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Anglicanism: A Reformed Catholic Tradition by Gerald Bray


Anglicanism: A Reformed Catholic Tradition

Gerald Bray Lexham, pp.128, $23.99

Late in his life, the sometime Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey described what he considered the tragedy of John Henry Newman’s defection to the Catholic Church. If Newman had just committed himself to being more Anglican, it never would have happened. But Newman explained in the Apologia how being more or less Anglican, or becoming some particular kind of Anglican that had once been or had not yet come to be, is not finally related to the truth of Christ and his Church. He called Anglicanism “the great theory, which is so specious to look upon, so difficult to prove, and so hopeless to work.”

Astonishingly, Gerald Bray does not mention Newman even once in his new book, Anglicanism: A Reformed Catholic Tradition, which begins with the provocative but basically true claim that Anglicanism was invented in the nineteenth century. Anglican worship has typically been so dignified, its peculiar parochial life so well known from English letters, and its intellectual influence so out of keeping with its institutional strength, that we may be forgiven for assuming the Church of England and its descendants were born with more-than-Protestant genes and have remained rare and beautiful birds in the religious landscape. Instead, there were serious squabbles among early Anglicans, but there was also broad agreement that the Catholic religion of old was gone forever. No “ism” was needed to explain the situation. But as England’s national religion adapted to Enlightenment thought and expanded beyond its own borders along with its commercial and military influence, the tenuous Protestant consensus weakened and finally broke. The mythos of Anglicanism, or better yet, Anglicanisms, was born. 

For many high churchmen of the Victorian era, Anglicanism was a branch of the one true Church—a middle way aspiring to patristic comprehensiveness. Newman himself used the infant term “Anglicanism” in 1838, and seven years later, he walked out on the baby which he had helped raise to a certain degree of maturity. To the modernist Charles Gore, Anglicanism was a providentially ancient and contemporary house in which new science and new ethics could live in harmony with a new understanding of the creeds. In the interwar period William Temple found Anglicanism well-suited to Hegelianism. The mid-century mystic Martin Thornton defended Anglicanism as native English spirituality that comprehended real Catholicity before and after Rome came and went. For Ramsey, it was the vanguard of an inevitable ecumenical conquest, and for the evangelical John Stott it was a more subdued (i.e., British) medium for revivalism in the spirit of Billy Graham. The list goes on, right down to the most popular option in the United States, the unabashed “Catholicism Lite” of Robin Williams’s comedy routine: “all of the pageantry, none of the guilt.” 

Bray himself admits that “there is no Anglican understanding of theology at all,” a deficiency that the great Anglican thinker F.D. Maurice considered a gift. C.S. Lewis famously spun this as “mere Christianity,” a theory I used to like a whole lot. But there is no point upon which a serious Anglican can rest content as a “mere” anything. If there is any common Anglican experience, it is the shared one of always being on the move, headed somewhere else—towards differing visions of fullness that may require or reject a visible Church to wildly varying degrees. R.R. Reno, following Newman’s line of thought, said of his own departure from Anglicanism: “I was loyal only to my theory.” Others feel the same way, and in practice no theory demands or deserves anyone else’s loyalty.

This, I think, is the problem with Bray’s attempt at retelling the origin story. Anglicanism may indeed have had a Protestant birth, but few Anglican thinkers would find hope in a return to the supposed heyday of Reformed English piety. The Thirty-Nine Articles, irrelevant to everyone except a handful of theorists, including observant evangelicals, are a hodgepodge: predestination, purgatory, private property; part patristic, part Lutheran, part Calvinist, and part English civil law. If this seems like a shaky foundation upon which to build not only a national ecclesial community but a global communion, well, it was. Throughout the church’s history, the Articles have rarely been enforced or officially interpreted, and when they have been (as in the Gorham Judgment of 1850, which formally denied that the Church of England taught baptismal regeneration), the results tended to be uninspiring. In my days as an Episcopal priest, my Anglo-Catholic cohort followed a generations-old tradition of wearing cassocks with thirty-nine buttons, leaving open various numbers that we particularly loathed. Chief among them was Article XXVIII, “Of the Lord’s Supper,” which denies transubstantiation and prohibits benediction, adoration, and reservation of the Blessed Sacrament. If I wanted all that Catholic stuff in my Anglicanism, who was going to stop me from having it? I was my own pope.

Newman himself made a brilliant but almost comical attempt to reconcile the Articles with an imaginary non-Roman Catholicism in the ninetieth and final installment of the famous Tracts for the Times, which appeared in 1839. While it would be more than half a decade before he finally converted, it was the imbroglio that followed its publication as much as anything else that would lead him to accept what he had long feared—that his conception of Anglicanism as a via media was untenable, and that the patristic Church of the fourth century was the Roman Catholic Church of the sixteenth and the nineteenth. 

Bray seeks to reset the debate, arguing that the departures from post-Reformation English Christianity’s Reformed legacy are precisely what most people consider to be Anglicanism, and therein lies the problem. But Bray’s Paleo-Anglicanism is just another idea, and the ecumenically minded Catholic must pounce on it with particular ferocity. Perhaps there never would have been an Oxford Movement in the nineteenth century if not for the thwarting of a fully Reformed ecclesial revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But there was! Perhaps Anglicans should never have fooled around with a thing called Anglicanism at all. But they did! And the many attempts at fostering a Catholic identity for Anglicans—or at least, something more than the original Protestant identity—have been providential for the universal Church. 

The aforementioned “Catholicism Lite” of the ever-shrinking Anglican presence in the West is easy to ridicule. But it is nothing short of a miraculous redemption of the historical narrative that the word “Catholicism” would be allowed anywhere near the word “Anglican” today, let alone taken for granted as an essential component of Anglican identity. Despite a generally loosey-goosey attitude towards faith and morals, some Anglicans have managed to move in fundamental ways back towards the Catholic Church since Cranmer went to the stake declaring the Pope the anti-Christ. The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral is a small move in the right direction, replacing, or at least creating some tension with, the classical Anglican formularies. Originating as the brainchild of the American cleric William Reed Huntington in 1870 and ratified in a modified form by the international Lambeth Conference in 1888, the Quadrilateral builds an ecclesiastical skeleton of Scripture, creeds, two sacraments, and the historic episcopate. It is not Catholicism; but it is at least a baby step away from the more complicated Protestant tangle of the Articles. Years later, Anglicans would sideline their Protestant formularies further—for example, placing the Articles in the “Historical Documents” section at the back of the Episcopal Church Book of Common Prayer in 1979.

In the twentieth century, Anglican groups fully embraced the ecumenical movement, which has produced some notoriously bad fruit; but its advocates in the Catholic Church have done yeoman’s work, sometimes unwittingly, in turning separated brethren back towards her, and into the orbit of her chief proponent and guardian on earth, the pope. The longer the various dialogues and commissions endure, the more we see that Christians are not going to end up with a threadbare Catholic-Protestant amalgamation; rather, Newman’s prophecy of an inevitable two-category reality of atheism and Catholicism is becoming an obvious fact. Drop by drop, and occasionally in waves, Lumen Gentium’s “elements of sanctification and truth” outside the Catholic Church are washing up on Catholic shores, while the Protestant denominations disintegrate completely, with Anglican churches chief among them. To Bray, this may be bad news requiring a new strategy; but to Catholics, it is an answer to Christ’s prayer ut unum sint, the phrase Saint John Paul II chose as the title for his great encyclical on ecumenism. 

Moreover, the liturgical renewal movement has been at least moderately successful in setting groups of Anglicans, and possibly many other Protestants, on a formal path to Rome—the opposite of what many traditionalists thought the legacy of Sacrosanctum Concilium might do. When Pope Benedict XVI created the Personal Ordinariates to welcome Anglicans and other Protestants into full communion in 2009, the Congregation for Divine Worship did not have to Catholicize the old Book of Common Prayer—which Bray wants to popularize—because Anglicans had already moved away from it, albeit in various directions. The New Zealand liturgies, for example, are at times barely recognizable as Christian. But the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer from ’79 represents an extraordinary shift in sacramental theology that parallels the Catholic Church’s own reforms. The almost infinite options of the Church of England’s Common Worship are somewhere in between. Where Anglicans have learned to express themselves liturgically in ways that are recognizable to the Catholic Church and can be re-incorporated into the Church’s life, there we find the success of the Anglican experiment. As Pope St. John Paul II wrote, echoing Lumen Gentium, “all these elements bear within themselves a tendency towards unity, having their fullness in that unity.” And he leaves no room for doubt, that unity is under his authority.

Sadly, Bray and other conservative Anglicans imagine unity among nebulous tribes of “orthodox,” whose invisible membership seems to require taking the Bible somewhat seriously on one’s own and saying the Nicene Creed alongside other people without crossing one’s fingers. In fact, doubling down on the Reformation only means re-applying the tired old “not Roman Catholic” glue that has long struggled to keep the unnatural parts of Frankenstein’s Protestant monster attached. In this way, a vision of Anglicans turning the clock back to 1600 may be the most banal theory of them all. 

We might predict that if Anglicanism should happen to rise from its hospice bed in North America for a while, it would be because conservative Presbyterians take over the treatment program. There are some very smart young men with personalities suited for church growth in that small tribe. It seems unlikely, however, that staid English Calvinism is going to catch on in the post-colonial Southern Hemisphere, where the charismatic movement continues to dominate Anglican churches. In any case, Catholics should pray, and reasonably expect, that all of the paths will lead eventually back to the gate of the one sheepfold of Christ.

We can finally agree with the likes of Gerald Bray on one essential point: Anglicans stand at a fork in the road, unable to continue on their nineteenth-century way. The way forward for Anglicans as individuals and collectively is not in the past. By God’s grace, the Protestant Humpty Dumpty of Anglicanism had a great fall, and it is foolish to try to put him together again. Nor is there a new creature waiting to be constructed from the remnants. All that remains now is to pick up the pieces—some of them quite lovely—and bring them home where they belong.

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