How similar are Catholics and Anglicans?

The relationship between Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism has always differed from the other Catholic-Protestant divides.

The Vatican’s October 2009 announcement of a special process to admit Anglicans to the Roman Catholic Church raised questions for many who perhaps thought that “crossing the Tiber” would require a major shift in belief for Anglicans.

The relationship between Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism, however, has always been somewhat different from the other Catholic-Protestant divides, which may make it easier for Anglicans to find a home in the Roman communion.

The major churches of the Reformation—Lutheran and Calvinist especially—split from Rome in the 16th century largely over theological differences regarding the interpretation of scripture, understandings of salvation and “justification,” and the purpose and meaning of the sacraments.

The Church of England, however, at least in the first place, separated from Rome largely because of a dispute between England’s King Henry VIII and the popes of his day regarding the validity of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The theological issue at stake was not divorce, but whether final authority in spiritual matters rest with the king or the pope.


Politics also played a major role: The Spanish emperor (and Catherine’s nephew), Charles V, held Pope Clement VII prisoner during the dispute.

Even after the split, the Church of England maintained a hierarchy with bishops and priests, although they celebrated a vernacular liturgy. Because of this, Anglicans maintained that—like the Roman and Orthodox churches—they had preserved apostolic succession, which made them true churches, though—like the Orthodox—not in communion with the pope.

Rome did not agree, but it was not until 1896 that Pope Leo XIII declared Anglican Holy Orders “null and void.”

Over the centuries Anglicans have generally rejected the concepts of transubstantiation and papal infallibility and considered the Marian dogmas of immaculate conception and assumption to be without sufficient warrant in scripture and tradition.


Beginning in 1970, however, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission has worked toward common statements of agreement on these topics. As late as the 1980s, there was some hope that the Church of England (if not the entire Anglican Communion) would enter into full communion with Rome.

That hope was dashed when in 1994 the Church of England decided to admit women to the priesthood, approving women bishops in 2008. (Other members of the Anglican Communion, including the U.S. Episcopal Church, had taken these steps decades earlier.)

The consecration in 2003 of an openly gay, partnered bishop in the U.S. Episcopal Church widened the divide between Anglicanism and Rome and opened rifts within Anglicanism itself, leading some Anglicans to petition Rome for a process to become Catholic while maintaining the liturgy and tradition of Anglicanism.

The  response from Rome was to create a structure called a “personal ordiniariate,” led by a priest or bishop, that allows Anglican Catholics to maintain their liturgical traditions and clergy. The invitation presumes, however, that these Anglicans accept not only the Roman position on the ordination of women and on the question of homosexuality, but also the Marian and papal dogmas, along with the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist.


This article appeared in the January 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vo. 75, No. 1, page 46).

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