Anglo-Catholicism and the Role of the Church

As the orthodox Anglican alternatives to the TEC grow in strength, it has become pretty clear that the #1 division–in addition to the proliferation of purple shirts–that looms is the Anglo/Catholic vs. Evangelical divide.  A little history needs to be told to put this in perspective.

When Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy, the control of the Roman Catholic church in England and Wales passed from the Pope to the Crown.  As long as Henry VIII was alive, that was the biggest change (other than the dissolution of the monasteries) that took place.  It was under Edward VI that the move towards a more "Protestant" church began and, following the last attempt to reverse the Act under Mary, was completed by Elizabeth I.  (There’s that female headship again!)

As we documented in Taming the Rowdies, the question for the next century and a half was just how Protestant the church would be.  After the unpleasant adventure that was Oliver Cromwell, the country decided that it had had enough of such questions and the Church of England slept through most of the eighteenth century, shaken only by Wesley and his friends who were taking Protestant Christianity away from its Augustinian obsession and into a new era of revival.

The nineteenth century saw things go in two different directions.

The first was towards Evangelicalism, with laymen such as Wilberforce and prelates such as J.C. Ryle.  Under these the Church of England was seen as a church with an outreach to lost souls, along with social action such as the abolition of slavery.  In many ways the Global South provinces were born in this movement, which explains why many of them tend towards the "Protestant" side of Anglicanism.

The second was the Oxford Movement, with men such as Newman and Manning.  The appeal of this was a combination of aesthetic (a strong component in the TEC’s growth after World War II and its ability to hold on as well as it has) and a desire for unity.  One of the great weaknesses of Anglicanism is that its status as a creature of the English monarchy has pretty much restricted it to the Anglophone world, which has limited it culturally and spiritually.  Reaching across the English Channel broadens this, but most of its leaders were forced to "swim the Tiber" as many Anglo-Catholics have since.

Both of these streams have flowed into the Anglican/Episcopal river ever since.  Liberalism is a rude interruption in this "discussion" (a favourite liberal term) but without the liberals resolving this question becomes more earnest.

The strongest argument for Anglo-Catholicism is that the objective is to repair the breach caused by the Act of Supremacy and contribute towards the reuniting of the church.  But we need to answer one crucial question: what kind of church are we moving towards?

Anglo-Catholics will point out that they are simply moving from one liturgical church to another.  They will also point out that many distinctively "Catholic" practices such as devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary and of course the transubstantiated Eucharist (the "sacred pledge," as Bossuet put it) have long roots in Christian practice.  What they will not point out is that Roman Catholicism’s concept of the church changes the entire nature of Christianity.

As we saw in We May Not Be a Church After All, Roman Catholicism makes two key claims.  The first is that it is the true church.  The second is that it, as the church, it is a formal intermediary between man and God.  To go to heaven, therefore, one must not only have a relationship with the Saviour, but with the only church he allegedly founded.  Although Roman Catholic teaching allows for ignorance to factor into whether a person outside of the Catholic church is barred from eternal life, basically the church teaches that, if a person has any reason to believe that the Roman Catholic church is the true church, it will cost them their eternity if they do not join it.

This has several important implications that need to be understood.

The first is that the church can basically decide who enters into eternal life and who doesn’t.  Fortunately the Catholic church has a great deal of canon law which restricts the ability of its priests and bishops to excercise that authority, but the basic power remains.

The second is that, just as the church can define the eternal destiny of its adherents, it can also redefine the means by which they get there.  Anglo-Catholics point with pride with the conservative direction the Vatican has taken since 1978, but, like the Cold War, it could have gone another way.  (Another example of Boomer triumphalism that needs to be muted!)

The third is that the strength of the Roman Catholic liturgy depends upon the strength of the church, and not the other way around.  In Anglo-Catholic and Orthodox settings, the "smells and bells" and correct performance of the liturgy are central to projecting the strength of the church, which is why changes in same are a real disaster.  Roman Catholic Mass can be a very breezy, informal (and rushed) production, complete with rotten music, but the "sacred mystery" is the same as it would be at the Vatican because the church said it was so.

We find it hard to believe that most Anglo-Catholics would seriously consider union with Rome under these conditions.  It would have certainly sidetracked my own "swim of the Tiber" many years ago if I had fully grasped it, but then again Catholicism under Paul VI was a "wild West" kind of affair; that has certainly changed in the intervening years.

So this is something that Anglo-Catholics needs to consider.  It is a topic we have reviewed before.  But the Evangelicals have issues of their own, and we will discuss these in a future post.

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