[Update: The majority of the links are now fixed though a few recalcitrant ones linger…]

Up until a short while ago, I used to describe myself as an Anglo-Catholic. I don’t anymore. I no longer claim that title because I have an appreciation for Anglo-Catholicism, I know what it is, and I can’t and shouldn’t claim it for myself. In truth, I can easily pass myself off as such and I wager that I hold about 90% of what “real” Anglo-Catholics do, but it’s that 10% that won’t let me claim it.

Historically, there are several different movements that Episcopalians and liturgical Protestants tend to lump together. We toss around terms like Oxford Movement, Anglo-Catholic, High Church, and Ritualist as if they’re synonyms. They’re not. In fact, there are some good and well-defined differences between many of these. Although similar from the outside even the times in which they arose make them different from one another precisely because they forced each of these movements to ask different questions and struggle with different problems. Check out data on the Non-jurors, the Tractarians (aka the Oxford Movement), and the Ritualists–often consider the real fore-bearers of the modern Anglo-Catholic movement, especially the SSC. Even I’m not as up on this history as I’d like to be and can’t tease out with ease the exact differences between all of these groups. But it’s at least important to have a sense that these were different groups.

I tend to see myself in line more with the Cambridge Movement than the Oxford Movement. Essentially, the Oxford Movement was theological nature. It sponsored a return to Patristic theology and the liturgies of the ancient church. I certainly agree with these. However, the majority of its focus was on church governance, the importance of apostolic succession, and the appropriate relationship between Church and State. While the Oxford Movement thought greatly of doctrines, the problems of apostolic succession, and bishops, the Cambridge Movement emphasized the artistic. John Mason Neale—the most important member of the Cambridge Movement—wrote to his friend Benjamin Webb in 1844: “I hope and trust that you are not going to Oxonianize. It is clear to me that the Tract writers missed one great principle, namely that of Aesthetics, and it is unworthy of them to blind themselves to it.” Neale and the others emphasized the poetry of architecture, vestments, and church music as well as robust theology. Indeed, Neale’s greatest contribution to the modern church is his legacy of hymnody. Fluent in handfuls of dead languages, Neale had the unusual skill of turning poetry from a language centuries dead into evocative English poetry. (He’s one of my heroes; I’ve got a picture of him up on my bulletin board at work along with one of Lancelot Andrewes [of whom more later]. Don’t miss my favorite sermon of Neale’s too…)

In short, I’m all for great vestments, clouds of incense and the reading of the Church Fathers. But there’s more to Anglo-Catholicism than this. As I see it—and I’m humbly open to correction here from those reading this who know better than I do—an Anglo-Catholic is one who consider themselves to be cut off from the Roman church more or less by accident. That is, there was a history of abuses in the Roman church but the majority of these have been fixed. Your average Anglo-Catholic holds to the doctrine of Transubstantiation, devotion to the Mother of Christ including the rosary, the Angelus, etc., and to the Invocation of Saints. In short, Anglo-Catholics hold the theology of Rome but not the discipline of Rome. That is, the beliefs are the same but there are disagreements on how the common life ought to be structured. Anglo-Catholics are for a married clergy and an elegant vernacular Mass (yes, still an issue after VII—the English Novus Ordo does not exemplify “elegancy” in my book…). Some may have issues with the claims of the papacy and may accept the bishop of Rome as first among equals by temporal rather than divine mandate (as did
Melanchthon according to his addition to his signature on the Smalcald Articles).

Though I agree with most of this (and do heartily recommend the Angelus as the most biblical of the Marian devotions) I have further problems with both the theology and discipline of the Roman church that disqualify me from calling myself an Anglo-Catholic. First, I cannot hold the all of the creeds required by the Catholic Church. It is is required that the Catholic faithful hold to the Athanasian Creed. While I have no problem with the Trinitarian gymnastics herein, I believe that this creed claims too much certainty for itself. Now, I fully believe that Christ is the way to the Father. I also believe that salvation as historically understood by the church—incorporation into the mystical body of Christ, to have one’s life hid in God—is accomplished through baptism into the Triune Name. What I have a great deal of difficulty countenancing, however, is this creeds statements that “unless a person keeps this faith whole and entire, he will undoubtedly be lost forever” and that “Those who have done good deeds will go into eternal life; those who have done evil will go into the everlasting fire.” Again, let me be perfectly clear—holding the true faith is of great importance and doing good works are proof of one’s possession of the Spirit and turning towards God in love. What galls me is this creed’s human arrogation of the place of God. I’ll try and baptize as many folks as I can and I am not shy about witnessing to God’s redemptive power but what I refuse to do is to tell God who gets saved and who doesn’t. It seems to me that this creed has lost room for the movements of God’s grace. It’s not my call who gets saved and the whole Church Militant (umm, that refers to the whole church on earth whether you’re currently packing heat or not…) sees through a glass dimly—including the sainted people who wrote this creed. God’s salvation is entirely up to His good and gracious will and I don’t think He plans to consult me about it first. Thus, I cannot submit to this creed like I can the other two in good conscience.

In terms of priestly discipline, most of the real honest-to-goodness Anglo-Catholics I’ve met don’t have a problem with gay priests. In fact, Anglo-Catholicism has quite a legacy of gay priests albeit most closeted and some severely repressed. In fact they’re far happier with gay priests than…women priests. This truly is the litmus test for Anglo-Catholics. If one holds the mechanistic understanding of the sacraments held by the Catholic Church and upheld by the Anglo-Catholics, one cannot accept the validity of women priests. It’s interesting. While I’ve heard Catholics and Anglo-Catholics alike speak warmly and lovingly—sounding like Evangelicals—about their relationship with Jesus and about the care and concern of the Jesus of the Gospels whenever Anglo-Catholics turn to the sacraments and the discussion of the Eucharist, Jesus turns into the central theorem of an algebra problem. A sacrament must have the correct form, matter, presider, and intention to occur. In the case of the Eucharist, for the Eucharist to be valid, one must use the proper words (form), bread and wine (matter), be intending to do what the Church intends (intention), and be accomplished by a priest (presider). Without these four components, the Eucharist will not occur. The problem, of course, is that a woman is not considered the proper matter for the prior sacrament of ordination.

The Catholic Catechism is clear that only men may be ordained and of course until recently that was the case in our traditions as well. The reason given, of course, is that Jesus selected men. The Catechism neglects to mention why the men must not also be Jewish, speakers of Aramaic, or inhabitants of first-century Palestine. From what I can determine, the real reason is that the Roman Church has held that those to be priests must follow the standards for priesthood as laid down in Levitical law which is why a man who was maimed could also not be a priest. Only a man representing Jesus can properly stand in the place of Christ (aliter Christus) and re-present the Eucharistic sacrifice. But again—where is God in this equation, where is the grace and promise of Christ? As much respect as I have for proper ritual and its importance, this seems to say that if the oogey-boogey isn’t done right the rabbit won’t jump out of the hat. But is the Body and Blood of our Savior a rabbit? Don’t we hold that Christ has given us His promise to be present in the bread and wine? Will He call a “no show” if there isn’t a little piece of meat between the priest’s legs?

On a more serious note, I do understand that many will point to the discussion of headship in 1 Cor 11, Eph 5, and so forth to demonstrate that the relationship between men and women is analogous to that between Christ and His Church. In this interpretation, being faithful to the biblical word means that a man must stand at the head of the congregation to fully represent Christ. While I can see this point if one uses a certain framework for understanding the text, I don’t use it myself. And most of the people who present it do not apply this same framework to a host of other biblical texts. If you’re going to argue submission to Paul’s worldview as representing the single correct anthropology in this case and be serious about it, you must do so through out the biblical text and I rarely see that happening. I believe that women are just as valid materially as men for ordination and I have no worries whatsoever about the inefficacy of the sacrament because a woman is before or behind the altar rather than a man (and yes, I even confess to preferring an east-wall altar…).

Because I know and understand the true Anglo-Catholic position, I find myself having to dissent from it. I know it and understand it but can’t agree with it. That’s fine—they do their thing, I’ll do mine, we’ll ask the Blessed Virgin to pray for one another. I do believe there is room in the Episcopal Church for divergent views as long as the key creedal doctrines are upheld and mutual respect is the order of the day. Thus, I refer to myself as High Church. I think that’s broad enough to convey where I stand liturgically without misrepresenting what I believe. It lacks the nuance and the zing of the Anglo-Catholic label, but I’m willing to give up the snappy be title to be fair to my beliefs and also to be fair to the beliefs of my friends on the true Anglo-Catholic side who honestly hold theirs.

26 thoughts on “Anglo-Catholicism

  1. Gracious Light

    Fantastic post, man. Well argued and thought out. Who knew. I was always under the impression that the Cambridge and Oxford Movements were one and the same, but in different locations. I even thought Neale was of the Oxford Movement Yolk.

    Well, all I have to say is that by hanging your hat on the aesthetic and poetic as opposed to right theology, you are showing your root. Make sure you send Pappa a link.

    BTW- you better be okay with women’s ordination. Otherwise the wife would send you to sleep on my couch!

  2. The Anglican Scotist

    Good stuff all ’round–sharp and clear about what “Anglo-catholic” represents and how “High Church” can be meaningful in contrast.

    A question–so far as you can tell, would there be room for a High-Churcher (someone who makes and accepts your distinctions) in the SSC? I wonder how much room there is in that order.

  3. Derek the Ænglican

    Are you kidding, Dave? Your own reverend wife would make me sleep in your car port… :-)

    I’m really not sure. What I can say is that all of the SSC members that I know personally are staunch members of Forward in Faith.

  4. Anastasia

    I wouldn’t count on the SSC being open to someone who is high church without the other trappings of anglo catholicism. I think they’d view it as an infatuation with the form that lacked substance. Folks who like all of the ceremonial but aren’t willing to submit to the rigors and the demands of the theology don’t comprehend the heart of the movement–that the theological positions espoused by the movement go hand in hand with and cannot be divorced from the ritual component. That, I think, would be the anglo catholic position.

    I suspect you’d have better luck with the SSC as a relatively low church person who still embraces the rest of it.

    There’s a lot I could say here. Seems worth noting that anglo catholics would never accept a sexually active gay priest. I know you know that, I’m just saying.

    Devotions like the rosary are not primarily devotions to our lady, but rather meditations on the incarnation, through the lens of her involvement.

    I think anglo catholics have a greater willingness to accept the mystery of God and God’s ability to move however God wants to move than they are getting credit for here. At the same time, they have a high need for assurance.

    Maybe we can’t know why God wanted an all male priesthood, maybe it’s essentially arbitrary, but we want to be as sure as we can that our sacraments are valid. why take chanes?

    As for anglo catholic identity, it isn’t necessarily about continuity with the RCC as it is now, post Vatican II. It’s a connection to an older catholic tradition.

    I think the claim has historical problems, but the intent is to be Christian in a way that continues the ancient tradition of (western) Christianity in a particularly English mode.

    last thing, I don’t think your point about the freedom of the holy spirit to move and effect salvation in a variety of mysterious ways is at all a dissent from the catholic tradition as an anglo catholic would understand it.

    For one thing, I don’t think it’s necessarily totally at odds with a contemporary RCC position, as articulated in official teaching, not by lay people.

    But getting back to anglo catholics, I can say with confidence that I don’t think much of what you said in that section would be objectionable to an anglo catholic.

    I tend to think like you do on such questions and I’ve had many conversations about those very issues with a very high ranking member of FIF/NA and have always been well pleased with his answers. He was quite flexible in his understanding of salvation and very open to the moving and working of God in mysterious ways.

    In fact, he is genuinely flexible intellectually in many ways and I think that, like the RCC leaders, his theology and that of FIF/NA’s leaders might be a good deal more subtle than that articulated by lay people. It is, after all, a highly intellectual movement.

    That doesn’t mean he isn’t a hard ass on a lot of things. But he’s also quite surprising. He also really does like women and gay people. :)

  5. bls

    Good one, D.

    But I think the A-C attitude towards female priests may be changing. I can think of several parishes that accept – and have actually employed – ordained women. (Perhaps, now that I think of it, as Deacons and not priests. Still.)

    And I know several female priests who think of themselves as Anglo-Catholic. The doors won’t remain shut for long if that continues. It isn’t discipline, as you note.

    For me, I don’t accept Transubstantiation (and I think of it as “not really Anglican,” anyway!). I’m uninterested in Marian devotions for the most part, and don’t care for Benediction. But the main reason I’m “High Church Anglican” is that I appreciate the Protestant (as well as the Catholic) influence, and wouldn’t want to cut it off by joining one of the factions.

    IOW: Give me Choral Matins!


  6. Derek the Ænglican

    I was hoping you would post on this, Anastasia…

    You’re right, of course, that this is to some degree a caricature of Anglo-Catholic beliefs. It is also based more out of a reaction to A-C polemics than A-C sensibilities. As I was writing I had in mind some of the things written by the Potificator but more particularly the redoubtable I’d Rather Not Say especially in reference to his “Letters to Georgina” section wherein he presents his understandings contra WO.

    You’re also quite right about the continutity with the Roman Church. The rock and hard place that many A-C’s feel I think is that they feel abandoned by both ECUSA and Rome (it’s those Jesuits with guitars…).

    On a minor point, the A-C movement picks the point shortly before the Reformation as the height of liturgical perfection in the West and follows those traditions. Personally, I think it went downhill with the Scholastics and Mendicants. I’d be happy going back to the Romano-German Pontifical but that’s not likely to ever happen…

    I’ve had a few conversations with a high ranking FiF/NA person; I found them fascinating and was impressed by the depth of knowledge on the other side. Also, I too found him quite accepting of women and gay people (I’ve also met SSC members who were just down right anti-women as well…). As has been remarked before, the conservatives are often more respectful and accommodating to those who hold different beliefs in these regards than some on the liberal side. I’ve had an SSC member invite me to contact him about a possible position after ordination even knowing that my wife is a “priestess”…

  7. Derek the Ænglican


    As Anastasia points out, there are quite a number of people who identify as Anglo-Catholic but think that it just refers to pretty vestments. The FiF crowd especially accuses the “Affirming Catholicism” crowd of liking the trappings and missing the substance.

    SSC is the Society of the Holy Cross, an order for priests most of whom are contiguous with Foward in Faith. Here’s their site.

  8. bls

    I can’t imagine why I’d let “Forward in Faith” define any terms whatsoever.


    Anyway, I’m not sure that this is “substance.” There’s a perfectly good Biblical argument for the ordination of women. The argument against is, ironically, actually cultural in nature, it seems to. (I’d be able to say with more assurance if I could access your references. Broken links galore, baby!)

    Even some not-so-traditional lay Catholics think women should be ordained as Deacons, at least. What would be quite amazing, in fact, is if Forward in Faith were the last holdout to women’s ordination.

    I have to say, though, that the Church is ridiculous in so very many ways that it wouldn’t surprise me at all….

    (Do you think many Catholics even know the Athanasian Creed, BTW? Just curious.)

  9. Annie

    I see. I’ve never had any real introduction to Anglo-catholicism. But on the points that you’ve presented, I’d be able to agree with you. I am personally growing more leary of teaching that there are limits to what God can do or how God does it and I’m rather amused by the catholic tendency to spell everything out to the nth degree as though any of us understand exactly the nature of God, etc. I like mysteries.


  10. Derek the Ænglican

    Damn. Most all the links are broken. I wrote the post in Word then transferred it over. I wonder if that screwed them up. *sigh* I’ll have to fix them this afternoon…

  11. Joe

    Really wonderful post Derek. I especially appreciate your ability and desire to fairly assess the position of those that you disagree with. A litmus test that I have for myself on these sort of contentious issues is “can I state the case of those whom I disagree with in a way that they would say accurately reflects their position?” If not, then I am just beating straw men…and that is an exhausting waste of time. Well done.

    The reasons that you have mentioned, plus a heavy dose of evangelical theology during my earliest formation, not only keep me from claiming Anglo-Catholicism, but they also have probably kept me out of the Roman Church that is such a part of my life in so many other ways (I grew up RC, work at an RC school, received my degree from the Jesuits). Unlike Annie, I actually see a great attraction to a Church with a clear catechism and set of doctrines and dogmas….but there, as you mentioned, has to be a bit more room for God’s grace (not to mention the Spirit) to operate. I like the old line (can’t remember where I heard it) about being Catholic in the creeds and at the altar, Evangelical in the pulpit, Charismatic in the pew, and liberal in sharing God’s grace.

    Grace and Peace,

  12. *Christopher


    A fine post that helps nuance things a bit. I guess I would be more High Church or Affirming Catholic by your nuanced position, though the historic Anglo-Catholic parish in SF has both partnered gay priests and women priests.

    I have a high appreciation for dogma and the creeds, I pray the Ave Maria (yes, in Latin) daily often singing to Mother Mary in the shower, and my sensibilities are well smells and bells…but the Pentecostal in me resists that human tendency to think we can limit G-d…”the Spirit blows where it wills” and “G-d can raise up children of Abraham from these rocks” so when we get too stuck, G-d has a way of going about doing G-d’s work with or without us…

    And women are of course correct matter just as much as men to image Christ as they too are imago Dei. I would be more likely with Edward Kilmartin to argue that priests act in persona Ecclesiae rather than in persona Christi. Any theology, and I think Roman theology fails in this department, that says otherwise is not taking a full appreciation of recapitulation and Chalcedon in my humble opinion. And women have every right then to ask how such a faith saves them!

    When using word, make sure that the links stay next to the quotation marks, or the links won’t work when transferred…

  13. LutherPunk

    Wow…an awesome distinction that I never really thought about before. Of course, why would I, being Lutheran and all?!?!

    Glad to have found your blog!

  14. Derek the Ænglican

    Hey Lutherspunk–
    Are you who I think you are? I.e., do you have the big Virgin Mary tattoo on your leg?

  15. LutherPunk

    You ain’t seen nothin’! I have started a full sleeve of pics of Jesus, from wrist to shoulder to add to my collection, which does in fact include a big tat of our Blessed Mother.

    When are you guys comin’ back south?

  16. Annie

    Sheesh! Tattooooos? I’m rubbing noses with the wrong generation! :) I’m only as young as I thinks I am, I hope.


  17. *Christopher

    lutherspunk…Sacred Heart huh…that does rule…I’ve never been quite so brave…only got to earrings…though I had a bf once, nevermind.

  18. Derek the Ænglican

    …And once again a perfect example that authorial intention does not equal meaning. Yes, Virginia, texts do have an interpretive life of their own sometimes quite separate from what the author understood to be writing at the time… :-D

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