What is an “Anglo-Catholic” Parish?
Bruce E. Ford

Parishes identified as “Anglo-Catholic” reflect the strong influence of the nineteenth-century Catholic revival in Anglicanism.  This revival was inaugurated by a small group of priests at Oxford University, who were distressed by the low esteem in which most members of the Church of England held the Church, the sacraments, and the ordained ministry, about the slipshod way in which the services of the church were conducted,  about the laxity with which most members of the church practiced their faith, and about prevalent disregard for the poor and afflicted.  Their movement came to be known as the “Oxford Movement”; and because they expressed their views in publications called Tracts for the Times, they came to be called “Tractarians.”  The principal tenets of the Oxford Movement were:

  • That the Church was not a mere human institution but a divine organism, the Body of Christ in the world.
  • That the Church of England was not denomination, founded at the Reformation, but the selfsame branch of the Catholic Church planted by missionaries from Rome and Ireland in the sixth century.
  • That Christ’s promise to lead his disciples into all truth was addressed to the whole Church, not to any single branch of it, and that the only authoritative teaching was that which had been accepted throughout the Church before the break between East and West in 1054.
  • That although the Church of England, reacting to increasingly extravagant claims about papal authority for which Catholic tradition provided little support, had declared itsindependence from Rome in the sixteenth century, it had not cut itself off from communion with the Church of Rome, but that schism had occurred only in 1570 when Pope Pius V had excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I.
  • That although the sixteenth-century Reformers’ rejection of papal authority had been justifiable, the  Reformers’ own teaching could claim no authority except to the extent that it reflected the teaching of the undivided Church. 
  • That the Book of Common Prayer ought not necessarily to be interpreted as its compilers intended, but according to the tradition of the Catholic Church.
  • That the Church of England, unlike the Protestant bodies on the continent, had steadfastly maintained the threefold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons, traceable to the first century, and that its bishops derived their authority not from the state but from Christ and his apostles through the laying on of hands in historic succession.
  • That this threefold ministry was essential to the very being (distinguished from the mere well-being) of the church
  • That the ministry of validly-ordained bishop or priest was essential to the celebration of the Eucharist.
  • That the sacraments were effectual means of grace.
  • That Baptism bestowed a new birth.
  • That Christ was objectively present in the sacrament of his Body and Blood
  • That the Eucharist was an act of sacrificial worship offered to God the Father by Christ through the Church, his Body.         

The sixteenth-century Reformers, denying Catholic teaching about the objective character of Christ’s presence in the sacrament of his Body and Blood and about the sacrificial character of Eucharistic worship, had abolished all ceremonial expressive of this teaching or associated with it.  Interpreting Christ’s sacramental presence in purely subjective terms (i.e., affirming Christ’s presence only in the heart of the faithful communicant) and denying that the Eucharist was a sacrifice, they had devised rites that placed more emphasis on psychological preparation of worshippers for reception of communion than on the Eucharistic action itself

But while the Reformers had succeeded in imposing their liturgy on the English Church, they had been less successful in imposing their theology. Movement away from it had begun during the reign of Elizabeth I.  The leading churchmen of the early seventeenth century, known as the “Caroline Divines,”[1]had espoused theology quite different from that of the Reformers.  Like the Tractarians they had emphasized the continuity of the English Church with the Catholic and Apostolic Church of the ages, the historic succession of bishops as a sign of that continuity, and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  When the monarchy had been restored in 1660 (after the Puritan Revolution and “Commonwealth” period), sees in both England and Scotland had been filled by bishops who followed in the tradition of the Carolines. These bishops, like the Carolines, had believed firmly in the Divine Right of Kings.  When James II had been deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, they had found themselves unable in good conscience to swear allegiance to William and Mary. Hence, they had been called “Non-jurors.”  In time they had been deprived of their sees.  Furthermore, the Episcopal Church of Scotland had been disestablished and suppressed, and the Presbyterian Church had been established in its stead.  The who had replaced the non-jurors in England been worldly and theologically uncommitted.

By 1833 the legacy of the Carolines and Non-jurors was scarcely evident in the Church of England. Oversight by worldly, latitudinarian bishops and Enlightenment skepticism had taken their toll.  Most members viewed the Church as little more than a department of the government.  Services were conducted perfunctorily.  The Eucharist was neglected. Reports indicate that fewer than a dozen persons received Holy Communion at St. Paul’s Cathedral on Easter Day in 1800.[2]

The Tractarians’ efforts to revive and extend the Catholic Tradition in Anglicanism  aroused formidable opposition. Nevertheless, their influence ultimately extended  throughout the whole Anglican Communion.  In some quarters that influence has been superficial; in others it has been profound.  Those who wholeheartedly embrace the movement’s  central tenets are called Anglo-Catholics. 

Because Anglo-Catholics view the Church as an extension of the incarnation, they have historically felt impelled to attend in Jesus’ Name to “the homeless, the hungry, the desolate, and the oppressed.”  In America, where in the nineteenth century Episcopal churches derived most of their income from rental of pews, Anglo-Catholic parishes were among the first to abandon it, opening the way for all to join in their worship.

Once they had embraced Catholic teaching, which the sixteenth-century Reformers had to varying degrees rejected, nineteenth-century Anglo-Catholics began to restore to their worship rites and ceremonies expressive of that teaching.

Catholic worship throughout the ages has employed music, color, light, odors, and gestures—not relying only on words to express the ineffable.  The Reformers, having failed to recognize important implications of the Incarnation, had displayed distrust for the senses, reducing worship as far as possible to words alone.  They had abolished use of lights and incense, eliminated all but a few gestures, and discarded all liturgical vestments except the surplice.

When Anglican authorities assailed nineteenth-century Anglo-Catholic pioneers who restored traditional vesture and ceremonial to worship for departing from prevalent Anglican liturgical norms,  the Catholics held their ground, claiming allegiance to a higher authority—Catholic tradition.  Nowadays, some of the practices they introduced, such as use of altar crosses and candles, are everywhere accepted; but Anglo-Catholic parishes still employ rites and ceremonies in their worship that most other Anglican parishes do not, including the use of incense, holy water, bells, and rich, colored vestments, as well as the use of chant to “utter the voice of the spirit through the flesh and make the spoken word more intensely vital, more sincere, truer.”[3]

If neither the Popes nor the Reformers were infallible, the Tractarians were not, either. Their view of Church history was sometimes simplistic. Their knowledge of liturgical tradition was limited. They sometimes introduced to the liturgy indefensible practices of late origin (such as not administering communion to the people at High Masses) on the mistaken assumption that they were following ancient tradition.

Fortunately, their twentieth-century successors are not bound by their personal views, but only by the Catholic tradition to which they appealed; and because of advances in scholarship, that tradition is better understood today than it was in the nineteenth century.

Under the influence of the twentieth-century Liturgical Movement (which gave impetus to Prayer Book revision throughout the Anglican Communion as well as to unprecedented liturgical reform in the Roman Communion), Anglo-Catholic parishes have in recent decades scrutinized and significantly changed their liturgical practices. Although change has been painful for some, most of these parishes have embraced it, in deference to that same authority to which the Tractarians appealed.

Anglo-Catholics recognize that authoritative Catholic teaching about many matters does not exist. They confidently affirm that Christ is present in the Blessed Sacrament, but they regard all attempts to say how he is present as mere speculation.  They confidently affirm the virginal conception of Jesus; but while some believe that the Virgin Mary was immaculately conceived and that she was bodily assumed into heaven, others do not.  Popes in recent times have proclaimed both the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception and the doctrine of the Bodily Assumption of Mary to be dogma,[4] even  though theologians have debated the about both doctrines for centuries without reaching consensus.[5] Anglo-Catholics regard papal proclamations on unsettled questions not as Catholic teaching but as examples of blatant Roman sectarianism.

Disagreements about polity and ethical issues more often disturb the peace of the Church than disagreements about theological issues.  Two issues that have caused much disagreement in recent decades are the ordination of women and the affirmation of homosexual relationships.  Disagreement about these issues is as prevalent among Anglicans in general as among Anglo-Catholics; but those Anglicans who regard their church as a Protestant denomination do not approach them in the same way that Anglo-Catholics do.  One such group, the Anglican Evangelicals (some of whom proudly call themselves “Reformation Christians”) adhere to the Reformation axiom, sola scriptura (“scripture alone”), and attempt to rely solely upon a literal interpretation of scripture as the basis for their positions on controversial contemporary issues.  Biblical literalists are always selective, however. Some Evangelicals have embraced the ordination of women (in apparent contradiction of St. Paul’s injunction that women should keep silent in church); but nearly all oppose affirmation of homosexual relationships.  While there are few Evangelicals in the American Episcopal Church, in some provinces of the Anglican Communion (particularly in the southern hemisphere) they predominate.  In England they constitute a large enough group to have blocked the kind of “catholicizing” revisions to the Prayer Book that have won acceptance in America.

Another group of Anglicans who view their church as simply one of many Protestant denominations is widely represented in America: the Liberal Protestants.  While they are not tied to the views of the sixteenth-century Reformers, neither are they much influenced by Catholic tradition.  They eschew biblical literalism.  They attach little importance to the Historic Episcopate.  Although they celebrate the Eucharist more frequently than the formerly did, they understand it in largely subjective terms.  They generally have a strong commitment to social justice.  Their first concern is that their church should be inclusive.  They support theological pluralism, and they prefer not to hold up any doctrinal statements—even the creeds—as authoritative.  For this group ordination of women and affirmation of homosexual relationships are simply “justice issues” that ought not to give rise to any debate.

Anglo-Catholics assume that an authoritative settlement of the questions, “Can Holy Orders be conferred upon women?” and “Are homosexual relationships consonant with Christian values?” can emerge only from ecumenical consensus over time.  Some of them believe that their church ought not to ordain women or affirm homosexual relationships until such consensus emerges.  Others hold that opposition to ordination of women and affirmation of homosexual relationships is based primarily on cultural norms that are rapidly changing, and that ecumenical consensus in favor of both is certain to emerge eventually. What Anglo-Catholics on both sides of these issues have in common, however, is their belief that only the Church as a whole can resolve them authoritatively.

The work of the Catholic Revival continues.  It has progressed far.  In most Anglican churches throughout the world the Eucharist is now the principal Sunday service. The American Prayer Book of 1979 reflects the influence of  patristic and early medieval tradition much more than it reflects the influence of the Protestant Reformation.   Nevertheless, more work remains to be done. Liturgy in many Anglican churches seems to focus more on the edification (or entertainment) of mortals than on the worship of God.  Even as the Eucharist has come to be celebrated more frequently, belief in our Lord’s objective presence in the sacrament has waned. Fewer services are conducted reverently.   Contemporary worshippers are often more preoccupied with seeking a spiritual “high” than with offering praise and thanksgiving to God. They believe that any religious exercise that meets the subjective needs of participants is of equal value to the worship offered by Christ in his mystical body, the Holy Catholic Church. In some places members of the clergy introduce unauthorized and theologically defective rites without qualms.  The Anglican Communion’s need for the witness of Anglo-Catholic parishes is as compelling as ever.  These parishes cannot, however, be complacent.  They must continually assess their ministry in light of Catholic tradition; and their understanding of this tradition must continually change and grow.

[1] They are so named because the rose to prominence during the reign of Charles I.  The Latin form of the name “Charles” is “Carolus.”

[2] S. Whitney Hale, “The Next Hundred Years,” The Parish of the Advent in the City of Boston  (Boston: The Parish, 1944), 110.

[3] Winfred Douglas, Church Music in History and Practice  (New York: Scribner, 1937), 7.

[4] Thomas Aquinas, for example, rejected the Immaculate Conception.  The Eastern Orthodox still regard both doctrines as “pious opinions” that Orthodox believers are free to hold or reject. Most Eastern Orthodox theologians reject the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

[5] Pius X proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, and Pius XII proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption in 1950.