Transcending Anglicanism

The Anglican Church is cracking up, Rev. Dwight Longenecker argued yesterday. Today, David Mills wonders about the fate of our closest kin: the Anglo-Catholics.

Catholics who keep up with Anglicanism may have observed that the whole thing seems to be visibly coming apart.
On the one hand, at June’s rally of the world’s conservative Anglicans in Jerusalem — the Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON) — over a thousand conservative leaders declared their willingness to work outside the official structure and indeed to intervene in the errant Western Anglican churches in defense of their marginalized and oppressed conservatives.
On the other, over 200 conservative bishops, mostly from Africa, simply refused to attend late July’s Lambeth Conference, the decennial meeting of the world’s Anglican bishops, because the bishops of the Episcopal Church — who, by ordaining an openly fornicating homosexual bishop, had thumbed their noses at the rest of the world’s Anglicans, and the Christian moral tradition to boot — were seated with full voice and vote.
Of particular interest will be the fate of the small Anglo-Catholic party, the wing closest to Catholicism in doctrine and devotion, now found almost entirely in England and the English-speaking former colonies. It was once, in the 1920s and early 1930s, the most creative and effective party in Anglicanism, but has kept declining since.
Anglo-Catholicism covers a surprisingly wide range of self-definitions, from several varieties of "classical Anglicanism," usually marked by adherence to the older version of the Book of Common Prayer and to the attempt of 17th-century Anglicans to correct (slightly) the Protestantism of the previous century’s break with the Catholic Church; to mainstream Anglo-Catholicism, by far the largest group, which favors the modern liturgy and tends to use the tagline "none must, all may, some should" in regard to disciplines like confession and belief in doctrines like the Assumption; to "Anglo-Papalism," a mostly English movement that hopes for corporate reunion with Rome and comes as close in practice as it can to Catholicism (these parishes in England often use the Roman rather than the Anglican rite, though this is entirely illegal).
Many in the first category resolutely oppose the "Roman innovations," as they call them, and consider Anglo-Papalists traitors. Most in the second group avoid looking too closely at what the "Anglo" in Anglo-Catholicism commits them to, sensing that doing so will force them more firmly to one side of the Reformation divide than they want to go. Many in the second group and everyone in the third reject "classical Anglicanism," and indeed I have heard Anglo-Papalist friends — one of whom told me he agreed with "every single word" of the Vatican II documents — declare how deeply they hate Anglicanism itself. ("Hate" is their word.)
Those in the first category tend to understand Anglicanism as "Reformed Catholicism" — pure Catholicism without the Roman "accretions." The second tend to be embarrassed by such talk, and to assert the "branch theory" — holding that Anglicanism is, with Catholicism and Orthodoxy, one of three branches of the Church. Some argue that this distinction is a natural and organic development (Anglicanism being the English genius expressed in religion), and some that this division is a product of the Fall. The third tend to scoff at both theories and justify remaining Anglicans by insisting that they are shepherding the people they’ve been given in order to bring them all the way home.
And yet you will find all three groups united, in great part because the liberal party dominates the Western Anglican churches — and so its policies make the differences between Anglo-Catholics relatively minor. They are also united in not being Roman: With some exceptions, for example, they accept contraception and often dismiss the Catholic teaching as the product of Roman juridicism or totalism, as compared with the pastoral balance of Anglicanism. They believe their movement to have avoided the mistakes and errors of the Evangelicals and the Romans, to transcend the simple Protestant/Catholic polarity by which everyone else defines himself. Many of them have, nevertheless, treated conversion to the Catholic Church as a kind of "get out of jail free" card, in case they felt driven from Anglicanism.
The Anglo-Catholics’ position has grown steadily more dire. In America, just three of the hundred-some Episcopal dioceses remain under Anglo-Catholic bishops, and the other dioceses will not let them elect new ones when theirs retire. Many Anglo-Catholics have become Catholic or Orthodox, while many others have compromised, so that at the great "shrine parishes" in many cities you can find an Anglican "high mass" celebrated in a church stuffed with candles and statues, with the choir singing a Palestrina setting, with clouds of incense obscuring the high altar, at which stands — back to the people, in an old-fashioned fiddle-back chasuble — a celebrant named Betty.
The movement in Canada is now tiny and almost completely marginalized. It is not much stronger in Australia. In England, the General Synod has just approved the ordination of women bishops, with no real accommodation made for those who oppose the innovation. Few Anglo-Catholic parishes in this country or England have more than a hundred or maybe 200 members, and the congregations tend to be elderly.
Some, particularly in England, hope for an arrangement for corporate reunion with the Catholic Church. But others, particularly in the United States, look for an alliance with the much larger and much stronger Evangelical wing of Anglicanism — which, with its large churches in Africa, has the greatest number of the world’s Anglicans, though relatively little power in Anglicanism’s political bodies. In essence, they want to recreate the original Anglican settlement, but with the Protestant and Catholic sides more obviously separated (and the Catholic side more overtly Catholic than it was then).
They made a big move toward this end at GAFCON by signing on to the conference’s very Protestant final statement, the "Jerusalem Declaration," which among other things affirms the authority of the anti-Catholic "Articles of Religion."
The American Anglo-Catholics seem happy with this alliance, and it does give them official allies overseas. This lets them leave the Episcopal Church for one of these other Anglican churches and make a legal claim to keep their property (the canons of the Episcopal Church holding that dioceses hold the parish’s property in trust for the national body), because they have not left the Anglican Communion.
Still, if Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics form a separate body of the kind that saves them both from the enemy — i.e., the liberal domination of their church’s politics and property — the old differences could become much more divisive than they have ever been. The distinctions between the two groups are quite severe, and the old polemics and distrust weren’t unreasonable.
I have heard the most genial, liberal-minded people on both sides privately articulate a strong rejection of the other party’s understanding of things, which they both see as threats to their own. My Evangelical friends really do believe that any devotion to Mary detracts from our reliance upon Christ, and that a belief in the corporeal presence of Jesus in the sacrament is a kind of idolatry. Some violently oppose confession or any other claim that the minister mediates between God and man.
Of course, things may work out, in the traditional muddled Anglican fashion. But the Anglo-Catholics can forget trying to move the new GAFCON body (if there ever is one) a quarter-inch closer to Catholicism. They will live in an ecclesial body less liberal but no more Catholic than their old one. The price of their being rescued from liberalism is a kind of dhimmitude.
Which might not be a bad thing. It might help them see more clearly just what that "Anglo" means, and accept that Anglicanism is a Protestant movement. Then they can see that the polarity they thought they’d transcended is marked by its two poles for a reason, forcing them to choose one or the other. I pray my former comrades choose Catholicism, but if they don’t, I think they would be happier and more fruitful were they better Protestants. And thereby, oddly enough, closer to the Catholic Church than they are now.

David Mills is the editor of Touchstone magazine, "a journal of mere Christianity." He and his family were received into the Church in 2001.


David Mills is executive editor of First Things and author of Discovering Mary.

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