all Anglicans seek to preserve in its fullness and purity the complete Christian faith which is their Catholic heritage. And let all Anglicans pray and work for the spread and unity of the faith which is an integral pat of the meaning of the word, “Catholic.”



The word “Protestant” is often loosely and to a large extent inaccurately applied to Anglican Churches. It is unfortunate that many Anglicans think of themselves as “Protestants.” In fact, Anglicanism is “Protestant” only in a most limited sense. It is Protestant in that it “protested’ against and rebelled from the supreme authority of the Pope over all other bishops. It is also Protestant in that it “protested” against and set out to reform the many abuses which had crept into the worship and faith of the Roman Church of which the English Church had so long been a part.

In these limited senses, Anglicanism is indeed “Protestant,” and honorably so. However, the objection to thinking of all Anglicanism primarily in terms of “Protestant” is that it serves to obscure the fact that, theologically and historically, Anglican Churches are Catholic. They retain the full and complete faith of Christianity, in its Sacramental form, and they are in continuity with the primitive Church, adhere to the ancient Creeds and base themselves firmly on the Scriptures. These, after all, are the marks of Catholicism, shared with the Eastern Orthodox, the Roman Catholics, the Old Catholics, some Lutherans and others.

Catholicism goes back to the beginning. Protestantism stems essentially from the 16th century, and marks a break theologically as well as organizationally with the established, historic form of Christianity.

Anglicans can honor the Protestant Churches, can agree with them in some points. But Anglicans should never forget those marks of the full and complete Catholic faith which set them apart from Protestantism, such as the sacramental worship and ministers who are priests in the line of the Apostles.

Anglicans have a right to think of themselves as being part of “The Church,” not just a denomination, much less a sect. In the most literal sense, Anglican Churches do constitute a “denomination,” that is, a religious body considered simply as a category into which a given person is to be classified without reference to religious implications. But again, frequent use of this word, “denomination,” tends to blur and obscure the fact that Anglicanism is part of the Church Catholic, the full and historic Church.

In another leaflet in this series, a point has been made in discussing the term, “Catholic,” which ought to be repeated here and which all Anglicans should bear in mind. Anglicanism “is…a part of Catholicism which is Protestant Catholic insofar as it has ‘protested’ against the supreme authority of the Pope. It is also Reformed Catholic insofar as it has always sought to remove…those abuses and excrescences which crept into the Church at various times from the Dark Ages to modern times. But whatever adjective is applied, Anglicanism always retains the basic adjective of Catholic.”

In the light of the foregoing, Anglicanism has always thought of itself as a kind of bridge which might some day, in God’s providence, be used to bring together the Catholic and Protestant bodies. If that is ever to be, it will require the utmost faith, prayer, work, steadfastness and zeal from all Anglicans.


The Apostolic Succession

Like all other parts of the Holy Catholic Church, Anglicanism claims “Apostolic Succession” as one of its hallmarks. What does this term mean?

It means that Anglican Churches preserve intact the faith and the ministry of the earliest primitive Christian Church – the Church of the Apostles. It means a system of Church organization which provides traditional and strong assurance against departure from the Faith of the Apostles.

The marks of Apostolic Succession in faith and ministry are several. In their entirety, they are confined to Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Old Catholic Communion, and possibly a few other scattered ecclesiastical bodies.

Anglicans believe that to be in the Apostolic Succession, you must abide by four precepts:

  1. You must appeal unfailingly to Holy Scripture and abide by it;
  2. You must accept and use at least one of the historic Creeds;
  3. You must accept the two Gospel Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion
    (though by no means implying thereby a rejection of the five other Sacraments of Confirmation, Penance, Unction, Holy Orders and Matrimony);
  4. You must preserve the historic episcopate begun in the time of the Apostles.

These elements – essential elements – of Apostolic Succession have been proclaimed by Anglicanism in the Chicago and Lambeth Quadrilaterals (statements officially promulgated by the American episcopacy and by the whole Anglican episcopacy, respectively). In other words, Anglicans hold themselves bound – and privileged –to preserve the historic faith and also the historic ministry and government of the Church.

The continuing Anglican bodies in the United States, as part of historic Anglicanism, remain entirely Catholic in faith and order, while also being non-Roman Catholic and non-Papal (and therefore Protestant in this sense only). Thus, Anglicans stand secure in the knowledge that they are in complete and unbroken continuity with the early undivided Church of Jesus Christ. This is a precious heritage and one largely assured to us by adherence to the principle of Apostolic Succession.


This page is part of a series of Anglican teaching leaflets originally written by Perry Lankhuff and offered by Christ Church Anglican.