In Praise of Failure

 “It hath been the wisdom of the Church of England, ever since the first compiling of her public Liturgy, to keep the mean between two extremes.”

For those quietly disembarking the revivalist and biblicist excesses of their evangelical patrimony, a refreshing mark of the formularies of the English Church is their comprehensive appeal to Christian antiquity. In the words of one Anglican, they refuse to “lightlie esteeme what hath bene allowed as fitt in the judgement of antiquitie and by the longe continewed practise of the whole Church, from which unnecessarelie to swarve experience hath never found safe.” In the English church one finds a vision of magisterial Protestantism that, though blasted twice with the shrapnel of the continental reformation (Lutheran reform and Genevan discipline), has miraculously maintained its catholic endowment, endearing with regret even those who have left it for other communions. As G.K. Chesterton wrote following his conversion, concerning the homesickness he felt for that “masterpiece of Protestantism” the Book of Common Prayer: “it has style; it has tradition; it has religion; it was written by apostate catholics.”

This is the beauty of what one Puritan minister called the “reformed catholick” Church of England. All attempts to rewrite it in the image of a single theologian have failed, even when that theologian was from Rome. Henry would dismiss the Pope and fail to become one, Cranmer would burn a reluctant heretic, while Hooker died quietly in Kent, untouched by fame, and Laud reached the annals of history headless. Yet the “golden mediocrity” of the English church lived on without them (and in fact, despite them in some cases). If anything is catholic about the Church of England, it is this singular failure of its partisans to rewrite the “mean between two extremes” into a doctrinal monolith aligned with either Wittenberg or Geneva. When given the chance to bowdlerize its liturgy, its doctrine, or even its apparel based on trends in the continent, the Church of England insisted on conservation, determined to leave a faith that was “ever ancient, ever new.” To hear a sentence like “this justification be free unto us” from the pulpit of a cathedral that has stood for hundreds of generations is at the very heart of its selfhood. It exists as debt to the ancient fathers and their reformed beneficiaries, commending rather than owning its catholic patrimony. “Nothing in early Elizabethan religion,” Leonard Trinterud writes, “was quite so sacred as the primitive church.” It was incontestably Protestant, but catholically so. John Knox may have succeeded in filling Scotland with the sound of the Genevan Psalter, but the cathedrals of England insisted on maintaining the ancient rhythms of the Latin church. Give us the Bible, yes, but Good Lord, deliver us from the “detestable enormities” of private judgement.

It has been rightly noted that the via media of the Elizabethan settlement was not between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism but Wittenberg and Geneva. It is often overlooked however that the via media was also between what was ancient and what was new. The social imaginary inhabited by the reformers was late medieval Catholicism. Separation from Rome did not change the fact that space could be sacred, the institutional church was holy, her liturgy was heavenly, and even scripture was “the most holy relic that remained upon earth” (Thomas Cranmer). The debate was not whether to be catholic, but whether one was catholic enough. The question “to whom does Augustine belong?” motivated Calvin more than the banal concerns of the American evangelical neighborhood fellowship church. Protestantism was not about Donatist franchising. To become Protestant in the 16th century was to become more catholic, not less—much less to indulge in recreational schism. Yet the strange situation today is that unless evangelicals become more catholic, they will have failed to be truly Protestant. What passes today as ‘Protestant’ would be simply inconceivable to the reformers. One can hardly imagine Calvin treating seriously a conversation between Baptists about whether Roman Catholics are truly Christian. No defense is needed either for the ample list of vulgarities we could expect from Luther, who preserved the mass, high liturgical ceremonial, the use of images in worship, and said: “Sooner than have mere wine with the fanatics, I would agree with the pope that there is only blood.” We cannot forget what it meant to be catholic in their context. Without magisterial Protestant resourcement like that of the Davenant Trust, our own catholic patrimony as Anglicans runs the risk of being an apologetic for what is nothing more than trivial Donatist franchising. To be catholic meant something richer, deeper, and truer than simply belonging to a certain denomination. It was the failure to belong to any denomination. The Christian church established in England was simply the Church of England.

What made the English Church catholic was its failure to be Roman, Lutheran, or Puritan precisely because it was English. Behind the poetry of its liturgy, the pacific scope of its doctrine, and the arrangement of its authority lay this failure, seen even on the tombstone of its bishops—here Thomas Ken (author of the doxology):

“I die in the Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Faith, professed by the whole Church, before the disunion of East and West: more particularly I die in the communion of the Church of England, as it stands distinguished from all Papal and Puritan Innovations.”

For every idea that has lived and died in the Church of England there is an idea deeper still: that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not only indestructible but can in fact be heard without revision in the rugged, rural parishes of the English countryside. And where this gospel goes, catholic order follows, creating a culture of conservative reform, untouched by the violence of ingenuity. This magisterial vision of the Church of England was the reformation at its best: both catholic and reformed without equivocation, born doubtful toward novelties, even when they came from Geneva, and fiercely loyal to the good, even when it came from Rome. This is what makes the 39 Articles of Religion unique among the Protestant confessions. They are the work of a church who transformed its trauma into reform rather than revolution. The Articles can be pugnacious—hostile, even—but not without cause. They were written by men who lived in an age where truths were still published and performed by martyrs. To borrow from Chesterton, they were written by “apostate catholics.” Their concerns are the concerns of western Christendom in the 16th century. To be apostolic was to be catholic, and to be catholic was to be Protestant.

If Roman Catholic apologists wielding a doctrine of development have taught us anything, it is that ‘the early church’ is irrevocably gone. It survives only in the memory of those who worship in its cathedrals, say its prayers, and rejoice in its sacraments. What is left is an inheritance that must be claimed against the assaults of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Our mistake is to believe that the English Church had a golden age and to try to reclaim that. It did not. It has had better centuries, certainly, but it has always said the creed without crossing its fingers. There is no golden age prior to the return of our Lord. All that is left to us are our failures, and what we choose to learn from them. What Anglicans need today—especially in the West—is to reclaim our partisan failures and to praise them precisely because without them we would not be catholic—to accept what a beer-drenched, rockstar monk from Wittenberg gave us: a conscience to hear the alluring reproof of God’s Word, and then to “arise again and amend our lives” in its light.

Travis Wright

Travis Wright lives in Houston with his wife Emily where he writes and studies. His poetry has appeared in various outlets, including The Brooklyn Quarterly, Dust (UK), and Dappled Things, among others. He is set to begin a PhD with the University of Glasgow this fall.

'In Praise of Failure' has 1 comment

  1. October 29, 2020 @ 11:05 am Greg

    An excellent essay! Thank you.


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