Anglo-Catholic Identity–Again

The last couple of posts (Anglo-Catholic Future in the Episcopal Church and its follow-on A Response to Josh) have raised some comments and questions that I’ll try to address. On one hand, Brian has questioned my use and appropriation of the term “Anglo-Catholic”; on the other, Susan, Greg and others have located themselves in the final paragraph of “A Response to Josh” but neither see nor understand themslves as being particularly “catholic”…  As different as these questions are, I think there’s a common thread here that makes me reckless enough to try to tackle them both in a single post.

I’ll start with Brian’s comments:

I am challenged by your self-description as an “Anglo-Catholic” only because, in the history of this blog, I have never seen you cite, or even mention having read about, the Tractarians, especially Newman and Pusey, the Ritualists, the founding priests of the SSC, the slum priests of the late 19th century, the “martyrs of ritualism” who were jailed for violating the Public Worship Regulation Act, the early AC religious orders, the Anglo-Papalists of the early to mid-20C, the participants in the Anglo-Catholic Congresses, the work of Frs. Huddleston, Raynes, and other CR priests in South African missions during apartheid, and so on. I think those of us who were steeped in that tradition, by the priests who formed us, chafe at your description of historic Anglo-Catholicism as “extreme, regressive, and eccentric,” and at your reference to “the sins of the fathers” in your response to Josh. Your vision of Anglo-Catholicism seems historically myopic, and I think it is easy to dismiss those of us who differ with your understanding of the movement if you lack a full knowledge of that history. I say this in good faith after a few days of bemusement.

I know Brian fairly well from our online interactions and, I think, have a good sense of where he’s coming from. Lineage is important. (There’s an additional subtext here around lineage as both of us enjoy martial arts and if there’s one thing martial artists like to argue about its lineage and the implicit connection between lineage and effectiveness…)

When I first started actively attending an Episcopal parish it was one in Ohio headed by a former Presbyterian who was high as could be with smells, bells, and Rector’s forums on Anglo-Catholic topics. When we wnt back to Atlanta, M had a parish placement but we were unofficially affiliated with an Anglo-Catholic parish there. The priest was a member of the SSC and highly placed in Forward in Faith NA. I learned quite a lot from him, his liturgies, sermons, and spiritual direction. (He was the one who introduced me to Martin Thornton.) Bouncing from Atlanta to New York, we alternated between Smokey Mary’s and St Luke’s in the Village and I got up to the Church of the Resurrection a few times. On moving to the Main Line, M got her start in a parish with an incumbent raised at St Clement’s who maintained a prayer-book parish with an Anglican Missal altar party. I could go on, but I don’t feel the need to…

What’s my point in this rehearsal? The Anglo-Catholic movement within the Episcopal Church is a living tradition. And, as a result of being a living tradition, it’s a rather broad one—indeed, much more broad than some would desire.  As you can see, there’s quite a span: Tridentine ceremonial to Vatican II style, those affirming women and queer folk and those not. Which is why there’s also an Anglo-Catholic movement outside of the Episcopal Church. Furthermore, in the time since I’ve started blogging, the span of Anglo-Catholics within the Episcopal Church has narrowed quite a bit. Between the formation of ACNA, the mass departure of Forward in Faith, and the establishment of the Anglican Ordinariate, there has been a lot of shifting around and many who described themselves as Anglo-Catholics left. For those whose ultimate desire was union with Rome, they have left and gone to Rome. Indeed, the FiFNA priest mentioned abve is now a priest of the Ordinariate. For those who were too Anglican (or too remarried) for the Ordinariate, ACNA provided a option.

If you’ll note, I carefully specified my remarks around an Anglo-Catholic movement that wished to be taken seriously within the Episcopal Church. So—I’m speaking to the living tradition of Anglo-Catholism that has chosen to remain within the Episcopal Church and wants to have an effect upon it.

Having talked a bit about the “living tradition” thing, I’ll switch gears slightly, shift to the topic of self-applied labels in identity politics and directly address the points that Brian raised. As I read his comment, Brian is suggesting that I don’t belong within the Anglo-Catholic tradition and have no business claiming the label because I do not have the proper intellectual foundations within it.

So, let me sketch a little bit of my intellectual formation with regard to 19th century Anglicanism. I’m a biblical scholar with an interest in the use of Scripture in liturgy and its application in ascetical theology. That means I do a lot of reading, only some of it related to Anglican topics. I have read the entire contents of Tracts for the Times in my early days as an Anglican and learned a lot from them. I’ve read a lot of John Mason Neale and his circle. I’ve read some from the Ritualists. I’ve read, in particular, liturgical and ceremonial material from the time, focusing on the early history of Ritual Notes and the Directorium Anglicanum and others. Fr. Rock’s Church of Our Fathers in three volumes lives on my Kindle. I’ve read broadly through Hierurgia Anglicana. Those are the folks who fall narrowly within your canon.

No, I’ve not read much from the early SSC founders or their hiers.

I’ve no doubt departed from the narrow way in reading more of J. Wickham Legg, Vernon Staley, Percy Dearmer, and those who I would regard as my best conversation partners, Walter H. Frere and his friend and correspondent Evelyn Underhill. And I’ve been guilty of reading and being formed by other people you didn’t mention like Lancelot Andrewes, Jeremy Taylor, John Donne, and George Herbert.

My take-away from this reading is that the Anglican way is a liturgical spirituality informed by patristic interpretation and practice understood in such a way to speak to the spiritual yearnings of our times. So I spend more of my time reading Augustine, Cassiodorus, John Cassian, Benedict, Gregory, Bede, and the desert tradition generally (that also being the roots of real “Celtic theology” which learned much more from the Desert Fathers than Greenpeace.)

So—am I a real Anglo-Catholic?

Those who have been reading this blog from the beginning will recall that I have a love/hate relationship with the Anglo-Catholic label. Indeed, over the past decade(!) that I’ve kept the blog up, I have attempted to explicitly disavow the label and distance myself from it at least twice.

Once was here back in 2005: Anglo-Catholic.

Another was here in 2008: faux catholic.

I’ve tried to go with different alternatives too. Here was an attempt from 2006: Sarum Anglicans? and another from 2007: What is in a name?

But, like a dog returning to its vomit, I have returned to the Anglo-Catholic label partly because that’s how I am perceived by the wider church. I’ll talk more about this in a moment, but for the sake of completeness let me link to this piece from 2006 where I specifically recant the position that I took in that first link up there from 2005: An Anglican Moderate.

“Anglo-Catholic” to the best of my knowledge—and I’m sure folks will feel more than free to correct me on this if I’m wrong—does have a narrow meaning in which it refers to a particular group of writers and thinkers in late 19th century England who suceeded the Ritualists. However, very few people use it with this narrow referrent. Its far more common usage is a general term for those who insist on a catholic continuity in the Anglican churches. (For instance, check out the authors collected in the mid-ninteenth century “Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology“!) As such, the general term “Anglo-Catholic” is a synthesis. I explore my understanding of such a synthesis in this post from 2010: Tradition: Between Synthesis and Historicity. At the end of the day, such a synthesis is a set of ideas and perspectives enshrined by a current living community, and this is where we really get at the root of things. Brian’s community will not regard me as a true Anglo-Catholic. Why—because I have not read the intellectual canon within which Anglo-Catholicism resides? No—they would tell me that I am not a true Anglo-Catholic because if I were formed properly in that canon I would recognize that women cannot be clergy and that queer folk should be kept in their closets. And—by and large—most of the people who make up Brian’s community have left the Episcopal Church. (As has Brian.)

I, on the other hand, recognize a synthesis largely contiguous with that of Brian’s community (!), that not only has a home but has an important voice to offer the Episcopal Church—and that there is a living community here that embodies and sustains it.

(I identify the two major differences between my position and positions like Brian’s as these: 1) I don’t believe in an infallible church and thus see some matters as open for discussion that they see as closed, and 2) I don’t see the point of the movement as corporate reunion with the Roman Catholic Church. I’m certainly not against corporate reunion with the Roman Catholic Church but, let’s face it, they’ve got some work to do before I’d be willing to sign off on it.)

But there’s another piece here too. Up to now, I’ve been talking about self-applied labels. As my friend Robb noted in a comment on one of the pieces linked to above, there’s a point where a subculture’s navel-gazing breaks down…

The funny thing is that – the more I am engaged in debates about what is truly Catholic – the more it feels like other debates about meaningless subcultures: is Green Day punk in the same way as The Ramones; can you be a true Goth and listen to Marilyn Manson; who best represents country music, David Allen Coe or Kenny Chesney? (btw, there is only one right answer to that last question!!!)

Anybody remember the Goth Code (or the Geek Code)? I’m sure there’s an Anglo-Catholic variant somewhere. If the seventh letter is an “f”, it means you’re for the use of folded chausibles in Lent; if the 12th is an “m” then you think the maniple should be removed for the sermon—but if you do, you’d better be ready for the severe verbal whoopin’ from those who think it should stay on and have three sources older than yours to cite as evidence!!

But these are points that—however significant they may be to insiders—are completely ignored by those outside the subculture.

Here’s the thing. When someone sees me cross myself at the Elevation and genuflect on the way out of the pew they’ll say, “What are you, an Anglo-Catholic or something?” I could say, “Well, no, actually I’m a Reformed Patristic Prayer-book catholic Anglican within the Episcopal Church—not technically an Anglo-Catholic. When I crossed myself, I was following the tradition of the vernacular devotions for the Sarum Mass which is totally different from the use of ‘Anglo-Catholics’ simpliciter as they were simply borrowing the Roman Catholic customs of their day without a whole lot of reference to historical analogues…” but the person making the remark would have wandered off after the third word.

The Episcopal church calls me an Anglo-Catholic. I can disagree, isolate myself because of a concern for terminology not shared by 99.9% of people in or outside the church, and in the process cut myself off from a community of people who may or may not share my terminological scruples with whom I share a great deal in terms of theology and practice. Or, alternatively, I can embrace the label despite my hedging and potential scruples and lend my voice to those who love the church and want to support it in its mission by reminding it of our core beliefs and principles.

This, then, is where we get to the final point I want to make: what a catholic movement (and yes, I do prefer to use this term and to use a lower-case “c”) has to contribute to the broader Episcopal Church. Several people saw things they liked in the final paragraph of my previous post. But—they don’t see themselves as being “catholic” let alone “Anglo-Catholic.” So what gives?

I don’t think that there was anything distinctively catholic in that last paragraph; I think it is something that Anglicans of any stripe ought to be able to get behind. However, I do think that catholic Anglicans (and Episcopalian Anglo-Catholics) may have a clearer perspective on some of these issues because of our chosen theological conversation partners and patterns of life.

Reading the Church Fathers is a manifestly useful exercise. All sorts of discussions and arguments were had in the first several centuries of the Church’s life as we were hammering out language to wrap around our understanding of God in the Scriptures, the experience of the Risen Jesus in the Sacraments, and participation of the Holy Spirit in the life of our communities. The Fathers (and Mothers) got a sense of what thoughts led to skewed practice. And that’s the real problem with heresy—not that someone is thinking an unapproved thought, but that someone has construed who and what God is in a way that will have tragic consequences if we try to live it out. That’s why Arianism, Gnosticism, Pelagianism, Montanism, and others are problems: they live badly. In some way, their communal expression undercuts the abundant life with God and the reconciliation between God and his whole creation promised in the true Gospel.

We who read these writers hear what they were struggling against and are more ready to identify it in our own time.

We who have chosen to lead a self-consciously liturgical and sacramental life will have both different thoughts and different instincts—whether conscious or not—around the sacraments, their relationship to a life of discipleship, and how the church deploys them than those who don’t. Are these thoughts and instincts “better”? I wouldn’t say “better” myself, but they may well be more thought through or more organically integrated in a spiritual life.

Personally, I think the Episcopal Church could stand to learn quite a lot about sanctity, holiness, and the connection between the sacraments and the sacred from the catholic movement. As I’ve said before and will no doubt expand upon, “A Great Cloud of Witnesses” is not the document I wish for the church—but it meets the church where the church is. I hope it serves as a starting place for a set of discussions that can eventually get us to a clearer place.

No, I don’t think the catholic movement is the sole location of faithful Christians in the Episcopal Church—there are myriads who aren’t and have no need to be catholic. No, I don’t think that catholic devotions should be made mandatory or imposed on the prayer book. I’m quite happy having the St. Augustine’s Prayer Book to use alongside my BCP. No, I don’t think that being an Anglo-Catholic in the Episcopal Church is the only way to be one. There are different syntheses recognizably within the tradition. I can honor that and respect those who hold them even while I don’t agree with them.

So—that’s where I am today. An Anglo-Catholic in the Episcopal Church who believes that we have much to offer the church. You may not agree—either that I’m an Anglo-Catholic, or that the church needs to listen—but I don’t plan on shutting up and going away any time soon…

9 thoughts on “Anglo-Catholic Identity–Again

  1. Barbara

    I like that last sentence there.

    Perhaps the answer is to pay more attention to the section of the Creeds that gives assent to “one holy catholic and apostolic church.” Because in light of that, we are all small-c catholic by definition – so perhaps we’re just “catholic Anglicans,” and we can explain to people what we mean by that, as you have done here.

    That way we can drop a designation that maybe doesn’t really work any longer (if it ever did) – and others who wouldn’t necessarily identify as “Anglo-Catholic” might feel fine using “catholic Anglican.”

  2. Brian McCord

    Derek, many thanks for your thoughtful and irenic response.

    You write:

    “(I identify the two major differences between my position and positions like Brian’s as these: 1) I don’t believe in an infallible church and thus see some matters as open for discussion that they see as closed, and 2) I don’t see the point of the movement as corporate reunion with the Roman Catholic Church. I’m certainly not against corporate reunion with the Roman Catholic Church but, let’s face it, they’ve got some work to do before I’d be willing to sign off on it.)”

    The young Newman, before he ever considered being received into the Roman Catholic Church, in fact when he was dead set against the idea, wrote in Tract 59:

    “[T]he Church Catholic has ever taught (as in her creed) that there are facts revealed to us not of this world, not of time, but of eternity, and that absolutely and independently; not merely embodied and indirectly conveyed in a certain historical course, not revealed merely relative to us, not subordinated to the display of the divine character but primary objects of our faith, and essential in themselves whatever dependence or influence they may have upon other doctrines or upon the course of the dispensation.”

    So, Newman, while firmly an Anglican, sets out the notion that there is in fact an infallible Church, a bulwark against the “liberalizing” tendencies of the Church of England of his time. He resisted those tendencies *as an Anglican.*

    I would argue that this assertion of a certain degree of infallibility is not limited to “Romanizing” Anglo-Catholics, nor did it leave with Newman once he submitted to Rome. It is a key component of Anglo-Catholicism *in the Anglican Communion* and remains so in certain parts of the Communion, though certainly a smaller part after the upheavals of the past 15 years that you note—ACNA (though I would be loathe to agree that there are legit ACs in that jurisdiction), the Ordinariate, etc.

    For instance, those Anglo-Catholics who came after Newman—the “Puseyites,” the Ritualists, the founders of the SSC, the Anglo-Papalists, the slum and mission priests and religious orders—engaged in certain liturgical praxis, not simply because it was spiritually edifying, but because it embodied certain doctrines that were true. The Church revealed the worship of the Blessed Sacrament, it revealed that Saints were to be invoked and asked for intercession, it revealed the Catholic faith in its fullness, and yes, it revealed Apostolic order regarding the priesthood. This is what motivated Ritualists to defy the law and go to jail—not just the liturgical practices that offended the low- and broad church elements of the C of E, but the doctrines that they embodied. Again, these same priests had no truck with Rome, and made clear that they did what they did as Anglicans—it was only a certain “Anglo-Papalist” movement in Anglo-Catholicism that “[saw] the point of the movement as corporate reunion with the Roman Catholic Church.”

    So, in short, I would argue that the idea that the sort of Anglo-Catholicism that I advocate, while perhaps a “narrow referent” from the perspective of self-proclaimed ACs in modern ECUSA, is not simply a movement that always belonged in Rome and is now resident there through the Ordinariate. It was not simply about corporate reunion, it was indeed about revealed doctrine. Moreover, to describe ACism as a matter of sacramentality and edifying spiritual praxis, in my mind, fails to adequately address these doctrinal issues.

    That said, thanks again for a thoughtful exchange.

  3. Scotrhodie

    The formulation “an Anglo-Catholic movement that wishes to be taken seriously in the Episcopal Church” is one of the most hilarious I have ever encountered. I have been running through equivalents: “an abstinence initiative that wishes to be taken seriously by Hustler;” “a Pentagon that wishes to be taken seriously by the Nuclear Disarmament Committee of Titterington-on-Marsh,” “a science establishment that wishes to be taken seriously by Scientology.” But fish in a barrel. Uncharitable.

    The Catholic faith, particularly if one includes Orthodoxy, represents almost all Christians, living and dead, and the faith once delivered. TEC comprises maybe half a million really active members and, at the business end, a set of ideas that are a few decades old.

    My own experience over the last 20 years (when I came to America) is of an Episcopal Church that has gone to lengths, often extreme lengths expressed in acts of remarkable personal cruelty, to extinguish Catholicism within the Anglican tradition.

    Newman repeatedly makes the point that the Catholic religion is a dogmatic whole. Being allowed to believe about 80 percent of it is not a tolerable situation — but being “taken seriously” by the TEC requires that one give up traditional teaching on revelation, authority, sexuality, Christian anthropology, orders, and so on. In place of that teaching is a narrow orthodoxy imposed by power and justified by secular arguments. Those who are not prepared to roll over and accept the new orthodoxy on these matters are excluded from ordination, preferment, or even (as laypeople) membership of a parish council in some places. I do not see how a serious, orthodox, believing Catholic could do this and live with his conscience.

    The Anglo-Catholic pioneers did not strive to be “taken seriously” by the Church of England. They renounced national apostasy. They said that the Protestant, Deist establishment of the CoE was rotten to the core and that the whole body needed to be resurrected through the power of Catholic truth. They suffered, were marginalized, slowly built parishes and institutions in poor and neglected places, and gradually changed the institution. Foolishly, they mistook the beach-heads they gained through insurgency for a wholesale victory and were utterly defeated in what they thought was the moment of victory. What shall it profit a church if she gain a chasuble and lose her own soul?

    Oddly enough, when orthodoxy was predominant in Anglo-Catholic circles, there was still a large range of opinion in the pews. It was tolerated, sometimes engaged with, certainly not hounded out. As soon as revisionism was ascendant, the purge began.

    I’m now well out of it, but I can no longer understand what people who call themselves Anglo-Catholic in TEC are about. They accept, indeed are ahead of, every heretical innovation the organization propounds, but like dressing up and swanning about in archaic ritual ways. To what end? How does it make any sense?

  4. Derek Olsen


    I would agree that the Church teaches truth. And, indeed, have asserted that. I do believe that the greater part of what the Undivided Church teaches is a true witness to who God is as revealed in Scripture (which is a product of the Church), Sacrament (which is the communal act of the Church), and reasoned Study (which is a calling of the Church).

    I’ll have to re-read the Tract you cite, but I don’t see anything in what Newman wrote which you cited that I disagree with.

    That is, he says that the Church teaches rightly. But he don’t see him thereby proclaiming the infallibility of the Church.

    On the contrary, I’d suggest that an insistence on the fallibility of the Church is a solid part of the Anglican heritage and if one is true to the “Anglo-” in the name it’s one that has to be reckoned with. Newman and all of the other Anglo-Catholic fathers who were ordained swore and subscribed to Articles 19 and 21 of the full 39:

    Article 19: “. . . As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.”

    Article 21: “. . . And when [General Councils] be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining to God. . . . ”

    Obviously I’m of a different mind from the first framers of the articles as were those I reckon my spiritual ancestors; I have no doubt that the Calvinists and I would disagree quite a lot about where and how the Church and her councils have erred. Nevertheless, it would have been very difficult for Church of England clergymen to hold to their ordination vows while (whilst) insisting upon an infallible Church. To do that with a clear conscience, they’d have to leave and go to Rome. As Newman and others did.

  5. Derek Olsen

    As a policy on this blog, I insist on respect which is an entirely different animal from agreement. Many people disagree with me—some quite vehemently—but as long as they do it with a modicum of respect, they’re free to have their say. You obviously put a lot of time into writing this out, but I’ll not waste my time reading it if you’re unable to manage a civil tone and put forward an actual line of thought that adds to the discussion. Consider yourself warned.

    (tl;dr: My house, my rules.)

  6. Brian McCord

    I think you give too much weight to the 39 Articles. We know what Newman did with them in Tract 90, and then there was that famous passage from Father Colin Stephenson’s Merrily On High:

    “Canon N. P. Williams said, ‘I assent to the 39 Articles as I assent to the Oxford Gas Works. I am aware of their existence, I am at the present moment engaged in no active plan for their destruction, but it does not mean that I approve of them.”’

    I think the famous Oxford theologian roundly summarizes the position of many, if not most, traditional Anglo-Catholics on the subject. We should remember that in the Church of England one only has to ‘assent’ to the 39 Articles, whatever that may mean, and here in the US one had to do even less.

  7. Jim of Olym

    Well, Derek, I thought Mr. Scotrhodie was being rather civil, myself, considering some of the goin’s on here and there. I might say that just wearing a cope and mitre is not suffiecient to make one a bishop in other venues. But since I left TEC for eastern climes in the 1980s I probably don’t have a vote here. Nonetheless, I appreciate your liturgical forays into medieval usages. Why not get back to that field of your expertise?

  8. Barbara

    You know, I’ve left every “traditional Christian” group I’ve ever been part of, exactly because of the kinds of responses you’re getting here, Derek. (Amazing that here somebody’s come along to tell you, explicitly, to just shut up – as you so presciently pointed out in your last post!)

    The only Christian groups I can stand any longer are the “Progressive Christianity” ones; the people are much kinder and more reasonable, even if they ARE heretics quite a bit of the time. So I talk to these people now, to try to get them to see the beauty in the (small-o) orthodox Christian faith; this is not too hard to do, actually. Most people just haven’t heard it before; the truth is that many people really have been deeply wounded by the cruelty and deep viciousness of some of the “traditional” branches of the Church. Even so, they haven’t left the faith entirely; that’s important, I think.

    Of course, gay Christians know exactly what it is to be besieged by each of the “opposing sides.” So you’re not alone in that. Anyway, I’d say by these reactions that you’re definitely doing something right…..

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