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Religion Library: Anglican/Episcopalian

Historical Perspectives

Written by: Russell P. Dawn

Because Anglicanism is not, strictly speaking, a confessional tradition--the original confession of faith, the Thirty-nine Articles, is not binding on clergy or laity in many provinces of the Anglican Communion--its religious identity is only loosely tied to particular doctrines.Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the breadth of belief within Anglicanism is immense.This is evident in the way in which people write about Anglicanism.

Many Anglican theorists seek to fit their views into some version of an Anglican ethos, an Anglican way of "doing theology," an Anglican conception of religion and the Church.Without an agreed system of doctrinal orthodoxy, theorists must look elsewhere for this ground of Anglican identity.One of the places they tend to look is history.History has become a battleground for Anglican authority and identity.It would not be very Anglican to say, "I don't care what Anglicanism has been, this is what it should be, and this is what I'm going to make of it."Whether defending the legitimacy of new ideas or asserting the continuing relevance of old ones, Anglican theorists often find themselves discussing ideas and approaches of figures from Anglican history.

When the leaders of the Oxford Movement in the 19th century sought to establish their "Anglo-Catholic" vision of Anglicanism, they turned to the 17th century for support.They lifted up figures such as Lancelot Andrewes, William Laud, and Richard Hooker.Accentuating these figures' most Catholic aspects and downplaying their Protestantism, the Anglo-Catholics ultimately recreated these individuals in the Movement's own image.Nineteenth-century Evangelicals responded in kind, pointing chiefly to the 16th century.They claimed as their own the great English Protestant martyr, Thomas Cranmer, and also to the first apologist for the Church of England, John Jewel.In both the Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical cases, the via media looked distinctly off-center.

The battle to appropriate historic Anglicanism has never fully subsided.One still might be asked to encapsulate one's churchmanship by answering the deceptively simple question, "Jewel or Hooker?"A particular area of continuing debate is the Lord's Supper or Eucharist , often centering on the idea of Christ's Eucharistic Presence, that is, how Christ may be thought to be present in the elements of bread and wine in the sacrament.Whether seeking to emphasize or downplay the reality of the Presence, treatises on the views of 16th - and 17th -century theologians regarding Eucharistic Presence continue to engage and influence readers.


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