The meaning of Anglican


The word “Anglican” refers to that fellowship of autonomous Churches in communion with the ancient See of Canterbury.

A fellowship transcending race, nationality, and language, and finding its unity in the faith and order set forth in the Book of Common Prayer. Its members are organized geographically on a national basis, but are not national Churches in the sense that they anywhere comprise the majority of the population, and except in England enjoy any special status. It takes its place in Christendom as a reformed Catholicism, whose provinces like those of the early Church are bound together by no centralized government, but by the mutual recognition of a common faith and practice.

In the eighteenth century, when our story begins, the word “Anglican” still had the quite different meaning it had carried from the time of the English Reformation. It described a single Church, identified with the national life, traditions, and institutions of the English people. By ideal and by law, it was virtually identical with the English nation—an ecclesiastical body co-extensive with the subjects of the English Crown, the English commonwealth in its spiritual aspect. This concept was more than we mean today by a State Church or Establishment, one among several religious bodies singled out for special recognition and official privileges.

The Church of England was the English nation organized ecclesiastically. It might be possible and even desirable for it to be in communion with other national Churches, but Anglicanism was not exportable; it was not yet conceivable apart from English nationality.

Between the old and the new idea of Anglicanism there is a great gulf, and it is remarkable that the transition from one to the other was made in the space of two generations. It was the American Revolution which made the older conception an anachronism. Suddenly “English” and “Anglican” were no longer correlative terms; the Church of England contemplated a dubious offspring incapable of any relation whatever with the English Crown and State. The final organization in 1789 of the Protestant Episcopal Church marked the birth of the Anglican Communion, although the implications, as we shall see, were by no means perceived in England for many years to come. [The American Church and the Formation of the Anglican Communion By Robert S. Bosher (1962)]