Anglo-Catholic Renewal: Need and Vision
In the early 1830s, the British Parliament infringed on the Church’s ecclesial authority through the Whig party’s Church Temporalities Act (1833). This legislation attacked the Church of Ireland through restructuring, and ultimately decreased the number of bishoprics. These governmental oversteps served as a catalyst for John Keble’s sermon “National Apostasy,” preached at St. Mary’s, Oxford, where he urged his fellow clergymen to submit to the Church rather than the state—particularly where the state was misguided. His sermon kick-started what is now known as the Oxford Movement, an Anglican group intent on restoring the catholic character of the English Church. Keble, along with John Henry Newman, Edward Bouverie Pusey, Richard Froude, Robert Wilberforce, William Palmer, Charles Marriott, and others launched a scathing critique of modernism and its corrosive influence on the Church of England while simultaneously advocating for a return to a pre-modern Patristic faith. The method for disseminating their message was primarily preaching and writing. The Tracts for the Times (1833-1841), a series of theological treatises, were instrumental in establishing the contours of Anglo-Catholic theology. Sadly, the movement lost momentum when John Henry Newman, its figurehead, converted to Roman Catholicism—leaving the less charismatic, but equally brilliant, E.B. Pusey in charge.
Despite Newman’s departure, the Oxford Movement’s impact has left its imprint on Anglicanism, even while evoking stark opposition from Reformed and Evangelical Anglicans. Classical Anglo-Catholicism maintained a robust intellectual tradition until sometime in the mid-1900s through figures like Gregory Dix, A.G. Herbert, Lionel Thornton, Austin Farrer, and others. Perhaps the crown jewel of this era was E.L. Mascall, who prophetically discerned the trajectory of modernist theology and staunchly stood opposed to it. By the 1970s, Mascall’s prediction of the “loss of the Christian mind” was proved correct in Anglicanism, with the Episcopal Church’s ordination of women and the revision of the Book of Common Prayer. Such radical theological shifts caused many Anglo-Catholics to separate from the Episcopal Church, signing The Affirmation of St. Louis in 1977 and forming what is now called the Continuum, composed of the Anglican Catholic Church, Anglican Province of America, the Anglican Church of America, and the Diocese of the Holy Cross.
Unfortunately, since the 1970s, Anglo-Catholicism as a movement within Anglicanism has been relegated to irrelevancy. While its impact can still be felt in the liturgy and theology of the Church, its distinctive identity is fading. Anglo-Catholic preaching and writing have sharply declined, with a few notable exceptions. What is behind this decay? There are two causes: external forces and internal issues.
Externally, there are three reasons why the traditional Anglo-Catholic voice has been shut down: modernizing tendencies, American Christianity’s rejection of tradition, and co-option. Modernizing tendencies in American culture have influenced the Church to take the focus away from the Word and Sacrament, replacing them with a form of Pelagian activism. This activist problem is not unique to Mainline churches that have become more progressive, but also exists in conservative churches of the Moral Majority variety. This is further compounded by American Christianity’s tendency to reject tradition. The rise of the megachurch, the niche Christian music industry, and the dismissal of sacraments in favor of dramatic experiences create hostile conditions for a movement like Anglo-Catholicism—though, to be fair, they do present Anglo-Catholics with an opportunity to be an alternative to pallid evangelicalism. However, it is difficult for Anglo-Catholicism to take advantage of such opportunities because of co-option: one of the unintended consequences of the Oxford Movement’s success was an influx of self-identified “Anglo-Catholics” who retained the form of High Church liturgy but lacked Anglo-Catholic theological values, eventually pumping out the very modernism the forefathers of the movement critiqued.
Sadly, Anglo-Catholicism is not a passive victim in all this. Many of its practitioners have unintentionally contributed to its relegation. While maintaining theological clarity and orthodox dogma are vital to the health of the Church, a balance must be struck where strict polemicism is avoided. There has to be room for constructive conversations on topics being discussed by the larger Christian community. Given the external factors prevalent in American Christianity, Anglo-Catholicism presents a prophetic voice which encourages all Christians to return to the teachings of the Church. Sadly, there have been fewer and fewer Anglo-Catholics attempting to engage in those discussions. Further, Anglo-Catholic preaching suffers from this polemical tendency. Bashing other denominations too often characterizes the Anglo-Catholic pulpit. If Anglo-Catholicism cannot articulate a positive vision of itself to parishioners in the pews, it becomes unsustainable. Finally, Anglo-Catholics have removed themselves from many of the conversations in the larger public square of Christianity. This is a natural tendency of its Benedict Option posture, but it remains unproductive to live in such an insular echo-chamber that we cede our voice in the broader theological discussion.
The irrelevance of orthodox Anglo-Catholicism is tragic precisely because Anglo-Catholicism’s fundamental theses are so necessary for the needs of the Anglican Church. So how is this addressed moving forward? Nothing short of a great re-evangelization by Anglo-Catholics will suffice. In particular, this means finding ways to bring its message to the larger culture. The past 40 years have served as a type of exile for the Continuing churches to work on maintaining their catholic heritage. Now, for the sake of Anglo-Catholicism and the broader Church, is the time for its attention to shift outward.
Like the monasteries which re-evangelized a post-barbarian world, Anglo-Catholicism must re-evangelize swaths of the Church. This must be done through a renaissance: preaching needs to again stress the Word and Sacraments as the center of Christian life, books must be written and podcasts produced which bring Anglo-Catholic theology to bear on contemporary issues and discussions. Anglo-Catholicism is the theology the Church needs. Will we make it heard?