Saturday, January 29, 2011

Episcopalians as "Catholic Lite"? -- A Theological History of the Church of England

Dear Leslie,

Sometimes Episcopalian is referred to as "Catholic Lite" - what are the primary differences between the two religions?

Catholic at Heart

Dear Catholic at Heart,

Your question is one very near and dear to my own heart – I have many family members and friends who are Anglican/Episcopalian, and so I have actually done a good deal of thinking and research on this topic. I hope you don’t mind my answering your question in two parts, the first of which will be addressed tonight – namely, the theological history of the Church of England. Learning about this historical foundation was essential in my own understanding of the modern differences between the two churches, and will hopefully be helpful to you, as well. In tomorrow’s blog, I’ll bring you more up-to-date with the modern day Anglican Communion and its relationship with the Catholic Church, which will include the primary differences that you’ve asked about.

The Anglican Communion (and the Episcopal Church USA, which is part of this communion) has its origins in the English Reformation. Most people are at least a little familiar with the story – King Henry VIII had married Catherine of Aragon (by special Papal dispensation, because she had been previously married to his brother). Catherine did not bear Henry any male heirs, and this fact coupled with his falling in love with Ann Boleyn prompted Henry to request an annulment of his marriage to Catherine. Rome said no; Henry said, “No more Rome.” Thus, the Church of England was born.

In 1529, King Henry VIII, motivated by the revocation of his divorce case by Pope Clement VIII to Rome, took a series of steps to secure complete control over the church in England. While Henry’s efforts were concurrent to the Continental Reformation of Martin Luther, Henry was a staunch Catholic who intensely disliked these Protestant movements of Luther and the other Continental Reformers. For this reason, the theological developments and liturgical consequences of England’s break from Rome were not as drastic as the Reformation abroad, which was largely rooted in a theological crisis rather than a domestic problem (namely, Henry’s need for a new wife to bear him a male heir).

Because Henry VIII’s break from the Roman Catholic Church was primarily an act of state, by which he proclaimed his own supremacy and the supremacy of the English Crown over the Roman Pontiff, much of the theological justification for the English Reformation developed after the split from Rome rather than before.

Anglican theology was poured into an institutional mold that retained a great deal of Catholic structure partly as a matter of belief, but more as a matter of political necessity. As a church based on national supremacy, the Church of England did all that it could to maintain unity of nation over belief. The Anglican Church ensured that the people of England would largely remain a religious unit by accepting as many strands of opinion within itself as possible, and they did remain so until the late 1700s. 

While the Anglican Church under Henry largely remained a sort of Catholicism without Rome (although he did have to satisfy, to some extent, the Lutheran influence that had reached his people), more drastic changes in prayer and practice came about through subsequent English leaders. The doctrinal developments and liturgical changes of the English Reformers, however, lack cohesion and demonstrate the splintered theology that has marked the Church of England from its beginnings.

That the modern Anglican Communion (which includes the Episcopal Church USA) stands as the most pluralistic of the historic churches, then, should come as no surprise in light of its origins. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s Coffee Talk, where we’ll explore more about the Anglican Communion in the modern day, its role in the ecumenical movement, the Anglican/Roman Catholic dialogues sparked by Vatican II, and Pope Benedict XVI’s provision for Anglicans seeking corporate union with the Catholic Church – it’s a blog you won’t want to miss!

Peace and all good,

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