Project Canterbury

What is Anglo-Catholicism?
A Response in Six Parts

by the Revd John D. Alexander, SSC
Rector of S Stephen's Church, Providence, Rhode Island
formerly of the Church of the Ascension, Staten Island, New York

Part One: The Oxford Movement

Our 1993 Parish Profile remarked that "Ascension, a parish rich in history, is spiritually and liturgically Anglo-Catholic by tradition and teaching." But what does it mean to be Anglo-Catholic? This article is the first of several in which I seek to explore this aspect of our parish identity.

The Tractarians

As an identifiable movement within modern Anglicanism, Anglo-Catholicism originated among a group of scholarly priests at Oxford University in the 1830s. The three best-known leaders of "the Oxford Movement" were John Keble, John Henry Newman, and Edward Pusey.

The movement started in 1833 when, as a protest against Parliament’s political interference in the internal affairs of the Church of England, Keble preached a sermon on "National Apostasy" in the University Church of Saint Mary the Virgin.

Soon after this, Keble, Newman, Pusey, and others started publishing a series of pamphlets known as Tracts for the Times. The members of the movement thus became known as the "Tractarians."

Competing Views of the Church

The central question initially addressed by the Oxford Movement had to do with the nature of the Church. In early nineteenth century England, people tended to view the Church in one of two ways.

The first view saw the Church of England as "the nation at prayer." In this view, the Church had no existence independent of the nation; it was simply the spiritual side of civic society. As an institution, it was thus seen as a sort of "Department of State for Religious Affairs." The primary purpose of the Church in this view was not so much to offer eternal salvation as to improve the quality of national life by teaching morals, sponsoring good works, and cultivating public virtue.

A very different view, associated with the Evangelical Movement, saw the Church as an essentially invisible society made up of all those who had made a personal decision to accept Christ. Individual believers might join earthly institutions called "churches," but these bodies would also include many nominal members who had not yet come to faith and who thus remained outside the "true" Church. So, in the Evangelical view, the Church was an invisible worldwide spiritual fellowship that could not be identified with or limited to any visible earthly institution.

The Tractarian Vision

The great achievement of the Oxford Movement was to recover a third view, solidly rooted in Scripture and the early Church Fathers, which sees the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church as the visible divine society founded by Christ himself to carry forth his mission on earth until the end of time.

The Tractarians emphasized that Christ gave authority in the Church to the apostles and their successors, the bishops. An essential mark of the Catholic Church is thus the presence of the threefold orders of bishop, priest, and deacon in apostolic succession.

The Catholic Church is to be found in its fullness in those historic denominations which have maintained the apostolic succession and which have adhered to the faith of the ancient Creeds and Councils. By this criterion, the three great "branches" of the one Catholic Church are the Anglican, Roman, and Orthodox Communions.

One enters the Church through Holy Baptism, and is subsequently fed by Christ himself in the Sacraments. Thus, faith is not the cause but rather the fruit of one’s Christian identity and Church membership. Yet all Christians are called to holiness of life through the spiritual disciplines of regular worship, reception of the Sacraments, and prayer.

The Vision Today

Such was the vision that sparked a fire of theological, spiritual, and liturgical renewal across large parts of the Anglican world from the 1830s to the present day. It is the same vision that inspired Fr. Raymond Rogers and his successors here at Ascension.

Although our situation today is very different from that of early 19th century England, we are even now being offered new versions of the same old competing views of the Church that were on offer then.

Some would still have us treat the Church as an institution of our own creation, ours to do with as we see fit, according to the world’s ever-changing standards.

Others would still have us retreat into a narrowly individualistic piety, in which an undue emphasis on subjective religious experience eclipses the proper role of Church and Sacraments in the Christian life.

In such times, the Tractarians still offer us a vision of our place as Anglicans in the wider Catholic Church, a vision of wholeness and integrity, that we can ill afford to ignore.

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