The Episcopal Church and Anglicanism, Past and Present:
Prof. Joslyn-Siemiatkoski

Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski

The Episcopal Church and Anglicanism, Past and Present


Defining Anglicanism is not easy. It is enmeshed in the history of the English Reformation while so varied globally that it eludes easy summaries. But when distilling Anglicanism to its essence I would describe it as a tradition of reformed Catholicism that is adapted to local circumstances. From its beginnings, Anglicanism has been concerned with the nature of the church and how it might best exist locally. Today I will illustrate this aspect of Anglicanism by examining its establishment in the Church of England and the development of the Episcopal Church in the United States.

The English Reformation and the Establishment of the Church of England

Anglicanism as we know it emerged in the sixteenth century Reformation. But while Protestant leaders on the Continent focused primarily on theological issues like salvation and revelation in their separation from Rome, in England, the division with Rome resided primarily in matters of authority and ecclesiology.

We find this difference in the origins of the English Reformation, which is misunderstood in popular culture. While Henry’s desire for a divorce from Katherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn was a factor in separating England from the Church of Rome, it was not the only factor. Two other factors must be kept in mind. First, Henry was a very pious king who saw himself as God’s anointed to rule England. He appeared to have a genuine desire to reform the church in keeping with his humanist education. Second, England had long been enmeshed in disputes with the papacy about the extent of its power in England, especially concerning its rights to collect revenues.

After Henry’s appeals for an annulment for his marriage were refused by Pope Clement VII, Henry’s advisors argued that based on precedent in English civil and ecclesiastical laws, the English Church had provincial rights and independent jurisdiction from Rome. This meant church leaders in England had authority to determine Henry’s annulment. This reflected Henry’s desire not only to have his way regarding the divorce but also to allow England to be free from papal interference in the affairs of England. In 1533, Thomas Cranmer, sympathetic to the Lutheran movement, was consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury. He in turn announced the annulment of Henry’s marriage with Katherine of Aragon and his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Henry expanded his authority in 1534 in the Act of Supremacy. This declared Henry the supreme head over the Church of England with power to govern the church temporally. This move severed the Church of England from Rome and made the Church of England the normative expression of Christianity in England and the monarch held ultimate control over ecclesiastical affairs.

While for a time Henry supported some Protestant ideas, like endorsing justification by faith in Christ’s passion, and the suppression of monasteries as sites of superstition and corruption, Henry rejected an explicit move to Protestantism. By the end of Henry’s reign, the Church of England affirmed Roman Catholic ideas such as transubstantiation, clerical celibacy, and masses for the dead. At his death, the only Protestant aspects were the independence of the Church of England from Rome and the suppression of the monasteries. Henry was happy to reign as the supreme head of the Church of England that had retained much of the Catholic sacramental system.

During the reign of Edward VI, Henry’s heir, the Church of England turned to Protestantism. During this time royal injunctions ensured Protestant teaching and practice. Emphasis was placed on the use of Scripture and liturgy in English. During this time Cranmer produced the English Book of Common Prayer. The 1552 version, which serves as the template for all later English Books of Common Prayer, is Protestant in character. In particular, its language for the Eucharistic service emphasizes the spiritual presence of Christ in the elements, but downplays a notion of Christ’s bodily presence.

After Edward VI’s early death in 1553, his half-sister Mary I initiated a Catholic counter-reformation. This forced the most ardent Protestants to flee to Europe, finding refuge most prominently in John Calvin’s Geneva. After Mary died in 1558, Elizabeth I, the daughter of Henry and Anne Boleyn, became queen. She quickly promoted a Protestant agenda. We see this in the ‘Act for the Uniformity of Common Prayer and Divine Service’ in 1559. This act allowed the English state to regulate matters of religion and punished those who would not conform. In order to win passage of this act in Parliament, the proposed prayer book included words of administration of the Eucharistic elements that permitted an understanding of the real presence of Christ. As well, traditional Eucharistic vestments and ceremonials were retained. Thus the 1559 Book of Common Prayer was reformed in doctrine, but conservative in terms of ceremony. This quality signals the reformed catholicity that remains a hallmark of Anglicanism.

The other theological hallmark of Elizabeth’s reign was the ratification of the Thirty-Nine Articles in 1563. It incorporates Protestant views on justification by faith, Scripture, and the number of sacraments at two (baptism and Eucharist). But it retained commitment to the apostolic tradition by maintaining the historic creeds of the church, the role of sacraments as conveyers of grace, and the historic episcopate. Significant for the later history of Anglicanism is Article Thirty-four: ‘It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, or utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men’s manners . . . Every particular or national Church hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish, Ceremonies or Rites of the Church ordained only by man’s authority, so that all things be done to edifying.’ This article express a core Anglican concept – local churches may adapt themselves to their circumstances if they do not deviate from apostolic teachings.

After the reign of Elizabeth I there was a debate over whether the Church of England was sufficiently reformed. Puritans argued for even greater acts of reform. They were the heirs of the exiles under Queen Mary who desired to bring the Church of England in line with the theology and church governance witnessed in Reformed cities, especially Calvin’s Geneva. For them the Word of God was the sole authority in religion and worship and many aspects of the church did not conform to God’s Word, especially the office of bishop. The classic Anglican response in this debate is Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Hooker argued that the ecclesiology of the Church of England based on royal supremacy and the authority of bishops was best suited for the context of England. Hooker affirmed the primary role of Scripture in the life of the Church. But he argued not all church teachings or forms of governance can be derived solely by Scripture. The divine gift of reason and the traditions of the Church must also be used. This became a classically Anglican method of theological analysis in which the priority of Scripture was interpreted and utilized with reason and tradition to meet the needs of the Church.

The seventeenth century was tumultuous for the Church of England. The kings James I and Charles I and the bishops of the Church of England became estranged from the Puritan movement. This led to the English Civil War in 1642, culminating in the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the creation of an English republic under Oliver Cromwell. The death of Cromwell and the religious violence of the period led to the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1662. Although he re-established Anglicanism, the religious divisions in England had become too pronounced to be contained in the Church of England. An Act of Toleration in 1689 allowed Protestant dissenters from the Church of England to have their own churches and exercise a degree of civil rights.

By the end of the seventeenth century the Church of England, ordered to local context maintained earlier Catholic traditions by retaining creeds, episcopacy, and tradition as a norm. At the same time, the Church of England understood itself to be a Protestant church that adhered to ideas of the role of vernacular language in worship and Scripture, justification by faith, independence from the papacy, and limited sacraments.

The Diversification of Anglicanism

After this period, the Church of England saw diverse expressions of Anglicanism. We see this in the emergence of the church parties known as liberal, evangelical, and Anglo-Catholic. These parties show how Anglicanism developed to fit differing contexts.

Liberal Anglicanism

Liberal Anglicanism emerged during the Enlightenment to reconcile the revealed doctrines of Christianity and rational inquiry. Liberal Anglicans argued that natural order that humans discern by reason and the religious order given by revelation are analogous. Liberal Anglicanism had the following qualities. While Christian faith was important, a doctrinal minimalism permitted a wide engagement with faith. Reason operated as a way of understanding revelation and a means for dealing with issues not contained in Scripture. Liberals advocated toleration for religious freedom with emphasis on conscience and common sense as means for making religious decisions. Finally, salvation was understood to come by grace through God via Christ. This grace is a process throughout life and is not expressed in a dramatic moment of conversion.


Evangelicalism emerged among English Protestants in the mid-eighteenth century, including Presbyterians, Anglicans, Baptists, and Methodists. Its key markers were a personal conversion experience, the primary authority of Scripture, an active life of personal holiness, and a focus on social responsibilities. It was by evangelical efforts that the English slave trade was abolished in 1807. Evangelicals founded the first Anglican missionary society, the Church Missionary Society, which was founded in 1799. Although complicit in the imperial adventures of the British Empire, we must note the role of the CMS in spreading Anglicanism globally. In its early years, it emphasized indigenous clerical leadership although this declined as the nineteenth century wore on. Yet CMS continued the Anglican ideal, found in the 39 Articles, that local mission churches should become self-supporting, self-governing, and self-expanding.


The third party, Anglo-Catholicism, responded to anger over the interference of the English government in ecclesial affairs. They were disturbed by the extension of full citizenship rights in 1829 to non-Anglicans and Roman Catholics, including the right to hold government posts. There emerged a circle of writers in at Oxford, known as the Tractatrians or the Oxford Movement. Their leadership included John Keble, John Henry Newman, and Edward Pusey. They argued that the problems of the Church of England rested in the English Reformation when too much power was given to the monarch and Parliament. For them, church authority was not with the civil government but the episcopate. The Church of England was a sister church with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Their goal was the reunion of these churches and the disappearance of Protestantism. The Tractarians gave rise to Anglo-Catholicism, which sought to recover an earlier Catholic heritage. Anglo-Catholics introduced liturgical changes such as wafers at Eucharist, liturgical colors, stone altars, crucifixes, Eucharistic vestments, and reserving and reverencing the consecrated hosts. These changes led to bitter clashes with bishops and evangelicals. But the Anglo-Catholic movement gradually found acceptance in England and the United States. It is in part through the Anglo-Catholic movement that weekly reception of Eucharist has now become a norm in many parts of Anglicanism.

By looking at these three parties – liberal, evangelical, and Anglo-Catholic – we find significant developments in Anglicanism. While still the established church in England, it was not mono-cultural but embodied a range of expressions that met specific cultural and theological needs. Sometimes Anglicanism was more reformed, or more Catholic, or as comprehensive of both the reformed and Catholic, but Anglicanism was flexible enough that its expression could meet specific local contexts.

The Episcopal Church: An Experiment in Anglicanism

The development of the Episcopal Church in the United States illustrates the development of Anglicanism as a form of reformed Catholicity able to face local contexts that can be alternately hospitable and hostile.

We find this beginning in the colonial era. In some colonies, like Virginia, the Church of England was the established church. In other places it was one denomination among many. In the New England colonies, the Church of England was at a disadvantage against the Congregationalist establishment. The greatest challenge for Anglicans was the lack of a resident bishop in the colonies. Instead the bishop of London oversaw affairs from afar. This led to devolution of authority to the local level shared between the gentry and the clergy. Because of the lack of a bishop, there was a shortage of qualified clergy. Frontier conditions meant many laity were under-educated and travel and communication were difficult. To resolve this problem, in 1689 Bishop Compton of London appointed James Blair as a commissary in the colonies. Blair served as Compton’s personal representative with authority to act in his name. The commissary system in the colonies led to a general improvement in the quality of clergy and better function of church life. Despite the commissary system, there was still a need for a resident bishop in the American colonies. This led to a bitter debate in the 1760s. Resistance arose because a resident American bishop would have required intertwining the episcopacy with state functions. Many, especially New England Congregationalists descended from Puritans, saw this as a plot to take away their religious liberty. As a result, this plan was dropped.

After the American Revolution, Anglicanism in the former colonies had to quickly face a new context. Anglicanism was closely identified with the English state because of its prayers for the king, the commissary system, and support for the British by a significant number of Anglicans. Quickly a new name was adopted, he Protestant Episcopal Church. But this church was still Anglican and so it needed a bishop. But there were serious impediments to an American episcopacy. There remained popular resistance to bishops. Some Anglicans preferred the control they had enjoyed via the commissary system. Moreover, English bishops were unwilling to consecrate possible candidates.

Two options existed. One was advocated by William White of Pennsylvania. He wanted state conventions to elect clergy and laity who would govern the church. This would be democratic governance by which the Episcopal Church could become a national church. White held that the church could elect and consecrate its own bishops. In contrast, Samuel Seabury of New York insisted on the need for bishops to guarantee the apostolicity of the Episcopal Church. He resisted lay involvement in governance. Seabury was commissioned to serve as bishop for Connecticut. He first traveled to England where Parliament refused to allow him to be consecrated bishop. However he was consecrated by three bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church. In 1786 the British Parliament allowed bishops to consecrate William White and Samuel Provoost of New York as bishops. The Episcopal Church in 1789 ratified the governance of the church. A compromise was struck between Seabury’s high church ecclesiology and White’s vision. Similar to the bicameral structure of the Congress, there was a House of Bishops and a clerical House of Deputies that included laity. An American Book of Common Prayer was ratified, removing references to monarchs and replacing it with prayers for the new nation.

While the Episcopal Church in terms of polity and status was different from the Church of England it was still Anglican because it retained the Church of England’s reformed catholicity. There was a shared episcopal succession, a shared liturgy, and shared creeds. Following Article 34 of the 39 Articles, the Episcopal Church was Anglicanism adapted to local, American circumstances. We can see the Episcopal Church’s continued ability to express itself as a form of reformed Catholicity in the uniquely pluralist context of the United States in three areas: ecumenism, the ordination of women, and the liturgical renewal movement. I will briefly discuss each of these.


Because of the broad religious diversity in nineteenth-century America, the idea of ecumenism was strong. In Episcopal circles, the best example for this is the priest William Reed Huntington. As a result of consultation with other Christians, he formulated something known as the Chicago Quadrilateral that set forth four marks of the Church “essential to the restoration of unity” among the churches. These were: (1) Scriptures of Old Testament and New Testament as the revealed Word of God; (2) the Nicene Creed as a sufficient statement of faith; (3) acceptance of the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist; and (4) the historic episcopate adapted to local circumstances. These marks were to serve as the minimal basis for Christian unity. The Quadrilateral was endorsed at the 1886 General Convention of the Episcopal Church and ratified at the Third Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Communion in 1888. Other Episcopalians promoted conferences on Christian ecumenism that ultimately resulted in the World Council of Churches. For our purposes it is important to see how Anglicans retained their distinct identity while recognizing what they held in common with other Christians. This flexibility is an expression of reformed Catholicity adapted to local contexts.

Women’s Ordination

The ministry of women has been vital for the life of the church since its beginnings. But only in the modern era were women fully ordered as ordained ministers. In the Episcopal Church, the first female ministers were deaconesses. In 1857, the first deaconesses were not ordained but “set apart” for ministry in the fields of health care, education, and missionary work. With the entry of many women into the American work force in World War Two, the number of deaconesses declined dramatically. As the women’s rights movement developed, a movement grew to admit women to ordained ministry. Two significant events occurred at the 1970 General Convention of the Episcopal Church. First, it was ruled there was no distinction between male deacons and female deaconesses, allowing women to be ordained simply as deacons. Second, a study was presented that ruled there were no theological grounds to prevent female priests. But a resolution approving women’s ordination was defeated. This led to several years of intense debate, culminating in 1974 in the ordination of eleven women as priests by three retired bishops. This caused great controversy, but the end result was that at the 1976 General Convention the ordination of women was approved. The women’s ordination movement reached its apex in 1989 when Barbara Harris was consecrated as suffragan bishop of Massachusetts, the first female bishop in the Anglican Communion. The ordination of women in the Episcopal Church and the promotion of women to episcopacy illustrates how reformed Catholicity can adapt itself in contexts like western liberal democracies where the rights of all citizens are protected. It has been possible in these contexts to apply gender equity to ancient traditions like an episcopally ordered priesthood without doing violence to the core teachings of Anglicanism.

Liturgical Renewal Movement

A result of the ecumenical movement was an interest in the mid-twentieth century was something called the liturgical renewal movement in which Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Orthodox leaders and scholars explored early Christian liturgies as a site for possible unity. In Anglicanism this led to emphasis on the Eucharist as the primary act of Christian worship and baptism as the primary act of Christian initiation. It also resulted in new versions of prayer books such as the 1979 Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church. For the Episcopal Church there was an important shift in ecclesiology in this new prayer book. In traditional Anglican ecclesiology, the mission of the church was identified with ordained ministry. But in the ecclesiology of the 1979 BCP, the mission of the church was identified with all the baptized. Full initiation in the life of the church began with baptism, not with confirmation or first reception of communion. This new view of the church was termed ‘baptismal ecclesiology.’ In the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the Episcopal Church identifies ministry as something done by both laity and clergy, not something done by clergy on behalf of laity. This baptismal ecclesiology most importantly identified the entire church as commissioned for performing God’s mission in the world. By virtue of baptism, all the baptized are called to ministry. This baptismal ecclesiology found in the Episcopal Church certainly is grounded in biblical sources. But it also expresses a vision of Christian life clearly adapted to the local contexts of American values of participatory democracy and individual human rights and might translate well to similar contexts globally.


In this talk, I have tried to show how Anglicanism as it developed in England and later in the Episcopal Church has operated as a form of reformed Catholicity adaptable to changing local contexts. This analysis shows Anglicanism is not really a theological system or a confession. In the words of the great twentieth century Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, Anglicanism is “a method, a use, a direction” (The Gospel and the Catholic Church). In other words, Anglicanism is a way of engaging with the great elements of Christianity – its scriptures, apostolic tradition, embrace of reason in the pursuit of faith – in whatever local context one lives within. As a method, Anglicanism offers a way of being Christian that can flourish in many contexts, not only English or American ones, but I hope also other global contexts, including in Poland.

[Copyright: Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski, 2012. Contents may be distributed and cited but intellectual property rights are retained.]

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