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.
May 11, 2020 @ 10:47 am Kevin Davis
I agree with everything Candice writes here and reflects my experience precisely. On the point of lack of access to orthodox expressions of Anglicanism, it’s even difficult in a fairly large city like Charlotte, where I live. There’s a handful of ACNA congregations, who meet at elementary schools, YMCA, or rent space at other churches. By contrast, as a Catholic I could attend any number of churches, many with beautiful liturgy, architecture, and faithful priests — such as the cathedral here. It’s hard not to see the ACNA as some weird start-up sect by comparison. And, of course, the Episcopal churches are varying shades of heterodoxy and declining, while the Catholic parishes are actually (at least here) bursting with energy and growth. And as someone who loves to travel, both in the US and Europe, the catholicity of the Roman communion is another very attractive feature. If I were to live in France (and I am a Francophile), my choices would be Roman Catholic or some Baptist/Pentecostal variation on low church Protestantism or maybe the very tiny (and very liberal) Église protestante unie de France.
May 16, 2020 @ 4:30 am Greg
You may be interested to know that Anglicanism is alive and growing in France with the Church of England having over 83 congregations there, ( many of them meeting in unused or under used Roman Catholic church buildings.
Additionally ,the Episcopal Church has a number of congregations in France and other Anglican jurisdictions such as the Free Church of England and the Anglican Catholic Church also have a presence there as well.
So rest assured if you do ever end up living in France there is a good chance that there will be an Anglican congregation not too far away at all. God’s blessing upon you.
May 11, 2020 @ 12:16 pm Kent Haley
Very well put. For those in rural communities (like mine) especially, Anglican churches are hard to come by. But almost every small town has a Roman Catholic Church. I suspect a lot of Roman Catholic converts may have at least given Orthodox Anglicanism more consideration if it was more accessible. Also, if an evangelical does not find a least some aspects of Roman Catholicism attractive, its hard to see why he would find Anglicanism attractive enough to leave his evangelical roots. But as you say, there are a few hurdles that are very difficult to get over when it comes to the Roman church. Thus, many of us are in a very difficult spot – either settle for revivalist church (whether of the contemporary variety with bands and light shows or slightly older more fundamentalist variety with hymns from the early 1900s and altar call, but both neglecting historic Christian worship) while going crazy in the process, drive a long way to church, or give in and swim the Tiber.
May 11, 2020 @ 3:08 pm Pat Peterson
Candace: Well written. Very interesting. Loved what you had to say. Love you and your family! Having grown up in the Episcopal Church, then being “born again” in my mid 20s, I appreciate your points. I love the communion and liturgy of the TEC, kneeling for bread and wine, bowing one’s head (and exposing one’s neck in a gesture of surrender), anointing, the Gospel being read in the service down among the congregation (representing the gospel open to all people), the amount of psalms and scripture read each week in the lessons, the general quiet of the sanctuary when you enter. the liturgical calendar and celebration of high and low days. And yet, I too have issues with the some of the mainstream church. However, sadly, we humans are all hypocrites, we cannot escape that in the world or our churches, as disappointing and disillusioning it is. I am more Anglican than not, but also Evangelical. I think the most we can do is try not to harshly judge the people we encounter in churches, or anywhere else, and that we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, read and meditate on scripture, and try to live with grace and forgiving hearts.
May 12, 2020 @ 9:39 pm Candice Gage
Thank you so much Pat for your comment! The first time I ever visited an Anglican church was with your family, all those years ago. I was really little, but I still remember it — I think my folks gave us an extra warning about being good since it was a more “high church” tradition than we were used to. Your kind and loving character through the years has certainly been a witness to this way of practicing Christianity. Thank you!
May 12, 2020 @ 2:56 pm David Morrison
I was raised in the Anglican tradition, neither “high” nor “low” but what we considered good, solid, Apostolic Catholic Christianity. I was perfectly happy, my relationship with Christ was growing, but, finally, the growing liberalism and doctrinal deviations were just too much. The difficult part for me in “crossing the Tiber” was not doctrinal but, frankly, aesthetic. When I converted (in the ’70s) Catholic Masses were, well, not very well done with LOTS of post Vatican II “goofiness” – liturgical abuses, bad music etc. And there were times I reverted to going to Anglican parishes that were hanging on to the solid, old ways. But the wheels of the Church (like God’s) grind slowly but they DO grind on and these days I find Catholic liturgies to be well-done, with good hymns, and the young priests tend to be orthodox and pious. I am glad I made the crossing to Rome. “So wherever in the world we go, Benedicamus Domino.”
September 28, 2020 @ 8:15 pm Peter
The problem that you fail to mention is the Roman church has its own divisions. There is big divide between progressives, conservatives, and traditionalists. There are traditionalist anglicans who went over to Rome only to find that the liberalism they thought to have abandoned was quite vibrant on the Roman church. I also found it curious that you not consider the Eastern Orthodox as another option. If I had to choose,
I would go with the EO than the RC. But I will
Stay with the AC with it warts and all. Unlike, the EO and the RC, the AC does not claim to be the true church.Also sola fide is crucially important. To abandon it leads to a defective gospel.