Why Conservative Anglicanism is Doomed

On Friday, the Anglican Church announced that the next Archbishop of Canterbury would be the current Bishop of Durham, Justin Welby.  This appointment is important, since the Archbishop of Canterbury is the highest-ranking bishop within the Anglican Communion.  Archbishop-elect Welby is a complex man: he’s an Evangelical with an admiration for Catholicism, and a traditional-minded bishop who supports women’s ordination.

In a way, he reflects the complex situation that the Anglican Communion finds itself in. The Communion has two major factions. The liberal wing is pushing for women’s ordination, church blessings of same-sex relationships, the ordination of practicing homosexuals, and in some cases a rejection of the inspiration of Scripture and the historicity of the physical Resurrection. Meanwhile, there’s a conservative Anglican wing that’s fighting against all of these things, and trying to preserve what remains of Anglican tradition.

Unfortunately (and genuinely, I say this with regret), I believe that the conservative wing is doomed for failure. Conservative Anglicanism will either cease to be Anglican, cease to be conservative, or simply cease to be.  As a movement, it is unsustainable, for the following reasons:

I. Conservative Anglicanism Fights for Traditional Marriage … 
…But Grows Out of the Destruction of Marriage

Frank O. Salisbury, Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon
before Papal Legates at Blackfriars, 1529

This point was put quite cleverly in a recent letter to the editor of a Washington state newspaper:

In its ads in the Herald, the local congregation of the Anglican Church in North America, which split from the Episcopalians in 2008, claims that it represents the “historic, traditional Anglican Church.” The ads affirm a belief in “faithful, monogamous marriage between one man and one woman.”

I imagine that the church’s founder, King Henry VIII, is turning over in his grave as a result of the 21st-century “assault” on traditional marriage — along with his wife, Catherine of Aragon; his wife, Anne Boleyn, his wife, Jane Seymour; his wife, Anne of Cleves; his wife, Kathryn Howard and his wife, Katherine Parr.

A couple of them lost their heads over Henry’s devotion to “faithful, monogamous marriage.”

Most likely, the author of this letter is on the wrong side of the gay marriage debate, but he raises a salient point: conservative Anglicanism lacks credibility to defend traditional marriage on “traditional Anglican” grounds, because of King Henry VIII’s serial divorces.

Obviously, every church, coffee shop, and cubicle in the world is occupied by sinners. But this is different. It’s not simply that King Henry VIII was a sinner who was married six times, and killed two of his wives. It’s that Henry founded Anglicanism specifically so he could do this.

When the Catholic Church stood Her ground on marriage being a faithful, monogamous marriage between one man and one woman, and refused to permit Henry to divorce and remarry, Henry declared himself the head of the Church in England, and Anglicanism was born.

The “traditional Anglican” position on marriage, then, is hardly a ringing endorsement of “faithful, monogamous marriage,” which is precisely why the Anglican Communion has offered relatively little in the way of principled resistance to “gay marriage.”

II. Conservative Anglicanism Rejects Women’s Ordination…
…But Considers the Queen of England the Head of the Church

Queen Elizabeth II

The original schism within the Anglican Communion was tied to the question of women’s ordination. Long story short, liberal Anglican churches began ordaining women, and a number of traditionalists broke off from the Anglican Communion over it, in what’s called the Continuing Anglican Movement.

Some of the traditional Anglicans are part of the Anglican Communion, some are not; some accept women’s ordination, some don’t.  Some, like the Anglican Church of North America, permit women’s ordination to the priesthood, but reject women’s ordination to the episcopacy.  But there is a certain disharmony in conservative Anglicanism’s rejection of female priests and bishops, while accepting the Queen of England as the “Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England” who continues to play a significant role in the structure of the Anglican Church:

Archbishops and bishops are appointed by The Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister, who considers the names selected by a Church Commission. They take an oath of allegiance to The Queen on appointment and may not resign without Royal authority.

To say the least, rejecting female Church leadership while acknowledging a woman as the head of the Church is something less than coherent as an ecclesiology.

III. Conservative Anglicanism is Fighting for Tradition…
… But this “Tradition” Grows Out of Rupture, and a Break with Authentic Tradition

As far as I can tell, there’s no such thing as a “good Anglican.” What I mean is that we can speak of someone being a “good Catholic,” if he holds to the Tradition of the Catholic Church: he believes what the Church believes, and what the Church has always believed.  But there doesn’t seem to be any sort of equivalent in the Anglican Communion, because her history is full of contradictions and complete reversals on core doctrines.

Gerlach Flicke, Thomas Cranmer (1545)

For example, the ACNA holds to the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of 1571 “as expressing the fundamental principles of authentic Anglican belief.”  I appreciate what they’re trying to do: maintain a connection to historic Anglicanism, from 1571 forward. But there’s a glaring flaw there: the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of 1571 directly contradict prior Anglican dogmas, as well as the teachings of the Catholic Church.

For example, the previous articles of belief, the Six Articles of 1539, affirmed the Anglican Church’s belief in transubstantiation:

First, that in the most blessed Sacrament of the Altar, by the strength and efficacy of Christ’s mighty word, it being spoken by the priest, is present really, under the form of bread and wine, the natural body and blood of Our Saviour Jesus Christ, conceived of the Virgin Mary, and that after the consecration there remaineth no substance of bread and wine, nor any other substance but the substance of Christ, God and man;

But the Thirty-Nine Articles of 1571 deny transubstantiation. Specifically, the 28th Article says:

Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of bread and wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ, but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.

These are 180 degrees opposed from one another, and can’t both be right. Either Anglicans were heretics in 1571, or they were heretics in 1539, or both. So all of modern Anglicanism is built on the idea that the Anglican Communion was (or is) heretical.

Given this, the one thing that all Anglicans appear to agree upon is that the Anglican Church is untrustworthy on doctrinal issues.  If that is so, what merit is there in pledging allegiance to “Anglican tradition”?  Put another way, the Anglican “traditionalists” today are simply the ones who accept the radical liberals of 1571 over the radical liberals of 1971, and neither one has any particular basis to call themselves “traditionalists.”


Note that in each of the instances mentioned above, the problem isn’t that conservative Anglican’s positions are wrong.  In fact, from a Catholic perspective, we would say that they’re right about the definition of marriage; right about the male-only nature of the priesthood; and, while wrong to hold to the Thirty-Nine Articles, right to seek out an ancient and stable ground of traditional Christianity.

The problem is that these positions are virtually impossible to hold in a principled manner while remaining Anglican.  At some point, the would-be traditional Anglicans need to decide where Christian Tradition or Anglicanism is more important, because they can’t perpetually coexist.


  1. Almost as much fun is to point out to US Episcopalians that their denomination was founded on the principle that their Head of State is the head of their church. This was especially delicious when George W. Bush was US President.

    1. So what you’re saying is they should jump from the gaydaizing Episcopalian and Anglican churches to the gaydaizing and judaizing RCC under Pope Francis “Who Am I to Judge” Antichrist.

  2. In an e-mail, an Anglican reader pointed out that this post was a bit simplistic, in reducing the Anglican Communion to liberals and conservatives. I agree. In an earlier draft, I tried to sketch out all of the major camps, but decided it was too messy, and cut out nearly all of the nuance.

    Personally, I think it is helpful to understand the Anglican Communion as a quadrant: along the x-axis (running from left to right), you have the liberals and conservatives. Along the y-axis (from top to bottom), you have the “High Church” and “Low Church” factions.

    Even this doesn’t really do the situation justice, though, because there are charismatic Anglicans, who don’t fit neatly into any of the quadrants… and of course, most Anglicans are “Broad Anglicans,” meaning that they fall somewhere in the middle. Here’s a helpful post outlining the basic definitions of what it means to be a High Church, Low Church, conservative, liberal, charismatic, or Broad Anglican.

    Although their views are similar (particularly in comparison with those on the left side of the quadrant), Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics sometimes differ in their positions on marriage, women’s ordination, and especially tradition. And even when they agree, they often arrive at these conclusions in very different ways (for example, the fact that the early Church didn’t have women priests means much more to the Anglo-Catholic than the Evangelical).

    With all that said, I still think that the above post is still of general applicability to Anglican Evangelicals, Charismatics, and Anglo-Catholics.



  3. One of the reasons that the Anglican church has gained a lot of traction in the US in the last decade is actually these supposed tensions you say can’t co-exist. Anglicanism has become very attractive because it allows people to believe in Transubstantiation or to not believe in it. Or it allows them to believe in ordaining women or in not ordaning women.

    I can understand to a Catholic this seems weird. If you’re Catholic you hold to the Catholic church’s position right? But the Anglican church is looser. It allows for disagreement on many issues. It doesn’t allow for disagreement on all issues though. The “schism” you allude to is much more focused on the “liberals” allowing gay marriage and ordination of practicing gay priests and bishops. There is significantly less debate and tension about whether or not women can be ordained. You still have camps that say yes and camps that say no. But there isn’t a “schism” over it.

    If you mean to say that the conservative Anglicans will no longer be Anglican if they refuse to share communion with the church of England. Then they are already there. Many many Anglican Bishops have already “split” from the church of England. But that doesn’t mean they are no longer Anglican. It simply means they no longer recognize the church of England as part of the Anglican communion.

    1. Daniel,

      The specific difference between Anglicanism and all other forms of Christianity is the belief that the British monarch is the proper head of the Church of England. This is the reason for Anglicanism’s existence, historically, and it appears to be the only principle (a) keeping the Anglican Communion together at all, and (b) distinguishing Anglicanism from Catholicism, Presbyterianism, and/or Unitarianism.

      So when you talk about an Anglicanism that is outside of communion with the Church of England, outside of communion with the British monarch, and which rejects the Church of England’s membership in the Anglican Communion, this seems (to me, as an outsider) like wishful thinking… like someone claiming to be Catholic, while being outside of communion with the pope, and refusing to acknowledge the pope as a Catholic.

      Are you using “Anglican” in some other sense, then? Like “someone who employs traditional Anglican devotions and prayers in their worship”? Because if so, you no longer seem to be talking about anything denominational at all.



  4. One woman I know left the Catholic Church to become Episcopalian and her selling point to us was, “You can do anything you want there!” All I want, dear lady, is to go to Heaven – and I believe the Catholic Church holds the fullness of Christ’s Revelation to mankind. I am also in the Ordinariate and will continue to work for Christian unity as well as for the preservation of “Anglican patrimony” (before it becomes extinct).

  5. Hmmm, how would you describe the goal of the title of this post?

    As a former Anglican, I am pleased to see that you graciously acknowledged its oversimplification of Anglican landscape. I would submit that there is also an oversimplification of the origins of the English National Church. Henry VIII’s pursuit of a divorce was primarily political, not personal. He sought a stable succession in a kingdom that had been traumatized by the bitter war of the Roses. Rome’s fallible political intervention, providing a dispensation so Henry could marry his brother’s window and thus secure Catholic solidarity between Spain and England, could also be cited as contributing the rupture. Sadly, this understandable estrangement between the English people and fallible Papal political authority undermined their trust in infallible Papal spiritual authority.

    As the Anglican patrimony is being warmly welcomed into the Catholic Church perhaps we should be mindful to pursue the Beatitudes’ path to peacemaking between Catholics and separated brothers and sisters. I think we both need to acknowledge our poverty, mourn the broken relationships and let mercy govern our pursuit of righteousness.

    How about “Conservative Anglicans’ Growing Pains’ not only rather than their doom… The heart of the Anglican Patrimony, worship in the vernacular, has since been accepted by Rome. Let’s meet Anglicans’ first steps toward being reconciled with the Petrine ministry with respect, encouragement and the thankfulness for the Anglican Patrimony exhibited by Pope Benedict.

    I don’t think we are facing doom or extinction 🙂 Here is Msgr Steenson’s update delivered this week to the USCCB plenary


    1. Anglicanorum Coetibus Hobbit,

      Fair question about the goal of the post. I wrote this post after reflecting upon a series of conversations that I had with a conservative Anglican (Anglo-Catholic) friend. He argues for the Anglican Church as a sort of via media, which doesn’t work for a variety of reasons. Of those reasons were some of the reasons mentioned above: the Anglican Church is a bit of a moving target. Instead of organic development of doctrine, we see dramatic doctrinal reversals in a way that, from a Catholic perspective, undermines any pretense to ecclesial authority.

      Don’t get me wrong: Anglican patrimony and the Anglican Communion are two different things. When I say that conservative Anglicanism ceases to be Anglican, I’m meaning that it’s no longer a part of the Anglican Communion. It may very well (and arguably, should) maintain Anglican patrimony. But “preserving Anglican patrimony” and “being Anglican” don’t seem to be the same thing, any more than “preserving Irish traditions” and “being Irish” are the same thing.

      All that said, I would suspect that we more or less agree, but are speaking of it in different ways. What I would describe as conservative Anglicanism ceasing to be Anglican (by becoming Catholic, while preserving Anglican patrimony), you describe as conservative Anglicanism experiencing “growing pains” as it takes “first steps toward being reconciled with the Petrine ministry” in response to Anglicanorum Coetibus.

      In both cases, we seem to be talking about the same thing: keeping the healthy and beautiful parts of conservative Anglicanism, discarding that which is contrary to Catholicism, exiting the Anglican Communion, and entering fully into the Catholic Church.



    2. Thanks for responding, and yes, your last paragraph above summarizes our points of agreement nicely.

      My reply aimed at the tone of your post’s title.

      “Doomed” emphasizes the end whereas “growing pains” emphasizes the future of Anglicans and then invites them into new exploration.

      “the wisdom and charity of the method of apologetics which Newman all his life preferred, rather recognizing the sincerity of the non-Catholic and the plausibleness of his case – a case wrong rather by its incompleteness than by its positive error. Heresy, he used to say, is right in what it affirms, wrong in what it denies.” (Msgr H. Francis Davis in his foreward to Bouyer’s ‘Newman: His Life and Spirituality’)

  6. this article is not very accurate on Anglo-Catholicism, really only on a faction of the people that identify themselves as such that have gone off to break-away groups such as the ACNA. Much of high-church Anglicanism is liberal, not conservative. Most of the theological conservatism rests in the evangelical wing, and Anglo-Catholicism has a high sense of traditionalism, but not so much on gender issues as people make it out to be. A good half of Anglo-Catholics are progressive on societal issues: caring for the poor, 99% land taxes-related to the Catholic teaching of Distributism. Many of the earliest Anglo-Catholic churches in poor English cities were parishes lead by clergy like Sargent Otis Huntington and even later on we see the Jubilee movement which boasts it’s earliest drivers as Kenneth Leech and previous A.B.o.C Rowan Williams, both high-church leftists. This whole linear spectrum of “liberal low-church and conservative high-church” is very inaccurate and is usually the assumption by people outside of Anglicanism that don’t know much about it at all. Also the ACNA is a joke, and the Affirming Catholicism (a liberal Anglo-Catholic society) is much more representative of Anglo-Catholicism. Anglo Catholics do hold very serious the traditional doctrine and dogma of the Church over the first centuries, and other traditions such as the Rosary (and most would not deny a physical resurrection), but they are people like N.T. Wirght, they see the practical application of their faith as something that is not well aligned with political tories. I’m sure Roman Church-apologists can forecast all they want on how they’re going to “pick up” all the Anglo Catholics because they’re all mad about women/gay-ordination, but that is not exactly the types of issues that high-churchmanship puts in the spotlight.

    1. Drew,

      I think that these comments, while generally valid, are:
      a) addressed in my comment above (explaining that Anglicanism is probably better understood as a quadrant than as simply two wings), and
      b) not contrary to any of my posts above.

      I’m arguing that conservative Anglicanism cannot last forever: that it will have to cease to be Anglican, cease to be conservative, or simply cease to be. Your point (which is well taken) is that some Anglo-Catholics aren’t conservative Anglicans. This is true, but I’m not sure it’s germane.

      The fact remains that there are conservative High Churchers and Low Churchers, and as far as I can tell, neither of them will fare well over the long term in trying to maintain doctrinal conservatism and membership in the Anglican Communion.



  7. After a few more years of Francis the Antichrist the RCC will be an even worse cesspool than the most liberal Episcopalian and Anglican parishes…and I mean the entire RCC, not just a parish here or there.

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