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

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