FIRST THINGS: On the Square>>Anglican, or Episcopalian?

By Jordan Hylden

“Are you Anglican, or Episcopalian?” As an Episcopalian interloper studying at a Methodist seminary, I get the question a lot from my puzzled friends. Each time I’m asked, part of me wants to launch into a mini-primer on Anglican ecclesiology–to wit, that Episcopalians are Anglicans, since the Episcopal church is just the American province of the global Anglican communion. Which means that, technically, the question shouldn’t even make sense–it’s sort of like asking, “Are you American, or Texan?” But, of course, I know just what the question means; it does make sense, because it reflects the sad divisions that have roiled the church over the past five years. Quite simply and sensibly, my Methodist friends want to know whether I’m a member of the liberal Episcopal church, or one of the conservative Anglican groups that broke off. And as saddening as it is to admit, I’ve come to think that their common-sense perception is more accurate than my attempts at ecclesiological theory. Their question can only be asked, and answered, because of the reality on the ground in the United States: Episcopalians are one thing, and Anglicans are another.

Popular understanding is usually much wiser than theoretical wishful-thinking, and nowhere more so than here. The divisions in the church have led the American public to attach the meanings to the words Episcopalian and Anglican that they actually bear in their usage–namely, that to be an Episcopalian means to be a member of an pro-gay, autonomous American denomination, more liturgical than most churches but firmly within the theological orbit of liberal Protestantism. To be an Anglican, by contrast, means to be part of a conservative evangelical church with bishops, connected somehow with Africa and opposed to homosexuality. The definitions have by now become quite distinct and firmly fixed in the national lexicon–ask almost any church-going American what the words mean, and you will get an answer something like the above.

Some Episcopalians and Anglicans (myself included) strongly dislike these characterizations…

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  • indie

    When I tell people that I’m an Episcopalian, they don’t ask whether I’m conservative or liberal. They ask about whether my parish is conservative or liberal. I usually say that we have people on both sides which seems to drive them a little crazy, but they don’t push. I admit, if they were to point blank ask me I’d probably say that I don’t find those categories to be helpful, which is entirely true but would probably make people think that I’m skirting the issue (which I might be).

  • Jody+


    I don’t believe you’re skirting the issue by saying you don’t find those categories helpful, you’re prompting more specificity from your questioners. I would say I know of at least one person who is radically “liberal” on sexuality issues, but it probably more theologically conservative in several other areas than some of the conservatives who have departed. One of the major problems we are seeing is that one’s position on human sexuality has come to be seen as a short-hand for where one might stand on a whole host of other theological issues (the Lordship or uniqueness of Jesus Christ, the authority and interpretation of scripture, evangelism etc…). The problem of course, is that while one’s opinion on issues surrounding human sexuality can be a marker of where one might stand on these other issues, it is not necessarily a precise indicator. As we have descended deeper into conflict, this process has spiraled outward, so that for those who are most caught up in the conflict, what one eats for lunch, the way one uses a fork or the name-brand of cloths one wears might be seen as a sign of where one stands. This is simply more evidence that we have reached a stage 5-7 conflict, depending upon who one is talking too.

  • indie

    I think that you’re right. My husband’s coworker didn’t ask him what side of the conflict we are on. Instead he asked him where our church bought its communion wafers. That was supposed to somehow show him where we stood on all things theological. It’s just crazy.

    At our church I have apparently gotten the reputation of being liberal (and I am on some things for sure, but not all). My husband and I are teaching a class with a conservative woman in the church and I had someone tell me that they couldn’t believe that we were teaching together. Well, it just hasn’t been a problem. I guess I don’t see why we shouldn’t be able to get along and find some common ground, but I guess the divisions in the church show that many, many people are more willing to demonize their opponents than to deal with our differences of opinion in a Christlike manner.

  • Jody+

    Yikes. I wonder what he would have thought if you guys were using leavened bread… :-p

  • Hotspur

    You use leavened bread?!?

    (Just kidding…we did too at Camp Gailor-Maxon…tasted good with the bad port)

    Outside looking in observation: You ever get the feeling that the Anglican/Episcopal mess is the proxy conflict for gay/lesbian issues in mainstream Christianity?

    I’ve reflected on that a few times. Maybe that’s the mission the “big guy in the sky” has given the AC to iron out for everyone else.

    In that vein, I’d say that’s a way cool challenge for the denomination.

  • indie

    When I was in Churches of Christ it was absolutely imperative that we use unleavened bread, but of course it was accompanied by grape juice. In the CofC we used Matzos which I admit that I prefer over wafers.

  • Hotspur

    Ha! So does my daughter.

    I have discovered why most observant Jews are grumpy throughout Pesach. Try eating matzah as your lone snack food for a week. That’s bad enough. Now imagine what the tribe had to go through during Sinai with the manna-only diet. Might explain the mood swings throughout the OT 😉

  • Jody+

    I always think the protestants who insist on unleavened bread are interesting. The Eastern Orthodox use leavened bread, the use of unleavened bread being a Western tradition. In both cases it is based on Eucharistic theology. In the East, the emphasis has been on the Communion as a celebration, therefore leavened bread is used rather than the unleavened bread of fasting and sacrifice. In the West, the sacrificial elements were highlighted, so unleavened bread became the norm. In the 79 Prayerbook, the emphasis is on celebration and thanksgiving (hence the fact that Eucharist–thanksgiving–has become the dominant term for Communion) so leavened bread is at least as appropriate as unleavened wafers.

    I also think reappropriating the use of leavened bread could have another benefit. One of the big theological disputes that is smoldering under the surface in TEC is whether we ought to be communing the unbaptized. Our canons say no, but many congregations extend an open invitation to anyone, whether baptized or not. One argument is that it is off-putting and exclusionary to not commune anyone. I think adapting the practice in the Eastern Church of distributing blessed bread (the same bread used at communion, but unconsecrated) called “Antidoron” (“instead of the gift”) to those who have not received Communion for some reason, would be a good compromise.

  • indie

    Well, if that’s the theology behind it, I can definitely see a good reason to use leavened bread. I hadn’t heard that. In Churches of Christ they used the unleavened bread because the last supper was a passover meal and therefore the bread would have been unleavened. They wanted to do things exactly as the Bible said. Thus the irony of using grape juice. My mom actually went to a church once where the preacher said, “I just can’t believe that my Jesus would drink an intoxicating substance.” He insisted that it was grape juice even though that defies all logic in an age without refrigeration. I like your idea about adopting blessed bread from the Orthodox tradition. That really could be a good compromise.

  • Jody+

    We use it occasionally. Actually, I understand it was standard in the Episcopal Church until the early 20th century. Marion Hatchett in his Commentary on the American Prayer Book recounts a story of an elderly Episcopalian woman who could remember the transition and said that she had a much easier time believing “that the wafer is the body of Christ than that it is bread.”