An Anglo-Catholic future

Writing from The Episcopal Church John D. Alexander and Phoebe Pettingell conclude their discussion of possible futures for Anglo-Catholics

The Anglo-Catholic role often entails distinct challenges. At certain periods, the church comes under pressure from the secular culture to accommodate demands that compromise its essential Catholic identity; and to the extent that the church’s decision-making structures yield to these pressures, traditional Anglo-Catholics find themselves in an awkward minority position, often dissenting in significant ways from the Anglican mainstream. Under these circumstances, AngloCatholics tend to move in one of three ways: secession, accommodation, or witness.

In terms of the methodology developed by the sociologist Max Weber, these three ways represent ‘ideal types’ of Anglo-Catholic vocation. Thus, we do not claim that any individual precisely conforms to the type in all respects. On the contrary, actual people at best approximate to one of the types, and many combine features of more than one. Moreover, while our own preference is clearly for the third way, we recognize that many Anglo-Catholics have been called to follow the first and second ways, and have done so with integrity.

Moving elsewhere

Living in an Anglican church in which the Catholic principle is not always in the ascendant, and is sometimes compromised and violated, certain people eventually give up on the whole AngloCatholic project and end up going to Rome, Orthodoxy, or some form of ‘continuing’ Anglicanism, where, they feel, Catholicism is more fully embodied and realized in practice.

Secession’s best known historical exemplar is John Henry Newman, who converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845 after having served for more than a decade as a chief spokesman for the Tractarian movement. The reasons for Newman’s conversion are complex and much debated. In part the trajectory was theological. By the summer of 1839, he had begun to wonder whether Anglicanism occupied a position similar to that of Donatism and other heresies in the early Church. His subsequent explorations of this question certainly contributed to his eventual submission to Rome.

Disillusionment

Another significant factor, however, was Newman’s growing disillusionment with the bishops of the Church of England. In Tracts for the Times, he had upheld the episcopate as the principle of the Church’s apostolicity and catholicity. So, when the bishops acted in ways that he deemed uncatholic, the underlying foundations of his position seemed fatally undermined.

For Newman, it was not enough to have the freedom to promote the Catholic faith as a source of renewal within a Church of England whose bishops remained lukewarm if not hostile. He wanted instead to belong to a Church that authoritatively embraced and taught what he took to be the faith in its fullness. In other words, what ultimately proved intolerable for Newman was what we have described as the tension between the Anglo-Catholic role within the wider Anglican system and the actions of that system’s official decision-making structures.

A deep crisis

For Newman, and for many of his followers, the only way to resolve that tension was to go elsewhere in search of the True Church.

Newman’s secession engendered a deep crisis among his disciples. Many followed him into the Roman Catholic Church. Others, like Mark Pattison, became disillusioned and repudiated not only Tractarianism but also orthodox Christianity in any form. Still others reassessed their relationship with Tractarianism and retreated into more mainstream forms of churchmanship.

These erstwhile Tractarians experienced the same tension as did Newman between Catholic principles and official Anglicanism. But instead of going to Rome, they opted to ameliorate the tension by compromising with the dominant Anglican culture – even when doing so meant adopting positions at odds with accepted understandings of the Catholic tradition as received in contemporary Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the developing Anglo-Catholic movement.

William Alexander

One historical exemplar is William Alexander, Bishop of Derry (1867–96) and Archbishop of Armagh (1896– 1911). Today remembered mainly as the husband of the hymn writer Cecil Frances Alexander, he was in his own time a famous preacher, theologian and author.

The son of an Anglican clergyman in Ireland, Alexander was educated at Oxford, where in the early 1840s he came under the sway of Newman, listening to his sermons in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, and on several occasions visiting Littlemore (although he never met Newman). When his hero went over, Alexander wrote to his parents that he was abandoning his studies and returning to Ireland to be received into the Roman Catholic Church. But on the first leg of the journey, he encountered a motherly Quaker woman who persuaded him to re-examine the issue.

Deciding after a night’s vigil in Birmingham that the church of the English Reformers was the true one, Alexander eventually returned to Oxford, completed his studies, and was ordained in Ireland in 1847. He came to believe that the Oxford Movement had failed to understand the real force of the Reformation, having been led astray by a superficial reading of the early Church Fathers.

Irish Anglicanism

In his episcopal career, Alexander rendered outstanding service to the Church of Ireland, helping guide it through the herculean task of reorganization following disestablishment in 1871, and fending off subsequent ultra-Evangelical attempts to rewrite the Irish Prayer Book.

At the same time, however, he condemned the growing Ritualist Movement in England. Although known allhis life as a ‘High Churchman’, his churchmanship was of a variety that did not hinder his preferment in the staunchly Protestant atmosphere of Irish Anglicanism. Alexander was a remarkable figure who deserves more attention than he has received in the century since his death. Yet his accommodation to the church of his era ultimately cut him off from the developing Anglo-Catholic tradition to which he had been attracted in his youth.

Marked by tension

Other Anglo-Catholics opt against both secession and accommodation. They accept that their status will probably remain that of a minority, and that their relationships with the power structures of official Anglicanism will often be marked by a dialectical tension that is sometimes creative but at other times destructive. They embrace their vocation as one of witnessing to Catholic faith and order in the midst of an ecclesiastical environment that is not always receptive to their message. John Keble and Edward Bouverie Pusey stand as the archetypal exponents.

Although Keble inadvertently made himself the Oxford Movement’s John the Baptist with his 1833 Assize sermon on ‘National Apostasy,’ for the next 12 years Newman became its inspiration and leader. Newman’s final sermon at St Mary’s, Littlemore, on 25 September 1843, was ‘The Parting of Friends,’ and it broke hearts because he inspired love in those he had led. Yet Keble, who felt the pang more sharply than most, had no doubts about the cause they had struggled for. Later, at the time of the Gorham Judgment (1850), he declared: ‘If the Church of England were to fail, it should be found in my parish.’ In old age, musing on the desire to see one’s party winning against the opposition, he wrote:

‘I look now upon my time with Newman and Pusey as a sort of parenthesis in my life; and I have now returned again to my old views such as I had before. At the time of the great Oxford Movement ... Pusey and Newman were full of the wonderful progress and success of the Movement

– where I had always been taught that the truth must be unpopular and despised, and to make confession for it was all that one could do; but I see that I was fairly carried off my legs by the sanguine views they held.’

Disappointment shook Keble least of the Tractarians because he understood from the beginning that worldly success rarely attends spiritual movements. Quietly, he continued his witness from his country parsonage, certain that he was part of an ever-renewing aspect of Anglicanism.

Pusey’s achievements

With the departure of Newman, leadership of the movement effectively passed to Edward Bouverie Pusey. He became, in the popular imagination, the face of post-Tractarian AngloCatholicism, from which the satirical Victorian press scornfully coined the terms ‘Puseyism’ and ‘Puseyites.’

While Pusey felt that Newman’s defection had occurred in part because his church ‘did not know how to use him,’ he never contemplated a like move even when he found himself similarly censured by those in authority.

Ironically, his own deep sense of unworthiness, which welcomed personal humiliation, protected him from the sense of hurt and rejection that afflicted Newman.

Pusey is largely responsible for reviving the doctrine of the Real Presence in the Eucharist – yet he was ambivalent about those who understood it as a reason for reviving ritual and gothic architecture. Nonetheless, he outwardly supported them in their fierce battles with the establishment, while inwardly uncertain such matters were worth the controversies they caused. Pusey’s steadfast use of his gifts, scholarship, vision, and holiness in the service of the church’s revival most probably stunted his own academic reputation as one of the original minds of his age, but its benefit to an enduring identity for Catholic Anglicanism remains immeasurable.

A key paradox

Recalling the secession of Newman and his disciples more than 40 years later, Dean Richard W. Church wrote: ‘With all the terrible losses of 1845, I am not sure that without [Keble and Pusey] we should have done as well as we have. They awed people and made them think, and gave time for the latent strength of the church to grow quietly.’

Dean Church’s words highlight a key paradox of this third way. Those Anglo-Catholics who persevered in their vocation of witness precisely when the success of their project seemed most hopeless and futile often turned out to be the catalysts of the most profound transformations of the wider Anglican tradition – in areas as diverse as church architecture, liturgical renewal, spiritual practices, theological reflection, and ecumenical dialogue.

While traditional Anglo-Catholics are often made to feel that the best they can do is simply survive in their own enclaves, their witness contributes in hidden ways to the renewal of Anglicanism within an ever-expanding ecumenical horizon.

The three ways of AngloCatholicism continue to play out today. Those following the first way

Return to Trushare Home Page

Return to Home Page of This Issue