I enjoyed reading Fr. Wilgus’ piece ‘The Old Religion’ this last week here on The North American Anglican. Its call to a return of a Reformed Catholicity within Anglicanism resonated with many of the other discussions we’ve been having on the site, and I agree with the core claim of the piece that Anglicanism (in its “pure” form) enjoys the status of a Catholic, Apostolic Church. However, I came away confused regarding a few points, and I hope by this response Fr. Wilgus can provide some clarity.
First, I would be curious to hear what definition of “catholicity” is being used. Anglicanism is indeed Catholic. But is its Catholicism not Patristic, rather than Medieval? Would Fr. Wilgus agree? In this event, the “validity” of the Seven Sacraments would have little to do with said catholicity, as the Patristic understanding of a sacrament is considerably different than the Scholastic framework created surrounding the Seven. This becomes particularly confusing when things such as “the lamentable infrequency of formal confessions” are mentioned as Catholic, due to the fact that Anglicanism holds to the Augustinian practice of public confession, twice a day no less, and its priest’s absolutions are quite authoritative.
Secondly, it is important to distinguish between what Anglicanism is and what it could be. Indeed, one can read more of a particular “Catholicism” into the formularies than was intended by the Reformers, but keep in mind many have tried to do this before and failed. A truth that must be acknowledged by those of an Anglo-Catholic disposition is that the Evangelical and various liberal parties have dominated Anglicanism since the end of the 17th century. Yes, various High Churchmen of different stripes have had loud voices over the decades, but go crunch the numbers: Anglo-Catholicism, even at its zenith, never made up the bulk of the churches, either here or across the pond, and the past several decades have not been kind to Pusey’s children. On the other hand, Evangelical Anglicanism has continued to explode, while in the Global South a more traditional “High Reformed” (with some charismatic flair at times) Anglicanism tends to dominate. If, then, Anglicanism is to be built up around the Seven Sacraments, and the theology of grace and justification typically associated them, who will champion this? Is this really a consensus or central Anglican position, or a marginal one that will only create division?
Finally, there are these phrases: “Perhaps it takes a convert to recognize that ours is not a time for bespoke ‘distinctives’ but rather that we claim a catholic faith,” and “If we take our Reformed Catholic identity seriously–bringing the sacraments into focus, and leaving all the rest to a blurred backdrop.” These phrases result in more confusion than clarity. If Anglican “distinctives,” such as the prayer book, are to be secondary to pursuing the Seven Sacraments, what is to prevent parishioners from leaving for Rome? The barriers in 2019 against such a thing are lower than ever, and the particular sacramental framework that appears to be proposed here is far more robust across the Tiber. It is also precisely our Reformed Catholic heritage that bars the recreation of such a thing; as Anglicans we are not a slight adjustment to the direction Rome had gone, but more like a return to how things were at the beginning.
I certainly agree with Fr. Wilgus that dreary arguments over liturgical colors and vestments are tiresome and distracting. I also quite strongly agree that a proper Anglican sacramental theology has been lost throughout much of the Communion. Yet, I am skeptical of any movement to read a non-historical version of Anglicanism into its formularies in order to solve issues with liberalism. There was once an attempt to do just this in the 19th century, when Anglo-Catholics began to buck episcopal authority: it is what opened the door for the liberals in the first place, giving them the ability to subvert the very thing meant to control them. Instead, should we not return to what made us Catholic in the beginning—a powerful episcopate, a uniform prayer book, and enforcement of the formularies? Let us recreate the old alliance that once existed between the High Churchmen and the Evangelicals against the liberals. Then, and only then, can we drive the moneylenders from the Temple.