Central Churchmanship: Was There an American Form?

Here’s an interesting post from a Continuing bishop discussing the revisionism of both the Left and the Right wings of Anglicanism, and calling for a return to the central position which he identifies as: “based on the Bible, the Early Fathers, the Articles of Religion and the Prayer Book.”

What strikes me as odd is his appeal to “Central Churchmanship.” I’ve only seen the term used by the Young Fogey before and I wonder if this is a particularly English party. That is, here in America I’ve only heard of Anglicanism described in three branches: Evangelical, Broad, and Anglo-Catholic. These are also the parties described by an impartial historical observer as found in the 1907 (biased yet still entertaining—to me, at least) Catholic Encyclopedia article on Anglicanism.

I can see an appeal in what is being described here, but has it ever existed as a discrete body on American soil?

10 thoughts on “Central Churchmanship: Was There an American Form?

  1. Vicki McGrath


    Here is what I know from my experience growing up in the church, and reflecting on what my parents used to talk about – admittedly in a New York/New England context: the three parties within the American church used to be called high, low and broad. High included Anglo-Catholic but was not limited to those who used the Anglican missal. Low was not Evangelical in the way we think of it today (with an emphasis on individual conversion and a salvation experience), but rather a liturgical pattern of Holy Communion once a month at the main service, and Morning Prayer on the other three Sundays (and Communion each week at the early service). The minister was called “Mister” or “Doctor” and the vestments were cassock, surplice and stole for Communion.This is what I grew up with – and I learned very thoroughly and well how to sing the 1928 canticles to Anglican chant as a congregation. We did it every Sunday. Broad church then was not so much a liturgical style (although I would say it was more akin to Low church)as it was a greater interest in and openness to ecumenism (at least general Protestant ecumenism)and the intellectual and social currents of the day.

    I think perhaps the bishop’s comments had to do with the fact that there used to be much more careful hewing to the BCP (after all, it was the Anglo-Catholics in the old days who were called innovators because the liturgy was enriched in non-BCP ways and order!), and far less freedom to add things in or make changes, just because the rector liked it or thought it was helpful. The liturgical possibilities were much more circumscribed in some ways. And so there was a much greater likelihood that one could go into any episcopal Church and feel right at home and be confident that you knew what was going to happen. The focus, then, was not on what the worship was like (so much) as the focus was on God and the liturgy was the vehicle for worship. There also used to be much greater emphasis on the Thirty-Nine Articles, which became problematic with some of its assumptions being very Calvinistic, which didn’t fit with High church or Broad church, and really not much with Low church. (Having said this, the Articles were a real blessing to me early in college when a philosophy prof. who was a priest was the celebrant at a weekday Eucharist. I knew from things he had said in class that his beliefs were far from anything like traditional Christian doctrine – plus it was generally known that he was sleeping with one of the students, and I wasn’t sure what that I should even be receiving Communion from him. Then I found Article XXVI and was much releived.) There also used to be a strong emphasis on apostolic succession, esp. regarding the need for converts to be confirmed (unless previously RC or Orthodox) in order to receive Communion. I almost never hear about apostolic succession from my colleagues now. Overall, there was a much greater commonality about interpretation of faith, doctrine and (to a little lesser extent) liturgical practice than there is today. And I often wonder how far we can stretch some of the boundaries before we really are not on the same page anymore.

    I don’t know if that’s helpful, but that’s what I know.

    Vicki McGrath+

  2. The young fogey

    He has explained elsewhere that this is a transatlantic difference, Central Churchmanship in England meaning ‘middle of the road’ and Broad being an old term for liberals. In America Broad tends to mean middle-church. Also, the American middle are slightly higher than their English cousins; the American version of Evangelical is more like English Central. English Evangelicals/Low Churchmen historically are more ‘Presbyterians with Prayer Books’. Interestingly the Episcopal Church for the most part has never had the C of E’s two extremes, Anglo-Papalism (the people who say they’re would-be RCs and thus logically will belong in the Pope’s new ordinariates) and hard-core Evangelicalism, possibly because it’s not the state church so historically it was easy to convert to something else.

  3. Derek Olsen

    Vicki+, thanks for that. It’s always good for me to get a cradle perspective as a relative new-comer! One factor to include in the bishop’s relate to his English background–when he talks about fidelity to the BCP it means something different than it does here; since the last BCP of the CoE is the 1662 there’s been much more freedom in using other liturgies. Today in particular with Common Worship, saying that you’re a BCP parish means something quite different there than here.

    YF, Thanks for the clarifications. I’m reminded again of how many differences there are amongst the Anglican churches and why none of us can simply translate our experiences onto another church body.

    Michelle, No, central seems to be something distinct from Broad. The reason I say that is that Broad tends to be Anglican+Liberal Protestant understandings of a variety of things including revelation, biblical scholarship, philosophical norms, etc.

    Central seems something different and that’s what interests me… While I resonate and utilize certain things in common with Liberal Protestants, like an appreciation for the fruits of modern biblical scholarship, I am not a Liberal Protestant. (For instance, I reject that contemporary biblical scholarship is sufficient as an ecclesial body’s *only* approach to the Scriptures…) One of the things that I discovered in seminary about the Lutheran Church I had grown up in was that there was an alternative to the Lutheran+Liberal Protestantism that I had known and was becoming dissatisfied with: Confessional Lutheranism. In a sense, I see Central Churchmanship as attempting to be for Anglicanism what Confessionalism is for Lutherans. I’m just not sure there’s a true native form of it here in America, and that’s what YF seems to be confirming.

  4. The young fogey

    Yes, a reason American middle-of-the-road is a smidge higher than English is the different BCP, the classic American one such as 1928 being a watered-down version of the high-church 1700s Scottish one. The English version with its broken Canon and Black Rubric is more Protestant.

    Again Central and Broad don’t mean the same thing in England but seem to in America.

    A friend who became an Episcopalian as a boy (from Presbyterianism) in the 1970s can be fairly described as Central Church and he notes that, as they have no party identity and have been the big silent majority of Episcopalians, they often are overlooked in the high-low and conservative-liberal wars. He also likes to say they’re shrinking as the Episcopalians liberalise, or as he puts it the laity are 20 years behind the clergy in trends so there are still lots of Central Churchpeople in the pews but hardly any now amongst Episcopal priests. One can see his point without agreeing with him on this or that issue, but I’d say, and I think many here will agree, your middle has moved. Leftwards, but it’s still the middle, relatively speaking.

    I agree that Central Church is like Confessional Lutheranism. Bishop Peter Robinson’s emphasis on the BCP and formularies is like it.

  5. Robert L. Hart

    Having been ordained almost 40 years, I don’t remember Central being used as a description of any form of worship or theology in the Episcopal Church. I spent two years in the C of E in the early 1970s as a curate in a parish and never heard the term used there either. It’s always been a bit difficult in the Episcopal Church to use precise labels. There are folks who are quite high liturgically but have a liberal take on scripture and certainly on social issues. But it is true that in the days of the 1928 Prayer Book it was easier to know what to expect liturgically in the average Episcopal Church. Even in those 1928 days I don’t remember many people referencing the 39 Articles. I’m not sure they’ve ever had that much importance in the Episcopal Church. Certainly we’ve not had the extremes the C of E has. I was taken aback to discover as a young priest in the C of E and fresh from America both the Anglo-Papalists and the “low as a snake’s belly” Evangelicals.

  6. Fr. Chris

    I think that “Prayer Book Catholic” has served in this country. (As has “Middle of the Road” – or “muddled” to the detractors.)

  7. The young fogey

    I wouldn’t say Prayer Book Catholics and middle-of-the-road are the same.

    But as the bishop has written elsewhere, because Episcopal Church bishops enforced BCP use (the English gave up), because American Anglo-Catholicism (though it borrowed Tridentine RC practice like its English cousin) wasn’t that particularly Roman-minded (think Charles Grafton), so American ACism is Prayer Booky unlike the English version, and because, thanks to AC influence (the biretta-belt dioceses plus scattered parishes), the middle ‘high-churchified’ from the 1930s through the early 1960s (more weekly Communion services, more chasubles, ‘Ritual Notes and water’ ceremonial so lots of altars with six candles… also why so many Episcopal priests are Father or Mother), sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart in the classical Episcopal scene. (For example what is St Thomas, Fifth Avenue? Prayer Book Catholic or brass-and-class conservative old middle? Fr Mead arguably is a PBC.)

    In the olden days before around 1965 the Prayer Book Catholics would have Communion every Sunday using the altar BCP; other American ACs would be doing American Missal and middle parishes still had Morning Prayer most weeks.

    The Prayer Book Catholics would teach the Mass (but like the middles might not call it Mass) as sacrifice and a complete and lasting change in the Communion elements but nix the term ‘transubstantiation’ per the Articles; middles would stop short of that.

    Prayer Book Catholics like other ACs would probably go to confession a few times a year even though there’s not a complete form for private confession in the US 1928 BCP.

    American middles probably had a higher view of apostolic succession (something approaching the Catholic ecclesiology of the infallible church, the Anglicans believing a branch-theory version of it) than the English did, sharing that with Prayer Book Catholics. Such a high ecclesiology might distinguish PBCs from today’s middles as Vicki has alluded to.

    Which goes back to the bishop’s point that today’s Central Churchpeople are yesterday’s (pre-Tractarian, non-AC) High Churchpeople, a name originally about church authority not mainly ceremonial. So the middles a few decades ago retained that.

  8. The young fogey

    P.S. Interesting how Percy Dearmer Sarum externals never took off among American ACs. So in the biretta belt you had what to the English looked Anglo-Papalist but surprisingly to them wasn’t. The desire to identify as not British probably won out there.

  9. The young fogey

    Having been ordained almost 40 years, I don’t remember Central being used as a description of any form of worship or theology in the Episcopal Church.

    It’s the party of churchmanship that’s not self-consciously a party.

Comments are closed.