The Old Religion

No Christian communion asks itself what it is more than my own Anglican one. Protestant or Catholic? Traditional or Evangelical? Calvinist or Zwinglian? The question of Anglican identity is too often treated as a matter of theology or liturgics. Overeager liturgists (of both the Anglo-Catholic or High Reformed varieties) accumulate lists of Anglican ritual “distinctives,” and treat the ones they like as though they constitute the substantive anchors of Anglican belief and practice. Meanwhile academic historians dissect the English Reformers’ minds to reveal their doctrinal opinions, making our reformation here a “fundamentally Calvinist” thing, there “a Zwinglian affair.” Anglican identity, in the hands of liturgists, becomes a towering heap of sacramentals, vestments, and rubrics; for academics, it is a pile of documents and dates.

This unfruitful and discordant situation only serves the enemies of traditionalist Anglicans: for both Roman partisans and progressive Anglicans, the English Church constituted itself as a new religion at the time of the Reformation. Indeed, this situation gives both of these disparate parties what they want: for liberal Anglicans, a church beholden to no tradition but its own–free to administer same-sex and transgender blessings, women’s orders, easy divorce, and freewheeling biblical interpretation–and for Roman partisans, the elimination of another irritating competitor to their claim of universal, exclusive access to the Apostolic Faith.

As in most controversies, only a dispassionate consideration of the facts can suffice to bring unity and clarity. Happily, these were the centerpieces of J.L.C. Dart’s 1962 volume The Old Religion. The title discloses his conclusions that the English Church is none other than the one Catholic, Apostolic Church in England, sensibly reformed along lines familiar to both the ancient faith and even the modern Roman Church. The strength of Dart’s analysis lies in how he sees the real importance of the old doctrine of lex orandi, lex credendi. If we take the law of prayer seriously, then at the end of the day, the rites of the English Church (illumined by the Articles, Formularies, and Catechism) constitute the real source of Anglican identity, even over and above the theological sympathies of its own reformers. For instance, while Thomas Cranmer’s low view of the Eucharist is still traceable to certain clauses retained by his original liturgy (“feed on him in your hearts…”) this amounts only to historical curiosity, since what matters is how the additions to the full prayer–through the settlements and subsequent reforms–elevated the Eucharist above a Zwinglian memorialism or a Receptionist rite (“The body of our Lord Jesus Christ…”). The strength of Dart’s analysis in his opening chapter is his common sense assertion that, liturgical preferences aside, these rites cannot secretly fail to be Catholic given valid form, matter, and minister. Even in the presence of mistaken theology, the sacraments work ex opere operato. Dart then turns his investigation to see whether the Anglican Church successfully preserved the validity of each of the Church’s seven sacraments.

It does not take very many pages to show that Anglican rites indeed preserved each of the seven sacraments’ core elements, and therefore their validity. Dart, less partisan than the Romanists he answers, is pleased to point out places where Anglican rites deteriorated the observance of certain sacraments–the lamentable infrequency of formal confessions, for instance. However, he ably shows that none of these compromised the validity of the sacraments of the Church, and it must be said, the distortions do not amount to anything more serious than many other irregularities the Church has tolerated in various times and places. Surely the infrequency of confession is not more scandalous than adoration replacing communication as thoroughly as it did in the Middle Ages. In these as in all cases of the Church missing the mark of universal practice, the answer is to call attention and correct the error. A welcome side-effect of Dart’s analysis, is its recommendation of a healthy pattern of reform for modern Anglican congregations that have lost their inclination toward their Catholic lineage.

The discussion of the Eucharist, especially, ought to be required reading for modern Anglicans who have drifted into receptionism and even memorialism in some places. Article XXVIII’s insertion that the body of Christ is given as well as received identifies the elements as body and blood before and therefore apart from their reception. Thus, there can be no controversy around what Anglicans and Catholics both say the elements are: the true body and blood of Christ. The real division involves saying what the elements are not: that is that transubstantiation obliges us to say that the elements are not bread and wine, whereas Anglicans–see Lancelot Andrewes–have tended to follow biblical language, which refer to the elements interchangeably as body and blood and bread and wine. But Dart, to his credit, never stops at these background theological documents and rubrics. Everything cashes out in the wording of the actual liturgy, and these include: “the body [referring to the host] of our Lord Jesus Christ keep you in everlasting life.” The point here is that these words cannot fail to account for the substance of Anglican belief on the Eucharist since they constitute the Church’s prayer.

Dart points out that the reasons for the Reformers’ rejection of transubstantiation was not the logic of the doctrine itself but that it had been “vulgarized” and taken to mean that the natural body and blood of Christ appeared miraculously on the altar. Dart correctly points out that this has never been Catholic doctrine: that in fact, the host was always thought to be Christ’s heavenly body with all of its attendant supernatural properties. However, Dart is correct that it was the distorted teaching which accounted for the meaning of the term at the time of the Reformation, and so it is this distortion which is condemned by the Articles. Indeed this “vulgarized” version of transubstantiation of the elements into the natural body and blood has held sway in the Roman Church even into modern times, and so it is not hard to corroborate Dart’s claim with Roman sources. For example, the Benedictine theologian Dom Anscar Vonier found it necessary as late as 1931 to argue against precisely those same distortions in A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist. Vonier’s text is, with some minor caveats, an excellent and readable discourse on the very emphases our Reformers placed on the sacrament: its “heavenly and spiritual” nature over and against the superstition of a magical teleportation of Christ’s natural body and blood, the requirement for faith in its reception, how the Eucharistic sacrifice “remembers” Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice and distributes its goods without affecting it again and again. Despite some official tolerance for high Receptionism, and unfortunate dalliances with memorialism, the Anglican communion today, typically finds itself standing by Rome on Eucharistic controversies for the very reason that their churches never fundamentally divided on the matter.

Perhaps the most valuable gem in the book is an appendix at the end which sets Continental and reformers’ statements on various doctrinal issues next to their English counterparts in the Articles, formularies, catechism, and homilies. In all cases, from predestination to justification by faith, the English Church resisted the most radical impulses of that period. Perhaps by returning to these sources, it may resist the same temptations today.

Why is reading The Old Religion important today? The Anglican Communion’s present travails are unusually dire. The generational and doctrinal rifts in the Roman Church have seen some return of Catholic triumphalists, this time with a quirky Twitter presence, but no less irascible and eager to denigrate Anglicanism as a “counterfeit religion” and no less allergic to historical facts. Tragically, the present regime at Canterbury seems eager to supply Romanist calumnies with ammunition. It matters little whether an erudite Anglo-Catholic darling of the academy or a warm, pastoral “open evangelical” takes the See, the policy of drift toward aid and comfort to sexual gnostics, friendliness toward deep-pocketed American heretics, and intolerance of doctrinal renewal remains the order of the day. In this dire state of affairs, too many Anglican academics and liturgists are missing in action, preferring to focus on specialized topics rather than the kind of synthetic account that would serve to furnish our communion with its overarching identity as a Reformed Catholic institution.

Perhaps the fact (easily substantiated) of the Anglican Church’s continuity with the undivided apostolic Church is old hat, and only remarkable to a convert from a tradition that does not claim the same. Perhaps it does not settle the sorts of questions that preoccupy modern liturgists and academics. Perhaps it does not give us a satisfactory guide in Anglican “distinctives” nor help us argue for our preferred prayer book, music choice, proper vesture, or whether the Salisbury Blue may be used at Advent, or whether we are still indeed “miserable offenders” after centuries of linguistic drift. But then again, perhaps it takes a convert to be struck by the Catholic substance of our communion as a remarkable, precious, and indispensable thing. Perhaps it takes a convert to recognize that ours is not a time for bespoke “distinctives” but rather that we claim a catholic faith. In our new century, we would do well to continue along Dart’s trailhead and allow our Reformed Catholic identity to take center stage before anything else. It is not that it will supply answers to every question of identity, it is that we will rediscover the right questions to ask. For instance, what sort of body constitutes the “valid matter” of the sacrament of ordination? What of marriage? And are matters of style really so significant in the face of so awesome a fact as sacramental validity? If we take our Reformed Catholic identity seriously–bringing the sacraments into focus, and leaving all the rest to a blurred backdrop–then we will be able to answer spurious charges from partisans of other traditions and combat the temptations toward accommodation with the strange doctrines of modernity. If we do this, we may yet find our reason for mission and unify around the things worth defending: the mysteries of the ancient Church and the priceless graces they effect.

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.

'The Old Religion' have 2 comments

  1. August 29, 2019 @ 11:28 am Fr. Bryan

    Thank you Fr. Wilgus; excellent summary! Glad to see that Dart is still being read today. He continues to make an important contribution to a fair and historic understanding of Anglican identity (that still applies today).


  2. August 29, 2019 @ 1:12 pm Fr Timothy Matkin

    I love that book. I thought I was the only one. He makes a very tight case.


Would you like to share your thoughts?

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

(c) 2019 North American Anglican