Is Classical Anglicanism Catholic?

Once again, we are very happy here at The North American Anglican to be hosting these conversations. Particularly significant is the fact that many are excited for Anglicanism’s future, and rather than taking a 20th century approach of “every man does what is right in his own eyes,” these essays seek to establish a more concrete identity for Anglicanism, something that will likely be necessary for it to survive the next century in North America. On this note, I would like to push back against Fr. Jeffries’s assertion that the Anglicanism of the English Reformers was not fully Catholic until the Oxford Movement, as well as that the 19th century Tractarian interpretation of the 39 Articles is the correct one.

We should clarify from the outset that the intention of the English Reformers was not to return to a “Patristic” form of the church, but to one where Scripture served as the ultimate authority. Article XX makes this apparent. When Scripture was unclear, they turned to the Fathers to clarify. This I am certain Fr. Jeffries would agree with, and I am also certain he would agree that the Reformers thoroughly cite the Fathers when justifying their hermeneutic.

The issue then is not whether the English Reformers failed in their project to return to a Patristic form, but rather was their interpretation of the Fathers wrong. I believe not, but rather that our interpretation of the Reformers (which incidentally comes for the most part from Victorian historians), needs to be readjusted in order to understand how Catholic they really were.

There are a few things to consider. To say that the Fathers are of one mind just doesn’t work. A great diversity exists, and while there are certainly areas of clear agreement, I would argue that the sacraments and justification are not among them. The Tractarians themselves understood this, which is why they so frequently focus on trying to demonstrate the “ethos” of the Primitive Church to prove their position, and if anything the last half-century of Patristic scholarship has shown a greater deal of disagreement than ever before.

In conjunction with said diversity comes a position held throughout the Ancient Church, as well as the early Anglican, which is that the authorities of the Church could make decisions regarding the use and practice of different traditions, and that this could vary from place to place. Augustine mentions this in The Confessions when he discuses St. Ambrose banning feasting at the tombs of dead Christians, a practice otherwise common in North Africa. It is also what Augustine means when he says,

“the same actions are not permitted to everybody in all places. Equally foolish are people who grow indignant on hearing that some practice was allowed to righteous people in earlier ages which is forbidden to the righteous in our own day…Human beings live on Earth for a brief span only, and they lack the discernment to bring the conditions of earlier ages…into the same frame of reference with those they know well.”[1]

This same principle allows us to recognize, say, the ridiculousness of Canon XVII of the First Council of Toledo that allows concubinage, or to recognize that we no longer need to banish the unbaptized from witnessing Holy Communion. The Church Fathers did not get everything right, and they would likely be the first to agree that having identical practice does not necessarily make one more “Catholic.”

And it happens to be why the great Anglican divines do not allow for things such as prayers for the dead or celebrating ad orientem or fancy vestments. As Fr. Jeffries says, the abuses of the Middle Ages meant these could not be permitted, as they proved too much a stumbling block for layfolk and clergy alike. Whether or not these practices should be revived is a pastoral question, and needs to be decided upon by the episcopate. At the same time, simply saying that the dust of the Reformation has long settled and therefore we can return to certain practices seems to disregard the fact that they led to abuse in the first place. We are no more enlightened than any Medieval peasant, and do the benefits outweigh the risks? Perhaps yes, perhaps no, but again, a pastoral question.

Now, likely all can agree on the above, but what about the Big Stuff, like justification and the sacraments? These are not matters a bunch of old Englishmen can just decide upon one day without subverting the True Faith, but here as well I believe the English Reformers have held to their Catholic beliefs.

On the Real Presence, the Fathers do indeed utilize quite direct realist language, no one can deny that, but as for Pusey definitively proving they believed in an objective presence, I remain unconvinced. I say this because after having read all of Pusey’s Doctrine of the Real Presence I found that he was simply quoting all of the same Church Fathers as Cranmer, Jewell, Hooker, et al. While the Anglican divines use a more moderated language (one has to remember that they’re dealing with layfolk who often believe that the bread and wine become literal, corporal flesh and blood, the kind you and I have), their reverence for the Sacrament aligns quite closely with that of many of the Fathers. For example, John Jewell states:

“We feed not the people of God with bare Signs, and Figures: but teach them, that the Sacraments of Christ be Holy Mysteries, and that in the Ministration thereof Christ is set before us, even as he was Crucified upon the Cross: and that therein we may behold the Remission of our sins, and our Reconciliation unto God: and, as Chrysostom briefly saith, Christ’s great Benefit, and our Salvation. Herein we teach the people, not that a naked Sign, or Token, but that Christ’s Body, and Blood indeed, and verily is given unto us: that we verily eat it: that we verily drink it.”[2]

And regarding another point of Tractarian contention with the Reformers, Eucharistic Sacrifice:

“And therefore in our Sacrifices we make mention of Christ’s Passion. For the Sacrifice, that we offer, is the Passion of Christ. As the Ministration of the Holy Communion is the Death, and Passion of Christ, even so, and in like sort, and sense may the Sacrifice thereof be called Christ. Therefore S. Gregory saith: Christ living immortally in himself, dies again in this Mystery. His Flesh suffers (in the Mystery) for the Salvation of the people. I reckon, M. Hardinge will not say, that Christ dies indeed, according to the force, and sound of these words, or that his Flesh verily, and indeed is tormented, and suffers in the Sacrament.”[3]

Yet, despite all this, Jewell still maintains, “Further we may say, that Christ’s Body is in the Sacrament itself, understanding it to be there as in a Mystery. But to this manner of Being there is required, neither circumstance of place, nor any Corporal, or Real Presence.”[4] The presence is quite unnecessary for the sacrament to truly be the Body and Blood of Christ.

I’ll also be the first to admit that Cranmer’s language can at times be lacking in reverence for the bread and the wine, but he himself is cognizant of the fact, and justifies it on the basis of reforming superstition. Elsewhere, he quotes the realist language of Chrysostom and others glowingly, speaking wistfully, wishing that it could be used without contention.[5] Other items, such as reservation, do not have a clear Patristic consensus on either their use or purpose, so I believe the Reformers can be excused for not participating in something that has no Biblical basis.

As for justification by faith, I am a bit confused by Fr. Jeffries comment that it is, “plainly out of sync with patristic soteriology.” For one thing, if he can derive a definitive soteriology out of the Fathers that proves all others wrong, then he will likely be the greatest historical theologian of the past five hundred years. There is a reason that Roman Catholics spent close to ninety percent of the Council of Trent’s 18 years debating justification: the answer is not apparent, and it is ironic that the Tractarians adopt a theology of justification that is blatantly Tridentine, rather than Patristic.[6] No, the 39 Articles are not hyper-Calvinist. Its drafters were wise enough to see that. And, as it turns out, they allow for a good bit of diverse opinion and interpretation. John Davenant and Jeremy Taylor do not have identical theologies, but at the same time, I challenge anyone to show how those men, or Richard Hooker or Lancelot Andrewes are not thoroughly Augustinian in their soteriology, including such matters as confession.

Finally, we must touch upon how all of this relates to that warm friend of Anglicanism, John Henry Newman, his Tract XC, and the 39 Articles. First, Newman’s whole reading of the Articles being drafted to accommodate both “Catholics” (whatever that means in this context) and “Protestants,” is indicative of his infamously poor historiography. Go read the lists of the men who drafted the Articles in the successive convocations (and Cranmer’s 42 Articles). With a few exceptions, they are Reformed Catholics all, and whatever ambiguity is present in the Articles is not due to their accommodating vestigial Roman Catholics, but rather is due to matters of disagreement within Reformed Catholic theology.

On top of the supposed ambiguity of the 39 Articles lies a hard stop: the Books of Homilies. Newman tries his absolute best in Tract XC to wriggle around the theology of the homilies (after all, if we are reading them literally and grammatically, then they are obligatory). He even says, “The Homilies are subsidiary to the Articles; therefore they are of authority so far as they bring out the sense of the Articles, and are not of authority where they do not.”[7] But when he tries to cherry-pick his way through them to prove such things as the Real Objective Presence and propitiatory virtue of good works, it comes across as sophomoric, since they speak to quite the opposite. This is why the Tractarians and subsequent Anglo-Catholics discard the Homilies as quickly as possible, which happens to portend the almost complete disregard of the Articles in the 20th century altogether.

I hope all of this demonstrates that “the Old Religion” is not easily definable. The Vincentian Canon does not and will never decide these questions. Where I think this debate should go is for the heirs of the Tractarians to dig deep into the Anglican Divines in order to demonstrate that their hermeneutic is wrong. Show that Hooker and Jewell and Ussher don’t know what they’re talking about. Until that happens, it is hard to take seriously these arguments that one cannot hold both “the faith” of the Fathers and of the Reformers.

  1. Augustine, The Confessions, pg. 64
  2. John Jewell, A Replie Vnto M. Hardinges Ansvveare, pg. 319
  3. ibid, pg. 572
  4. ibid, pg. 458
  5. Appeal from the Pope to the next General Council, Works of Thomas Cranmer, vol. iv. pg 126.
  6. The wholesale adoption of W.G. Ward’s Ideal of a Christian Church proves this point thoroughly.
  7. John Henry Newman, Tract XC, Chp. 11

Robert Ramsey

Robert is the Executive Editor of The North American Anglican. He is also a warden and church planter at Christ Church Anglican South Bend. In his spare time he likes fixing old espresso machines and cars from the 90s.

'Is Classical Anglicanism Catholic?' has 1 comment

  1. September 19, 2019 @ 3:14 pm David Smith

    Thank you for this post. I appreciate the frank commentary.


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