One of the developing facets of Anglicanism since the nineteenth century has been the introduction of church parties. Anglo-Catholicism, Evangelicalism and Liberalism all owe their existence as distinct positions on the Anglican landscape to late eighteenth and nineteenth century movements of reform within the Church of England. There is much that could be said about the strange set of historical phenomena that led to the establishment of these varied and often contradictory theological schools all under the Anglican banner, but for the moment what I am most concerned with is how a renaissance of classical Anglicanism might help to bring these movements closer together, celebrating their contributions to the Church while also moving away from their more unfortunate peculiarities.
Kicking it Old School
Anglo-Catholicism and Evangelicalism both began as reform movements aimed at bringing Anglicans back to their roots. This is easily forgotten today, as both movements have become more concerned with aping their corollaries in the wider Christian world than with celebrating Anglican distinctiveness. Nevertheless, the early Evangelical movement in Anglicanism was deeply concerned with communicating the Gospel by means of both impassioned preaching and liturgy. The great Evangelical Charles Simeon wrote gushingly of his love for the prayer book and his belief that “a congregation uniting fervently in the prayers of our Liturgy would afford as complete a picture of heaven as ever yet was beheld on earth.” He distrusted Evangelical efforts that were not grounded in the prayer book. He also joined his fellow Evangelical John Wesley in having a special devotion to Holy Communion, something that had fallen out of fashion in the latter half of the eighteenth century.
In the beginning, the Anglo-Catholic movement was equally imbued with the spirit of the Elizabethan Settlement. There is a fierce desire apparent in the early Tracts for the Times to associate the Church of England not only with its pre-Reformation past but also with the great lights of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Much of what is available from the reformers and divines today was re-published and circulated by early Anglo-Catholics, from the commentaries and sermons of William Beveridge to Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Moreover, the early movement was deeply concerned with maintaining the prayer book as the standard for doctrine and faith. Early Anglo-Catholics objected to schemes that would allow for non-subscription to the 39 Articles by those obtaining university posts. Even Tract 90, which was admittedly an effort to find ways around uncomfortable parts of the Articles, was nevertheless an indication of how committed the Oxford Fathers were to explicating the Catholic character that they believed Anglicanism has always had.
The point is, both Evangelicalism and Anglo-Catholicism can legitimately claim a stream of continuity with classical Anglicanism. Moreover, both parties, as reform movements, are able and fitted to make sure that modern Anglicans do not lose an important part of our theological heritage. Evangelicals are well poised to remind us of the ultimate authority of Scripture within the Church, the all sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and the need for personal conversion. Anglo-Catholics, on the other hand, remind us of the power and importance of the Sacraments, the nature of the Church as a divine institution, and the guiding principle of Anglicanism that we judge all of our doctrine and practice by how it relates to the early Church. A full and true Anglicanism has to have all of these things to function.
It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To
What prevents these movements from being reforming and uniting forces within modern Anglicanism? In the course of two centuries, both Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics have become increasingly wedded to their own causes, looking for input on how to behave and what to believe from outside of the Anglican tradition rather than from within it. In recent years, conservative Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals have had occasion to play nice for the sake of opposing the worst excesses of Liberalism. But playing nice is not the same as being united in one faith. In the past, Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics had fierce battles for the soul of Anglicanism because both sides believed that they represented the truth of Anglicanism. As unfortunate as that strife was, what we have now is considerably worse. Today the battle is not so much for what Anglicanism is as whether or not we will be left alone within it. Both sides have come to a tacit agreement that Anglicanism is nothing more than the field in which we happen to operate. As long as we keep our common statements to a vague minimum and do not get in each others’ way, we can pretend to be church together.
Who Invited Those Guys?
The addition of Liberalism to the mix further muddies the waters. Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals do not like to talk about Liberalism as a party within Anglicanism, and in some ways they are right not to. Liberals sometimes see in what they do a line back to Latitudinarianism, but it is a rough line at best. In point of fact, Liberalism is not concerned with history or doctrine but only with the way that the Church interacts with the wider world today. For that reason, Liberalism is only able to function as a piggy-back off of something else. There are Liberal Catholics and Liberal Evangelicals/Low Churchmen but no Liberals outright. That’s because Liberalism requires something to work with, some raw material to shape in one direction or another. Liberalism in the Church is therefore always reactionary in nature. Nevertheless, Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals need to come to terms with the fact that Liberalism exists as its own party stream in Anglicanism today, regardless of the historical merits of this position. To grant this reality is not the same as agreeing to Liberalism’s conclusions, but we must come to see that out of the Liberal party we have received our most challenging engagement with questions of culture, science, higher criticism, and the like, and these are questions that we have to be prepared to answer if we want to have any hope of reaching the modern world with the Gospel.
Despite the inherent challenges, it is possible to envision a future for Anglicanism in which the parties remain distinctive from one another in their emphases and yet united in common faith. As Catholicity and Covenant and others discussed some months back, we might learn to think of our parties in the way that Roman Catholics think about the differences between Dominicans, Jesuits, Franciscans, etc, not as completely independent movements but as paths that shed light on particular aspects of the whole. What Carmelite spirituality offers to the Catholic Church is different from what comes from Jesuit devotion and scholarship, but neither could survive in isolation from the other streams, which all freely acknowledge, because they share a common faith. It is this last piece that is missing from the debates between our church parties within Anglicanism, though much work has been done in recent years, in the covenant process in particular, to try to find that common ground. What has been missing from that effort, however, has been a genuine commitment from all sides that the basics of classical Anglicanism are where that common ground is to be found, not in appeal to the lowest common denominator of what we are able to say together currently. In practice, what that means is that we have to be prepared to be challenged by one another by means of the very same formularies. Evangelicals do not need to run out and start buying incense, but they ought to be able to receive the Anglo-Catholic emphasis on the sacraments and the orders of ministry not as quirky things that those people do but as a genuine expression of what Anglicans have believed since long before there was such a thing as Church parties. Equally, Anglo-Catholics must concede that the formularies are clear about things like the authority of Scripture and justification by faith, and they must genuinely find a way to make peace with our Reformation heritage. And Liberals must learn to cope with the absolute borders of creedal orthodoxy, even as the rest of us start to take more seriously the questions that they are posing.
In other words, we need to get back to basics, not so that we can recreate the Church of some better bygone era, but so that we can genuinely be the Church in this era. Seen in this light, the restoration of classical Anglicanism is not so much an historical project as it is a way of grounding ourselves for the ministry of the future. In a postmodern world in which everything is a la carte, we are called as Christians to share with the world a faith that is biblical and rooted, a faith that can weather the storms of our lives. The only way that happens is if we find ourselves in the midst of a common narrative about who we are, and since inventing such a narrative from scratch does not seem to be working, perhaps it is time to give the one we have already inherited a try instead.