Anglican Catholicism and its Critics

Every time an Anglican converts to Catholicism or Orthodoxy, from lowly American deacons to English bishops, a story is told by way of explanation: Anglicanism, once a proud bastion of purely Protestant doctrines and practices, was hijacked by sacerdotal pretenders beginning in the Oxford Movement, and now, downstream from sham midcentury liturgical reforms, Anglicans have gone soft on their manful Protestant heritage and been content to play doormat for Rome and the East. Anglicans convert either because they have not been properly catechized as Protestants or because they were only ever LARPing as Roman Catholics (or worse) to begin with, and ended up preferring the real thing to the role play. Only by flying the flag of its historically Protestant distinctives, from its formularies to its vestments, can Anglicanism quit pretending to be what it is not, and avoid these sorts of embarrassments.

The tale is long overdue for some comment and correction. Without treating of any of the (endless) historical or theological arguments around whether one can call Anglicanism Protestant or Catholic or both, what interests me about this particular border conflict in that debate is how purging Anglicanism of any of its Catholic tendencies came to be seen by some as a viable strategy for attracting and retaining converts and what that says about their account of Anglicanism.

What Draws Evangelicals

Young, intellectually curious converts from the various evangelicalisms are at once, the class of converts who have done most to revitalize American Anglicanism in the wake of the Episcopal Church’s apostasy and also the ones that seem to pose the greatest flight risk for Rome or the East. Talking to many of these over the years yields a familiar pattern. At some time, usually in college, they became fascinated by aspects of the Christian tradition that had been withheld or obscured by the revivalist traditions of their youth: the Church Fathers, the idea that the sacrament is something more than a memorial, apostolic succession, and liturgy as a connection to the ancient Church. Anglicanism was attractive to them precisely because they retained these ideas and practices and continued to integrate them into their worship in a serious way. The Book of Common Prayer is both useful for spiritual devotion and a witness to how the ancient rites of the faith and cycles of prayer live on, in fact rather than theory. In short, Anglicanism has lately become attractive to such people for the ways in which it remains attentive to the ancient, apostolic, and Catholic character of the Church and seeks to synthesize it into her public worship.

If the goal then is to continue to attract and retain the many coming to us who are curious about the meaning of apostolicity, catholicity, and the relationship between scripture and ancient tradition, then it is worth asking just how re-grounding Anglicanism as something like Protestantism: English Style will do this. On the contrary, it seems designed to repel or purge seekers like these. Looked at another way, if conversions to Rome or the East are born of a desire to be in organic connection with the ancient faith, then it would seem that Anglicanism ought to become more Catholic not less.

A Unity of Faith

What role does interest in Catholicity play in conversions to and from Anglicanism? I do not believe that it arises from a preference for high liturgy or a hunger for sacerdotal theology. In my experience, it usually comes from an encounter with one particular feature of the church’s self-understanding, especially as it has been ensconced throughout the writings of the Church Fathers: their shared assumption that the Faith comprises a definite, unified deposit of teaching and practice. For those of us who were raised on the simple tale that doctrine arose as churchmen deduced judgments from a set of “biblically faithful” principles, it is very difficult to ignore this striking and universal feature of patristic texts. Although the Fathers sometimes disagreed with each other, absolutely all of them took for granted that the Faith was a unity that was being handed down from one generation of the Faithful to the next; that The Way was more than a series of commentaries on the Bible: a public body of teaching and prayer which takes a definite shape in the world as it is practiced. Arriving at true doctrine was a project of discovery and excavation rather than pure exegesis. When the Fathers defended the Faith from false teaching, they understood themselves to be handing on a tradition of sound teaching rather than engaging in purely ideological warfare. The “form of sound words” Paul gave to Timothy was, for the Fathers, something more definite than just a general call to “preach the gospel.”

Hence, patristic arguments over doctrine never failed to reference, after scripture, the writings of prior Fathers, arguing for the truth of a doctrine forensically before moving onto the explanatory business of theology. Encountering such a startling unity of assumption about the singular consistency of Holy Tradition in the early centuries of the Church is a bracing discovery for your average Baptish Protestant since it presents a problem: was the Early Church correct to discern the shape of the Faith in this way and does it remain a reliable guidepost or has it gone out of date? The same question faces Anglicans today. Coming to share the Fathers’ assumption of the unity of the Faith once Delivered to the Saints, is to be set on a path toward discerning the Catholicity of the Faith.

The Anglican Way of Catholicism

Anglicans who find themselves upon this path understand that the Anglican Way’s path toward Catholicity—and therefore its synthesis of tradition, scripture, and Church polity—is distinct from its other claimants, otherwise there would be no need to walk apart from them. It is to claim that the Anglican Way is correct, (or at least more correct) than her alternatives. Being a Catholic Anglican does not mean showing a strong resemblance to Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy in worship or even theological language, but simply to decide in favor of the Fathers’ assumption of the unity of tradition, and to proffer a way of understanding which holds the Bible in the first place as God’s Word Written. Since the English reformers rightly held scripture to be the Church’s sole authority, Anglicans do not cite Holy Tradition as an independent authority, either parallel or equal to Holy Scripture. Tradition is, rather, the “concurrent witness” of the Church reading scripture together as Church. At its most basic level, the Anglican understanding of Holy Tradition operates along the same logic as something like Constitutional Originalism: interpreting an authoritative document properly means taking into account what its earliest hearers thought it meant, and giving their judgments greater weight.

Therefore, it is important to understand that those attracted to the Catholic character of the Church are not primarily chasing an affinity for this or that particular doctrine or practice. Rather, we are invested in making sense of the substance of the Faith, proceeding from the shared conviction that The Way is an organic unity, rather than just a shared ideology.

It should, then, be clear that Catholic Anglicans are not driven by an antiquarian preference for the baubles and accouterments of times past, but important questions of historical theology which ought to preoccupy every Christian. But these questions are obscured when certain Anglicans polemically advance a “Historic Identity” which means defining ourselves as so thoroughly Protestant, that the only continuity we ought to worry about is that which can be established between the churches of Geneva and Wittenburg. And yet even to use the word “Protestant” without explanation begs the question. Surely Anglicanism is Protestant with regards to Rome, but that says little about her internal intention and synthesis—and this is just what the Catholic cast of mind is after. No competent historian would dispute that arriving at the true and “Catholick” faith did not occupied England’s greatest reformers, even the ones now deemed to be most safely Protestant. We cannot at once insist on their theology while discarding their intention.

What about Exits to Protestantism?

It also really must be said that Anglicans converting to other forms of Protestantism scarcely merits any public handwringing, if it is even mentioned at all. It is not even all that uncommon to find ACNA ordained clergy serving as ministers of churches in other Protestant denominations. This is, apparently, a matter of little concern. All’s well between Protestant fellows while crossings to Rome or the East are the ones that register disgust. But if Anglican “distinctives” are to count for much, concern over defections really ought to cut both ways. We ought to at least be able to admit that over-focusing on those swimming the Tiber or the Bosphorus leaves our Continental flank wide open.

As I am one of the very sorts of Catholic-minded men I mentioned above, I should probably give my reasons for being Anglican rather than something else. Firstly, even if I could conjure up some emotional desire to convert to Rome (perhaps from a deep current welling up from my Sicilian blood or the dopamine rush of actually finishing Waugh’s Sword of Honor series) doing so would entail lying about several things, chief among them the validity of my own Orders, but also the status of the Pope and so on. Inconveniently, lying turns out to be a sin, so the way is barred even if I wanted to take it. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, seems to me something like emigrating to a foreign country, a move that any red-blooded American would only make under duress. But the primary reason is that neither Rome nor the East offers me something essential that I do not already enjoy. As a convinced Anglican, I am satisfied that the Anglican Way offers the fullness of the Catholic Faith. One thing I will say, however, on behalf of other Catholic-minded Anglicans like myself, is how demoralizing it can be when one’s convictions and ceremonies are so routinely pilloried as being “un-Anglican” despite being so thoroughly ingrained in its heritage. It is rather rich to declare that The True And Only Anglicanism ought to be shorn of its pretensions to Catholicity and imbibe only those doctrinal positions which may be deemed safely Protestant, and then go on to claim those who leave as further evidence for either seditious Romanism or lax ecumenism in the fold. Occam’s Razor would conclude that Catholic-minded converts leave Anglicanism when they are told, over and over, that they are not really Anglicans at all. These conversions seem to me to be more like notches in the hilt of “Classical Anglicanism” than creeping Romishness.

An early critic of my podcast, Word & Table, asked why my co-host and I introduce ourselves as exponents of “The Great Tradition.” Unless we foregrounded our Anglican distinctives, he said, then what will keep listeners from swimming one of those un-Protestant rivers? My reply was then and remains today, if we, as Anglicans, are indeed bearing witness to the fullness and continuity of the Faith, fully Catholic and fully Reformed, (and offering a coherent account of the meaning of those terms) then why would anyone want to?

 


Alexander Wilgus

Fr. Alexander Wilgus is the Rector at Redemption Anglican Church in Frisco, TX. He is creator of the Word & Table podcast and Director of Saint Paul’s House of Formation online catechesis program. Fr. Wilgus is married to Lauren and father to four children: Owen, Bryan, Abraham, and Mae.


'Anglican Catholicism and its Critics' have 6 comments

  1. July 31, 2023 @ 4:06 pm Robert Placer

    To begin with there is a misunderstanding of the meaning of the word “Catholic” which does not specific refer to the Roman Church or even the use of the Church Fathers as a witness to Holy Scripture. The Greek word “Catholic” is two words, a preposition and a noun “Kata Holos” meaning according to the whole witness of Scripture specifically the identify of Jesus Christ as the second person of the Holy Trinity who is both God and man. The opposite of a Catholic Christian is an Arian heretic who believes that Jesus is highest creature of God but not the only begotten Son of God born of the Virgin Mary, hence Mary is called the mother of God or the bearer of God. A branch of the Catholic Church is one that confesses the three Creeds: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasius Creed. The three creeds affirm the two natures in Christ and the Holy Trinity which are proven true by the Holy Scriptures. Therefore, by definition confessional Anglicans and Lutherans are Catholic Christians without the requiring these churches to submit to papal authority. Catholic Christianity is about Christology, not about vestments, candles, incense, music or tactile apostolic succession. We value the patrimony of the Church as a means for the proper worship of God and for passing on the faith to the next generation. Maintaining the apostolic order of ministry requires the three fold order of ministry that is male and not female. A church cannot claim an apostolic or Catholic order of ministers if women are made deacons instead of deaconesses and ordained as priestesses or bishops; such churches are sectarian rather than a branch of the One Holy Catholic Church. The Catholic Church must purge itself of error and this is why we had the Protestant Reformation. The Anglican Church is both Protestant and Catholic because the Church is always reforming against errors. The term Anglo-Catholic is a redundancy because Anglicans are by definition Catholic according to the Anglican formularies. Anyone seeking the ancient Church through the Anglican way of being a Christ must be taught why the Anglican Church is both Catholic and Protestant at the same time.

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  2. July 31, 2023 @ 4:11 pm Fr. Jay Thomas

    Amen. Thank you for saying what so many of us have wanted to say. I have no desire to leave my home in the Anglican tradition; moreover to leave, would be to lie – or to admit that which I’ve taught authoritatively was a lie. But it is horribly demoralizing to constantly be attacked for holding to the faith of the Fathers. And not just the Fathers, but even the Divines of our own tradition.

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  3. August 1, 2023 @ 1:41 am Michael Redmond

    “Anglican apostasy.” In other words, the rejection of the Lord Jesus Christ and His gospel. This is neither true, nor just, nor charitable. Perhaps ex-vangelicals swim the Tiber or the Bosporus because they’re wary of the same fissiparous proclivities in “Continuing Anglicanism” as they experienced in their former Christian communities? Yes, modernity is a rushing flood, and Anglicanism is awash with challenges to faith and order, but there’s nothing new there. What’s new is what’s old: Jesus Christ, “the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever.”

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  4. August 1, 2023 @ 11:52 am PHOTIOS

    Believe it or not, Truth speaks a better word than the (apparently) irresistible thrumming of your red, American blood.

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  5. August 4, 2023 @ 10:47 pm Ian Perry

    “This is, apparently, a matter of little concern.”–so long as it was not in the realm of England, it would not have been of much negative concern (and likely even supported in some contexts) by the English Reformers themselves. They saw the continental reformers as allies and typically did not treat their ordinations as invalid (when done on the continent, not in defiance of protestant episcopal oversight)–or so I gather, please correct me if I am mistaken.

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  6. June 1, 2024 @ 12:22 pm Fr. Jack Franicevich

    Fr. Wilgus, I appreciate your language of “discovery” and “forensic” study, as well as the unified deposit. I may not share (yours or) others’ confidence about the scope of that deposit extending to WO, but I appreciate the approach, and I commend patient, exploratory reading of the Fathers.

    I still have questions about what comes after the Fathers, e.g. the further work of clarifying and applying the Apostolic Faith, and what comprises a Great Tradition, or the reasoning *from* either “Apostolic” or “catholic” tradition, in the face of actual disagreement within different Communions.

    Grateful for your faithful work.

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