Having spoken earlier about Martin Luther and Lutherans in my series on Christian denominations, I will now touch on the Anglican Church and the Episcopalians. Anglicans are members of the Church of England. Episcopalians, members of the Episcopal Church, are what we might call the American branch of Anglicanism. Together, they make up what is called the Anglican Communion. In order to understand this distinct segment of Protestantism, we have to look at a bit of history. Different from Lutheranism and other Protestant groups, the Church of England separated from Rome for reasons more political than religious.
We’ve all heard of King Henry VIII. Henry’s wife, Catherine of Aragon, was unable to provide him with a son – a male heir to his throne. Henry wanted to divorce Catherine to marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. As a Catholic who once defended the teachings of the Church against Martin Luther, Henry needed the Church to declare that his marriage to Catherine was null. Not seeing sufficient grounds for what is today commonly called an “annulment,” the Pope would not grant Henry’s request. He therefore broke his communion with the Catholic Church and declared himself as head of the Church of England. Both clergy and laity who protested Henry’s actions were put to death, including his chancellor, St. Thomas More, and a bishop, St. John Fisher.
Initially after its separation from the Catholic Church, many of the rituals and beliefs of the Church of England appeared the same as they were in the Catholic Church, with the exception of its connection to Rome. However, as time went on, the Protestant Reformation exercised greater influence and those who remained Catholic in England were severely persecuted, especially during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Still today, some circles within the Anglican Communion maintain liturgy and theology that is very “high church” – i.e., more traditional and Catholic. Other circles (perhaps the majority) are more “low church” – i.e., more Protestant in their worship and beliefs.
The differences between these circles, particularly with regard to social issues, have become more pronounced in recent years. Disagreement on issues such as the blessing of gay marriages, women clergy, and the consecration of actively homosexual bishops has led to significant tension and division within the Anglican Communion. Recently, many Anglican/Episcopal congregations and their pastors have left and come into full communion with the Catholic Church. In fact, in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI set up what is called a “personal ordinariate,” a structure enabling groups of Anglicans to enter the Catholic Church and maintain their liturgical and spiritual traditions.
Certainly we as Catholics differ from Anglicans/Episcopalians in that we do not recognize the validity of their ordination to the priesthood or episcopacy. Also, much of their theology is dominated by Protestant thought. Of course, like with other Protestants, we do hold many fundamental teachings in common: that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior, our belief in the Holy Trinity, and the need for baptism. There are also many similarities in our worship. We both have a mutual appreciation for tradition. In fact, there are some high church Anglicans/Episcopalians who refer to their service as the Mass, deriving from the Catholic Mass. While differences between us remain deep, in God they are not insurmountable, and so we continue to pray for greater unity.