What is Anglicanism?
There are four great streams of Christianity: the Roman Catholic, the Orthodox, the Protestant, and the Anglican. Numerically, there are over one billion Catholics, more than 350 million Orthodox Christians, some 80 million Anglicans, and the many types of Protestant (Reformed) churches make up the rest of the 2.1 billion followers of Jesus Christ in the world.*
Anglicanism is a different approach to being church. It is a method for being Christian. It identifies the Bible as the supreme tradition on which Christianity rests, while insisting that further tradition is necessary in order to interpret the Scriptures. The Apostles' and Nicene creeds, for instance, are considered sufficient summaries of what the Bible teaches concerning God's plan of salvation for the human race. The sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Eucharist (Communion) are required for living out the method, though the five other sacraments are recognized as helpful and made available as needed to Jesus' followers. The 'holy catholic church' that the creeds mention is the church to which Anglicans (known in some parts of the world as "Episcopalians") belong, without recognizing the Pope's authority over its local churches.
'The local church' is called the 'diocese', the basic unit of the church, made up of a bishop and churches called 'parishes'. Not much can supersede the authority of the synod of the diocese — the clergy and laity of its parishes taking counsel with their bishop. One thing that does is the Book of Common Prayer, from which the basic identity of Anglican Christians derives. 'Prayer Shapes Believing' is the title of a popular book on worship services, and also a shorthand description of how Anglicans (and Episcopalians) determine doctrine. Again, the Bible is the most important source: several passages of the Scriptures are always prayed aloud and expounded in our services.
Because of its history beginning with the Church of England and now spreading to over 165 countries, Anglican dioceses answer to a 'provincial' authority, usually an archbishop with a general synod of all the dioceses in that particular national church.** Finally, we look to the Archbishop of Canterbury in England as the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, the whole ensemble of national Anglican churches.
Anglicanism as a Method
As a method, Anglicanism invites all people to encounter Jesus Christ in a community, the parish, that is shaped by the common life of its congregants and clergy, in communion with its bishop and diocese. And it is conscious of the command that we must love God with all our mind, among other things. Part of the 'method' is therefore to treat people as adults who can and indeed must think for themselves.
Anyone can find Christ among us, and follow him as Lord with us. But we are profoundly convinced that it is the Spirit who converts. Our evangelists are content to lay out the message and issue the invitation to accept Christ, but with confidence that God will move. And the invitation is to become a Christian first, not an Anglican. We are also confident that the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, faithfully administered and faithfully received, are vital to every Christian's life. Our method for being church includes therefore a strong emphasis on God’s action in our communal life, celebrated ritually. As all human beings are creatures of ritual, we see this as natural. Furthermore, we are not interested in church doctrine as an intellectual exercise so much as shaping a way of life.
Another aspect of the Anglican method is an emphasis on education and scholarship. Of course, we share this with other Christians: a church that does not teach is no church at all. But our peculiar approach to tradition requires communal reasoning, and we think this must be as widely informed as possible. We have deep respect for our elder brothers and sisters in the Faith, the 'Saints', and we observe a calendar in order to remember their examples for us. We also know that bearing forth the Faith into the future requires living it in our own generation.
And that can mean making changes. Two examples are slavery and the status of women. The Bible can be invoked to defend slavery and deny ordination to women, but it can and did inspire the abolition of slavery and the recognition of the equal value of women, including their leadership. Reasoning together, informed by scholarship, we believe we can and indeed, must overturn received convictions when they are found to be clearly contradictory to the Gospel.
At the same time, and this is a clear mark of Anglicanism, there is a certain modesty about our method of being Christian. The development of our way began as a historical accident, during the explosion of the Western church, to which we contributed. As a catholic church with roots in the ancient church, we know that the disunity of Christians is profoundly wrong. Anglicans began the ecumenical movement for this reason. At the same time as a church that has learned over time that it regularly has to reform itself, we understand the provisional nature of all the Christian '–isms' that enable the divisions to continue. So Anglicans are very leery of proclaiming the superiority of Anglicanism. It is simply out of place. As St. Paul said, we should make Christ our boast, and only Christ.
A Holistic Approach
To sum up, Anglicanism is about meeting Christ in everyday life, through a community of prayer, sacrament, study, and service, sharing life together with all the saints who have gone before, and learning to follow Jesus in the way we live and how we love. As a method, it has great flexibility, which is why it is a global phenomenon — the average Anglican today is a young woman of color who does not speak English. One of its enduring characteristics is its ability to incorporate aspects of a nation's culture into the expression of the church in that country.
This wholistic approach, including Bible, creeds, sacraments, governance by bishops, clergy and laity, scholarship, respect for local culture, and action for change in the world, is often called the 'comprehensiveness' of Anglicanism.
So Anglicanism is a way of being Christian that can work for anyone. Like other Christian "–isms" — Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and so on — it will get you to heaven, though we like to joke that Anglicans will already know which fork to use at the Celestial Banquet. Like all the other '–isms', we know it is imperfect, flawed and partial.
Yet the Spirit of God works through Anglicanism to transform people in the image of Christ, and through the saints thus produced, to transform creation and make it new. Historical accident though it be, Anglicanism is therefore a part of God’s providence for the life of the world. If you are searching, come and see.***
** See http://www.anglicancommunion.org/resources/acis/index.cfm for a list of the provinces.
*** adapted from a longer article by the author, published by Anglicans Online.