Biblical Catholicism: Rethinking the Anglo-Catholic Movement

IMG_0735When I was in seminary, one of my professors, a staunch British Calvinist, made the off-hand remark one day that Anglo-Catholicism could not be defended from an historical perspective. The point seemed so obvious to him that he did not feel the need to explore the matter any further, so I cannot be absolutely certain of his meaning, but if I were to guess, I would imagine that he meant that the understanding of the Church of England that was articulated by the Oxford Movement and those who came after is entirely incongruent with the Anglican Reformation and the Church of England’s history between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. I have found that this is a common assumption amongst modern Anglo-Calvinists. They argue that the Reformed nature of the Anglican formularies precludes Catholic theology, despite the fact that it was the Calvinist party which originally found many of those same formularies odious when they were first introduced. Moreover, they accuse Catholic Anglicans of a kind of special pleading when it comes to interpreting the formularies, arguing that Catholics pick and choose, twisting the meaning of words to fit their previously held theological commitments, as if this is not exactly what Calvinist Anglicans today do as well.

Back to Basics

The Catholic revival started out, much like the Evangelical movement in Anglicanism, as a reform movement that sought to bring Anglicans back to their roots. Anglo-Catholicism did not simply fall out of the sky. It was preceded by more than two centuries of classical High Church thinkers and writers who planted the seeds for it, from Hooker to Laud to the Non-Jurors to Cosin to Joseph Butler and John Jebb. In America, Samuel Seabury and John Henry Hobart laid much of the ground work. None of those figures would have described themselves in the same terms that the Oxford Fathers used, but they set a trajectory which early Anglo-Catholics believed they were following. Many of the great lights of the Anglo-Catholic movement revered their High Church predecessors. Pusey can hardly write five sentences without quoting from one of them. This is not to deny that they did a good bit of picking and choosing, as we all do. But, right or wrong, the Oxford Fathers and the century of figures who came after them believed that they were the true inheritors of what the Anglican Reformation was meant to achieve. Far from being innovators, they saw their essential task as one of continuity.

Newman’s Ghost

So why do we not think of them that way? The answer, I think, is largely to be found in the shadow that John Henry Newman continues to cast over the Church. It has been more than a century and a half since Newman’s defection to the Church of Rome, but the effects continue to be felt. Newman’s was by no means the only voice of the Oxford Movement, but he was among the most talented and brilliant of the Oxford Fathers and his voice was the strongest and loudest. His creeping doubts, which eventually led to his conversion, were unwittingly sewn into the DNA of the Anglo-Catholic movement, not unlike the way that Luther’s personal story became the focal point for the development of Lutheranism. Every Catholic Anglican since his departure has had to wrestle with the Newman question. If a man as convinced as Newman had such doubts, why should I be any different? If he realized he was in the wrong place, and he wrote half the tracts defending my position, perhaps I am not standing on as firm a foundation as I thought.

The siren song of Rome, and in more modern times Eastern Orthodoxy, has been a constant burden for the movement. The desire among many Anglicans to prove our catholicity has motivated a kind of constant looking over our shoulder to see what Rome is doing and then imitating it. The development of what some have come to label “Anglo-Papalism” is a symptom of this. Anglo-Papalism is everything that nineteenth century Evangelicals feared and accused early Anglo-Catholics of being, a movement that has completely abandoned the Reformation and the Anglican formularies in favor of Romanism. It is this wing of the Anglo-Catholic movement, at least in Britain, that has been slowly making its way into the Roman Church’s new “Personal Ordinariates” where they are “entering full communion with the [Roman] Catholic Church while maintaining distinctive elements of their theological, spiritual, and liturgical patrimony.” One has to wonder exactly what these Anglican distinctives are, given that many of the priests entering into the Ordinariates have spent their whole ministries celebrating out of the Roman Missal and trying to get as far away from anything distinctly Anglican as possible.

Thoroughly Catholic, Thoroughly Non-Roman

This is what the movement has become in some places, and it has given rise to a caricature that is sometimes applied to all Anglican Catholics, but this is not what the Catholic movement was meant to be, nor is it what it has to be today. The writing of men like Keble and Pusey, John Mason Neale, Richard Meux Benson, and the American Charles Chapman Grafton point in a very different direction. Rather than looking wistfully towards Rome, these were men who were eager to see Anglicanism recover her own first principles and lay claim to the true catholicity that the Elizabethan Settlement sought to recover. Far from trying to emulate Rome, Anglo-Catholics sought to recover patristic Catholicism. Their model as not the nineteenth century Roman Church but the Church revealed in the writings of the early Church Fathers. In some cases, this led them to write things about Roman Catholicism that are far more vitriolic than anything that ever came from a Puritan’s pen. But their primary task, as they saw it, was not the criticism of Rome or of anybody else, but the building up of the Anglican Church through a recovery of Catholic life. They founded monasteries and schools, took positions leading churches in the poorest of slums, and went about the business of re-centering the life of the Church back upon the mystery of the Incarnation and the miracle of the Lord’s real and true presence in our worship in the gift of His most precious Body and Blood.

In this new series on Biblical Catholicism, I hope to share with you all some of my re-discovering of the great Anglo-Catholic saints of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the ways in which they appealed to the centuries of Anglican High Churchmen who came before them to make their case. But my goal is not simply to revive and reclaim a patch of history. What I think these folks have to offer us is something much more vital. They were, in many cases, pioneers, carrying with them a spirit of adventure as well as a deep dedication to the principles they held. They were willing to be ostracized, to be inhibited, to lose their callings and their status, sometimes even to be thrown in prison, all for the sake of helping people to experience union with the living Lord Jesus. They were willing to risk it all for the sake of uncovering the pearl of great price and offering it anew to the world. This is the same spirit that I believe we need to find again in the Church today, not just in the Anglican Communion but throughout the Holy Catholic Church. We need a break from the incessant church politics and the handwringing over our losses to the culture. Truth, beauty, worship, holiness – these are the things that truly matter and that can truly invigorate us. These are the things that a truly biblical, truly Anglican Catholicism can give us.

Photo of Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in Germantown, Pennsylvania, taken by Fr. Jonathan. Feel free to use, but a credit that leads back to this site is much appreciated.

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21 Responses to Biblical Catholicism: Rethinking the Anglo-Catholic Movement

  1. abbotpatrick says:

    Fr Jonathan, thank you for the very well written article. My heart resonated with your words.

  2. Derek Moore says:

    I am very excited by this coming series. Thank you Fr. johnathan.

  3. JessicaHof says:

    Looking forward hugely to this Fr Jonathan – a great introduction which leaves me wanting more – thank you.

  4. Pingback: Catholic but not Roman | All Along the Watchtower

  5. Leo OBrien says:

    Truly cogent expose’ of true Anglo-catholicism….I look forward to more of the same….

  6. Dan Crawford says:

    I am wondering how one can be thoroughly Catholic while being thoroughly non-Roman. You cannot be thoroughly Catholic without being Roman, or Orthodox it seems to me. There might even be Catholic elements in some aspects of the Reformation though the Reformers managed to toss most of them out within the first three generations.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Well, I’ll be talking some about what it means to be Catholic and why that is an important thing to be. But in short, given that you’ve just said that one can be thoroughly Catholic being either Roman or Orthodox, you’ve already admitted one of the basic premises of Anglo-Catholicism, that being Catholic is not the property of belonging to this or that jurisdiction but of holding the fullness of faith and being in communion with the historical Church.

  7. JonnyG says:

    As part of the BCP anniversary our church celebrated a simple traditional ‘north side’ communion on a central table, which I had never seen before. It was very powerful. How much ritualism does ‘High Anglicanism’ really need? I look forward to finding out…

  8. Derrick says:

    Fr. Jonathan

    I believe your presentation of Anglo-Catholicism is good but a bit one sided. Recently, I took a serious look at Walter Walsh’s “The Secret History of the Oxford Movement”. While I freely admit that I am evangelical, I do not let that keep me from reading both sides. I feel to ignore the whole picture is to keep oneself narrow minded. You may disagree with many of Walters conclusions, but you have access to the letters/writings of the leaders of the Oxford Movement that the public had never seen. This allows you to decide for yourself. It can be read on

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Derrick,

      I’ve not read the specific book you mention, but I’m certainly aware of a great deal of polemical writing against Anglo-Catholicism in the latter half of the nineteenth century. As with most historical movements, the picture is complicated and never as easily dissected as people think. Like you, I try to take in all sides of an argument. Certainly, there are flaws in some of the ways in which Anglo-Catholicism developed, just as there were in the Evangelical movement. However, by and large I think that the writings of figures like the ones I mention above vindicates the view that they saw their work as continuing out of that done by the Caroline Divines and even before. Project Canterbury has a lot of the source material for free, as is also true of Google Books. If you haven’t already done so, I’d invite you to read, for instance, Pusey’s book on the 39 Articles.

      • Fr. Jonathan, isn’t there an issue as to whether or not particular aspects of the theology of certain later Caroline Divines represent a departure from the Augustinianism of the English Reformers?

      • Fr. Jonathan says:

        Hi Christopher,

        There are differences, certainly. And in some cases, there’s outright dissension. George Bull, for instance, rejected the doctrine of justification. By and large, though, the seventeenth century divines built on the basis of what the Elizabethan Settlement provided them. Much like the early Anglo-Catholics, who saw themselves as continuing the work of the divines, the divines believed they were continuing the work of the reformers. There is both continuity and evolution. Anglicanism is historic, but not static.

      • J. Random Lurker says:

        Greetings, Fr. Jonathan.
        I am not really familiar with most of this literature; by “Pusey’s book” do you mean “The Articles Treated on in Tract 90” or some other? Thanks in advance,

  9. Robbie says:

    Very excited for this!

    Do you anticipate discussing the Anglo-Catholic Socialist movement as well, particularly Duckworth, Headlam, and of course Maurice? I ask because I think one of the most fascinating aspects of Anglo-Catholicism is the social condition in which it grew. As you note above, “they founded monasteries and schools, took positions leading churches in the poorest of slums, and went about the business of re-centering the life of the Church back upon the mystery of the Incarnation and the miracle of the Lord’s real and true presence in our worship in the gift of His most precious Body and Blood.” It seems to me that our cultural context is getting ready for another Anglo-Catholic movement of sorts (young people rediscovering the sacraments, the social nature of salvation vs. individualism, tradition vs. strict Biblicism, etc.).

    • Leo OBrien says:

      Very interesting statement….we are living in a militant post-Christian world. Nature abhors a vacuum. I believe that vacuum of the zeitgest is ripe for that light of an orthodox Anglo-catholicism….

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      I don’t have any specific plans for touching on the Anglo-Catholic Socialist movement, but perhaps it will come up. We shall see. Generally speaking, my goal isn’t to do some kind of comprehensive survey of the movement’s history but rather to use elements within that history, in conversation with the earlier Anglican tradition, to talk about how how Catholic piety, practice, and faith still has something beautiful to give to the Church today. I’m thinking of this as less scholastic and more practical and poetic.

  10. “There is both continuity and evolution.” Therein, however, lies the rub.

  11. Pingback: Why I Am a Catholic Christian | Digital-Age Discipleship

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