What is Anglo-Catholicism?

At first glance, Anglo-Catholicism would appear to be a contradiction in terms. The first half of the construction, “Anglo,” (from which we get the more familiar word “English”) refers to the cultural-linguistic patrimony of one tribe of the gentiles who migrated to Britain from their previous home near the Elbe river, around what is today the border between Germany and Denmark, filling the vacuum left by the Roman withdrawal from Britain, as the Roman Empire shrank into itself in the 5th Century, thus inaugurating the European “dark ages” or “medieval” period, and eventually forming what would come to be called “Angle-land” or England.

The second half of “Anglo-Catholicsm” –  “Catholicism” – is usually said to connote “universality,” and derives from the Greek prefix “kata,” meaning roughly “in accord with” or “with respect to,” and “holos,” meaning “the whole.” Hence the term “Anglo-Catholicism” would appear to connote at once something relating to a very particular cultural space, and something universal, something by definition transcending any cultural particularity.

The trouble in determining what Anglo-Catholicism is, though, extends well beyond that posed by philological considerations such as the above. In a world like ours that discriminates powerfully in favor of individual autonomy, one is hard-pressed to regard any particular definition of anything over another, and hence we are presented with almost as many understandings of what “Anglo-Catholicism” means as there are Anglo-Catholics. And here, by the way, we can see a fault line running between the competing claims of the liberal political order on the one hand, and of the Gospel on the other hand. Both purport to be all-encompassing, “catholic,” if you will, arbiters of individual conscience.

Be that as it may, a broad and therefore minimally controversial, working definition of Anglo-Catholicism might be something like: that tradition, generally found within English Christianity and its colonial offshoots, that prizes the theological and devotional heritage of the Catholic Church. Conspicuous features of the Anglo-Catholic tradition are more easily discernible when they stand in contrast to other traditions of English Christianity. Hence one might note hallmarks like the use of incense during the liturgy, devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints, prayers for the dead, and the use of devotional aids common among Christians worldwide, but more rare in traditions emanating from the Reformation: the rosary, holy water, candles, sacred images and statues and the like. Anglo-Catholics tend also to hold in high regard those traditions of the universal Church which have been maintained by Anglicans more broadly: the liturgy of the Eucharist, the divine office, the authority of sacred scripture, and the offices of the priesthood and episcopacy (as well as the diaconate).

We should notice and name the fact that all of the foregoing hallmarks of Anglo-Catholicism are entailed by an anterior, tacit commitment to a “high” view of the Church as a mediator of God’s grace, an affirmation of the Lord’s words to St. Peter: “…I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it,” (Matthew 16.18). In this affirmation we may discern one of the most fundamental truths of catholic Christianity: that God came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, and that he established a (single) Church; and that, in the words of the old marriage rite, he worshipped her (!) with his body on the cross, and endowed her with all that he rightfully has and all that he by nature is – and he is “the way, the truth, and the life,” (John 14.6). Hence Anglo-Catholics discern in the economy of the Church – in her liturgy, her prayers, her teaching – the way, the truth, and the life.

Many Anglo-Catholics also appreciate the reserve with which Anglicanism has spoken of itself in its official formularies. The Constitution of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, for example, speaks of the Episcopal Church not as “the Church,” but as a “member of… a fellowship within the… Church.” Such commendable reserve relativizes and contextualizes our allegiances. In the words of the older version of the Nicene Creed, “I believe one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” I may or may not believe some smaller aggregation within the one Church. And when some smaller aggregation appears to be at odds with what the one Church teaches around the world and across time, the allegiances of Anglo-Catholics tend to be with the one Church. In previous generations such divided loyalties were manifest around questions of Eucharistic theology, or the appropriateness of various vestments, or whether candles could or should be placed on the altar. Not surprisingly, today’s loyalties tend to be divided over today’s controversies, for example around questions of gender (the ordination of women) and sexuality (same-sex marriage). Despite the Anglo-Catholic position’s having been vindicated with respect to the ritual controversies of yesteryear, the diminished and beleaguered status of Anglo-Catholics within Anglicanism today bears witness to our Lord’s words: “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble,” (Matthew 6.34).

Many books have been written about other facets of Anglo-Catholicism. Over the past two centuries it has emerged as a faction in its own right within Anglicanism – initially comprised of the disciples of its first expositors in the Oxford Movement, men like John Keble, John Henry Newman, E.B. Pusey, Charles Lowder, and Arthur Tooth, among many others. And it has divided further into sub-factions – Prayer Book Catholics, Anglo-Papalists, Dearmerites, Tridentines and, lately, liberal-minded “Affirming” Catholics, and Traditionalists. Noteworthy also are those who have left Anglicanism altogether, looking to the rock from which they were hewn and the quarry from which they were digged (cf. Isaiah 51.1), and returned to full, visible communion with the See of Peter, forming the “Anglican Ordinariates” of the Roman Catholic Church.

There is an obvious irony in the division of Christians into factions, and factions of factions, and factions of factions of factions – all ostensibly in the quest for a more integral unity. It is some small consolation to notice that such tensions between locality and universality appear to run down to the roots of the Church. St. Paul, for example, speaks in the opening verses of both of his letters to the Corinthians, of “the [one] church of God” which, notwithstanding its universality, “is at Corinth.” Just so, even though the one Church is the “pillar and bulwark of the truth,” (1 Tim. 3.15), the Son of Man castigates various aggregations within it for various teachings and practices that are at variance with the whole (“catholic”) truth (see Revelation 2).

To my mind there are two primary charisms that Anglo-Catholics might offer the broader body of Christians. The first is a careful solicitude for tradition, for the teaching and the devotional practices we have received from our forbears in the faith down through the centuries. Anglo-Catholics have a reputation for punctiliousness and conservatism, but at its best this is just an eagerness to be careful custodians of what we have received, a recognition that the faith does not belong to us but that we have been tasked with guarding what has been entrusted to us (cf. 1 Timothy 6.20). The second charism exemplified by Anglo-Catholicism at its best is a recognition of the primacy of worship in the life of the Church. The worship of God has always had pride of place in the life of God’s people, stretching right back to Genesis. And Anglo-Catholics, again at their best, have a strong intuition of this being so. The Church may be about many things – helping the poor, mission and evangelism, Bible study, prophetic action, community building, and the like – and it should be noted that Anglo-Catholics have been on the vanguard of all of these things down through the years – but insofar as we are the congregation of the faithful, our primary “bounden duty and service” is the worship of God in the person of Jesus Christ.

The Rev. Will Brown is Rector of Church of the Holy Cross in Dallas

Posted by The Rev. Will Brown with

What is Sin?

By the Rev. Paul Wheatley, St. Augustine's Oak Cliff

“I am good, but not an angel. I do sin, but I am not the devil. I am just a small girl in a big world trying to find someone to love.” –Marilyn Monroe

Though its purposes and use would be inappropriate for discussion at a dinner party, no preliminary tour of a house is complete without showing guests the location of the toilet. So too, though it may be a topic we rarely discuss in polite company, no discussion of faith or human life is complete without talking about sin.

The word “sin” conjures up emotions of disgust and delight, shame and satisfaction. A succulent slice of chocolate cake described as sinful is more likely to incite hunger than guilt. Yet, to label a person with the same word evokes images of Hester Prynne from Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, and provokes others to see them as an outcast. Sin is a powerful word.

However, to St. Augustine of Hippo, evil and sin are unable to be powerful in themselves. For Augustine, evil is not a power or a thing in itself, but rather the absence of something, namely goodness. Just as a bright room cannot be made dark by turning ‘on’ the darkness, but only by turning ‘off’ or blocking the light, so too sin takes place when we reject, deny, or fail to live up to the goodness with which God created each of us “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” [Gen 1:31, NRSV].

The Greek and Hebrew words that we translate into our English word sin share this same sense Augustine speaks of. To sin is to miss the mark, referring to an archer’s arrow that fails to hit the bulls-eye. In other words, sin is settling for, contributing to, or committing an act that takes away from the goodness God created. When the serpent deceived the man and the woman in the Garden of Eden, the result was loss: The easy, close relationship they once knew with God became distant and estranged. Their home in Eden no longer fit, and no better home existed outside its gates. They became exiles, pilgrims without a destination, people in hiding. Adam must confess, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself” [Gen 3:10].

This confession is something we now share with that man on his way out of the Garden. This is what we call original sin: we don’t have to learn how to hide from God or to go our own ways. In our own unique ways, we hide; we mask our frailty with misdirection and half-truths. Confessing this truth in our own lives is part of understanding what sin is, and how it affects us.

Confession isn’t just something done in a dark chamber, with a screen hiding the one confessing from the priest; just as Adam did, it is something anyone can do at any time. Confession is simply admitting the truth to God or someone else. Confessing sin involves honesty with self, and honesty with God, naming the places where we have missed God’s best for us, and admitting that living a life of wholeness involves turning away from these places back to the home God has for us in his will.

Where we as Episcopalians best explain how we define sin is the confession of sin we make corporately in our Sunday service before we take communion. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, from which we take our Sunday worship services, puts it this way:

Most merciful God,

we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,

by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved you with our whole heart;

we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. 

We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.

For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us;

that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name.

[BCP, p. 360]

There is much that could be said about this, but I want to highlight four things.

  1. Sin, even if committed against others or against ourselves, is also committed against God: Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you

For example, if I were to tell a lie to a friend, I would have certainly sinned against my friend, and may need to make things right with my friend by coming clean and telling the truth. At a deeper level though, I would have also sinned against God, who is the Truth and whose word is truth. By lying, I violate God’s best for my life: a life lived according to the truth.

  1. Sin isn’t just an action. It takes place in our thoughts, words, and deeds.

This acknowledges that not only in our actions, but in our thought patterns and in the words we so carelessly fling about, we can do wrong and can miss God’s best.

  1. Sin isn’t only doing something wrong. It can also be failing to do something. …by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

This is what some people refer to as sins of commission and sins of omission.

  1. At the core of sin, most often, is not a failure of holiness, or a failure of perfection, but rather a failure to love. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.

Speaking of love, the quote from Marilyn Monroe above—perhaps more of a theologian than she realized—shows how, at the foundations of our being, we are all looking to be loved and to love. To confess sin, to bring the failure to love God and others, that we all share, fully back to the merciful God of love is to open ourselves to the possibility that we need God in his mercy to restore us to relationship with him.

In other words, to answer the question of what sin is, is also to begin the journey of confession. To confess is to return to relationship with God, to journey from the exile of Adam and Eve that we still experience, and to return to the face of the God from whom we hide. This is what the word repent means, after all. Being honest about sin, naming it in our specific thoughts, words, and deeds, and acknowledging the ways that we naturally gravitate away from the wholeness found in relationship with God allows us the opportunity to return to the love of God made available to us in the mercy of Jesus Christ. Then, we can know true love: That we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name.

Posted by The Rev. Paul Wheatley with


Priests from throughout the diocese explore religious topics with depth and nuance.