Alister McGrath: Anglicanism and Protestantism

In a remarkable article in the London-based Church Times (13th April), Canon Gregory Cameron, the Deputy Secretary-General of the Anglican Communion, publicly distanced Anglicanism from Protestantism. Canon Cameron spoke of an Anglican “dialogue with the Protestant traditions,” making it clear that he regarded Anglicanism as lying beyond the pale of Protestantism. Many in Ireland will regard his views with puzzlement, and perhaps not a little concern. So will many historians.

We need to appreciate that the sixteenth-century Reformation was a complex phenomenon. There was no single Protestant ”˜template’. Rather, a variety of reforming movements emerged during the sixteenth century, whose specific forms were shaped by local politics and personalities, as much as by the broader commitment to a recognizably Protestant agenda. The forms of Protestantism which emerged in the great imperial cities (such as Strasbourg), territories (such as Saxony) and nations (such as England or Sweden) had their own distinct characteristics. Some, for example, retained the episcopacy and a fixed liturgy; others discarded one or both. Yet each represented a local implementation of the Protestant agenda.

Historians generally consider that one of the most remarkable and influential forms of Protestantism emerged in England, and has come to be known as ”˜Anglicanism’. Reformers in the reign of Henry VIII did not refer to themselves as ”˜Protestants’, partly because this was seen to have foreign associations at the time. (Henry VIII, it will be recalled, disliked foreigners having influence over English affairs.) Yet from the reign of Edward VI onwards, English Church leaders began to use this term to refer to themselves, and see themselves as being connected with the great reforming movements and individuals on the continent of Europe.

Read it all.


Posted in * Anglican - Episcopal, * Christian Life / Church Life, - Anglican: Analysis, Anglican Identity, Church History

22 comments on “Alister McGrath: Anglicanism and Protestantism

  1. Phil says:

    Canon Cameron spoke of an Anglican “dialogue with the Protestant traditions,” making it clear that he regarded Anglicanism as lying beyond the pale of Protestantism.

    You have got to be kidding.

    The Anglican Communion is moving beyond the reach of parody.

  2. Br_er Rabbit says:

    Back in the innocent (we thought) 1950’s, I was taught that the Anglican church was the most Protestant of all the Catholic churches, and the most Catholic of all the Protestant churches. We were proud to have our feet firmly planted within both circles.

  3. physician without health says:

    This is a nice piece. The way I simplify the Protestant/Catholic difference is that for Protestants, Scripture is prime, and for Cathoilics Scripture is coequal with Church authority. This has nothing to do with Sacraments; one can make a case straight from Scripture for a high view of the Sacraments such as that held by Lutherans.

  4. Martin Reynolds says:

    I think Alister McGrath has something useful to say.

    But I just don’t know how he makes all these unfounded allegations based on this rather good 900 word summary from Cameron of his departments work .

    What a shame – the unjustified and unsubstantiated attack on Cameron will be remembered – the important study of what our Protestant heritage can teach us of different ways of working together – that will be lost!

  5. Vincent Coles says:

    “Historians generally consider…”

    Well, historians like Prof. McGrath might consider… the word “Protestant” does not appear in any of the old formularies (BCP/Ordinal/Articles).

    Rather a poor piece: far too dismissive of the development of Anglicanism as a national Church, development which was not fixed in amber in the C16th but has been continuous, including a consistent Catholic voice which came to fruition in the Oxford Movement and its successive waves of influence on the Church of England.

    Canon Cameron is perfectly justified in distinguishing the Anglican Communion from those churches which have not maintained the historic episcopate, which is still the corner stone of Anglican identity – as seen in recent consecrations of new bishops for the Common Cause, even to the extent of involving far away African provinces.

  6. BCP28 says:

    I would agree that the tendency to de-emphasize the Protestant part of Anglican heritage is nothing less than historical revisionism.

    However, his assessment of the Oxford movement and its implications is notably and unnecessarily harsh. Anglicanism alone maintained the episcopate, and the recovery of that sense of catholicism should not be underestimated. The regrettable part, and what I think he fails to realize, is that many in the (properly called) Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America wish that we would lose both sides of our heritage, in favor outright unitarianism.

  7. Jim the Puritan says:

    I don’t consider the Episcopal Church to be Protestant because it no longer views the Sciptures as authoritative, but just advisory, and instead relies on extra-scriptural revelation and its own revised non-Christian theology. As an example, witness its jettisoning of the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles, a pretty mainstream Protestant theological statement, and its position that the Articles are merely an “historical document.”

    Thus, it now falls in more in line with non-Christian Protestant spin-off groups such as the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unitarians and Christian Scientists, although it retains a pseudo-Christian facade in its services and, like the Mormons, continues to assert it is a true Christian church. Like other cults, if you are willing to embrace its unique beliefs you are welcome, but it you try to advocate traditional Christian beliefs you will be shunned and ostracized.

  8. Anselmic says:

    I agree with #4, I would have thought this was a genuine attempt to be neutral and apolitical. Had to smile at this gem though, commenting on relationships with the E Orthodox:

    ‘it is becoming hard to see what holds the two traditions apart, beyond the issue of the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate’

    Visit a few Orthodox websites, they’ll soon tell you what holds us apart… basically the fact that we are neither Orthodox or orthodox as a body.

  9. wamark says:

    Anglicanism alone “maintained the episcopate”…so what were Sweden, Finland, the Lutheran church of European Russia, Latvia, Estonia and Silesia doing if not maintianing the Espiscopate? When the Americans went to London after the revolution to have bishops ordained for the new nation they were first fobbed off by the Bishop of London on the Danes for ordination..duh! Anglican pomposity and conceit about its spurious claims to Apostolic succession seemingly knows no bounds.

  10. physician without health says:

    Oops, I never put the last sentence in my message. In classic, 39 Articles Anglicanism, Scripture is prime. Therefore, Anglicanism is Protestant.

  11. Irenaeus says:

    “Gregory Cameron, the Deputy Secretary-General of the Anglican Communion, publicly distanced Anglicanism from Protestantism”

    Consider the irony and effrontery of this statement.

    Cameron’s boss, Kenneth Kearon, recently busied himself helping ECUSA wangle a whitewash. In so doing, Kearon continued the marginalization and betrayal of faithful Anglo-Catholics. ECUSA has become a Liberal Protestant sect, as disdainful of catholicity as of scripture itself.

    If your organization condones the worst of Liberal Protestantism, why protest being considered Protestant?
    _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

    “Anglican pomposity and conceit about its spurious claims to Apostolic succession seemingly knows no bounds” —Wamark [#9]

    This accusation is itself snobbish and pompous.

  12. Irenaeus says:

    In #11, “the irony and effrontery of this statement” refers to Cameron’s protestations, not McGrath’s critique.

  13. rob k says:

    Anglicanism also retained, by either hook or crook, the 2nd order of ministry, the sacerdotal priesthood.

  14. William Tighe says:

    Re: #9,

    Whatever Samuel Seabury may have imagined in the 1780s, the Danish State Church did not preserve the apostolic succession of its bishops at the time of the Reformation (nor, consequently, its offshooots in Norway and Iceland); and as for the Swedes, see:

  15. Stephen Noll says:

    I find myself in agreement with Prof. McGrath’s main thesis, but I find the following comment odd:

    [blockquote]The cultural differences between North American liberalism and West African traditionalism may well catalyse this process of fissure, and the absence of strong international leadership probably makes the situation worse than it need be.[/blockquote]

    I am inclined to think there is an authentic liberal strain in Anglican Protestantism (Hooker, C.S. Lewis), but North American liberalism is a bastard child of that strain. By contrast, Africans are traditionalists only in the sense of holding on to the Evangelical Protestant (and for some, the Anglo-Catholic) inheritance of the missionaries. For this very reason, African Evangelical Anglicanism is probably more purely “Protestant” than any other form around today. Their Protestantism is more convictional than cultural.

  16. Pageantmaster Ù† says:

    Ref #15 Dr Noll’s comment
    I think this is a very good point. In the CofE we have currently some outstanding theologians including NT Wright, McGrath and the ABC in my view; but in this the Church of England has not shown a lead, leaving the baton to be picked up by others.
    Would that we were able to put the scholarship into practice, words into action. What would that look like I wonder?

  17. Vincent Coles says:

    #14. Thank you for the link to what is a devastating account of the Swedish “episcopate”. Can you post anything here in a similar format describing how Denmark received its “bishops” from Martin Luther?

    I believe it was Luther who said, “Cucullus non facit monachum” and possession of certain headgear certainly does not ensure that episcopal succession has been preserved!

  18. William Tighe says:

    Re: #17,

    In brief, after a civil war over the succession to the Danish Crown (which was elective till 1660) from 1533-1536, the winning Lutheran candidate, Christian III (king 1536-1559) threw the Catholic bishops* in jail and confiscated their estates (which he distributed among the nobility to purchase their support) and in 1537 decreed a Lutheran Reformation. Johann Bugenhagen (1485-1558), one of Luther’s earliest supporters and a Catholic priest before the Reformation, was brought to Denmark to crown the new king and, together with Christian III, to organize the new Lutheran State Church. When the king appointed Lutheran “superintendents” to replace the deposed Catholic bishops, Bugenhagen personally “consecrated” them, and he also consecrated the first Lutheran “superintendent” for Norway (which Christian III transformed from a kingdom sharing the same king with Denmark to a province of Denmark) — it was not until some decades passed that the title “bishop” came back into use for them. In Norway, the Catholic bishops either fled or accepted Lutheranism (but still were removed from office), and in Iceland one of the two Catholic bishops there was kidnapped and removed to Denmark (where he died) and the other, after resisting the introduction of the Reformation, was executed in 1550 — and both were replaced by Lutheran superintendents. (In Norway, the Catholic Bishop of Hamar, who was removed in 1537, was made Lutheran superintendent of Oslo and Hamar in 1541, but he took no part in any “consecrations” befiore his death in 1545.)

    * The Catholic bishops in Denmark were a bad lot, and most of them were unconsecrated bishops-elect. King Christian II (ruled 1512-1522) had ignored Rome from 1519 onwards, and had appointed and removed Danish bishops at his own whom from that date onwards, usually only after each one of his appointees had agreed to give the king most of the revenues of their sees, and few or none of them had bothered to procure episcopal consecration for themselves. The nobility revolted against the megalomaniac Christian II in 1522 and replaced him by his uncle, Frederick I (king 1522-1532), but although Frederick was elected on a platform of combatting “Lutheran heresy” and ending the rift with Rome, in fact he favored Lutheranism and continued his predecessor’s “muscial chairs” policy of appointing and removing bishops without consulting Rome, and by the time that he died in 1532 only two or three of the eight Danish bishops were actually “consecrated bishops” and of those only one or two showed any zeal for the preservation of Catholicism.

    To this day, the Danish church makes no bones about its rejection of the concept of “apostolic succession” and to demonstrate this did not allow Swedish bishops to participate in the laying-on of hands if a Swedish bishop happened to be present at a Danish episcopal consecration. This was one of the reasons why the Danish Church declined to ratify the “Porvoo Agreement” in the 1990s.

  19. wamark says:

    #14 thanks for the article from Muhlenburg College a Lutheran school in a tradition that would a vested interest in questioning apostolic succession in Sweden but , of course, but still does deal The Episcopacy as it has existed in other Lutheran Churches. And, yes, the article is, I guess, devastating, just about as devastating as any critical look at apostolic succession in the CofE which has never had much of a problem over the centuries with hob-nobing with the Danes, the Swedes and, yes, since the House of Hanover came to the throne, even with the Germans. but that was true in colonial America too.

  20. Ephraim Radner says:

    There is obviously some truth to McGrath’s discussion, both historically and in his concluding outline of Anglicanism’s “denominational” character. But only “some”. His discussion of the rise of the Communion simply ignores the quite deliberate growth in self-understanding of e.g. the Lambeth Conferences, and Anglicanism’s place within the Ecumenical movement, which has been significant and has, in fact shaped the self-identity of many of the younger Anglican churches, far more than the Reformation, at least directly. You would never know, for instance, from his piece that Anglicanism embodies an “episcopal” form of government (not the only one, of course) that really does (or did) seek to understand this in terms of the first centuries of the “primitive church”, a self-understanding that simply does not hold up to the “federalism” of a “denominational family” that McGrath seems to think is a natural outgrowth of Anglicanism’s Protestant roots. (And, obviously, this later and anachronistic “protestant” development has little connection with even Elizabethan apologists like Jewel and Hooker, et al.. What they would have thought of current attempts to “federalize” the Communion on the model of modern “denominational” networks is debatable, of course; my own guess is that they would not have approved.) I have not read the piece by Cameron that occasioned this reply, but being in dialogue with “Protestant traditions” certainly does not imply that one does not represent such a tradition oneself, even if only partially; only that there are distinctions among these traditions worth engaging. Finally, the “catholic” aspect of Cameron’s description of Anglicanism (and I know him personally even if I did not read his piece in this case) derives in part from a rather significant source — the Creed. (We may remember that Luther changed his translated version of the creed from “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” to “one, holy, universal…”, in order to make a point that Anglicans, by and large, saw no reason to make). In any case, what has been happening to Anglicanism in the past few centuries, with the last most explicitly, is hardly an aberration. It is a well-documented and well-traced development that has taken place, unevenly and with some significant internal contradictions, on the basis of filling in theological presuppositions through the course of changing historical contexts. In the end, McGrath’s brief characterization of Anglicanism is not too focused on history; it is rather not historical enough.

  21. William Tighe says:

    Re: #19,

    I may teach at Muhlenberg College, but I am certainly not, nor have ever been, a Lutheran — and in the inconceivable circumstance that I were a Lutheran I would be in the Missouri Synod, and not the syncrestic and apostate ELCA.

  22. William Tighe says:

    Oh, yes, I almost forgot, re: #9 once again — when you wrote

    “… the Lutheran church of European Russia, Latvia, Estonia and Silesia doing if not maintaning the Espiscopate?”

    whatever did you have in mind? Far from “maintaining” the episcopate in these areas, it was abolished in all of them at the Reformation and not restored until the aftermath of World War I. (There was an attempt to preserve the episcopate in East Prussia, which turned Lutheran in 1525, but when both of its bishops died in 1550/51 it lost the apostolic succession, and when bishops were appointed there again in 1566 they were outside the apostolic succession; and in any event episcopacy itself was abolished there in 1587.)