The rise and fall of Anglo-Catholicism is a well known story, but the noted Roman Catholic scholar, Aidan Nichols OP offers a new and sensitive perspective on its past history and current crisis

Whatever the fairest view of the English Reformation, even Diarmaid MacCulloch (The Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700, Allen Lane, 2003) admits that a Catholic party emerged relatively early, certainly less than seventy-five years after Elizabeth’s accession. He is inclined to date it to the moment when, on James I’s death, the Duke of Buckingham asked Archbishop Laud to run his finger down a list of senior clergy and set against their names the letters either P or O, meaning Puritan or Orthodox.

By the 1830s, it was certainly impossible to say there was no such party – even if, as Dr Sheridan Gilley of the University of Durham has argued (‘The Ecclesiology of the Oxford Movement: a Reconsideration’, Nova I.1 1996), it is, as he writes: ‘tempting to trace [the] troubles of the [present-day] Church of England to the very nineteenth century movement which did most for its revival.’

He is referring of course to the Oxford Movement, born as that was in the crisis of the European confessional state at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In Gilley’s words, its leaders were ‘more than conservatives: they were right-wing radicals who transformed the very tradition they set out to renew.’


Hurrell Froude, like the future Tractarian leaders, was a political conservative with a hearty contempt for majorities, and an even stronger contempt for the liberalism and rationalism to which he, like they, traced the radical Utilitarian critiques of the Church as a corrupt institution. With his affection for the theocratic, mediaeval Church Froude could be called the founder of Anglican Ultramontanism, a harbinger of the Anglo-Papalism – the most extreme or the most consistent (depending on how one looks at it) version of Anglo-Catholicism in the twentieth century.

More influentially, the rest of the Oxford Movement men did what their High Church predecessors generally had not done: they declared that in possessing the apostolic ministry of bishops, to guarantee the sacramental and spiritual life, the Church of England was Catholic and not Protestant. The Anglican via media was not the ‘old High Anglican Protestant middle way between popery and radical Protestantism.’ Rather, Anglicanism, properly understood, was a via media between popery and Protestantism itself.

In Gilley’s words, John Henry Newman ‘awakened the Church of England from the condition in which it could blithely assume that it was both Protestant and Catholic by asking the question which has plagued it ever since: is it essentially Catholic or Protestant or Liberal?’

And, as Gilley adds, the points were connected, for Newman thought that the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura led inevitably to the liberalism which denied the authority of Scripture altogether; something, Gilley declares, that by the early twenty-first century New Testament scholars were proving daily.

Folk fears

But just by calling itself Catholic rather than Protestant the Oxford Movement awoke folk fears of Rome. By setting out to appropriate the devotional life and discipline of contemporary Catholicism, its followers appeared to be not so much interpreting the Book of Common Prayer as supplanting it. Many informed Protestants came to distrust Newman’s appeal to the Fathers, implicit in the new Library of the Fathers, and his appeal to the more Catholic writers of the Anglican tradition, explicit in the new Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology.

Though Anglicanism had long been, in Gilley’s memorable phrase, an ‘ecclesiological Noah’s Ark,’ what was novel in the early Victorians was the sharpness of the ensuing self-definition of factions, ‘partisan and even warring positions.’ The older Protestant High Churchmen were marginalized as Anglican Protestantism became an anti-Anglo-Catholic Evangelicalism, and High Churchmanship an anti-Protestant Anglo-Catholicism.

A few notable High Anglicans such as W.E. Gladstone retained a strong element of Protestantism in their Anglican Catholicism, but the general tendency of Anglo-Catholicism was towards a repudiation of the Protestant inheritance.

Anglo-Catholics ascendant

The resulting internal divisions weakened the Church, leading to the secularization of the University of Oxford in the later nineteenth century, and more widely new problems in competing with an expanding Nonconformity. Newman’s secession to Rome left his remaining disciples under a cloud as secret papists, who might even yet secede, though their spiritual and intellectual gifts drew to them many of the best in the Church of England.

The Anglo-Catholics, however, could survive and prosper only by flouting constituted authority. Theoretically, they had adopted an exalted theology of the monarchical episcopate owed to St Ignatius of Antioch and St Cyprian in the early Church. In practice, they showed enormous gusto in defying Protestant and Liberal bishops. Secure in the parsons’ freehold, from which only wearisome legislation could dislodge them, they established ‘an infallible priest-Pope in every parish, loyal not to his immediate bishop but to Catholic Christendom in some vaguer, wider sense.’

So here we have them: on the ascendant from about 1870 to 1940 and then on the decline, and either way beyond a doubt as to doctrine, worship and devotion, though not ecclesial communion, a displaced portion of Catholic Christendom.

Liberals triumphant

But the party system created in the later nineteenth century, with theological colleges teaching diametrically opposed Catholic and Protestant theologies, could in the long term benefit, as Gilley comments ‘only theological liberalism, for it made the defining character of Anglicanism neither Protestantism nor Catholicism but a liberal comprehensiveness including them both and claiming to be broader, more inclusive, than either.’

Appeal to comprehensiveness dilutes both Catholic and Protestant dogma, so that, in the end neither Protestants nor Catholics but the theological liberals have proved the victors in the war for the soul of the Church of England.

What to do now?

The question thus arises, What are we to do? Gilley writes, ‘The decline of Anglo-Catholicism seems to me a serious impoverishment of Christianity. No one who has not known the High Church tradition from the inside can appreciate its seductive fascination. It took all that is best and most beautiful in the Church of England – the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer with its wonderful Cranmerian cadences, the ancient cathedrals and parish churches, a tradition of literature and a tradition of learning, and the kindness, gentleness and tolerance of English life, and enriched them with judicious borrowings from the doctrine, devotion and scholarship of the wider Catholic world.’

In fact, for Gilley, who himself left the Church of England to become a Catholic at the time of the controversy over the denial of the bodily resurrection by Bishop David Jenkins of Durham, ‘It seemed the perfect meeting place between Catholicity and Englishness, without the harshness and philistinism of English Roman Catholicism, which has spent a generation destroying everything that was most beautiful about itself.’

The question of an Anglican Uniate church is the question of whether all this – or most of it, or, at any rate, a significant part of it, – could be preserved in a union, nonetheless, with Rome; not through absorption by the modern Latin-rite church in England or elsewhere, but in union with the Petrine office, whose continued, steadfast guardianship of classical Catholic Christian doctrine in faith and morals remains remarkably unshaken among the squalls of the contemporary world.

Anglican Uniatism?

The 1992 Synod decision to ordain women to the priesthood induced a crisis in historic Anglo-Catholicism – by which I mean the Anglo-Catholic movement once its modernizing Affirming Catholicism element is left out of the count. This put the question on the agenda in an urgent fashion for the first time. And in one sense England turned out to be not the most helpful place to be when thinking through what such a union might involve.

Speaking very generally, in England Anglo-Catholics and Roman Catholics are too close for comfort. Owing to geographical proximity in a relatively small and culturally fairly homogenous country, Roman Catholics think they naturally understand Anglicanism. But they by no means necessarily do.

An added problem is the temper of the Latin episcopate in England, at least at the time of the Synod vote. As William Oddie’s The Roman Option shows, the Latin-rite bishops, Cardinal Basil Hume alone excepted, were implacably opposed to a Uniate jurisdiction for former Anglicans.

On my speculative analysis – unlike in the United States of America, in England and Wales the proceedings of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference are shrouded in confidentiality – the larger number of them believed Anglo-Catholics would never become proper Roman Catholics. Anecdotal evidence suggests there was widespread episcopal ignorance of how advanced the Catholicising spirit is in classically Anglo-Catholic and especially Anglo-Papalist parishes.

The remaining bishops, Westminster excepted, were equally opposed, one gathers, on quite opposite grounds – namely, that these were aggressive doctrinaire conservatives who would swell the ranks of traditionalist Catholics already found irksome at their diocesan pastoral meetings or by their letters to the Catholic press.

Neither of these negative attitudes was totally without foundation. We can note that so distinguished a former Anglo-Catholic as Graham Leonard now thinks that those ‘coming over’ were saved from impending disaster by such episcopal resistance.