I was baptized as an infant in the spring of 1980 into Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. As it happens, it was the Roman Catholic Church where I was raised and where I first learned to call upon the name of God. My experience of Roman Catholicism was not like that of my father who grew up in the pre Vatican II world of Latin Masses and Sister Mary discipline. My parish growing up was part of an “interfaith center” where Jews, Methodists, Unitarians, and a host of others also met. It was church-in-a-box each week as Mass would be set up and then taken down in the main room. There was no organ. There was no stained glass. There were no kneelers or statues or confessionals. There weren’t even pews. We sat in felt lined chairs, when we were actually on time and didn’t have to stand against the brick wall in the back. Kids showed up in their soccer cleats, fresh from the game, still smelling of grass stains and orange slices. Mass was at 4:30 pm on Saturday afternoons. On Tuesday nights, I would go to CCD class where we learned mostly about my teacher’s trip to Medjugorje and how he had taken some pictures of what he thought was the Virgin Mary showing herself in the clouds.
By the time I was fourteen, I just wanted to be done. We moved to another parish briefly, just so I could complete my Confirmation, “make my sacrament” as they say, and get the whole Catholic thing over with.
Understand, I say all of this not because I have any ill will towards the parish I grew up in. Nothing could be further from the truth. The pastor was a kind and loving priest. The community itself was surprisingly diverse and vibrant. And I picked up some basic stuff. I knew that the “bread” on the altar–if you could really call something bread that looks that much like styrofoam–was being transformed into the Body of Christ. But I did not know why that mattered. I knew the word Gospel, but I could not have told you what the Gospel is. From what I understood of the politics of the Catholic Church, it certainly wasn’t anything I wanted to be a part of. So, early on in high school, I dropped the Roman Church like a bad penny. I still had connections, of course. I’d go to Mass with my parents on Christmas and Easter. I kept up with friends in the parish youth group and I would even join them on their yearly retreat. But I did not regard myself as a Christian. I had no interest in being a Catholic. I was hungry for God, but Rome would not, or could not, feed me.
Fast forward almost a decade. I’m in seminary in New Haven, having been received into the Episcopal Church towards the end of my time in college. I’m reading the early Church Fathers, which is blowing my mind and making me rethink everything I thought I knew about what it means to be a Christian. I’m also reading the Oxford Fathers and finding in them the language of the early Church applied. I’m having spirited conversations with classmates who have the audacity to call themselves Anglo-Catholic. I’m going to Mass at Christ Church on Broadway. I’m meeting with an Anglican monk for spiritual direction. For the first time, I’m going to Confession with some regularity. For the first time, I smell incense in worship and hear the Gospel chanted. For the first time, I attend the celebrations of the Triduum. I see Jesus right at the center of all of it. He’s standing there, staring me in the face. His crucifixion, His resurrection, all of it just starts to click. He died for me. He died for me.
I was raised Roman Catholic, but it was not until I became an Anglican that I actually became Catholic.
The point of all this is not to bash Rome, for this story could easily have gone the other way, had I been raised in a liturgically stale and theologically impoverished Episcopal parish and then found my way into some great oasis of traditional Roman piety. Rather, the point is that one of the things that a truly Catholic ethos and spirituality gives to the Church is a direct experience of God that is not outside of doctrine but culminates from right doctrine. Teaching is desperately important. One of the most important missing elements for me, as a teenager, was the lack of clear teaching on what the Gospel is and how my life is affected by it. But what Anglican Catholicism has shown me is that right doctrine is not simply a matter of intellectual exercise. It is an experience of the divine, built on the basis of sound teaching but delivered largely in other ways, through sound and taste and touch, through ordinary means turned extraordinary by God’s grace.
Meeting God at the Altar
Next to Cranmer and Hooker, there is perhaps no more widely cited Anglican divine than Lancelot Andrewes. He was a man deeply devoted to prayer and to the Holy Eucharist, a devotion that came out of his understanding that what God has done in Jesus Christ is not only to take away our sin but also to fill us with His holiness. The Incarnation is a deep act of union by which we become divine even as God becomes human. Andrewes put it this way in a Christmas sermon from 1605:
Now “the bread which we break, is it not the partaking of the body, of the flesh, of Jesus Christ?” It is surely, and by it and by nothing more are we made partakers of this blessed union. A little before He said, “Because the children were partakers of flesh and blood, He also would take part with them”–may not we say the same? Because He hath so done, taken ours of us, we also ensuing His steps will participate with Him and with His flesh which He hath taken of us. It is most kindly to take part with Him in that which He took part in with us, and that, to no other end, but that He might make the receiving of it by us a means whereby He might “dwell in us, and we in Him.” He taking our flesh, and we receiving His Spirit; by His flesh which He took of us receiving His Spirit which He imparteth to us; that, as He by ours became consors humanae naturae, so we by His might become consortes Divinae naturae, “partakers of the Divine nature.”
Andrewes posits here a kind of theosis, salvation by means of our incorporation into God and His indwelling in us, and he sees the Eucharist as the chief means by which we receive that gift. When we receive Christ’s Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist, we are united with Christ in a bond that Andrewes says is stronger than that between blood relatives or even between a husband and wife.
Andrewes is not inventing anything new here. He is quoting from the eucharistic canon in the Book of Common Prayer, asking the Father that we might “be made one body with [Christ] that he may dwell in us, and we in him.” He is also showing his great reliance upon the Fathers, like Saint Athanasius who famously said, “God became man that man might become God.” And, of course, it is well established in Scripture that Christ’s work is to make us “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:3-4).
This understanding had a deep impact not only on Andrewes’ devotional life but also on his approach to ceremonial concerns. In his private chapel, Andrewes maintained the use of copes, incense, a silver ciborium, and candles on the altar. Andrewes understood that there is a direct connection between how we worship and what worship does to us. And he was not alone in recognizing this. Many of the great Anglican voices of the seventeenth century perceived this connection. In his treatise, The Reverence Due to the Altar, Jeremy Taylor argues that the internal worship of the spirit must be coupled with external actions to be genuine because the body and the spirit are not separate but one. This is especially true during the Holy Eucharist because “God is there specially to be worshipped, where he is most present.”
Anglicanism has glorious worship that invokes all the senses right at its center. But in many ways, it was not until the Anglo-Catholic movement that this understanding, built into the DNA of Anglicanism, was unlocked and nurtured.
It is repeated often enough now to be a truism that there is a great difference between the ritualists of the second wave of nineteenth century Anglo-Catholicism and the original Oxford Movement which was much more concerned with the recovery of doctrine than ceremony. Some historians have attempted to show that the line dividing the ritualists and their predecessors is not as solid as we might think. Nonetheless, even if we accept a strong division between the Oxford Movement and the ritualists, there is no reason to assume that ritualism is anything other than a natural outgrowth of what the Oxford Fathers did, building upon the Anglican divines who came before them. Many of the ritualists were eccentrics, to be sure, and not everything that they did was good. There was a fetishizing of the middle ages that took place, as well as in some cases a developing tendency to hold Rome up as the pinnacle of what it means to be Catholic rather than to follow the classical Anglican practice of following every doctrine back to its patristic roots. The ritualists were often far less educated than their Oxford peers had been. Some of them showed a surprising level of ignorance to history. Yet, despite all of that, what they got right, intuitively, in their bones, is that the way we approach the sacred mysteries incarnates in us the faith that saves us. As Charles Chapman Grafton put it, “What the devout had learned of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was bound to show itself in outward worship.”
To say that the Anglican Church of the nineteenth century had become stale in its worship is a massive understatement. It is breath taking to realize the kinds of things that Anglo-Catholics had to fight for, things that are so taken for granted now that they are found in even the lowest of low church settings. Priests were arrested for placing a fair linen and candles on the altar, or indeed for even calling it an altar at all. The idea of a vested choir and a procession from the back of the church was seen as pure popery. Riots broke out in parish churches if the priest wore a stole or preached in his surplice. John Mason Neale, founder of the Sisters of Saint Margaret, was chased by an angry mob at the funeral of one of the sisters and ended up having to scale a wall in his vestments to find safety. The Church that had been built on the theology of men like Andrewes and Taylor had become hostile to even the smallest glimmer of ceremonial. Reform was needed.
His Best and Our Best
All of this may strike some people as a bit of arcane aesthetic snobbery. Does it really matter if the vestments and the candles and the gestures are just so? Isn’t Christ just as present if the Sacrament is celebrated in the middle of the woods on a camping trip as He is in the finest cathedral with smells and bells? Certainly, He is. But these things matter. They matter because, as Taylor showed, our bodies and our spirits are one. If we refuse to allow our bodies to experience what we are receiving in our spirits, the question has to be raised as to whether anything internal is really happening at all. Furthermore, ancient ceremonial and ritual give a sense of authenticity to worship and they teach us that worship is serious business in which the real God, the living Lord, comes into our presence and gives Himself to us. The Catholic principle is not that we need to have all the right accoutrements and do all the right things or else Jesus will not show up. But it is that we give our very best to God, wherever we happen to be worshipping, because He does, always and everywhere, give His very best to us.
It was in the Anglo-Catholic tradition that I encountered for the first time the full richness of sacramental grace, not because the Roman Catholic Church I grew up in did not have it, but because in my case they had buried it under a mountain of lesser things, hiding from sight the pearl of great price. If we truly believe that Christ is present on our altars and in the Word we preach, we ought to express it with the fullness of what faithful tradition has to offer.