In a recent Mere Orthodoxy piece titled “Why Is Anglicanism a Gateway to Catholicism?”, M.H. Turner raises some important questions about why Anglicans swim the Tiber. For my part, I found Turner’s proposed answers wanting. Paul Owen responded with a solid historical defense of Anglo-Catholicism, but he left Turner’s questions about the motive of modern Evangelicals unanswered.
I don’t pretend to be any sort of expert, but this topic is a personal one for me in a roundabout way. I am one of those Evangelical expatriates Turner references, though I spent more than two years attending my local Roman Catholic church before I discovered a small United Episcopal church nearby. So my own path is rather backward of what Turner suggests — at least for the time being.
I think there are some important facts missing from Turner’s discussion. First, many of us don’t have access to an orthodox Anglican church in our own communities. And even those Anglicans comfortably settled in a church community too often lack access to services while traveling.
If you want to attend a church that gives primacy to the Eucharist, confesses the creeds, celebrates a form of the traditional liturgy, observes the church calendar, prays the Divine Office, practices apostolic succession — and in general isn’t another Evangelical group trying to sell you on their brand, for many of us the only option is the Roman Catholic church. Turner neglects the general lack of access to Anglican churches in his discussion, while — for me anyway — it is a primary issue.
Despite the near universal access to Roman Catholic parishes, certain beliefs and practices — such as Papal infallibility, the immaculate conception, and the granting of indulgences — can be too much for former Evangelicals like me to accept. For this reason, I was delighted when I found an Anglican church I could visit, as I (along with so many) was attracted to Anglicanism as a via media, a way to participate in the form and rites of the broader Church Catholic while avoiding those specifically Roman errors. Turner suggests the view “that Anglicanism is historically a via media between Catholicism and Protestantism, has been so often debunked it only lives on in potted histories for Anglican rookies.” This accusation of rookie status seems biased, as Owen demonstrated. Of course, Anglicanism is by nature thoroughly Protestant. But in practice, it doesn’t seem an unfair assessment to place Anglicanism between Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism. In reaction to Roman Catholicism, Anglicans reformed the Roman rite in the development of their own tradition. In reaction to Anglicanism, Evangelicals (for example, Baptists) typically threw the baby out with the baptismal font. To Evangelicals, Anglicanism seems like a step toward the Tiber while staying firmly on Protestant ground. Anglicanism allows participation in what is recognizably the ancient Church without having to assent to Roman peculiarities.
And yet, Anglicanism’s nearness to Rome in vital aspects has opened the door to reunification. How many Protestant traditions have been welcomed into Roman Catholicism with their own Ordinariate? Yes, the groups within the Ordinariate have left their communions to join Rome, but Rome’s acceptance of their form of worship is telling. As offensive as this may be to staunchly “Protestant” Anglicans, the commonalities between Anglicanism and certain aspects of Roman Catholicism seem irrefutable — and very attractive to Evangelicals tired of continually updated modes of Christianity.
This rootedness in pre-Reformation Christian tradition is why Anglicanism as “mere Christianity” works. While Turner’s criticism of the use of this term is fair in regard to certain Anglican distinctives, he misses the comparative “mereness” when considering the denominational fatigue many Evangelicals experience. After all, Anglicanism has never been a denomination as we conceive of them today; it began as the Church of England. Anglicanism was mere Christianity for our cultural (and for some of us, our biological) ancestors. For me, the journey into Anglicanism is like a trek backward in Reformation history, taking my own small steps away from a Protestantism replete with disunity. From this perspective, the push back within the ACNA against denominationalism seems entirely natural, as the Anglican tradition cannot be compared to the factions du jour rampant within Evangelicalism.
These qualities drew me to Anglicanism — not ceremony and Scripture, as Turner suggests. Ceremony for ceremony’s sake is exactly the sort of thing to make an Evangelical wary. And as an Evangelical, I have been steeped in Scripture my whole life. Evangelicals don’t have the lectionary, but we have “read the Bible in a name-your-timespan” plans innumerable. In one church I attended, we did a summer Bible plan one year where we read the great book in just three months. I currently belong to an Evangelical-run Facebook group where we are reading the Bible in a year together with the organization providing daily commentary. Evangelicals have scripture.
And just as Turner’s summary of what draws Evangelicals to Anglicanism left something wanting, his understanding of why some continue on to Rome seems shallow.
First, he neglects the seeming trend of Episcopalians converting to Rome after TEC departed from orthodox Christian teaching. This seems to be the case with the likes of, for example, Andrew Petipren, J. Budziszewski, R.R. Reno, and Thomas Howard. Yes, they could have joined one of the small continuing Anglican groups, but after leaving one global communion, I understand why they joined another.
Second, Turner doesn’t seem able to see the genuinely appealing aspects of Roman Catholicism. For starters, Protestants may balk at the Roman church’s seeming ownership of the title “catholic,” but factually, most Christians are Roman Catholic — more than 50 percent. We Protestants can talk all we want about the “invisible catholic church”, but when we won’t sit in pews next to one another on Sunday mornings, and especially when we won’t sit at the Lord’s table together, our catholicity tastes rather hypocritical. Members of the Roman Catholic church, on the other hand, will sit with one another and break bread together anywhere around the globe. The Anglican Communion may be the third largest (after Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy), but fractures have developed around issues of Christian orthodoxy. As Paul said, there must be factions at times (1 Corinthians 11:19). But when Anglican’s respond by acting like sectarian Protestants, forming niche denominations and arguing amongst themselves, they make other global communions look more obedient to Christ’s call for unity.
What is more, there are certain historic Christian teachings that Protestants have abandoned. The Roman Catholic teaching on the sanctity of marriage is very attractive, as is their high value of celibacy. When surveying the damage wrought on our society by easy divorce and promiscuity, it’s hard to think we could over-emphasize fidelity and chastity. The historic Christian teaching against birth control is likewise difficult to find outside of Rome. Christopher West noted in Our Bodies Tell God’s Story that Protestants redefined marriage long before the Obergefell decision when they struck the lines about openness to children from the traditional marriage vows. Evangelicals (like myself) who grew up steeped in the values of the quiver-full movement, may admire Rome’s counter-cultural, Biblical stand on these issues.
Also, Turner notes Rome’s frankness regarding liturgy. While I haven’t found Anglican teaching about ceremony wanting, I have found Roman Catholics more transparent than Protestants in other ways. They tend to be clearer about the roles of tradition and Scripture in the life of the church, while Protestants try to insist their traditions are based entirely on scripture (when they clearly are not). Rome is also honest about what you will be excommunicated for. Protestants will excommunicate you as well — they just won’t admit they are doing it. Yes, it is difficult to have to assent to everything that Rome tells you to believe, but at least you know what you are signing up for — and what everyone else is signing up for. It is difficult to have friendships ruined because people disagree about an obscure Bible passage (something I would wager most Evangelical fundamentalists have experienced), so a church where people have a standard they are agreeing to sounds almost like a utopian myth.
And the legend can sound even more appealing when Evangelical pilgrims find in Anglicanism the same Protestant pitfalls they are trying to flee. When different tiny Anglican denominations refuse to unite over minor doctrinal differences, it’s unsettling. When Anglican teaching departs from historic truths, it’s troubling. When you see certain Anglican groups branding themselves and using advertising techniques, it feels fake. When Anglicans bicker about doctrine, exalting their own views while putting others down, it can feel like you haven’t really escaped anything. While I can appreciate Turner’s candor as a whole, his tone smacks of the same factious condescension I’ve grown to know so well as an Evangelical. Maybe there is no escape, but some of us hoped Anglicanism would offer a taste of actual unity — the sort Jesus prayed for in his High Priestly Prayer (John 17:21). But if Anglicans behave like just another Protestant sect, it is little wonder that some swim the Tiber.
I haven’t converted to Roman Catholicism — there are very real issues I haven’t been able to overcome. But as I’ve been getting ready to relocate later this year and researching the churches that will be available to me, I’ve wondered what I will do. I have sympathy for any Christian struggling to find a place in our very dysfunctional catholic Church. It’s something I’m praying about myself.