The Anglican Three Ring Circus


As a boy, I was excited to hear that the circus was coming to town. Full of anticipation, we were taken to see the elephants help the roustabouts put up the big top, and when the big day came the greatest show on earth fascinated me with its variety, talent, glamor, vulgarity, and grotesquerie. It was all there, going on at the same time in three rings — dancing dogs and daring trapeze artists, lions and tigers and bears, midget clowns and pretty ladies being shot out of a cannon. It was all a thrill.

As a convert from Anglicanism, the increasingly diverse Anglican communion is nearly as bewildering, fascinating, and entertaining as that three-ring circus. To understand Anglicanism, the metaphor of a three-ring circus is apt. In one ring we have the liberal mainstream; in the second ring we have the fervent Evangelicals; and in the third ring we have the Anglo-Catholics.

The Liberal mainstream is made up of the Protestant modernists. For them, the historic faith is a costume they don for the show. Any idea that the Church and Scripture are inspired or authoritative was abandoned long ago. They make up their morality to adapt to the standards of the society around them, focusing instead on the peace and justice issues that they hope will change the world. For a long time they have occupied the corridors of power in London and New York, and for them the Anglican Church is a brave pioneer — taking Christianity into the modern world without compromise (except with the modern world, of course).

The Liberal mainstream remains in power, but they are hemorrhaging members, and their ranks are decidedly gray and aging. The future is not theirs, but this will not stop them turning their church into a showroom for feminism and homosexualism, promoting their radical causes to the last.

The second ring is occupied by the Evangelical Anglicans. These are the sons of the Reformation. They believe a form of watered-down Calvinism and enjoy “contemporary” worship. They are Bible Christians, zealous to win converts, and they love to focus (as all Evangelicals do) on one’s personal relationship with Jesus. The Evangelicals are the wealthy, young, and growing part of the Anglican Church.

However, the Evangelicals have always been outside the ruling inner circle. This strikes them as unfair, since the numbers and the youth and the money and the energy is on their side. They are furious with the mainstream’s casual disregard of their conservative, Bible-based views on women’s ordination and homosexuality. With the strength of great numbers in the developing world, the Anglican Evangelicals have formed several new global alliances to challenge the liberal mainstream elite.

Those who are forging the new global alliances do not wish to leave the Anglican Communion. Instead, they are creating parallel jurisdictions and power centers that seek to challenge the establishment from the inside. “We’re not leaving!” they cry. “We’re staying put and taking back our church.” If they can hold together and not splinter into sects, they might just win the day. The liberals will die out, and the Anglican Church will belong to them, eventually taking on its true identity as an Evangelical Protestant faith. The Evangelical takeover will be aided by the dwindling influence and departure of the Anglo-Catholics.

This leads us to the third ring of the circus: the Anglo-Catholics. These are the Anglicans who believe the Anglican Church is one of the three branches of the ancient church of Christendom. They refuse to acknowledge that the Church of England is a daughter of the Protestant Reformation. Instead, they believe the ancient Catholic Church in England was simply reformed and purified in the 16th century. They have long wished for a return to full unity with the Catholic Church and have practiced their religion with a Catholic flair, devotions, and theology.

With the promulgation of Anglicanorum Coetibus, which allows for Anglican ordinariates to be set up, the Anglo-Catholics are split. The Anglican ordinariate provides for an Anglican-type church to exist with a measure of autonomy, yet in full communion with the Holy See. In other words, the Anglo-Catholics can be Anglo-Catholics in communion with Rome and not with Canterbury.

Despite their Catholic credentials, however, many Anglo-Catholics don’t want to join the ordinariate. This leaves them no choice but to remain within a church that has women bishops and homosexual “marriage blessings” — not to mention the whole liberal mainstream agenda — and an Evangelical bloc (which the Anglo-Catholics either ignore or despise) on the rise.

Like any three-ring circus, this simple explanation
belies the fact that the reality is far more complex. Within the three branches of Anglicanism there are a multitude of shades of opinion. Some liberals are Evangelical in temperament. Some are Catholic in style. Some Evangelicals are more liberal in their views, as are some Anglo-Catholics. Some Anglo-Catholics are charismatic and Evangelical in message while Catholic in style, while others are so high church as to make traditionalist Latin Mass Catholics look like folk-mass aficionados.

If this is not complicated enough, each of the national Anglican Churches are autocephalous and autonomous. So, for example, the Anglican Church in Canada and the Anglican Church in Nigeria are totally independent of each other and the Church of England. Added to this are the new global alliances, with their own power structures and more than 125 Anglican-style denominations, which are independent of both the Anglican Communion and the new global alliances. These breakaway Anglican denominations also exhibit the same bewildering range of opinions, theologies, worship styles, and traditions as the Anglican Communion proper.

Within this kaleidoscope of churchmanship we now have Pope Benedict XVI’s Anglican ordinariate. With October’s announcement of five Church of England bishops leaving to join the ordinariate, it looks like the scheme has wings. The ordinariate will appeal to a small but significant number of Anglo-Catholics worldwide. It will start small, and its future will be uncertain. It may prosper and become a wonderful bridge for many Protestants to make their way into full communion with Rome, or it may falter and eventually wither away.

What is certain is that the Anglican circus will not fold up the tent and leave town any time soon. It will continue to agonize over its identity, and the internal wars will continue to deplete its ranks. In the meantime, we can only hope and pray that the Anglican ordinariate will provide a home in Rome for those who long for it, and that the Anglican patrimony will strengthen and encourage our own church.


Rev. Dwight Longenecker


Rev. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book is The Romance of Religion published by Thomas Nelson. Check out his website and blog at

  • John

    The rather ribald and irreverent Irish writer Brendan Behan once declared concerning the Church of England in Ireland :” beware of the alien minister whose church is without meaning or faith, whose solitary foundation stones are the ballocks of Henry VIII”

  • Anonymous1

    The predictable outcome of a religion started by an adulterous king. Thanks, Henry, you really did a great job. May you reap your due reward eternally.

  • Pauli

    For a long time they have occupied the corridors of power in London and New York, and for them the Anglican Church is a brave pioneer — taking Christianity into the modern world without compromise (except with the modern world, of course).

    And compromise with Islam and Sharia law, at least in England.…

  • John

    I am a self described devout moderate Catholic. This diatribe is hateful and for what?? What does it accomplish. Indeed, the article seems to violate your own rules for posting comments. “Don’t be judgmental” – this entire article (not to mention the comments) is nothing but judgmental. I’d rather have a woman bishop than male ones who have either molested boys or reassigned offenders to parish after parish. Wake up because this school of thought is pushing even the most faithful away from our Church and if it IS CERTAINLY NOT WHAT JESUS WOULD DO.

  • cj

    I am not an Evangelist, an Anglican or of another Protestant Church; I am a Roman Catholic living by the new Covenant, and its one commandment: “Love one another.” No matter where I attend Mass world wide, I will join my follow Catholics in the same celebration of our salvation through His Love.

    The Word is Divinely Inspired, of this their can be no doubt. How can one doubt this simple tenant and profess to be a Christian? Without The Word pass to us, none of us would know Him. Without The Word, how can we come in His Name?

    Thanks for the lesson. I was nervous the article might be condescending towards the churches mentioned. I assume adding colour is needed these days to peak audience interest. So sad.

  • Judy

    I have all kinds of hope for the new Ordinariates; the Holy Spirit is on the job! Some of the reticence among some of the Anglo-Catholic Anglicans is surely the marriage messes many have gotten themselves into. There is also the interesting fact that a good number of these folk are already disaffected Roman Catholics, often partly because of marriage issues. This problem extends into the Anglican clergy, and these troubled clergy have their supporters among their flocks. As always, even with the great blessing of the new structure, conversion is an individual commitment, an individual joyful submission to Jesus and His Bride in her fullness, come what may. What we can do is pray,sacrifice, and–if given the opportunity–try to keep our friends moving forward in truth, love and serenity. Let’s pray for efficacious grace for us all, that’s the grace that makes doing the right thing easy. Merry Christmas!

  • Christian Cameron

    As a life long Anglican with a penchant for the Roman–was this written tongue in cheek, brother? Beware of the beam in your own eye!

    Anglicans of all angles are natural allies for Catholics, but a diatribe on our many failings–and some bad history–can hardly help us be friends, now, can it?

  • teomatteo

    Thank you Father for this summary. Being a life- long Catholic I find this review of our Anglican/Episc. ecclesiastical community to be helpful. Our Holy Father is the ‘Pope of Christian Unity’.

  • Luciano

    Seems like there are some overly sensitive folks out there. Fr. Dwight is pointing out some real issues within Anglicanism, I don’t see how this is a “diatribe” or that he is being overly sarcastic. He uses some sarcasm but he is not being judgemental. Are we supposed to shut up and not critique anything? As a former Anglican Fr. Dwight has some insight few of us have. Take this as it is,commentary, a former Anglican’s assesment of what is evident; an identity crisis within Anglicanism and a microcosm of Christianity’s own struggles with modernism and tradition.

  • Vincent Manning

    Add one cup of sour milk to one gallon of fresh and you get… 17 cups of sour milk.Having lived a lie for generations, why not assume Anglicans “crossing the Tiber” do so at OUR peril?

  • Hermann Kepfer

    The word orthodoxy means the straight path -the straight path to G-D (salvation). This path is not a narrow line but instead a broad boulevard.

    The Anglican Communion is going through trials & even tribulations as they have skated outside the bounds of orthodoxy: woman priests and woman and or active homosexuals as Bishops. Given Bishops are supposed to be supervisors of Christian orthodoxy, it is untenable to have “openly violators” of the faith’s teaching the faith correctly.
    Lastly those Anglo-Catholics who have tried to maintain that which has been given to them, have been at time treated in a very shabby manner.
    The good news in all this, is that faith is in action and as such it can only produce good fruit.

  • Climacus


    Your statement is incredibly ignorant and anti-Christ. Sounds like you are already part of the one cup of sour milk, yet the Catholic Church survives still, despite you.

    Matthew 16: [18] And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. [19] And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.


    I also found no hateful diatribe anywhere in this article. I would hope that a self described ‘devout moderate Catholic’ (whatever that is) would welcome truth.

  • Charlotte

    What! The Episcopals are hemorrhaging members?! Talk about whistling past the graveyard. And embracing women and homosexuals is a radical cause? My goodness – more hateful and dysfunctional Catholic rhetoric. So disappointing. John above said it perfectly – that is NOT how God would view the world and his creations all of whom were made in His own image. Reality – the Episcopal Church has become a haven for countless Catholics who detest the hypocrisy, misogynisism, child abuse and DENIAL of the Catholic Church. Attacking the welcoming alternative will not change that fact. For our part, we will continue to attend Mass at our adopted Episcopal Church for a much more spiritual and enlightening experience.

  • markrite

    Hey Charlotte, talk about “whistling past the graveyard”, isn’t that what you’re doing in your obvious DENIAL of the 500 lb. Episcopalian/Anglican elephant about to ENTER THE ONE, TRUE HOLY & APOSTOLIC CATHOLIC CHURCH? Isn’t that about 4-500,000 NEW MEMBERS for the Roman Catholic church? After all, Catholicism preceds Anglicanism by about 1400 YEARS. So are you kidding us Charlotte? But I’ll pray for you, the HOLY SPIRIT will enlighten you, I’m sure–GOD BLESS ALL–MARKRITE

  • Admin

    To All:

    Let’s cool down the tone. We can agree/disagree without pulling out the knives.

    Thank you in advance,

    The Management

  • Ronald J. Orso

    I found the article respectful & interesting, and I joyfully welcome our new brothers and sisters across the Tiber. May God bless and welcome them.

  • Fr Levi

    Hello all,

    As a current Anglican priest who was raised Roman Catholic (I can hear the knees htting the floor to start praying for me already – thanks folks! I’m praying for you too!) I think I have, like Fr Dwight, a well placed position from which to comment andI didn’t find his article OTT. A bit of hyperbole here and there maybe – but exagaration for effect is ok … Our Lord did it all the time. I think the Anglican Communion is in trouble at the moment – but I also think it will work itself out and come through.

    I’m not sure how well the Ordinariate idea is going to work. For those who were at heart all but Roman Catholic, it is a good thing – and the Holy Father’s vision in offering them a home is gracious and to be commended. But there are others who may only be leaving because they are disillusioned with Angicanism – and I’m not sure how happy they’ll be once full communion with the See of St Peter is a reality. Time will tell.

    In the meantime, my prayers are for the success of the ordinarites – and also for the Anglican Churches they will leave behind. God willing the day will come when we can all start acting like the one Church that Christ founded and truly act as members of his body.

  • Jim Ryland

    Fr. Dwight and Fr. Levi are fairly spot-on. I would suggest that some of you read some reliable historical accounts of the church in England. That Saxon face of the Church was the predominant image within the Latin See from about 500 AD until the Counter-Reformation when the Church was overlaid with the image of the Italianate church. Rome was an empire, not just a city and the Saxon influence pervaded Northern Europe and even gave birth to the Gallican rite in France and the Visigoths in Italy.

    I doubt that Henry Tudor envisioned anything but the church continuing… just without the pope’s influence. The move was political, not religious. It took the era of the Cromwells to let the reformers run rampant.

    The Oxford movement and subsequent Catholic Revival participants sought to re-establish the apostolic lineage by seeking ordinations administered by Orthodox and other Valid episcopals.

    Catholic Anglicans are some of the most devout ond orthodox catholics around. Most of them practice their faith with a strength that the average Roman Catholic should seek to emulate. They are, as a rule, much more aware of doctrine, dogma, the catechism and canon law than most Roman Catholics. Their inclusion in the ordinariates will enrich the church beyond measure and I assure you that none of the liberal folly will come with them. That folly is what sends them Romeward. Their patrimony is priceless.

  • Climacus

    Catholic Anglicans are some of the most devout ond orthodox catholics around. Most of them practice their faith with a strength that the average Roman Catholic should seek to emulate. They are, as a rule, much more aware of doctrine, dogma, the catechism and canon law than most Roman Catholics. Their inclusion in the ordinariates will enrich the church beyond measure and I assure you that none of the liberal folly will come with them. That folly is what sends them Romeward. Their patrimony is priceless.

    @Jim –

    I couldn’t agree more. Few have more for the Roman Catholic Church in recent decades than our dearly beloved Protestant converts!!!

  • Jay

    Wow, someone has never read the gospels.

    I love “self described Moderate Catholics”

    WHy don’t you just say you are moderately catholic instead, with a flair for the dramatic finding persecution everywhere

    PS – if you were catholic, you’d already know you can’t have a woman bishop (or priest). So spare us, you aren’t devout anything except modernist.

  • SPQRatae

    Gosh, there are some silly comments here! I found it to be a perfectly respectful article, explaining the situation in the Anglican Church to an audience that might not know about it. (It is a Catholic website, after all!) On these terms the article succeeds admirably. Thank you.
    Some eggshell personalities seem to spend all their time desperately looking for ways to take offence…

  • mary

    My family converted to the Catholic church in 2007- During our conversion our former Episcopla parish split with the people who left forming an Anglican Church under the Southern Cone oversite. To try and describe to people the whole issue gets confusing, especially since the Episcopal Parish actually has the more tradtional Liturgy whereas the new Anglican Parish is moving in a more Evangelical bent with the liturgy being adapted and rushed through leaving more time for “expressive” worship. The bottom line for my community is that both parishes have pro choice and pro life proponents both have the divorce and remarriage issues including the priests and they both are open to womens’ ordination. They split soley on the gay marriage issue.

  • Patrick

    I thought this article was pretty good, though I could see why an Anglican would be offended by having his church described as a three ring circus. There is, after all, plenty of unorthodoxy in the Roman Catholic Church: traddies who support torture and unjust war; “peace and justice” types who care nothing about abortion, and as we’ve seen – people who’re unclear on women’s ordination and probably any “antiquated” Catholic rule, and a host of “cultural Catholics” who are Italian, Irish, Phillipino, etc., don’t go to Church or care much about it but still have some leftover Catholic traits.

    In other words: we’re also a three ring circus, except we probably have a few more rings than that!

  • UltraMontane

    “Don’t be judgmental” is not mean that truth can never be said about a group anymore. If people are following wrong ways, it is a duty to point it out. You don’t sat that they are going to go to Hell, but to say that one way is better than another is fidelity to truth. Father Dwight, an Anglican convert himself, has provided a brief summary of the various factions within Anglicanism, and the current conflicts within the Church. One does not dislike people who follow Anglicanism, but to state that it is a confusing mess doctrinally, is stating truth!
    An orthodox catholic is doctrinally solid, we are not trying to win converts by saying things that please them, only truth can win people.

  • St JD George

    Surprised to see a comment dating back to something you wrote in 2010? Blame the Crisis recommended articles feature for that. Of course, one could write an equally interesting article about our own divisions too with those who tend towards one end of a spectrum, or the other.