It’s not at all clear when the question arose: Is Anglicanism Catholic or Protestant? I suspect that for the first 250 years of our separated history the answer would have been Protestant.

If the question was then extended to a reasonably well educated parson, ministering to a country parish in England in the second half of the 18th century (someone like Parson Woodforde of Weston Longville), we might have received a more nuanced answer.

The parson might have taken a sip of his wine and answered, “If by Protestant, you mean like those in Scotland or on the Continent, then no, we’re not quite like them, although some enthusiasts among us may think so. We have a liturgy, bishops, and territorial parishes.”

Move another hundred years on and plenty of parsons still taught that Anglicans — the word was now in use — were a unique sort of Protestants. Others would have affirmed the evangelical nature of the established church, and yet others taught that Anglicans were as Catholic as the Pope. The latter might have used arguments similar to Woodforde’s — I’m putting words in his mouth — when he stressed the uniqueness of the established church. (Mind you, claiming to be liturgical, episcopal, and territorial just as well described one as a Scandinavian Lutheran. Yet those identifiers were inherited from Catholicism.) Diarmaid MacCulloch described Elizabethan Anglicanism as “a Protestant Church which remained haunted by its Catholic past.”


In Woodforde’s day Anglicans may have differed about what Protestant meant as a descriptor, but the Church of England was remarkably united in the way it looked and the way it sounded. It was a verbal church. While a vestige of ceremonial religion might be discovered in cathedrals and the chapels royal, it was not to be discovered in parish churches. The parson wore the same clothes as he did in the street unless he was celebrating Holy Communion, for which he donned a surplice. True, he wore a distinctive clerical garb in the street (cassock, gown, and tippet), but so did Presbyterian ministers in Scotland. In the Episcopal Churches in Scotland and the American colonies even the surplice was abandoned.

The parson “read prayers and preached,” moving from prayer desk to pulpit to do the latter. He went to the Holy Table to celebrate Holy Communion perhaps four times a year. He went to the font at the back of the church to baptize, and to the church porch to marry. He put his hand over the paten and chalice when he read the Words of Institution during the Eucharist.

But the emphasis was on the written word spoken aloud, whether in leading the liturgy or preaching. Anglicanism was united. Even evangelicals were “churchmen.” They may have engaged in extra-liturgical preaching and praying, but on Sundays their worship looked and sounded much like any other Church of England worship.

Latitudinarians wrote and preached a moralistic religion, but on Sundays they kept to the script. High Church parsons laced their sermons with quotations from the Church Fathers, but at worship they remained verbal and immobile. The actual words of the liturgy had much more influence than passing theological fashion and described the form pastoral ministry took.

The Tractarian and Anglo-Catholic revival in the 19th century changed all that. Ceremonial of one sort or another became the added norm in all but very evangelical parishes. Church parties developed: Low, Broad, and High. They began to function like modern political lobbies. They created seminaries to perpetuate their brand of Anglicanism. As synodical government became popular in provinces across the world, the notion that such assemblies could formulate and propagate doctrine by majority vote became a given.

Are Anglicans Protestants who have taken on the trappings of Catholicism, while eschewing its discipline? Let us return to our imaginary conversation with Parson Woodforde. Both he and most of his colleagues believed in what might be described as the Church’s uniqueness. It was nothing like Roman Catholicism. It wasn’t much like other Protestant churches. Although anti-Catholicism was much muted by the end of the 18th century, it remained part of the inherited story.

When Parson Woodforde said he was a Protestant he meant that he remembered Bloody Mary, the burning of Reformed bishops, and Guy Fawkes’s gunpowder treason. Many popular Catholic devotions shocked him. At the same time, he eschewed a form of religion that made distinctions between the devout and the ordinary. His parishioners were not folk who had been converted, or who regarded themselves as elect. They were all the baptized who lived in the territory he oversaw as parish priest.

The parson ministered to this population in much the same way as had his predecessors back through the centuries, before and after the Reformation. He baptized, taught children the faith using a catechism, prepared them for confirmation, married and buried them using the rites and essential ceremonies of the Church. He received ordination at the hands of a bishop, the successors of others back through the centuries. He visited the sick and prayed for the dying.

In all these respects, the Protestant parson performed the ministry of a Catholic priest. He taught all the doctrines enumerated by the Catholic Creeds. Although the following had nothing to do with “catholicity,” the parson ministered from the ancient parish church around which were buried the ancestors of his parishioners. His bishop was enthroned in a cathedral built probably in several stages, almost all in medieval times. These buildings were the tangible relics of a Catholic past.

Anglicanism’s catholicism is to be discovered in the form and shape pastoral ministry took, and continues to take, in dioceses and parishes. It is when it seems to place undue emphasis on the status of its adherents that it veers away from catholicity. When it requires adherence to novel teachings and practices, rather than to sacramental identity, it endangers its authenticity.

By “novel teachings and practices,” I refer to ideological proposals over and above the core of the creedal faith. The form such novelties take changes. After the Reformation it was a proposal that baptism wasn’t enough. One had to believe oneself to be elect and separate. (Perhaps that remains the clue. Parson Woodforde would have called such people “enthusiasts.”)

Eschewing novelty doesn’t mean stagnation and obscurantism. It does mean a practiced humility that submits the will to the teachings and practices of the Church. For clergy it means the trivial task and common round of intentional pastoral ministry as the flock of Christ is nurtured by Word and Sacrament.

About The Author

The Rt. Rev. Tony Clavier is a retired bishop, now serving two missions in the Diocese of Springfield. He is co-editor of The Anglican Digest and an occasional blogger.

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  1. Stephen Houghton

    Don’t forget the office! The parson was to toll the bell before he recited morning and evening prayer.

  2. Frank Cranmer

    Perhaps surprisingly, I live in a parish in a small village in Lancashire which is still like Parson Woodforde’s. It’s a single parish coterminous with the village and the Vicar regards “the parishioners” as all the people who live in the parish: I suspect he’s not too fussed about baptism, except for admission to communion – I must ask him. In my experience, hardly anyone in the village finds that odd – still less do they find it intrusive. And the population is small enough for him to know pretty well everyone in the village, of all faiths and none, at least to some extent.

    I’m not an Anglican so I’ve been to only one service in the parish church in the three years I’ve lived in the village. But he’s the Vicar, he’s a crucial part of the system that makes the place tick and I respect him enormously for that. (Admittedly, the fact that he’s very bright, likeable, and good-natured probably prejudices me in that direction.)

    It looks to me very much like what parish ministry was always meant to be. The problem is that it’s hardly ever like that nowadays. I am reliably informed by someone who knows about these things that there’s an incumbency in Norfolk that’s a combination of 25 parishes; and half-a-dozen historic parishes lumped into one is quite commonplace nowadays.

    Our Vicar is house-for duty; and we assume that when he retires we’ll be united with the parish next door. It might work reasonably well – but it won’t be the same.


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