The Catholic Faith Once Delivered, Then Recovered: A Response to Fr. Wilgus

One following the news in the Anglican Communion will know of the steady stream of persons, including clergy, who have moved to Roman Catholicism or to Eastern Orthodoxy. Fr. Alexander Wilgus thinks we have grossly misunderstood the phenomenon’s roots. The moves do not expose a weak self-understanding and feeble self-confidence in Anglicanism’s Protestant roots—traits which, combined, lead to dabbling in other traditions before jumping ship for them.

Wilgus says this explanation comes from those he calls “Classical Anglicans.” He does not clearly define this group but an attentive reader can pick up the basic contours. Such persons wish to define Anglicanism as a Protestant church in the manner articulated in the formularies (the Thirty-Nine Articles of 1571, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and the Books of Homilies). Fr. Wilgus argues that this group has not pinpointed the problem. They are the problem. They have identified Anglicanism too narrowly, meaning too Protestant-ly. Their insistence on this definition drives out good Anglicans who do not see themselves that way.

These good Anglicans come mostly from Evangelical backgrounds, especially non-denominational and baptistic traditions. Fr. Wilgus says this group, which he thinks vital to Anglicanism’s North American future, seeks “catholicity.” They desire to connect in faith and worship with “the Church Fathers,” or what he elsewhere calls, “the ancient, apostolic, and Catholic character of the Church.” Fr. Wilgus then sets out to defend an “Anglican Catholicism” that meets this desire through seeking a conscious continuity with the Church Fathers in doctrine and in worship. In its “catholicity,” this formulation of Anglicanism comprises a potentially permanent home for such believers rather than serving as a halfway house to Roman Catholicism or to Eastern Orthodoxy.

A Qualified Protestantism?

Fr. Wilgus’ defense of “Anglican Catholicism” as a rebuke of “Classical Anglicanism” hinges on his readers accepting two premises. First, he asks us to understand Anglicanism as not fully or inherently Protestant. He insists that to use the word “ ‘Protestant’ without explanation begs the question” regarding Anglican identity. But begs the question how, exactly? For Fr. Wilgus does go on to say that, “Anglicanism is Protestant.” Yet it is Protestant, he qualifies, not simply, but “with regards to Rome.”

Why would we need that particular qualification on the word Protestant? Those with a basic understanding of Church history would know by the word’s mere usage that a Protestant church was one separated in some manner of structure, doctrine, and practice from Rome. The only answer that makes sense is that Fr. Wilgus thinks Anglicanism, while Protestant in comparison to Rome, is not Protestant in relation to other Reformation traditions. This explanation also makes sense of his caution that the word “Protestant” by itself begged the question of Anglican identity. It only so begs if Anglicanism does not fall under the general classification occupied by the two Reformation traditions he passingly notes: Geneva (Reformed) and Wittenberg (Lutherans).

Fr. Wilgus reinforces this interpretation in other parts of his piece. He cautions that we should not define ourselves as too “thoroughly Protestant.” He scoffs at the idea of “re-grounding Anglicanism as something like Protestantism: English Style.” He does not quite call Anglicanism a via media. But his articulation, if not there in substance, is clearly on the Newman Trail to that destination (and possibly further ones on the same Trail after that).

Second, Fr. Wilgus asks us to join him in pitting a Protestant definition of Anglicanism against a “Catholic” one. Recall that by “Catholic” he does not mean Roman Catholic but a continuity with the “Church Fathers” and thus a unity with a passed-down “Great Tradition.” This posture, this approach he seems to believe is incompatible with Protestantism. For his ire, his trained fire criticizes those who “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.” To be truly catholic, we must not be “thoroughly Protestant,” just relatively so. Otherwise, we become “Baptish,” and thus by definition rejectors of the “Holy Tradition.” One might think again of the Tractarians, who claimed merely to oppose “Ultra-Protestantism” in pursuit of greater connection to our commonly Christian history.

We should not grant Fr. Wilgus either premise. First, Anglicanism is not Protestant merely relative to Rome. It stands inherently within the canopy of churches that sprang from the Reformation in the 16th century. The English Reformers—Cranmer, Ridley, Latimer, Jewel—all held to the primacy of Scripture, justification by faith alone, and a rejection of transubstantiation. They learned these doctrines from Continental theologians like Heinrich Bullinger, Martin Bucer, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and, yes, John Calvin. Richard Hooker, that latter-born father of the English church, thought no different on these theological questions and his massively important writings only further reinforced their place in the Church of England.

The Reformed Commitments of the Anglican Formularies

The Formularies cemented these commitments within the English Church. The Thirty-Nine Articles are not just Protestant but distinctly Reformed in their soteriology and sacramentology. The Book of Common Prayer orders worship according to a Protestant understanding of our sin, Christ’s redemption, and our thankful response. The Books of Homilies, finally, show the importance Anglicanism has and should place on preaching and thereby reinforcing the unequaled authority of Holy Scripture for our faith and practice. The Prayer Book and the Homilies also show that the “Classical Anglicans” who wish to define themselves by the Formularies are not engaged in mere intellectual, theological fisticuffs, as Fr. Wilgus would have us believe. Nor are they giving “just a general call to ‘preach the gospel’” as he also claims. Classical Anglicans do, with Paul, wish to “know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2). But that is the root from which springs all else. In the Gospel preached, they then seek to meet the Church in all ways—mind, heart, and body, individual and corporate, with a Confession to know, a liturgy by which to worship, and sermons through which to be enlivened.

Anglicanism has its own distinctives, certainly. But those distinctives do not reveal Anglicanism as a via media between Geneva and Rome. Instead, they exist within a thoroughly “Protestantism: English Style” church.

Second, we need not choose between Anglicanism as Protestant and an Anglicanism connected to the Church Fathers. Fr. Wilgus even hints some agreement here. For he claims a kindred spirit on this point in the English Reformers. They sought catholicity as well, he urges. Yet he then turns this assertion of common cause with the Reformers into a critique of decidedly Protestant definitions of Anglicanism. “We cannot at once insist on their [the English Reformers’] theology,” he writes, “while discarding their intention” for catholicity.

Agreed. But the inverse is just as true. We cannot insist on their catholicity while discarding their theology. As discussed above, their theology was unquestionably, inherently Protestant. How, then, can Fr. Wilgus really claim common cause with them, since he pits Protestantism against catholicity?

The Catholicity of the English Reformation

I’m not sure exactly how Fr. Wilgus would explain this point, given the reasoning in his article. I do know that the English Reformers would be surprised at the choice he tries to get us to make. What does Fr. Wilgus think of John Jewel’s Apology for the Church of England? Jewel therein defended the Church of England as both “thoroughly” Protestant and as catholic at the same time, thus in the sense Fr. Wilgus seems to think impossible. Jewel painstakingly defended the distinctives of the Protestant Reformation as consistent with the Church Fathers. Rome, in its medieval manifestation, had innovated. The English Church, in assuming Reformation faith and practice, restored greater unity with this “Great Tradition” in recovering the Fathers’ commitment to the primacy of God’s Word, salvation by faith alone, and other like doctrines. The English Reformation was a return to catholicity for Jewel, not a “baptish” rejection of it.

One need not lean only on Jewel, foundational as the Apology was in forming the Church of England. The First Book of Homilies defends Protestant doctrines and practices as consistent with the early Church as well. Thomas Cranmer’s brilliance in composing liturgies came from his combined commitment to Reformation doctrine and love for ancient worship, a commitment and a love that he saw as consistent with each other. Richard Hooker saw no conflict with Protestant distinctives and his love for the Church Fathers. Again, he saw the Reformation as rightly embodying and thus reconnecting with them.

Anglicanism’s Protestant roots, in short, are not an alternative to catholicity. They are the proper means to it. To say otherwise, as Fr. Wilgus does, displays a discomfort with, even embarrassment about, our heritage. This discomfort, this embarrassment, defends itself based on a distorted view of Anglicanism, longing for the “corrections” bestowed by the Tractarians in the 19th and the liturgical reforms of the mid-20th century.

A Rich Heritage

Let us not follow those paths any more than we already have. We instead need a correction to those corrections. We should charitably but unashamedly think, act, and describe Anglicanism as a thoroughly Protestant church. God’s Word, read and preached, is mighty and precious, able, by the Spirit, to make dead men live. God’s sacraments, both of them, are essential means of grace, able, again by the Spirit, to make sick men whole. And this precious Reformation heritage makes us catholic in the best sense—united to the universal, invisible church throughout the ages.

That understanding might not hold within Anglicanism all of the former evangelicals Fr. Wilgus wishes to keep. But in his worry, he sells Anglicanism’s rich heritage short. In its Reformation distinctives, it is a church that manifests the true, the good, and the beautiful. It is true because it tells the truths of the Gospel. It is good because, in so telling, it points to our redemption in Christ. And it is beautiful, because truth and goodness are so in themselves and because the true and good God Himself is beautiful. That is not an Anglicanism about which to be embarrassed. It is one to hold on to, for (eternal) life’s sake.


Adam M. Carrington

Adam M. Carrington is an Associate Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College. There, he teaches on matters of Constitutional law, American political institutions, and separation of powers. His writing has appeared in such popular forums as The Wall Street Journal, The Hill, National Review, and Washington Examiner. His book on the jurisprudence of Justice Stephen Field was published in 2017 by Lexington. Carrington received his B.A. from Ashland University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Baylor University. He lives in Hillsdale with his wife and their two daughters where they attend Holy Trinity Anglican Church.

'The Catholic Faith Once Delivered, Then Recovered: A Response to Fr. Wilgus' have 16 comments

  1. August 16, 2023 @ 1:57 pm Alex Wilgus

    I appreciate the engagement, but the judgment that I “display a discomfort with, even embarrassment about” the English Reformation’s Protestant heritage is both unfounded and below the belt. I’m just a DM away if anyone wants to check in with me on my internal, subjective feelings before going to print.


  2. August 16, 2023 @ 2:19 pm Fr. Ricky McCarl

    It seems to me that one of the common problems between Reformed Anglicans and Anglo-Catholics is that Reformed Anglicans tend to concede too quickly that Anglicanism is a new church with a new theology. I won’t speak for Fr. Wilgus here but I think that for most ACs the reason the formularies and protestantism aren’t seen as the source from which the Anglican Church sprang, is because it’s not the source from which the Anglican Church sprang.


  3. August 17, 2023 @ 12:00 am Gerry T. Neal

    I disagree that \”The Thirty-Nine Articles are not just Protestant but distinctly Reformed in their soteriology and sacramentology.\” This suggests that when the continental Protestant traditions disagree, the Thirty-Nine Articles side with \”Calvinism\”. A case could be made for that if the only alternative to Calvinism in continental Protestantism was Anabaptism. It is much harder to argue that point when Lutheranism is considered as the alternative to Calvinism. Article XVII. Of Predestination and Election seems obviously worded so as to not choose Calvinism over Lutheranism. There is no affirmation of Reprobabation, which can be taken as either a refusal to choose between the Lutheran and Calvinist views, or a choice of the Lutheran. The fact that the second paragraph of the Article describes the doctrine as a comfort for the godly, but cautions against excessive preaching of it because of the various ways it can harm the not-yet-converted mind rather suggests the second possibility. Indeed, while the Articles affirm the general Augustinianism shared by Lutherans and Calvinists in Articles IX and X, absent is any affirmation of the ideas that the Grace by which God draws His elect to salvation through Jesus Christ is \”irresistable\” or that Jesus died only for the elect. Article XVI. Of Sin after Baptism also walks the fence between Lutheranism and Calvinism. Both Lutherans and Calvinists affirm a form of the idea of \”The Perseverence of the Elect\”. Calvinists, however, also affirm perpetual justification, the idea that initial justification is never lost (Baptists, Plymouth Brethren, and sometimes fundamentalists of other denominatiosn who have been influenced by the weight Baptist and Brethren views have in general fundamentalism often affirm prepetual justification without affirming the perseverence of the elect) and Lutherans do not (they think that after initial justification one can fall from Grace but that the elect will show their election by repeenting and returning to Grace through faith). Article XVI affirms that for sins committed after baptism, repentance and forgiveness are available and condemns the extreme views that say either one cannot sin after baptism or that one who falls from Grace cannot be forgiven. In doing so, while it does not explicitly affirm the Lutheran position, the language used strongly suggets it. \”Not every deadly sin willingly committed after Baptism is sin against the Holy Ghost, and unpardonable.\” While this doesn\’t actually say that such sins cause one to lose initial justification until he repents and is forgiven, the language of \”deadly sin willingly committed after Baptism\” suggests the Lutheran conception of Mortal Sin.

    When it comes to the Sacraments, at least the Eucharist, you are on firmer ground in asserting the Articles to be Reformed. \”The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is Faith\” sounds closer to John Calvin\’s understanding than either the Lutheran doctrine or Zwinglian memorialism. The language excludes the Zwinglian view, although not as overtly and bluntly as the Roman. One could make a case that rather than affirming Calvin against Luther, the intention was to affirm the Real Presence in as vague a manner as possible, so as not to commit to any particular interpretation of it. Given that the Articles took their final form in the Elizabethan Settlement this seems rather likely. During the reign of Elizabeth I, the Church of England deliberately walked back from the more radical direction in which the English Reformation had seemed to have been heading before it was interrupted by the reign of Mary. In the second Edwardian Prayer Book (1552), for example, the Black Rubric had been inserted into the Order for Holy Communion. It had been intended as a compromise between what Scottish Reformer John Knox was recommending (sitting to receive Communion rather than kneeling) and Archbishop Cranmer\’s more conservative position, but oddly was worded in such a way as to affirm the most radical view of the Sacrament, not Luther\’s, not Calvin\’s, but Zwingli\’s. Elizabeth I excised the Black Rubric from the 1559 edition of the Book of Common Prayer and when it was re-inserted into the Restoration BCP (1662) it was with the Zwinglianism, no longer compatible with the teachings of the Church of England after the adoption of the Articles of Religion in 1571 and their includsion in the BCP from 1604, removed. The direction of the English Reformation from Elizabeth\’s Accession, therefore, was in a more conservative direction, which in terms of the continental Magisterial Reformers meant away from Zwingli and towards Luther, and on this issue stopping in the general vicinity of Calvin. Those who wished to push it in the other direction became, of course, further radicalized as the Puritans.


    • August 26, 2023 @ 2:09 pm Seth Snyder

      I think you are right on the whole, but I would argue that even the Article on the Supper is perfectly consonant with Lutheran doctrine. The term “spiritual presence” was also used by the Lutherans to denote a real, substantial presence. It wasn’t until late in Luther’s career that they began to prefer the term “definitive” instead of “spiritual” so as to differentiate their position from Vermigli and the Swiss Reformed, who also used the language of spiritual. Nevertheless, the Articles are older than the stage of Lutheran development in which the definitive presence came to replace the spiritual, and so, when read in its historical context, and grammatically, can be seen as accommodating both the Lutheran substantial and Reformed spiritual presence.


  4. August 17, 2023 @ 5:49 am Seth Snyder

    No one doubts that Cranmer, Jewel, or Hooker were deeply committed to the witness of the ancient Church and the Fathers. The real question is whether or not their reading of Christian antiquity and the Church Fathers was superior to that of the Caroline divines, non-jurors and Tractarians (the theological lineage from which Anglo-Catholicism derives). If not, the question then arises whether the Church should change, adjust, or nuance its theology and interpretation of the Formularies, or uphold Reformed doctrine over and against the witness of Christian antiquity as understood by our best scholarship. Anglo-Catholics answer yes to the first question, and then recommend adjusting the Church’s theology accordingly. In fine, you’re right that the Reformers were committed to, and saw themselves in continuity with, the ancient Church; but what matters is whether or not their reading of the ancient Church is correct. Some of the Reformation and Classical Anglicans’ arguments that our Formularies, read (so they think) according to their plain, historical sense, demand a Swiss/Rhenish Reformed interpretation, and therefore require of us Reformed theology, taken together with their subsequent pleading the English Reformers’ commitment to antiquity, seem to me an evasive attempt at not having to do any real, constructive patristics work against the Anglo-Catholics. And, if I had to place bets, a fiddle of gold against your soul to think Pusey, Austin Farrer, E.L. Mascall, et al. are better than you.


    • August 17, 2023 @ 10:22 pm Connor Perry

      > Some of the Reformation and Classical Anglicans’ arguments that our Formularies, read (so they think) according to their plain, historical sense, demand a Swiss/Rhenish Reformed interpretation, and therefore require of us Reformed theology, taken together with their subsequent pleading the English Reformers’ commitment to antiquity, seem to me an evasive attempt at not having to do any real, constructive patristics work against the Anglo-Catholics. And, if I had to place bets, a fiddle of gold against your soul to think Pusey, Austin Farrer, E.L. Mascall, et al. are better than you.
      I find this interesting, as most Anglo-Catholic engagement with the Church Fathers I’ve found broadcasted has typically been a repetition of done-to-death arguments that seem so copy-pasted from earlier sources and done worse and with less historical knowledge than 17th-century era argumentation from counter-reformers and reformers alike. I often hear Anglo-Catholics vaunt the Church Fathers as their exclusive shield and buckler, and yet I’ve found that mostly to be posturing. On what issue do Anglo-Catholics excel with the Fathers? What brand new innovative research on the Fathers was done in the Oxford Movement that made them so impressive? I’ve yet to find anything new from an Anglo-Catholic on the Sacraments that I haven’t heard argued better and with more care by a Lutheran two centuries their prior, I’ve yet to find a treatment of Church authority that could effectively respond to a 15th century treatise on the same. And moreover, in counter “protestant” apologetics, I’ve yet to see anything original from the Anglo-Catholics other than, in some unfortunate instances, an expansion of philosophical skepticism that originated from French counter-reformers.
      Where does the bluster come from?


      • August 18, 2023 @ 8:17 am Seth Snyder

        Thank you, Mr. Perry: that’s a very good question. To name a handful: G.L. Prestige’s work on the patristic doctrine of God, “God in Patristic Thought”, remains a gold standard in the field; N.P. Williams’ “The Ideas of the Fall and of Original Sin” is an unparalleled work in patristic hamartiology; James Mozley’s work on the patristic doctrine of baptismal regeneration, “The Primitive Doctrine of Baptismal Regeneration”, is still the best of its kind, and relevant today for debates over baptism; J.N.D. Kelly’s works on the Creeds and early Christian doctrine are still used as textbooks; and Robert Wilberforce’s “Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist”, in response to your Lutheran statement (though I love Chemnitz’ “De Coena”, and even wrote on it in my doctoral dissertation), is enormously impressive for its extensive use of ancient liturgies in treating the topic. To answer your question: on these issues, amongst many others, the Anglo-Catholics excel in patristic studies, and therefore justify a good bit of bluster. Now, that being said, the patristic tradition is broad and diverse, and one can, focusing on certain of the Fathers and certain time periods, satisfactorily derive and warrant a Jewel/Hooker-esque, reformed-leaning Anglican theology therefrom. For this reason those Anglo-Catholics who are dismissive of, or hostile towards, our reformed-leaning brethren are mistaken, and need to repent. However, on the other side, those reformed-leaning Anglicans (and especially Reformation Anglicans) who try and oust the Anglo-Catholics by reducing Anglicanism to an episcopal Geneva, or by applying a positivist gloss to our Formularies, are likewise in the wrong, and need to respect the Anglo-Catholics’ deeply (and genuinely) Anglican reverence for the ancient, patristic witness, and their sophisticated interpretations of the patristic tradition. We are united in our acceptance of the Scriptures, catholic Creeds, the broad, multivalent Christian tradition of the early centuries, and episcopal oversight, and within that range we should, and, taking Jesus’ command to love one another and remain united seriously, must be loving and generous towards one another (or, for the sake of good manners, at least courteous).


        • August 19, 2023 @ 5:10 pm Connor Perry

          Thank you for the suggestions, I will add them to my reading list.


      • August 18, 2023 @ 11:20 am Ben Jefferies

        Ditto Snyder.
        Also – it was the Tractiarians who published the massive ‘Fathers of the Church’ series in the 1830s! 10 years before Migne and 60 years before Schaff convinced everyone it was cool (riding tractarian waves, btw).
        have you seen Pusey’s *sermon footnote* “the real presence as contained in the fathers”? The scope of his Catena is matched only by his judicious lexical and interpretive skill throughout it – and tracing lines and harmonies.


        • August 18, 2023 @ 2:57 pm Seth Snyder

          Yes, I have. Pusey’s expansive knowledge of the Fathers was nothing short of astounding. I don’t identify as Anglo-Catholic myself, and, on occasion, I find myself at odds with them on certain topics; but Anglo-Catholicism is an enormously valuable tradition within the generous orthodoxy allowed by the Church, and shouldn’t be chided the way they sometimes are by our more reformed-leaning brethren.


          • August 23, 2023 @ 2:41 pm GR

            Well said!

        • August 23, 2023 @ 2:42 pm GR

          Hear hear! These are the comment threads I read NAA for!


    • August 19, 2023 @ 11:43 pm Revd Christopher C. Little



  5. August 17, 2023 @ 8:13 pm Harrison Burnette

    This article convinced me of the Anglo-Catholic position even more than I was before.


  6. August 20, 2023 @ 4:18 pm Nathan Long

    The paucity of the religious perspective that disparages a via media and the robust health of a 3 Streams approach is hopefully not going to be re-propagated by those who apparently missed out on the aridity of a \”baptish\” intellectual-only salvation characterized by memorialist perspectives and white knuckle sanctification harangues. Having expanded from ordinances to 2 sacraments, instead of recognizing them as dominical, they now circumscribe the limits of fully orbed biblical religion which is so much more than sacerdotal and yet also beyond just the dominical sacraments. Spoken as very much not an Anglo-Catholic…who nevertheless benefits from Martin Thornton and more.


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