Theology & Spirituality

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anglo-Catholicism: Defining a Movement and Its Continued Place in the Church

Those new to Anglicanism cannot be blamed for finding its present-day landscape overly complicated. Even for those who have been part of the tradition for years, there remains some confusion and debate about Anglicanism’s identity. Since its tumultuous formation, the Church of England has consisted of a dynamic tension between Catholic and Reformed factions which makes it what it is: at various times in her history, the Anglican Church has adapted to whichever group gained power but both Catholic and Reformed aspects have virtually always been present in some way or another. 

As Anglicanism has aged and expanded to cover more parts of the globe than just England, things have gotten even more complicated. Given the nature of Anglicanism as, originally, a national Church, there have been a plethora of movements within its walls that have influenced its shape: Puritanism, Methodism, Tractarianism, Anglo-Catholicism, and many others have contributed to today’s Anglicanism. Therefore, it is quite necessary to work from precise definitions. Ideally, making proper distinctions aids us in having a more fruitful dialogue in intra-Anglican discussions. 

This particular article is interested in developing a more precise definition of Anglo-Catholicism. Especially in America, the term has become so expansive as to incorporate often contradictory theologies and practices. This is, of course, not to say that such diversity is itself problematic, but rather that more precise terminology is based on accurate history and enables better discussions. For a more expansive introduction to Anglo-Catholicism, “What is Anglo-Catholicism?” by Fr. Myles Hixson is a superb starting point. In this post, I will place Anglo-Catholicism within the history of Anglicanism, give a brief overview of the Anglo-Catholic Congresses, and re-package a system for categorizing Anglican “camps.” 

Anglicanism: A Brief and Confusing History

Anglicanism’s beginnings are somewhat imprecise. In the past, some have sought to find a proto-Anglicanism in the first few centuries after the death of Christ. While there was certainly ecclesiastical organization in the English Isles, not enough is known about it to ground an entire expression of the faith. Such attempts end up creating a Church in the image of their historiographers. As historian Mark Chapman remarks, “history matters to Anglicans, but that history is often the product of a creative mind rather than a scientific discipline” (2).[1]

 It is much more plausible to mark the beginning of Anglicanism at the Reformation—specifically, the Elizabethan Settlement which began in 1558. Some may appeal to the Henrician or Edwardian periods prior to Elizabeth and, while each certainly had tremors felt beyond their formal chronologies, it is problematic to identify either as the founding of the Anglican Church. First, they are both incredibly different; Henry’s Church issued the Six Articles (1539) which enshrined many Roman Catholic doctrines (transubstantiation, priestly celibacy, and auricular confession were all maintained) that were later eschewed by Edward’s much more Reformed regime. Second, under the reign of Mary I, the English Church was brought back under the jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff, even if only for a short time. A part of this temporary reconciliation was the absolution of the English Church, by the Pope’s representative, of any ecclesial sins committed under the reigns of Henry and Edward. While the Settlement was more tolerant and less radically Reformed than what had occurred during the reign of Edward, there can be little doubt that it was a thoroughly Protestant phenomenon influenced by Luther and, to a lesser extent, Calvin.[2]

 In the 17th century, the Caroline Divines emerged as a prominent group in the Church of England, and they would contribute substantially to the development of Anglican identity. Individuals like Lancelot Andrewes, Thomas Ken, Jeremy Taylor, William Laud, and King Charles I helped develop what could be thought of as a “Counter-Reformation” to some Calvinist post-Settlement developments, while simultaneously encouraging an approach to worship that might be thought of as “High Church” based on their choices in vestments and ceremony. 

With the rise of post-Enlightenment modernity, the 19th-century Church of England saw the rise of the Oxford Movement, which sought to oppose liberalizing tendencies in the Church. Led by eventual convert to Roman Catholicism John Henry Newman alongside figures like E.B. Pusey and John Keble, the movement posited that the Church of England is, with Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy, one of three valid branches of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. On these grounds, they attempted to persuade their peers that Anglicanism was self-consciously a via media—with Rome on one side and the Protestant Reformers on the other. 

 Much as the Founding Fathers could not have existed without the Pilgrims, Jamestown, and other pre-Revolutionary developments, so Anglo-Catholicism could not exist without the Caroline Divines and the Tractarians. However, as with historical movements, there are points of continuity and discontinuity that develop as movements and traditions evolve. It lacks precision to call the Pilgrims our Founding Fathers, or to call the Founding Fathers Pilgrims. Similarly, in order to understand what Anglo-Catholicism is, we have to trace one more development: The Anglo-Catholic Congress Movement.   

An Anglo-Catholic Identity: The Anglo-Catholic Congress Movement 

Building on the work of the Oxford Movement and the subsequent advances of Ritualism, the Anglo-Catholic Congress Movement of the 1920s and 30s fomented what we now call Anglo-Catholicism. While there were more events which contributed to the vitality of the Anglo-Catholic movement, the first four Congresses are of particular importance. The First Congress of 1920 served to galvanize those who held Catholic convictions in the Church of England. George Parsons remarked in Living Church that “It is no exaggeration to say that the Anglo Catholic Congress has afforded to the inhabitants of the metropolis an object lesson in the way of stately ceremonial, with fervor and enthusiasm on the part of its supporters, such as has not been witnessed since mediaeval days.” 

The Second Congress occurred in 1923 and focused on carving out a more defined theology for Anglo-Catholicism, as K.E. Kirk spoke on the Incarnation’s importance in the Church’s sacramental life, J.K. Mozley expounded on Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and its effects, E. Selwyn extolled the sacrament of Baptism, and Bishop Charles Gore criticized unchecked capitalism and urged his audience toward more humane social arrangements (Gunstone, Lift High the Cross, 130-31). G.A. Studdert-Kennedy offered four practical ways forward on the issue of social teaching: (1) teach and preach the social dimension of the Gospel and Sacraments; (2) preach on social questions without fear; (3) pray for the world; and (4) display the rich unity of the Church that cuts across lines of nationality and race, sex, class, and other identity markers (Gunstone 134). Much like their Oxford Movement predecessors, the Congress was bent on opposing modernism as well, with many papers presented on that theme. 

The Third Congress, which occurred in 1927, is referred to as the Eucharistic Congress. As the name suggests, the Lord’s Supper was a prominent theme. The well-known English writer Evelyn Underhill spoke on the Sacraments and their relationship to mystical theology. Discussions on the nature of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and the Eucharistic sacrifice were undertaken by Kirk and Selwyn, respectively, while Edwyn Hoskyns rooted Anglo-Catholic Eucharistic theology in the New Testament Church and A.E.J. Rawlinson explored the link between Eucharistic theology and pneumatology (Gunstone 186-88). 

The final Anglo-Catholic Congress took place in 1930. Because discussions centered on revising The Book of Common Prayer, the fourth meeting of the Congress met with some resistance. Those critical of Anglo-Catholicism wanted the Congress to have a more limited say in liturgical modifications. The topic for the conference still remained “above the fray,” at least in theory, as it focused on ecclesiology—specifically the four marks of the Church (one, holy, catholic, and apostolic). On this topic, the true ecumenical tone of the Congress showed forth, as many speakers like W. Knox, H.F.B. Mackay, L.S. Thornton, and others offered positive assessments about the faith of other traditions, including Nonconformists (Gunstone 255). While participation with other groups was encouraged, compromise on essential Catholic dogmas could not be compromised by a hasty zeal for reunification. While G.D. Rosenthal acknowledged the good in the desire for reunification with other branches of the faith, he offered his peers in the Congress a warning, “in seeking visible unity we are but seeking the outwards expression of a spiritual union which in God’s eyes exists—unity in which Nonconformists are included…intercommunion as a step towards organic unity, and all the fantastic flirtation which is going on in some places, seems to me to be mere sentimentalism devoid of philosophy” (Gunstone 256).

While Anglo-Catholics may differ in certain ways amongst themselves, Kenneth Kirk provides five Catholic truths which were emphasized by the Congress Movement: (1) Sacraments; (2) social mission; (3) holiness; (4) the Church’s autonomy on adjudicating doctrinal and moral issues; and (5) independence from the State (Gunstone 345). While only 1-3 were actualized, the Movement has continued to impact the landscape of Anglicanism today. 

Categorizing Anglo-Catholicism

In his wonderful history of the Anglo-Catholic Congress movement, John Gunstone provides a “color” acronym to categorize the various modes of Anglo-Catholicism and adjacent camps, based on the old dictum “Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain” (33-35). He remarks that this a “cartoon categorization,” and it is true that there can be more nuance in Anglicanism. People rarely fit in nice neat categories. Yet, I would argue that such a framing of Anglican identities is a helpful tool, especially in the United States where we are often disconnected from the history of Anglicanism. Using the colors of the rainbow, Gunstone lists the characteristics of the various schools from most Anglo-Catholic to what we might think of as low church. I have updated it slightly to account for liturgical and ecumenical advances.  

Red describes staunch Anglo-Catholics who long for communion with Rome. They see no real substantive difference between themselves and their Roman brethren except momentary separation by historical accident. They would emphasize the celibacy of clergy, desiring such to be mandatory or at least highly encouraged. The title “Father” would be the expected default title for priests. Liturgically, they would use the Gregorian Canon of the Mass and not use the Book of Common Prayer. Confession and fasting would be obligatory prior to Mass. Invocation of saints would be practiced in public services.  

Orange Anglicans are similar to Red, except they would use the American Rite in the Missal—which supplements the Book of Common Prayer with Catholic liturgical tradition. They would also be laxer about married clergy, though they still might view celibate ministers as first-class priests standing above their married counterparts. 

Yellow refers to those who would stress the Anglican in Anglo-Catholic. These Anglicans insist on the errant nature of Roman Catholic theology based on claims of papal infallibility. They see no real distinction between celibate and married ministers, and celebrate the freedom of Anglican ministers to marry. They primarily use the Book of Common Prayer with some additions from the Missal. Private confession is advertised, but not required. 

While Red, Orange, and Yellow Anglicans can all trace their identities to members of the Anglo-Catholic Congress, the final four colors really cannot be categorized with the label Anglo-Catholic. The Green Anglicans might be best described as High Church Tractarians. They describe themselves as Prayer Book Catholics, performing High Church liturgies with The Book of Common Prayer. They reserve sacrament for the sick as needed. Instead of public services with Eucharistic adoration and invocation of saints, they would prefer such devotions to be done privately. Confession may be taught in confirmation classes and emphasized during various church seasons like Shrovetide.  

Blue and indigo are varieties of High Church Anglicans. These are more likely to call the Sunday service “Holy Communion” instead of “Mass.” They would be uncomfortable with acts of devotion outside of The Book of Common Prayer and would not encourage strict fasting practices in relation to the reception of the Eucharist. Confession is offered discreetly, particularly in conjunction with the Sacrament of Unction. They eschew the title Father as too Roman Catholic, preferring terms like Pastor or Rector. 

The final color is Violet, referring to Anglicans who emphasize the established nature of the Anglican Church. They might offer a spoken Communion service early, but the main Sunday activity is Morning Prayer with one Sunday set aside for a sung Communion. These would effectively be considered Low Church by many. 


Personally, I find myself somewhere between Yellow and Orange. But the point is that such color categories are markers that can help orient the onlooker to the ever-complicated world of Anglicanism. They should not be used as a means of exclusion or denigration. For all our intramural debates, there is nothing wrong with being a Violet, Red, or any other kind of Anglican. The purpose of such labels is not for one group to lord over another, but instead to increase precision in theological discourse. By having well-defined lines, we can better communicate with one another. 

In particular, mapping out Anglican identity helps us better understand the Anglo-Catholicism that is descended from that Anglo-Catholic Congress movement. The Movement itself has led to mixed results. It has certainly ensured a pocket of robust Anglo-Catholic ministers, parishes, and dioceses, as exemplified by groups like the Society of the Holy Cross. However, as mentioned, the Congress Movement can only really be said to have reached 3 of its 5 stated objectives. In reality, as Gunstone observed, the result of the Movement on the larger Anglican Church was to increase the number of Blue Anglicans (345). While their compelling witness to Anglo-Catholicism may have left some Reformed and Evangelical ministers feeling discontent, many of those outside Anglo-Catholic circles settled into a more middle-of-the-road position. 

In the present, Anglicanism can best be described as chaotic. The various colors listed above still exist but another more political dimension has been added to the discussion as the Anglican Communion has been ripped apart by strife between liberals and conservatives. The political divides and the divides around churchmanship are not correlative: there are very progressive Anglo-Catholics and conservative ones; there are conservative Reformed Anglicans and ones who would be better described as liberal. Sadly, it is unlikely these divides will be healed anytime soon. 

Yet, even in a time like ours, Anglo-Catholicism still has a positive role to play. Its emphasis on liturgy (lex orandi, lex credendi), the Sacraments, ecclesiology, personal holiness, and healthy ecumenism can act as a prophetic voice to the broader Anglican world. In our worship, we look to Christ, of whose mystical body we are members. We are bound together with all other Christians by virtue of our participation in the Sacraments and need to “live as becomes it,” by being conformed to the image of Christ. This is the gift Anglo-Catholicism brings to the Church. 

[1] I disagree with Chapman’s emphasis on the scientific nature of historical studies. For a discussion of this, see Andrew Louth’s great book Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology.

[2] For an extended discussion on this, see Richard Laurence’s sermons An Attempt to Illustrate Those Articles of the Church of England, Which the Calvinists Improperly Consider As Calvinistical.

Wesley Walker

Wesley Walker

Wesley is from Raleigh, North Carolina. He went to Liberty University for his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Biblical Studies where he was also on the debate team and is working on his STM at Nashotah House Theological Seminary. He currently resides in Annapolis, Maryland and is a priest at St. Paul's Anglican Church (APA). He lives with his wife Caroline, their son Jude, and their dog. He co-hosts The Sacramentalists Podcast.

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