What is Anglo Catholicism?

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Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Since the announcement of my call to St. Stephen’s in Providence two weeks ago, many of you have gone to their parish website, and many of you have asked “What does Anglo Catholic mean?” or “What does it mean for an Episcopal Church to be Anglo Catholic?”

Well, like most questions involving religion and faith, the answer is complex and depends on who you ask.  But I will try and give a succinct answer to your wonderings.

As the Church of England was born out of a series of Reformations, there were various parties trying to influence just how reformed it would be.  Some wanted to preserve its more “catholic” nature, and not stray too far from the Roman practices they had known.  Others wanted to reform it completely and render it more austere in its Protestant outlook. While a cohesive consensus was eventually reached, these two strands persisted through the centuries. (If you recall from your school days, the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 were those for whom the Church of England was still much to “catholic” and they felt the need to separate from it entirely.)

In the 1830s, the British Parliament enacted legislation that created new Dioceses in the Church of England. (The Church of England is the established or official Church there, remember.) As it turns out, the legislation was indeed necessary, but the fact that the Church seemed to be reduced to a mere extension of the secular state sparked a fury from some clergymen, who wanted to reclaim the divine and eternal nature of the Church.  This first generation of clergy and lay leaders started what became known as the Oxford movement, which was merely concerned with reclaiming the Church’s true nature as the mystical body of Christ. However, in the succeeding years, changes in worship and liturgy began to appear alongside these theological claims.  In short, they felt strongly that the baby had been thrown out with the bathwater, and they began to reclaim certain practices that had been suppressed at the Reformations.

Things we take for granted today like vestments and candles and altar crosses were reintroduced. Vested choirs were even once controversial, but by the early 1900s, no one could probably even remember why.  Many of these things we now see as ordinary and not worthy of generating controversy. In many respects, the Anglo Catholic movement prevailed: the whole shape and substance of the 1979 Prayer Book is the result of this movement essentially winning over the larger Church to its views, to an extent.  Holy Communion is now the principal service on every Sunday of the year (when before it was typically once a month, or even once a quarter); no one thinks anything about a priest wearing a chasuble (the big silk poncho); and the current Episcopal liturgy has much more in common with the Roman Catholic rite in some regards than it does to the 1928 Prayer Book.

“But,” you rightly point out, “there seems to be more going on than just that.” And you’re right. Most parishes that self-identify as Anglo-Catholic have histories that go back to the 1830s and 1850s when the movement was gaining a foothold, and were practicing weekly Communion nearly 100 years before the rest of the Episcopal Church was, and they embraced other practices like private confession (with confessional booths in the back of the church), holy water stoops at all the entrances to the church, incense in worship, and genuflecting (going down on one knee) as they enter and leave their pew, as a sign of reverence to the Blessed Sacrament.  They embrace devotion to the Virgin Mary, and they usually use the term “Mass” instead of Eucharist or Communion.

“That doesn’t sound Episcopalian to me!”  Well, you have a point there: the majority of the Episcopal Church is broad – meaning a mix between “High” (more catholic) and “Low” (more reformed). We have elements of broad and low church at St. John’s, though I would essentially say we are broad. But one of the most wonderful things about the Episcopal Church, like the Church of England, is that it is a big tent under which many ways of expressing the same faith can dwell and flourish together.  We’re truly catholic – “catholic” meaning universal, not Roman.  We can agree to pray the same words together – our beloved Book of Common Prayer – while allowing for different ways of interpreting and practicing those words.  At the end of the day, that’s the Church Universal – many gifts and varieties of gifts but one Spirit – one body of Christ united to him mystically, and gathered around his words to “Do this for the remembrance of me” as we pray with confidence the words Jesus himself taught us to pray, saying “Our Father…” as we await the coming of the promised Kingdom.

So that is my not-so-short answer to the question, “What does Anglo Catholic mean?” I think saying it is merely about incense and bells and chanting oversimplifies it, though those things would be the obvious external differences.  My particular entrance into the Episcopal Church and formation happened within Anglo Catholic parishes, but I’ve also been blessed to serve in a variety of contexts, and I know without a doubt that I have been enriched and strengthened in each of them – none more so than St. John’s, Essex.

With love and prayers,

Fr. Benjamin

Comments (1)

Thanks for the explanation!! I’d always heard the differentiation as being “high church” or “low church”. Always In The context of the Anglican movement being the “via media (sp?)”. We will miss you Benjamin!! Carol Richmond

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