In the first of a series of articles John D. Alexander and Phoebe Pettingell examine why traditional Anglo-Catholicism will abide

Is traditional Anglo-Catholicism a thing of the past? Many people today seem to fear or hope so. In recent years, many of its adherents have left the Episcopal Church for such bodies as the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) or the Roman Catholic Ordinariate. The rhetoric heralding the demise of traditional Anglo- Catholicism within the official Anglican Communion is at its most strident among those departing. But even some AngloCatholics who show no intention of leaving sound repeated notes of demoralization and despair.

A comprehensive outlook

We believe, however, that AngloCatholicism represents an identity too deeply woven into the fabric of Anglicanism simply to disappear. The term ‘traditional Anglo-Catholicism’ signifies not just a particular position on certain narrowly defined issues, but rather a comprehensive outlook grounded in a Catholic view of the Christian past and the ecumenical present. We believe that as long as Anglicanism itself survives, new individuals and groups will be drawn to the Anglo-Catholic way.

In recent years, various writers have produced valuable historical studies yielding many new insights into Anglican Catholicism. Yet much of this writing reflects historicist assumptions: that is, it emphasizes what is contingent, particular, unique, and unrepeatable in history. And from this viewpoint there is no assurance that just because Anglo-Catholic movements have flourished in the past they are likely to do so in the future.

We propose a deeper level of analysis. Borrowing terms from the structural-functionalist school of sociology, our focus is on Anglo-Catholicism as a functional component within the structure of Anglicanism; or, borrowing an image from family systems theory, as a defined role within the Anglican family system. In

other words, something inherent in Anglicanism itself tends in different ways at different times and in different places to call into existence some form of Anglo-Catholic movement. We are not saying that the emergence of such a movement is inevitable or necessary in deterministic terms. We are saying that when we consider Anglicanism as a structure or system, then a clear space comes into view within it for an AngloCatholic function or role. And in any given epoch, certain individuals and groups are likely to perceive the need for this role and step forward to fill it.

Anglo-Catholicism’s role

Three key structural features have combined in most periods of Anglican history to call forth some form of Anglo-Catholic movement. The first is the separation of the Church of England in the sixteenth century from visible unity with the Roman Catholic Church in the West, and its subsequent departure from many aspects of its pre-Reformation heritage. The second, counterbalancing the first, is Anglicanism’s retention of key markers both of continuity with its pre-Reformation past, and of continuing commonality with the Catholic Churches of the East and West. The third feature is the subordination of the Church to the state in England – and, more broadly, of Anglicanism itself to the prevailing secular culture in other countries – leaving it vulnerable to various anti-Catholic influences both inside and outside the Church.

This threefold structural combination makes almost inevitable the emergence of parties and movements perceiving a call to defend, preserve, and affirm both the essential continuity of Anglicanism with its pre-Reformation Catholic past and its continuing shared heritage with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

An enduring role for Anglo-Catholic witness is thus built into the systemic structure of Anglicanism itself. Those who have fulfilled this role to varying

degrees include such figures as Richard Hooker, Lancelot Andrewes, the High-Church Part, the Tractarians and Ritualists, and the various more recent Anglo-Catholic movements. Scholars have debated the extent to which these parties and movements represent a continuous stream of ‘High Church’ tradition, or a discontinuous series of discrete responses to the circumstances of each era. Another possibility, however, is that despite their many discontinuities they all emerged to fulfill more or less the same function or role within the total Anglican system. Regardless of who steps into or out of it, the role persists and keeps on attracting adherents in new generations.

The three ways

The Anglo-Catholic role often entails distinct challenges. At certain periods, the church comes under pressure from the secular culture to accommodate demands that compromise its essential Catholic identity; and to the extent that the church’s decision-making structures yield to these pressures, traditional Anglo-Catholics find themselves in an awkward minority position. Under these circumstances, Anglo-Catholics tend to move in one of three ways: secession, accommodation, or witness.

In terms of the methodology developed by the sociologist Max Weber, these three ways represent ‘ideal types’ of Anglo-Catholic vocation. Thus, we do not claim that any individual precisely conforms to the type in all respects. Actual people at best approximate to one of the types, and many combine features of more than one. Moreover, while our own preference is clearly for the third way, we recognize that many AngloCatholics have been called to follow the first and second ways, and have done so with integrity. In the next article we will begin to unpack these ways. ND

This article originally appeared
in ‘The Living Church’ magazine