When I was in seminary, one of my professors, a staunch British Calvinist, made the off-hand remark one day that Anglo-Catholicism could not be defended from an historical perspective. The point seemed so obvious to him that he did not feel the need to explore the matter any further, so I cannot be absolutely certain of his meaning, but if I were to guess, I would imagine that he meant that the understanding of the Church of England that was articulated by the Oxford Movement and those who came after is entirely incongruent with the Anglican Reformation and the Church of England’s history between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. I have found that this is a common assumption amongst modern Anglo-Calvinists. They argue that the Reformed nature of the Anglican formularies precludes Catholic theology, despite the fact that it was the Calvinist party which originally found many of those same formularies odious when they were first introduced. Moreover, they accuse Catholic Anglicans of a kind of special pleading when it comes to interpreting the formularies, arguing that Catholics pick and choose, twisting the meaning of words to fit their previously held theological commitments, as if this is not exactly what Calvinist Anglicans today do as well.
Back to Basics
The Catholic revival started out, much like the Evangelical movement in Anglicanism, as a reform movement that sought to bring Anglicans back to their roots. Anglo-Catholicism did not simply fall out of the sky. It was preceded by more than two centuries of classical High Church thinkers and writers who planted the seeds for it, from Hooker to Laud to the Non-Jurors to Cosin to Joseph Butler and John Jebb. In America, Samuel Seabury and John Henry Hobart laid much of the ground work. None of those figures would have described themselves in the same terms that the Oxford Fathers used, but they set a trajectory which early Anglo-Catholics believed they were following. Many of the great lights of the Anglo-Catholic movement revered their High Church predecessors. Pusey can hardly write five sentences without quoting from one of them. This is not to deny that they did a good bit of picking and choosing, as we all do. But, right or wrong, the Oxford Fathers and the century of figures who came after them believed that they were the true inheritors of what the Anglican Reformation was meant to achieve. Far from being innovators, they saw their essential task as one of continuity.
So why do we not think of them that way? The answer, I think, is largely to be found in the shadow that John Henry Newman continues to cast over the Church. It has been more than a century and a half since Newman’s defection to the Church of Rome, but the effects continue to be felt. Newman’s was by no means the only voice of the Oxford Movement, but he was among the most talented and brilliant of the Oxford Fathers and his voice was the strongest and loudest. His creeping doubts, which eventually led to his conversion, were unwittingly sewn into the DNA of the Anglo-Catholic movement, not unlike the way that Luther’s personal story became the focal point for the development of Lutheranism. Every Catholic Anglican since his departure has had to wrestle with the Newman question. If a man as convinced as Newman had such doubts, why should I be any different? If he realized he was in the wrong place, and he wrote half the tracts defending my position, perhaps I am not standing on as firm a foundation as I thought.
The siren song of Rome, and in more modern times Eastern Orthodoxy, has been a constant burden for the movement. The desire among many Anglicans to prove our catholicity has motivated a kind of constant looking over our shoulder to see what Rome is doing and then imitating it. The development of what some have come to label “Anglo-Papalism” is a symptom of this. Anglo-Papalism is everything that nineteenth century Evangelicals feared and accused early Anglo-Catholics of being, a movement that has completely abandoned the Reformation and the Anglican formularies in favor of Romanism. It is this wing of the Anglo-Catholic movement, at least in Britain, that has been slowly making its way into the Roman Church’s new “Personal Ordinariates” where they are “entering full communion with the [Roman] Catholic Church while maintaining distinctive elements of their theological, spiritual, and liturgical patrimony.” One has to wonder exactly what these Anglican distinctives are, given that many of the priests entering into the Ordinariates have spent their whole ministries celebrating out of the Roman Missal and trying to get as far away from anything distinctly Anglican as possible.
Thoroughly Catholic, Thoroughly Non-Roman
This is what the movement has become in some places, and it has given rise to a caricature that is sometimes applied to all Anglican Catholics, but this is not what the Catholic movement was meant to be, nor is it what it has to be today. The writing of men like Keble and Pusey, John Mason Neale, Richard Meux Benson, and the American Charles Chapman Grafton point in a very different direction. Rather than looking wistfully towards Rome, these were men who were eager to see Anglicanism recover her own first principles and lay claim to the true catholicity that the Elizabethan Settlement sought to recover. Far from trying to emulate Rome, Anglo-Catholics sought to recover patristic Catholicism. Their model as not the nineteenth century Roman Church but the Church revealed in the writings of the early Church Fathers. In some cases, this led them to write things about Roman Catholicism that are far more vitriolic than anything that ever came from a Puritan’s pen. But their primary task, as they saw it, was not the criticism of Rome or of anybody else, but the building up of the Anglican Church through a recovery of Catholic life. They founded monasteries and schools, took positions leading churches in the poorest of slums, and went about the business of re-centering the life of the Church back upon the mystery of the Incarnation and the miracle of the Lord’s real and true presence in our worship in the gift of His most precious Body and Blood.
In this new series on Biblical Catholicism, I hope to share with you all some of my re-discovering of the great Anglo-Catholic saints of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the ways in which they appealed to the centuries of Anglican High Churchmen who came before them to make their case. But my goal is not simply to revive and reclaim a patch of history. What I think these folks have to offer us is something much more vital. They were, in many cases, pioneers, carrying with them a spirit of adventure as well as a deep dedication to the principles they held. They were willing to be ostracized, to be inhibited, to lose their callings and their status, sometimes even to be thrown in prison, all for the sake of helping people to experience union with the living Lord Jesus. They were willing to risk it all for the sake of uncovering the pearl of great price and offering it anew to the world. This is the same spirit that I believe we need to find again in the Church today, not just in the Anglican Communion but throughout the Holy Catholic Church. We need a break from the incessant church politics and the handwringing over our losses to the culture. Truth, beauty, worship, holiness – these are the things that truly matter and that can truly invigorate us. These are the things that a truly biblical, truly Anglican Catholicism can give us.
Photo of Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in Germantown, Pennsylvania, taken by Fr. Jonathan. Feel free to use, but a credit that leads back to this site is much appreciated.