Differences between Anglicans and Roman Catholics

By Father Jonathan Mitchican

I cannot tell you how often I hear this question. It’s understandable, considering that Philadelphia is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, and considering that so much about our two traditions look so much the same. Both traditions have priests and deacons and bishops, sacraments and very elaborate rituals, and a grounding in the Nicene Creed. And yet there are major and important differences between Episcopalians and Roman Catholics. The problem is that it’s hard to encapsulate these differences in a soundbite.

mural-detailUsually, when people see me out and about in my collar, they assume I’m a Roman Catholic priest. When I tell them that I’m an Episcopal priest (or, sometimes, I’ll use the word Anglican, which is interchangable with Episcopal), they ask me what the difference is. They’re not looking for a dissertation on theology. They just want to hear something quick and succinct, something easy to understand and easy to remember. So, usually, I’ll point out something obvious, like the fact that as an Episcopal priest I am allowed to marry, something which is generally forbidden to Roman Catholic priests. That usually satisfies people. The problem is that such differences, while they are obvious and easy to explain, are not really the important differences between our traditions. If the only issue that seperated Roman Catholics and Anglicans was the marriage of priests, we would be back in full communion with one another in no time. The real differences go much deeper and are much harder to explain in ten words or less.

That being said, I think it is important to try to come up with at least some way, however inadequate, of expressing in a pithy fashion some of the major differences that exist between Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism. So below you’ll find seven brief statements about the differences that exist. Each of these is woefully incomplete, but I’m going for brevity here. If you’re interested in learning more about any one or more of these, drop me an email. You may also want to consider Holy Comforter’s Anglicanism 101 course in which a lot of the questions people have about the Episcopal Church are explored in more depth.

As a caveat, I should say that I believe that Catholics and Episcopalians have far more in common than what separates us. I have great respect for the Roman Catholic Church and consider Roman Catholics to be my brothers and sisters in Christ. I long for the day that we can all be in communion with one another. Nevertheless, the things that keep us separate are not trivial but are matters of real impact on our lives. We should be clear about what these differences are, as it will make it easier for us to cut through the rhetoric and learn to actually talk to one another.

Seven Important Differences Between Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism

1) Justification by Faith

This is by far the most important difference, and it has to do with how we understand the problem that we face as human beings. Both Roman Catholics and Anglicans believe that God created human beings good, but that human beings have chosen over and over again to separate from God, to do their own thing, and that over time this separation has caused human beings great pain and distress. We call that separation “sin” and we believe that it is the problem that lies at the heart of all of our lives. Our sin causes us to feel unsatisfied with our lives. It causes us to crave what will destroy us rather than what gives us life. Ultimately, it causes our death. Both Roman Catholics and Anglicans agree that we are so injured by sin that there is no way for us to get out from under the problem on our own, no way for us to save ourselves, and so God must come to rescue us, which He does by being born as one of us and dying for us on a cross. Jesus, who is God come in the flesh, is the one who rescues us. He is the source of our life and our hope.

Where Anglicans and Roman Catholics differ is about how we as human beings are able to receive the rescuing that Jesus offers to us. Anglicans believe that it is through faith in Jesus alone that this happens. Faith means trust. Jesus reaches out to us and we respond by placing our trust in Him, which makes it possible for Him to establish a relationship with us. Imagine that you’re drowning in the ocean and a man in a helicopter sticks his hand out to try to pull you out of the water. If you trust that man, you’ll let him take you and pull you to safety. If you don’t trust him, you’ll try to push him away, and if you succeed you’ll drown. Faith is about trusting in the one who is trying to rescue you. We believe that it doesn’t matter what you have done, how many sins you have committed, or even how much good you’ve been able to do. No matter who you are, God loves you and wants to rescue you, and as long as you trust Him, He will rescue you.

Roman Catholics also believe that we need to have faith in Jesus to be saved, but additionally they believe that we need to do good works. They believe that it’s through some combination of faith and doing good things that God is able and willing to act. Of course, Anglicans also believe in the necessity of doing good works, but we don’t believe that doing them saves you. You do them because they’re right, not because you expect a reward. If salvation depends on how good we are, we don’t really need faith, because we don’t need to be rescued. We can do it ourselves. But if our situation is so difficult that there is no way for us to get out of it on our own, then we need Jesus to love us enough to forgive us our selfishness and the things we’ve done wrong and to pull us out of the water. Salvation by works is about us. Salvation by faith is about Him.

2) The Sufficiency of Scripture

Another major difference lies in the way that Roman Catholics and Anglicans approach the Bible. Both of our traditions teach that the Bible is a book that is inspired by God and that through it God speaks to us, guiding us towards faith in Him by immersing us in the story of how He came to rescue us in the person of Jesus Christ. Anglicans believe that the Bible contains everything that a person needs to know in order to come into a trusting relationship with Jesus. Therefore, Anglicans base all their teaching on the Bible. We say that there is nothing that a person needs for his or her salvation that isn’t explained in the Bible. All the guidance we need is found there.

On the other hand, Roman Catholics believe that oral tradition and the magisterial teaching of the Church add to what we get from scripture. There are things that Roman Catholics are required to believe in, like the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary and her bodily assumption into heaven, that have no reference back to the Bible. Anglicans do believe in the importance of tradition and the importance of the Church’s teaching office, but only in so much as they point us back to truths that are already revealed to us in scripture. Anglicanism does not forbid people to believe things that aren’t in scripture, so long as they don’t contradict scripture. You can believe in the assumption of the Virgin Mary if you like, but you are not required to do so. The only things that can be required to be believed are those things that are found plainly in scripture or that are explainable through the consistent interpretation of scripture going back to the days of the early Church.

3) The Authority of Scripture

Along the same lines, while the Roman Catholic Church holds the Bible out as one of several sources of authority within the Christian tradition, Anglicanism teaches that the Bible is the ultimate authority because God speaks to us through it directly. That doesn’t mean that we don’t take seriously science or reason or other forms of knowledge, because we do. Nevertheless, we believe that the fact that God has inspired the Bible means that it is in the Bible uniquely that we learn the will of God for our lives and the way in which we receive His grace, love, and mercy. Reason and tradition are important tools that are necessary for interpreting scripture correctly. The Church is empowered to protect the scriptures and to be the chief interpreter of them, but the Church can never alter them, add to them, or take anything away from them. The institutions of the Church may get things wrong from time to time, but what the Bible gives to us is perfect, even if we don’t always understand it perfectly.

4) The Pope

Roman Catholicism teaches that the bishop of Rome has immediate authority over all Christians. Likewise, when making solemn declarations on matters of core Christian teaching, Catholics believe that the pope is guided by the Holy Spirit so that he cannot be wrong. Anglicanism doesn’t have a problem per se with the idea of a particular bishop acting as the focal point of unity in the administration of the Church. Nevertheless, Anglicans reject the idea that the pope has jurisdiction over anyone but the Christians within his own diocese. We likewise reject the idea that the pope can ever be infallible, since such an idea has no basis in the Bible.

5) The Eucharist

This one is tricky, because there’s more that Roman Catholics and Episcopalians agree on about the Holy Eucharist than that we disagree on. Back in 1971, leaders of the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion were able to come to an agreed statement on the Eucharist that shows just how much we have in common. We both believe that the Eucharist is the central act of communal worship for Christians. Moreover, we both believe that in the Eucharist Christ is really present, so that when we receive communion we truly receive the Body and Blood of Our Lord, just as He promised us in the scriptures.

Where we disagree is about how Christ becomes present to us in the Eucharist. Roman Catholics believe in something called transubstantiation which means that in the celebration of the Eucharist, at a particular moment (which Catholics have usually identified as the reading of the story of what Jesus did on the night of the last supper, sometimes called the institution narrative), the bread and the wine are transformed in their very being, so that they are totally flesh and blood and nothing of bread and wine remains. This doctrine is very complicated and involves a lot of highly technical philosophical terms.

Anglicans have historically rejected transubstantiation, though we uphold strongly the real presence of Christ in the sacrament. We reject transubstantiation because it is an attempt to explain what is happening in the mystery of the Eucharist and it relies much more on ancient Greek philosophy and medieval theology than upon the words of the Bible. As Anglicans, we do not need an explanation for what is happening, or how it happens, or exactly when it happens during the celebration of the Eucharist. All that scripture tells us is that in the Eucharist Jesus Christ does truly and really come to be present and that we truly and really receive Him, that it is not just a mere symbol. But how that happens is a mystery that is better left to God than to idle speculation.

6) The Number of the Sacraments

Since medieval times, Roman Catholicism has taught that there are seven rituals within the life of the Church that are rightly called “sacraments.” Roman Catholics and Anglicans both understand a sacrament to be a sign through which God communicates His grace to us. Yet Anglicans have not always seen fit to number our sacraments in the way that the Roman Church has.

Anglicanism makes a sharp distinction between the sacraments of the Gospel and other rites that we might call sacraments. The two great sacraments are Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist, both of which are necessary for every person in order to receive the grace that saves us that is offered by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Still, Anglicans typically would not deny that things like marriage and confirmation and so forth are also sacraments, just that they are of a different kind. And so, while this is not universally accepted, I think that Anglicanism would be open to calling any number of things sacraments, understood in this secondary way. Nevertheless, if we’re talking about the great sacraments of the Church, there are only two.

7) Purgatory

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that there is a realm between heaven and hell in which those who have been saved but are not entirely sinless can have their sins purged from them, quite painfully, until such time as they are totally spotless and ready to come and see God. Anglicans join most other Christians in rejecting this idea as being entirely unsupported by the Bible.

Originally posted on Fr. Jonathan’s old blog on June 13, 2011. To find out more about classical Anglicanism, visit Fr. Jonathan’s current blog.