Jonathan Mansel argues the merits of a counter cultural ethos

A point people often make is that the existence of Forward in Faith, has galvanized and rejuvenated the Catholic movement in the Church of England such as has not been seen for many a year. Now it has cohesion, purpose, identity and direction. Some go even further.

They argue that, although smaller in numbers and influence, the present-day Catholic movement has moved, in a decade, further along the road of gaining a discreet Catholicism within the Church of England than was ever achieved by its forebears. That is, the Tractarians, Catholic Revival, the religious ferment of the late Victorian era, the controversies over the Prayer Book as Proposed in 1928, and the Anglo-Catholic Congresses of the 1930s.

What a glorious history it is. Take the Catholic Revival in mid-Victorian England. It thrived on confrontation. There was no compromise. Demands were made in the most outrageous terms. Part of the movement’s appeal was that it offended the stuffy, the powerful and the establishment at every turn. The similarities with the current situation are obvious. Just like the Catholic Revival, Forward in Faith does stand in opposition to some of the dominant values of its time and place, it does appeal to people who are disaffected from these values. In short, it is itself a counter-cultural movement.

Forward in Faith counter-cultural? To begin with, it alerts us to the fact that the current ongoing debates in which Anglican Catholics are embroiled have little to do with theology. They are more to do with the cultural/social values of those involved, and the social processes that operate within them. So, theological debate is unlikely to be effective in such a context. Maybe then, arguing for adequate provision and justice for minorities is the key requirement, rather than the necessity of orthodox bishops for theological continuity.

If we go on applying this cultural-politics view to our current situation, more interesting parallels emerge, especially in the areas of opposition and support. Victorian Anglo-Catholic belief and practice was opposed by stalwart Protestants (many of whom were non-Anglicans) on theological grounds. But it was also opposed by English Society in general on common-sense grounds.

So in our present age we have the widely-held principle of equality and justice for women now enshrined in ecclesiastical and secular legislation. Present day Catholic Anglicans therefore stand diametrically opposed to the cultural values of middle-England, and may even be viewed as a threat to those values. Hence the view taken by some that no provision must be made for those opposing women bishops.

On the other hand, there are those who have gained new life and vitality in the current state of affairs. Liturgical changes in the Church of England have allowed many mainstream Catholic practices and expressions – but not the theology. Hence Anglo-Papalism (the adoption of Roman Catholic rites, practices and theology within Anglicanism) has progressively been adopted, as Catholic Anglicans have striven for a new identity. Anglo-Catholic clergy have found it particularly difficult to retain their counter-culture, as their theological outlook has become more tolerated and accepted. The result? There is a new sense of fulfillment, identity, and above all, coherence within Anglican Catholicism. This counter-culture is also regarded as in direct continuity with the previous stages in Anglo-Catholic history, characterized by the embattled minority with a subversive message. It may explain the vibrancy and ever-growing strength of Forward in Faith, together with the substantial support it already receives.

It has to be emphasized that seeing Forward in Faith as a counter-cultural movement in no way denigrates the authenticity of its message. It may be nearer the truth of how God is working among us. After all, the Prophets of Israel were a counter-culture, as were the Apostles of the New Israel, most of the Saints of the Church, and finally, Our Blessed Lord was the greatest subversive of them all. Long live the revolution!