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.



Father Dwight Longenecker is the pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. His upcoming book, Beheading Hydra: A Radical Plan for Christians in an Atheistic Age, will be published by Sophia Institute Press in the Spring. Read more at

Join the conversation in our Telegram Chat! You can also find us on Facebook, MeWe, Twitter, and Gab.