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An explanation and appreciation

The short version



Music: Thou Knowest, Lord, Purcell, sung by Musica Humana Oxford

Born Anglican: how I got started


ANY years ago, when I was in college, I learnt a lot about Catholic culture and picked up a good deal of sound basic theology too. Where, you might ask? From the ‘Catholic’ college I went to? Hardly. Except for some elderly holdout priests I’m sure are in heaven today, that place had sold out and joined the secular world (except they tolerated prolife) long before I got there. No, I learnt some basics from the friendly, conservative Episcopal church down the street from where I lived. (Yes, Virginia, there are conservative Episcopal churches.)


The great dream


This place was a part of Anglo-Catholicism, a 19th-century movement in Anglicanism that had set for itself the goal of undoing the Protestant ‘Reformation’ among English-speaking people and after cleaning their church of heresy, presenting it for restoration of Catholic communion. (What I call Anglo-Catholicism’s ‘great dream’.) Most thought of this in terms of reunion with the Roman Catholic Church, which was the Church of medieval England and after which most had patterned their local churches’ practices; a very few others thought in terms of joining the Orthodox Churches. And many held to a ‘branch theory’ of Catholicity that emphasized what the various ancient apostolic Churches (RC, Orthodox, Oriental and Assyrian) have in common as more important than their differences, and holding that even post-Reformation Anglicanism was a ‘branch’ of this Catholic Church equal to Rome and Orthodoxy.Priest’s biretta Reconciliation was an ideal held by these, too, but they held that Anglicanism was in essence already Catholic.


Anglo-Catholics believed in community and continuity: continuity with medieval Christendom, with Catholicism, the universal Church. Ironically, a movement now seen as peculiarly British didn’t want to be seen as such. The adoption of Roman Catholic clerical uniforms (cassock, biretta) by clergy in the movement was a visible sign of this: they wanted to identify with the larger Church beyond Britain.


The way it was
by Fr Peter Robinson

I was very much made aware of the old discipline by my first priest who was an old-school Anglo-Catholic. Adoremus in æternum Sanctissimum SacramentumAfter Office, Mass, and breakfast, he would settle down to a two or three hours in the study reading. After lunch he would catch up with the Breviary and then it was the time for visiting. Evening Prayer was read before Dinner, and there were a couple of evenings spent at church during the week. However, in his day there was very little in the way of paperwork to deal with — just the registers, the annual returns and the occasional letter from the Bishop or Archdeacon.


Lovingly built and maintained by Episcopalians in a Gothic style consciously patterned after the medieval Catholic churches of England, Requiem Massthis local church retained the Catholic restorations to worship started in Anglicanism back in the late 1800s, copied largely from the fine Roman Catholic practices of that period: Mass vestments with brocade, gold thread, embroidery and stripes forming a cross on the priest’s back (and Communion was often called ‘Mass’); cassocks and birettas (the pompom’d square hat once worn by Roman Catholic priests); hanging votive lamps; incense; a stone altar with priest and congregation both facing it (the priest’s ‘back to the people’ or the traditional symbolism of common prayer ‘facing east’); genuflecting during the recitation of the Nicene Creed (these people believed in the divinity of Christ and were orthodox Trinitarians!) and ringing bells at the consecration at Mass (they ignored the Articles of Religion and held the Catholic faith about the Eucharist).


Plus there were many uniquely English and medieval borrowings now common in Episcopal churches, such as: altar rails with kneeling Communion; and a choir robed in cassocks and white surplices, standing in stalls facing each other between the chancel arch and the altar. This area, the choir and sanctuary, was set off by a medieval English feature, a grill called a rood screen, complete with crucifix on top — sort of like an Orthodox iconostasis.


Mass was the main service twice every Sunday and on weekdays; supplemented by the common liturgical daily prayer of the Church, the office in the forms of Mattins (Morning Prayer) and Evensong (Evening Prayer or Vespers), and with borrowed Roman Catholic devotions such as ringing the Angelus daily, Benediction and the public recitation of the Rosary once a month.


Having got started learning Catholic doctrine as a child in a conservative parish, old language, chant and ‘eastward-facing’, at 17 when I first walked into a full-blown AC parish I’d come home: my culture turned up several notches to square with my beliefs!


An ocean apart
The modern American vs
modern British experience

English (and for that matter British) and American ACism are different kettles of fish! The American tends to be more externally conservative — if not a Missal man then at least he resembles one in his praxis, maybe doing his Prayer Book’s traditional-language option, Rite I, with Tridentine ceremonial, etc., much like the old American Missal. He likes ye-olde-Englishe style in church. The Englishman either uses the Novus Ordo (modern RC books) or a Catholic-options, modern-language version of the current English book, Common Worship or whatever it is this decade, and actually looks down on the old Prayer Book, often held up in America as a symbolic rallying-point for orthodoxy. Novus use by American Episcopalians is virtually unknown. Anglo-Papalism seems a liturgically modern and English phenom. (The old-school ones are as rare as hen’s teeth everywhere.) And I think their Central and Low traditions differ: American Evangelicals are like English middle-of-the-road; English Evos like Presbyterians or conservative Baptists who happen to have been born Anglican. You don’t see that in the States — such actually become Presbys and Baptists!

How it happened

Three things made Catholic Anglicanism possible:

Ed Pacht writes: [The first Anglo-Catholics in the early 1800s] would have objected strongly to the Missal. They were staunch Prayer Book loyalists, mainly concerned, in liturgical matters, in restoring precise observation of BCP rubrics. (I add: like the old high churchmen going back to the time of King Charles I.) The Tractarians of the 1830s, ’40s and into the ’50s were a theological movement, translating their theology into a precise and reverent use of the liturgy they had. The next generation of Catholics, however, came to feel that the BCP was not fully adequate for this theology and began enriching the Prayer Book liturgy with ceremonial and text from the historic Western (i.e. Roman) tradition. It was a gradual development, coming to flower by the 1880s and ’90s, by which time the Missal form of Anglo-Catholicism had fully developed.


Fr Peter Robinson writes: The Tractarians were strict BCP men, and I guess the the ultimate working out of their position is [Percy] Dearmer’s The Parson’s Handbook (1899) which restores to the BCP Rite a simplified version of the late Sarum ceremonial (RC usage from medieval England, used until the Reformation). (I add: Which is actually what the Prayer Book calls for if you take the Ornaments Rubric literally.) The first Anglo-Catholic Missal was the Directorium Anglicanum, which appeared about 1860. It was claimed that the additions to the BCP order made in that publication came from the Sarum Use. The more Roman school of Anglo-Catholic Ritualism grew up a little later say the 1870s and 1880s, because folks claimed that it was too difficult to revive the Sarum customs. This version of Anglo-Catholicism was codified with the appearence of the Knott (English) Missal somewhere around 1910, and later the Anglican Missal (Society of SS. Peter & Paul) of 1921, the American Missal of 1931 (I add: the Prayer Book with Roman additions and kitted out with Tridentine ceremonial), and the Anglican Missal (American Edition) of 1943.


Paul Goings writes: Dr [Edward] Pusey (one of the Oxford Tractarians) might have objected to the BCP being replaced with another, unauthorized, liturgy, but he was not averse to adding ‘private prayers’ while celebrating, including reciting the entire Roman Canon ‘around’ the Prayer of Consecration from the Prayer Book.


Fr Peter Robinson adds: Dr Pusey towards the end of his life took up with Puseyite notions! From about 1870 onwards he adopted many of the ceremonial customs which had come into vogue with the Ritualists around 1860-65.


Two movements in early 19th-century England were reactions to the ‘Enlightenment’ and Industrial Revolution. Both looked back to medieval times. The first was the Gothic Revival in architecture; the second the theological movement of the Tractarians at Oxford. It was almost inevitable that the two would merge in the second generation of Anglo-Catholics, producing the movement as described here.


Why the great dream died

After college I lived in England, where medieval Catholicism once was a reality and where my college acquaintances had got so much of their inspiration. But for me, being there was a rude awakening that gave clues why the great Anglo-Catholic ideal never was realized.


First, not all that glitters is gold: what happened in Anglicanism as Anglo-Catholicism became larger and more noticeable in church life was not the conversion of most Anglicans to Catholicism but rather a toleration of Catholic trappings and of Anglo-Catholic beliefs as opinion, not essential matters of faith. Some Anglo-Catholics themselves fell for this and essentially gave up their faith while settling for a place in the English (and American) mainstream. Thus today you’ll find lots of Episcopal churches with women ministers and agnostic or a New Age grab-bag of beliefs but also with a smattering of ‘high-church’ trappings, ironically more traditional-looking than what many Roman Catholics do.


Second, the æsthetic (visual, musical) appeal of the movement’s worship — the ‘sugar’ of Catholicism as one priest in the movement once described it — as it evolved in the late 1800s drew a lot of people not committed to the sound Christian teaching of the movement (which included the sacrament of Confession and traditional moral theology, often drawn from Roman manuals). Among these dilettante newcomers were many practising homosexual men, tainting the reputation of Anglo-Catholicism in England to this day, which is understandable. (I’ve seen this weird undercurrent among Anglo-Catholics, including clergy and ordinands, too often myself.)


That said, one must put in a good word for one of the movement’s gifts, the English art of ‘tolerant conservatism’: charity and discretion about people’s failings while at the same time (if you’re Catholic) not making excuses for those vices either. (On this the faith and culture are a good fit with American libertarian beliefs.)


One of the ironies of the movement, and one of its weaknesses, is that although it all hung on Anglicanism’s nearly unique claim among Reformation-era churches to have retained the Catholic apostolic succession of bishops, historically very few Anglican bishops have supported the movement. This led Anglo-Catholics to treat bishops almost as magical ordination machines, ignoring the fact that the bishops themselves didn’t share their Catholic beliefs, and resulting in constant disobedience to the very bishops on whose existence the whole movement stood! This isolation in practice of the sacrament of holy orders outside the larger context of the Church and its life and belief is a notion utterly foreign to the Orthodox and to Roman Catholics. This also made some Anglo-Catholics susceptible to the game-playing of ‘independent’ bishops and priests similarly claiming apostolic ‘lines of succession’ but operating outside any historic or canonical Church.


The Anglican split from Rome could have ended easily during or immediately after the Henrician schism that started it (Henry VIII of six wives’ fame). The 1549 Book of Common Prayer was even still Catholic enough to pass muster as a legitimate variant of the Roman Rite. But after 1552 with King Edward VI’s changes and the heretic Thomas Cranmer proceeding to dismantle the old faith, perhaps this was a lost cause.


The English Reformation never was based on truth: from the Henrician schism to the settlement under Elizabeth I it was nothing but a cynical exercise in Renaissance kingship and early modern nation-building. (The satirical poem ‘The Vicar of Bray’ isn’t far from the truth. Today he’d be the most ‘affirming’ and ‘inclusive’ of them all.)


Today we see the results of this truth while the last of the sincere Anglo-Catholics suffer. Many have converted to Roman Catholicism (the movement has been responsible for a small stream of conversions, such as that of early leader John Henry Newman, from the beginning) only to find in practice things are as wonky and liberal as what they left behind (only without traditional Catholic trappings, ironically) and a few here and there are now Orthodox. A few others have formed their own ever-splintering ‘Continuing Churches’.



When I was last in England, in the architecturally well-preserved medieval city of York, I found there was an old stone parish church literally nearly on every block. (Too many, in fact, for the [Anglican] Church of England today to use! In medieval times in York, everybody could walk to Mass from where they lived.) While staying there I went to a weekday Low Mass at a church I happened to find (it was pretty well hidden), All Saints’, North Street, then a decrepit, practically falling-down medieval building in an alley. Quite a contrast to the well-off Episcopal churches in America. There was a tiny congregation of white-haired, stooped-over parishioners, setting up a statue of Mary on a crumbling niche, kneeling and lighting votive candles. A middle-aged, biretta’d priest came out at the sound of a sacristy bell, and with his aged, vested acolyte (a man, of course) proceeded to celebrate the pre-Vatican II Tridentine Mass translated into English (he didn’t use the Book of Common Prayer, the newer Anglican books or the modernized Roman books at all). Among the last of the sincere Anglo-Catholics.




Long lists of links are perhaps redundant in the age of Google
but here is one if you like. Some highlights:

Project Canterbury
One of the Web’s best Anglican resources
A field guide to Anglican churchmanship
Catholic worship FAQ
Humour: You may be an Anglo-Catholic if...
On the Anglo-Catholic connexion to male homosexuals

With a comprehensive overview of the movement. From a liberal site.
Our Present Duty
By Bishop Frank Weston, from the 1923 Anglo-Catholic Congress: the faith and social justice
Four audio excerpts: BBC interviews with Bishop Trevor Huddleston

From 1966: the hero of anti-apartheid activism in South Africa talks about his faith
More BBC audio: C.S. Lewis reading
Priestesses in the Church?
By C.S. Lewis from God in the Dock
Anglican Papalism
Why ‘home to Rome’ isn’t necessarily the answer today
The Hymnal 1940
Theological Outlines
By the Revd Dr Francis Hall

Book Stall

These are out of print but worth reading if you can get them (try ordering them through the links)
Anglo-Catholicism: A Study in Religious Ambiguity
By W.S.F. Pickering
Marginal Catholics: Anglo-Catholicism: A Further Chapter of Modern Church History
By the Revd Ivan Clutterbuck, a sincere, orthodox old soldier for the faith

Angel with the Name of Jesus
These are available:
Cranmer’s Godly Order
By Michael Davies
Holy Bible, King James (Authorized) Version, 1611
The original Anglican version with the Apocrypha unlike Protestant Bibles
The English Missal
The Roman Mass in classic English: reprint of altar edition from 1958
Anglican Papalism (more)
The movement that produced the English Missal and Anglican Breviary
The King’s Highway
A classic instruction manual
Pocket Manual of Anglo-Catholic Devotion
By Bishop Andrew Burnham

These are in print:
Merrily on High
By the Revd Canon Colin Stephenson
History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland
By William Cobbett
The Panther and the Hind: A Theological History of Anglicanism
By Fr Aidan Nichols, OP
More from Fr Nichols

Of your charity remember the Revd Peter Laister in your prayers.
Jesu, mercy; Mary, pray

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