- About Grace
All Things Anglican
On November 1, 2014
by the Rev. Virginia (Ginny) Bennett
For those of you who missed the first two weeks of “All Things Anglican,” I’m wondering if you already know a few basic facts about Anglicanism. For example, if you think that Anglicanism was begun by Henry VIII, you would be mistaken. While the Episcopal Church in the USA is relatively small, in terms of worldwide Christianity it is second only to Roman Catholicism in Western Christianity (as opposed to Eastern Orthodoxy). And while most people think of Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church as ‘just another denomination,’ in truth it is actually quite unique.
Christianity was taken to England by the Romans as early as 60 A.D. The Roman Catholic Church did not find its way to England until Augustine (of Canterbury) landed in Kent in 597. And surprise, surprise, what Augustine and his expedition from Rome found was that Christianity was already there! But it was Celtic Christianity; a form of Christianity that was very down to earth, yet very spiritual; a Christianity that valued the leadership of women; a Christianity that was not a top-down structure (like in Rome) but more circular or “cenobitic,” like in Eastern Christianity. Celtic Christianity was more democratic than Roman Christianity; very much like Anglicanism is today in comparison to Roman Catholicism.
Roman Catholic Christianity and Celtic Christianity existed together in England until 664, when the Synod of Whitby was called by Hilda (of Whitby). Hilda was Abbess of the double monastery of monks and nuns at Whitby. She called the Synod to determine which church would prevail in England. Arguments were over the date of Easter (the Celtic Church kept the same calendar as Eastern Orthodox Christianity) and even the cut of a monk’s tonsure. Two of the key players in this Synod were Cuthbert and Wilfrid. Cuthbert argued for the Celtic Church while Wilfrid made the case for the Roman Church. The Roman Church was highly organized and wealthy, while the Celtic Church was not very organized at all and very poor. So no surprise Rome won the day.
The Celtic Church faded into the sunset. But its influence never completely left Christianity in England.
When the Protestant Reformation swept across Europe it influenced England, too; but not quite the same way that it did on the continent. Even after Henry VIII pulled the Church in England away from the Roman Catholic Church, nothing changed in the Church in England right away. I have often said Henry divorced the Pope; not the church!
Ultimately the pendulum between Protestant Christianity and Roman Catholic Christianity would swing back and forth for a long time in England. However, Elizabeth I had a great influence in slowing that pendulum down with the Elizabethan Settlement of 1559, when Elizabeth essentially said, “Enough arguing all right all ready. We’re all going to worship together!”
Because of all these facts (and more) Anglicanism would become a very unique form of Christianity. Like a kaleidoscope of colors or a multicolored braided cord, Anglicanism is unique because it combines facets from Celtic, Eastern Orthodox, Roman, and Reformed Christianity.
But Anglicanism in the United States almost didn’t happen. That’s part of where we’re going next. There might be interesting or surprising things to learn about who we are as Anglicans and Episcopalians. Join us on the first and second Sundays of each month!