Are we Anglican or Episcopalian? The Labels We Wear

Richard White is a graduate of Ohio University, Carleton University, Wheaton College and Wycliffe College, Toronto. He has degrees in history, journalism, communication and divinity.

What’s the difference between the terms  “Anglican” and “Episcopal?” Isn’t it a bit of “overshoes” versus “galoshes?”  Don’t they identify the same thing? History and current usage show that why and when we use these labels is complicated.

The origins of the word “Anglican” are simple enough.  The word “Anglican” can be traced back to the medieval Latin phrase Ecclesia Anglicana, meaning “the Church of England.” It shows up in papal correspondence to identify the Catholic Church in England, much as the phrase Ecclesia Gallicana identifies the Church in France.  In English documentation the phrase appeared in the Magna Carta (1215) which asserted that “the Church of England shall be free [quod Anglicana Ecclesia libera sit],” and again in the First Act of Supremacy (1534) that unshackled the Church of England from papal authority and the Church of Rome.  

In Canada the first regular services of the Ecclesia Anglicana were held in the early 1700s in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia.  The Diocese of Lower and Upper Canada was established in 1793 and by the late 19th century “Anglican” parishes were planted from sea to sea to sea.  In 1955 the name, The Anglican Church of Canada became official.  In the United States people in the Church of England began to identify themselves as “Episcopalian” during the American Revolution (1775-1783). Their story is more complicated. 

In the 18th century the dominant Church in the thirteen American Colonies before the War was the Church of England – the Anglican Church.  Most people belonged to it.  But as tensions began to percolate between the American Colonies and the Crown, association with the Church of England became problematic.  People began to leave the Church, mostly in favour of joining a relatively new Church entity, the Methodist Church.

Critics saw two problems with the Anglican Faith – the Book of Common Prayer, and the vows clergy were required to take.  The Book of Common Prayer included prayers for the King, George III.  The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England contained in the Book of Common Prayer affirmed the King’s authority over his “realm” and “dominion” and said his subjects could be commanded to “wear arms” in his defence.  So using the Prayer Book created problems. The clergy vows were also problematic.  The vows a clergyman took included an oath of allegiance to the King, the enemy.  Clergy were also under the episcopal authority of the Bishop of London as there were no on-site Colonial bishops.

Divisions within the clergy ranks themselves were inevitable.  Clergy in the more southern Colonies tended to support the Revolutionary cause, while those to the north tended to support the King and they paid for their misplaced loyalties.  As the patriotic forces moved north, churches were burnt, libraries destroyed, organs broken to pieces, and clergy dragged out of their churches and driven into exile.  Still, the loyalist clergy were resilient. In Upper Marlboro , Maryland, the Reverend Jonathan Boucher took two loaded pistols into the pulpit and threatened anyone who might prevent him from praying for the King, saying “As long as I live (I will) proclaim God save the King!”  In King’s Chapel, Boston the Reverend Henry Caner closed and locked the church, and fled to Nova Scotia with some of his parishioners taking the altar silver with him.  The church was taken over by patriots and turned into a Unitarian meeting hall, which it still is today.  In Trinity Church, New York, the Reverend Charles Inglis defiantly prayed for the King with George Washington and his men in the congregation. The church was surrounded by the colonial militia. After the War, Inglis left for England with his family. In 1787 he was consecrated “Bishop of Nova Scotia and its dependencies.” He settled in Halifax to become our first resident Anglican bishop.

Once the Revolutionary War was over the number of Anglicans in the States had shrunk from four million to around ten thousand. Rebranding the Anglican Church was prudent.  Some members had begun calling themselves “Episcopalian,” a word that described their style of church government, much as the words “Congregationalist,” and “Presbyterian” described theirs.  However it was hard to be Episcopalian without a resident bishop.  The clergy in Connecticut elected one of their own as bishop, the Reverend Samuel Seabury.  But English law prohibited his consecration in England.  A solution to their identity problem came from an unlikely source. 

The Episcopal Church of Scotland extended a helping hand.  In 1784, Seabury was consecrated in Aberdeen, Scotland.  He would return to America and ordain a number of clergy using the Scottish Episcopal rite.  The label “Episcopal” gained in popularity.  A convention in 1785 chose the name, The Protestant Episcopal Church.  The Book of Common Prayer was revised a few years later.  Today it is common to call it The Episcopal Church (TEC).  

Modern usage of the words “Episcopal” and “Anglican” is also complicated, and again, a Church split has caused a need for rebranding. In the late 20th century bishops of the Episcopal Church (TEC) embraced a less Biblically-founded positions towards sexual identity, sexual behaviour, and holy matrimony as an exclusively heterosexual union.  The same happened in Canada as the Canadian House of Bishops became swayed more by the voices of the culture than by the teachings of Scripture. Despite years of genuine theological struggle and appeals from both liberal and conservative forces to keep the Churches together, splits occurred.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s over 25 dioceses and over a thousand theologically conservative congregations left the TEC and ACC.  A new denomination was formed, the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) spanned both the U.S. and Canada.  In the States member dioceses and congregations in ACNA ditched the name “Episcopal” and reclaimed the name “Anglican” to show their theological solidarity with the majority of the world’s Anglican faithful who are conservative.   In Canada ACNA’s member dioceses, congregations, laity and clergy embraced a new label also, “The Anglican Network in Canada” (ANiC) giving the Anglican identity a fresh incarnation.

As a footnote, the ACNA, and by extension the ANiC, has been recognized as a province in GAFCON.  The GAFCON movement comprises approximately 80 percent of the member provinces in the World-wide Anglican Communion.  It is overwhelmingly conservative. Its member dioceses are openly committed to keeping the Bible central to their doctrines and teachings.  The partnership among the GAFCON members is strong. Its  member provinces call themselves “Anglican.”   TEC and the ACC are not members of GAFCON.

   

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