Edward Dowler sets out two guiding principles for catholics in the Church of England


At the recent, and excellent, conference entitled ‘God’s Church in the World: the Gift of Catholic Mission,’ two ‘guiding principles’ were crystallized for me. I talked about them to anyone who was prepared to listen, and would like to share them more widely now. Neither insight is at all original, but I feel that both might be more clearly articulated in our church at the present time.

My first guiding principle is that we should see the catholic tradition for what it is: the mainstream of Christian life and faith throughout history and all across the world, and not an increasingly marginal subset of the Church of England. How did people ever come to think otherwise? Perhaps a partial answer is provided by John Shelton Reed in his work Glorious Battle: The Cultural Politics of Victorian Anglo-Catholicism (Vanderbilt, 1996). Reed recounts how, exhausted by ritual persecutions under the 1874 Public Worship Regulation Act, Victorian Anglo-Catholics eventually stopped trying to convert the Church of England to a fuller sense of its own catholic identity. Instead, they settled for ‘tolerance and forbearance’ for themselves within a more pluralistic environment. Reed writes (p.258) that ‘Anglo-Catholics still pined for the reunion of Christendom, but they no longer seriously sought a unified, “Catholic” Church of England. They said their beliefs were those of the Church, but had become content to see them tolerated as the mark of a party.’

In a very different church and in an almost unrecognizable social context, it is this settlement that I believe now needs to be revisited. The presence of Christ in the Eucharist and its centrality to Christian life and faith; the ability of the Christian year to induct us into the paschal mystery; devotion to the saints as our living companions on the Christian journey: all these and other core areas of catholic faith and practice are not primarily the marks of an Anglican ‘party.’ Rather, they are central and basic aspects of the faith of the Church, which flow naturally and directly out of the witness to the son of God in the scriptures and in the writings of the Fathers. To the extent that catholic beliefs and practices are now coming to be more marginal in the Church of England, it is the Church of England itself—and not the catholic tradition—that starts to become eccentric.

It is often difficult to resist this marginalization of catholicism, not only because Anglo-Catholics themselves have, if Reed is correct, colluded in it for a hundred and fifty years, but also because it is often kindly intended by people who have a genuine desire for the ‘catholic tradition’ to have a voice within the supposedly wider internal conversation of the Church of England. Nevertheless, any discussion that assumes catholicism to be primarily a subset of Anglicanism sees things precisely the wrong way round.

Such an assumption is often betrayed in apparently innocuous words and phrases. For example, it is sometimes said that catholicism is ‘a very particular tradition,’ whereas in fact it is the mainstream of the Christian life and faith throughout history and all around the world. Similarly, the Church Times recently reported the encouragement of one bishop to an incumbent to ‘keep the catholic flame burning.’ Again, it was well meant but catholicism is not a flame that needs to be kept burning within the Church of England. Rather, it is the furnace of Christian life and faith, within which the Church of England is a slightly flickery sub-chamber. Again, catholics do not bring, or fail to bring, ‘something to the table.’ As the Principal of St Stephen’s House has commented, ‘we are the table.’

Unless we can—graciously and lovingly of course—resist the frame of reference that is implied by such descriptions and the mindset behind them, and do so on clearly articulated theological principles, the marginal future that they imply will continue to be a self-fulfilling prophecy within the Church of England, though not, of course, outside it. The point was eloquently made by Fr Graeme Rowlands in his sermon at the recent National Pilgrimage to Walsingham. Quoting Fr Hillier, a predecessor at St Silas, Kentish Town, he contended that ‘true devotion to Our Lady is not like artificial flowers stuck on to make religion look pretty: it is a natural, authentic and luxuriant blossoming that draws its life from the very roots of Christianity, from the Incarnation.’

My second guiding principle may seem paradoxical. If, on the one hand, catholics could perhaps be more confident in maintaining that ours is the mainstream tradition of the Church, on the other hand I believe that we now require a blood transfusion from resources outside the Church of England to keep us going.

‘We don’t know very much about Jesus’ was the somewhat intriguing comment (I think quoted verbatim) that was made by the Archbishop of Canterbury when he graciously welcomed conference attendees to a day of lectures at Lambeth Palace. I am not entirely sure on whose behalf Archbishop Justin was making this statement, but it felt like an admission that the current theological, spiritual and cultural offering within the Church of England can seem like fairly thin gruel. The Archbishop’s comment indicates—to me at any rate—that in order to be who we are and do what we have been called to do we may need to call unashamedly upon outside resources, in precisely the way that the Archbishop himself has done in calling the Chemin Neuf community to come and live at Lambeth Palace as the nucleus of the St Anselm Community.

Let me give a further example: when I was a curate in north London we used the Emmaus course for catechesis within the parish. Those who used it may remember that the course handbooks were illustrated throughout with humorous line drawings. I remember feeling that this was a bit pathetic since every point that was being made could have been given greatly increased depth and resonance by judicious use of some fabulous work of Christian art. And yet all that Emmaus offered visually was a series of slightly patronizing cartoons while in its incomparably more successful competitor, the Alpha course, the only visual element was a man holding a big question mark and the Revd Nicky Gumbel’s talking head.

By contrast with this somewhat impoverished theological, spiritual and cultural environment, I have been very struck by the work of Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of the (Roman Catholic) Diocese of Los Angeles. Barron, an ardent evangelist and apologist for the catholic faith in the tradition of the great Archbishop Fulton Sheen (1895–1979) offers all sorts of resources that catholics in the Church of England have easy access to and could helpfully use. For example, he has run a successful TV series, entitled Catholicism, followed up by a book of the same name and a superb short work on the Eucharist, and he frequently posts ten-minute talks on YouTube in his ‘Word on Fire’ series in which he discusses all kinds of theological issues as well as films and current events. Massively well-read and erudite, he provides an attractive and engaging voice from the theological and spiritual heart of the Catholic tradition.

However, to return to the visual shortcomings of the Emmaus and Alpha courses, one of Bishop Barron’s most striking observations concerns his high-profile work in evangelizing the religiously unaffiliated ‘nones,’ whose numbers have exponentially increased in the western world in every year of the current century. Out of the qualities of truth, goodness and beauty, the three ‘transcendentals’ which reflect the perfection of God, Barron sets the order of priority as follows: ‘first the beautiful, then the good, then the true.’ In an environment in which many are, for a variety of reasons, suspicious both of the Church’s truth claims and of her goodness, it is beauty that Barron believes provides the most likely way in—goodness and truth must of course come later. He cites, with approval, words of von Balthasar: ‘Before the beautiful—no, not really before but within the beautiful—the whole person quivers. He not only “finds” the beautiful moving; rather he experiences himself as being moved and possessed by it.’ This, to me, is far more likely to hold the answer to how God’s people may be inspired and enlivened in mission than any number of the training hubs, vision statements or strategies for church growth.

If it is the case that catholics in the Church of England need a blood transfusion from the wider tradition, serious thought will need to be given to identifying precisely who are to be the donors. In addition to the work of Bishop Barron, my own suggestions are the following: to read almost anything written by Joseph Ratzinger, latterly Pope Benedict XVI, and in particular his trilogy on Jesus; to attend conferences, where people of different backgrounds are able to coalesce around catholic and orthodox theology—the recent Totus Christus conference at Pusey House was a good example; to go on pilgrimage and to travel, for example to the great spiritual power houses of Europe, such as Bec, Chartreuse and Chevetogne, or to a whole multitude of other places; to engage in informed reflection on Christian art in museums, exhibitions and online resources such as the forthcoming Visual Commentary on Scripture; and (perhaps most importantly) to engage seriously with Christians in the many countries where the faith is under sustained attack, since the blood of the martyrs is always the seedbed of the Church.

These suggestions may be contestable, but my hope and prayer is that, refreshed and enlivened by all the riches that are on offer, we may become more fully and joyfully catholic, as we journey under God towards the church of the future, which, whilst being in continuity with all that we have received, will at the same time be quite different from the church we inhabit today.


The Venerable Dr Edward Dowler is the Archdeacon of Hastings.