On November 4, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI issued an Apostolic Constitution, Anglicanorum Coetibus, in response to “groups of Anglicans” who had petitioned “repeatedly and insistently to be received into full Catholic communion individually as well as corporately,” which created for them a new ecclesiastical structure: the Personal Ordinariates. The stated purpose of these was “to maintain the liturgical, spiritual and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion within the Catholic Church, as a precious gift nourishing the faith of the members of the Ordinariate and as a treasure to be shared.”

Pope Benedict described the petitioners as “moved by the Holy Spirit.” For him, their corporate reunion with the Church was both to their benefit and to ours. Many questions were raised: Just what were these Anglican “liturgical, spiritual and pastoral traditions” of which the Constitution spoke? Were they not merely Protestant customs? How could they be either a “precious gift” or a “treasure to be shared?” Indeed, if one were thinking only of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, this would be a fair point. But Anglican history—and, for that matter, English Catholic history—is rather more complex than that.

The persecution of the English Church by Henry, Elizabeth, and company resulted in a small, secretive minority in England (and daughter colonies, such as Maryland and Kentucky). They were forced to forego a demonstrative liturgical life, instead focusing on personal piety and holiness. Living a sort of dry (and occasionally wet) martyrdom and—especially after the defeat of the last Jacobite attempt in 1746—having to forego any hope of influencing the external political order, English Catholicism became ever more secretive and inward-looking.

Meanwhile, inside and outside the Established Church, English Protestantism became ever more chaotic. Nevertheless, as early as the 17th century under King Charles I, a “Catholicizing” element appeared within the Church of England, paradoxically spearheaded by the king himself. The so-called “Caroline Divines” attempted to establish an Anglicanism in continuity with pre-Reformation Christianity, while the Cavalier Poets not only praised Charles and his adherents while attacking their Puritan opponents in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, but also evoked those elements of English life unchanged by the religious upheavals. The King’s judicial murder by the Roundheads was to a great degree because of his refusal to accept the abolition of bishops in the Church of England, as well as his sporadic negotiations for reunion with Rome.

In any case, the successive defeats of the Stuarts led eventually to the triumph of the Whig party in the Church of England. By the end of the 18th century both Deism and Methodism had considerably altered the English religious map, with rationalists squaring off against enthusiasts. This dreary picture began to be illumined by the work of such Romantics as Sir Walter Scott in rediscovering the Middle Ages. Their work bore fruit at the birth of the Oxford Movement.

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Famous amongst Catholics for the part played by converts like St. John Henry Newman in reviving the Church in England, the Oxford Movement also gave rise to Anglo-Catholicism. In time this movement would transform the externals of Anglicanism, if not its doctrines or ethos. Nevertheless, it revived among its members belief in the Real Presence, prayers for the dead, and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and founded devotional societies to these and other such causes, including the Sanctity of Charles I. Its liturgies often surpassed in ritual splendor contemporary Catholic Masses. It also revived such shrines as Walsingham and Glastonbury. Anglo-Catholic religious communities went in both for monastic life and missionary work overseas and among the urban poor.

Indeed, the propensity of Protestant-minded Anglican bishops to punish their Anglo-Catholic clergy by dumping them in undesirable areas led to the rise of the Anglo-Catholic “slum priests,” many of whom became legendary as much for their pastoral zeal as for the extraordinarily beautiful churches they built for their flocks. Whole provinces of the Anglican Communion, such as the West Indies and South Africa, were formed in the Anglo-Catholic way. For a time, it seemed as though the dream of those Oxford Movement members who did not swim the Tiber—that Anglicanism as a whole could be Catholicized—was within grasp.

The era that began in the 1960s, however, proved at least as damaging to Anglo-Catholicism as it was to the Catholic Church. As the elites in the Anglosphere transformed from the stodgy rulership of mid-20th-century fiction and fact, “their” religion had to transform with them—hence priestesses, gay priests, gay marriage, gay marriage for priests, and on and on, each following the other in dreary succession. All the smells and bells in the world could not conceal it. This led many Anglo-Catholics to reconsider their ecclesiology and so make appeals to Rome, appeals at last answered by Pope Benedict XVI.

So, what gifts do they bring us? To begin with, a reverent liturgy in sacral language and an extensive devotional life—things lost among many Catholics after Vatican II. They bring deeply pastoral traditions, as the far smaller Anglo-Catholic parishes were always more of a family affair than the huge parishes most Catholics in urban centers are used to. Due to historical persecution, Catholic intellectual life in the Anglosphere was primarily carried on by converts and foreign immigrants.

But Anglo-Catholicism produced not only many of those same converts but a large number of clerical theologians and lay thinkers of the caliber of T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Arthur Machen, Dorothy Sayers, George Grant, and a host of others—all of whom can be re-examined for what insights they may offer. In return, the Ordinariate members are in full communion with the Pope, and thereby with such revered figures of their own past as Julian of Norwich, Alfred the Great, St. Edward the Confessor, and the English martyrs. May this reunion be both a catalyst for and a foreshadowing of the re-evangelization of the Anglosphere.

Republished with gracious permission from Crisis Magazine (January 2020).

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The featured image is a painting from the 15th century of the performance of a Pontifical Mass and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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