One of the perennial Anglo-Catholic hobbies is constructing and maintaining an acceptable myth of origins. That is to say, if you are going to argue that there is a historical and theological validity to the use of certain catholic principles, doctrines, and ceremonies—but not others—within Anglican churches, you need to have some reason to hand that accounts for it.
One of the classic favorites is the notion of the Ecclesia Anglicana. This is the concept that English Christianity is just a bit different from Roman Catholic Christianity—always has been, always will be—and that the Anglican Churches are simply the current expression of this separate but equal way of being. As a result, adherents of this view claim a certain freedom by identifying the differences between Roman and English practice.
I’ve always quite liked this notion in a big-picture kind of way, but have had all sorts of problems with it on a historical level. It’s one thing to assert it with a side-order of nostalgic Victorian nationalism, it’s another entirely to document it in a convincing fashion in the historical and liturgical record.
It’s with this background (a love for the concept but a weighty skepticism concerning its historical realities) that I surprised myself last night while washing dishes by coming up with a potential liturgical-historical argument in favor of it…
If you’re going to argue a difference between “English” and “Roman,” liturgical and historical evidence supports an approach that sees “Western” as a super-category made up of a number of related theological and liturgical traditions one of which is “English” and one (actually several that fuse into one) which becomes dominant as “Roman.” Part of the question, then, is in the matter of definitions: what’s “English” and what’s “Roman” and how are these situated in relation to what’s “Western”?
Then, once that’s been teased out, what are the things that can be identified as granting a fundamental theological distinction between them? (Understanding liturgy in its proper place as the kinetic side of the theological coin…)
One way to crack the nut is to point to the formative aspects of the liturgy, and I’d approach it this way. The Sarum strand is identifiably and recognizably English in locale granted that its roots straddle both French and earlier English practice. When you compare Sarum sources against Continental Western texts and the materials designated “Roman” by the Council of Trent, one of the differences that you find is the Mass Gospel Lectionary. If I recall correctly (and this came to me while washing dishes, mind you, and I haven’t consulted my tomes yet), there are differences at least in Advent, Epiphany, and in post-Pentecost.
What makes this difference major and important is not the Mass, however—it’s the Office. The Mass Gospel Lectionary appears in the third nocturn of the Night Office and determines the patristic homily found therein. A different Mass Gospel lectionary suggests that the nocturn lessons may be different with the possible result that the Sarum-using folk were being formed by reading different patristic texts at different times and were being formed and normed differently than their “Roman” brethren. If you are trying to argue for a theological and practical difference between the Ecclesia Anglicana and the Roman Church especially defined by its Tridentine liturgy, one of the best ways to do it would be a thorough audit of the nocturn texts.
Come to think of it, I recall that in Advent, at least, the second nocturn readings don’t quite cohere either. I seem to recall a Maximus of Turin text where the Tridentine/Roman sources have the Jerome text on Isaiah quoted below. The significance there is that the Sarum source seems to be drawing on an older “Western” strand as the Maximus likely is a hold-over from Paul the Deacon, the official Night Office collection from the Carolingian period.
So—to make a sustained and historically verifiable argument for a theologically distinct Ecclesia Anglicana one possible route could be a thorough comparison of the Night Office texts between the English and Continental sources. What you’d have to find in order to make a strong case is greater coherence between Sarum, Hereford, and York sources (perhaps Hyde Abbey as well?) than what you find in Continental sources, particularly those that feed into the Tridentine Breviary. Then, if you could further isolate a difference in perspective—so, a preponderance of a particular father or set of fathers over others—between “English” and “Roman” breviaries, then I’d be willing to give more credence to the notion of a theologically distinct Ecclesia Anglicana that contains demonstrable theological and formational tendencies from its Continental counterparts.