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Anglo Catholicism: Historical re-enactment society or a potent force for contemporary evangelism

Updated: Apr 13, 2022

A fully referenced version of this paper is available upon request.

Anglo Catholicism, an outcome of the Oxford Movement, was a powerful agent for change in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century supporting the successful catholic revival of the Church of England. The movement once characterised by radical experimentation and evangelical zeal has however increasingly appeared tired and regressive. Using a variety of sources including interviews with Anglo Catholic practitioners and reflection on my own ministry in Anglo Catholic parishes, this paper argues that the mainstreaming of catholic identity within the Church of England was the movement’s greatest success.

However this mainstreaming has weakened the oppositional verve and identity of the tradition. The inability of Anglo Catholicism to adapt to significant changes in society has also left it as a ‘querulous and isolated minority, defensive about the past and fearful for the future.’

This reflection makes the case that Anglo Catholicism has the potential to be once again a powerful evangelical and missional force and that this agency will be fully achieved, not through the confines of the movement, but in supporting the wider reform of the Church of England in responding to the challenges of post modernity.

To achieve this a ‘Second Oxford Movement’ is required; a movement that challenges Anglo Catholicism’s preoccupation with archaic rituals and reconnects it with its foundational thesis of holiness, catholic apostolic succession, incarnational theology and societal reform.

The present Anglo-Catholic tradition traces its roots back to the Oxford Movement, also referred to as Tractarianism, following the publication of ‘Tracts’ in The Times between 1833 and 1841 by its key proponents including John Keble, John Henry Newman and Edward Pusey. Prompted in 1833 by the government’s proposals to reduce the number of Irish bishops, the Oxford Movement’s intention was to regain control from the controlling state and upper classes and return it back to both its spiritual foundation and the people of England. The basis for this restoration was the belief that the Church of England was not a Protestant denomination but a reformed catholic tradition and as such a branch of the historic catholic church, alongside the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church. This understanding I think reflects the Elizabethian settlement that described the English Church as both catholic and reformed.

(Foot note: It is probably worth pausing here to further understand the Catholic part of Anglo Catholic? The Church of England is catholic and reformed and understands its catholic heritage as accepting church tradition (from the historic and undivided universal or catholic church) in so far as these doctrines reflect and are in no way contrary to Holy Scripture. Anglo Catholics in general, but not in absolute terms, understand catholicity differently, in that they accept Roman Catholic teaching as set out by the Roman Church, for example in liturgy and the catechism).

Using catholic incarnational theology, the movement understood that the church was not simply an institution but a holy and sacramental expression of the mystical Body of Christ manifest in the world. In this understanding the signs, symbols and senses experienced in the distinctive rites, sacraments and ceremonies of Anglo Catholic worship are active expressions of God’s mystery and holiness.

The incarnational focus of the Oxford Movement’s theology supported an additional emphasis on mission and evangelism towards those in need. The church as the Body of Christ is not to be seen as an ark taking people to God rather it is to be the presence of God on earth and in this way, Christian discipleship is indivisibly linked to the transformation and healing of society.

The Anglo Catholic tradition grew from the Oxford Movement and sought to fully realise the implications of the Oxford Movement’s theology and generally understood the Reformation as a problematic parenthesis or diversion. Ecclesiology was for the Anglo Catholic movement fundamental and therefore changes in doctrine, outside the reference and agreement by the wider catholic communion, were impossible.

This understanding remains central to this day, many Anglo Catholics for example are unable to accept the ordination of women, not necessarily because they don’t think women can be priests, but because the wider catholic church has not (yet) accepted this understanding of the priesthood. Ultimately a defining pillar of the tradition is therefore concerned with supporting a process of reconciliation and eventual full communion with the wider church. As part of this, during its foundation, the movement sought to develop a catholic understanding of worship and appropriated, often at the time, illegal liturgical expressions, from wide ranging sources including the mediaeval period, Rome and the East.

The impact of the movement on the Church of England should not be underestimated. By the end of the Victorian period the Oxford Movement had more than established a few Anglo Catholic parishes and instead had successfully led a significant liturgical, theological and devotional catholic revival within the Church of England. Evidence indicates that as many as 50% of the clergy could be considered as part of the High Church Movement spread evenly across England in both urban and rural parishes.

The success of the Anglo Catholic movement, as part of this wider reform, has traditionally been attributed, in no small part, to the inspiring work of the ‘slum priests’, in evangelising to the poor and in appealing to significant numbers of the working classes. I would like to challenge this hypothesis as I believe it creates a false or incomplete foundation upon which to develop the movements place in contemporary evangelism and mission.

The Church of England in the mid-19th century was poorly organised and unable to respond to the rapid changes in society leaving a gap for the Anglo-Catholic movement to plant churches in new urban areas. In these new contexts and through radical experimentation the movement sought to find ways of applying Catholic practice to the circumstances and social needs of England in the 19th century.

A rich Eucharist tradition developed and it was argued that the symbols and signs of this kind of worship were able to reach and inspire the poor and unlettered in ways that other styles of worship simply couldn’t. Shelton reflects that ‘it was almost an article of faith amongst ritualists that beautiful services were especially appealing to the ignorant.’ By the end of the 19th century some priests such as Charles Lowder and Alexander Mackonochie had developed an Anglo-Catholic slum priest stereotype with a powerful hagiography that effectively challenged dissenters of the movement.

The Anglo Catholic understanding of catholic worship as an effective missional tool is however tenuous with the available evidence indicating that success in attracting the poor was linked to the efforts and kindness shown by the church rather than the doctrines or rituals of any particular tradition. Munson for example challenges the traditional view that Anglo-Catholic churches were located and focused on social action for the poor. In examining the distribution of 56 Anglo-Catholic churches in London in 1900 only 5 were in areas of poverty where any kind of ‘slum ministry’ would have been immediately contextual. The churches in mixed social character seem to have been largely attended and supported by middle classes rather than working classes. He goes on to note that many evangelical and low churches were undertaking social care within areas of extreme poverty, but with less notoriety, they attracted less press attention. In conclusion Shelton estimates the total number of working-class parishioners in Anglo-Catholic parishes to be a few thousand at most.

The idea that the movement was popular with working classes has also been challenged as evidence indicates it was in fact popular with high and middle classes principally because of its alignment with contemporary Victorian ideas of art, taste, sensibilities and ideas of Romanticism. Whilst the style and taste of the Anglo-Catholic movement may have resonated with the Victorians of the time this does not however translate into well attended churches, questioning the further myth of a ‘Golden Age’. Shelton has examined attendance at key Anglo Catholic Churches in 1882 and found that only 30% of the available seating was being used at the main morning Mass and this had dropped to 20% by 1903.

A representative survey of church attendance in England (2005) found that 5% of church goers attended Anglo Catholic churches and that the average size of Anglo Catholic congregations was 54.

In examining these figures alongside the historical data above I strongly believe the success of the movement was clearly not in the establishment of a particular and distinct expression of Victorian catholicity but in the successful catholic revival of the Church of England.

This pattern of success and failure leaves the question of ongoing relevance for the Anglo Catholic movement in today’s context. The particular Victorian style of worship wasn’t especially effective in its day; how can it therefore be an effective force for evangelism and mission today? Certainly Anglo Catholic parishes today are not the mega parishes we see in other traditions. Indeed many are not sustaining historic levels of attendance and are in decline, and questions need to be asked, about the causes.

Gunstone suggests the movement has simply been exhausted in successfully calling Anglicans into a greater awareness of the church’s catholic inheritance and has little left to give. For Orens the fossilized Victorian doctrinal and liturgical practices still in use today actually keep people from faith as they engender a sense of mystification and irrelevance rather than a sense of holiness or mystery.

Vatican 2, that great modernising landmark in the Roman Church recognised the changing times and sought to reform worship to aid its legibility and accessibility in the contemporary context. As a child of Vatican 2, growing up with modern worship, I remember my first experience of Anglo Catholic Worship as an inexplicable mix of English coolness and exotic theatrics, with rather a lot of unexpected lace. It is interesting to note that many Anglo Catholic priests lament or even reject Vatican 2 and I feel this is at odds with both the historical and contemporary ‘success’ story of Victorian inspired worship and of course the professed commitment of the movement to catholic ecclesiology.

A number of those interviewed in 2017 when originally preparing this reflection sought to explain the contemporary lack of Anglo Catholic confidence and evangelical resource on a number of factors: women’s ordination and losses to the ordinariate, LGBT issues and the burdensome maintenance of listed buildings.

Further observations include the naturally conservative and introverted outlook of many Anglo Catholic clergy that often seem to translate into subdued and restrained missional ambition and vision. Too much time can be spent on how things should be rather than on how things could be and the demand that Father or indeed Mother knows best is failing more often than it is succeeding. Teaching and evangelism are often restrained, lacking charismatic engagement, contemporary relevance and empathy. Several priests interviewed said the same thing: ‘as long as I can keep it going long enough so I can have a proper funeral I will be happy’.

In the Brighton and Hove context it’s important to note the lack of moral respect and patience given by many in the city to a tradition that rejects women’s ordination (when it doesn't have to) and the stance and conduct of the clergy with regard to the LGBTQ+ community. For example, the stance of The Society towards the trans comunity and same sex marriage, considering the numbers of queer clergy from the Anglo Catholic tradition in the city, who are members of the Society, is complex and problematic.

These limitations are real but Shelton I think helpfully notes that the restrained success of the Anglo-Catholic movement in its ability to separately and successfully evangelise is not in itself a failure of Anglo-Catholic theology but a symptom of the broader failings of the Church in responding to dramatic societal changes.

A growing number of commentators, including the Church of England, are coming to understand the decline of churchgoing in the context of very dramatic changes in society, most significantly with the development of post-modernity and the corresponding demise of both modernity and Christendom.

For Roxburgh, the challenge of consumerism and the rise of networking as the new societal paradigm has left the church increasingly irrelevant; the challenge is so great it is analogous with Christianity’s move in the first century from Jerusalem to Antioch. Clark adds to this picture with ruthless clarity when he asserts that for most people the belief in a supernatural entity and that supernatural events happen at all in the world is simply incredulous; the sacraments ‘are the most spectacularly unconvincing, they scarcely even deserve to be denied.… they are implausible, both in terms of modernity from where we are departing and the post-modernity we are creating’. In this context it’s easy to understand the rise of the rationalist, sacrament light and instagram ready brands church tradition.

Whilst many proclaim a Christian faith in the census the majority do not attend church services and are mostly unchurched. The Church of England therefore sits not within a context where some minor changes to liturgy or hymns combined with a gentle invitation will encourage people back to church. The reality is the Church of England is now seeking to engage with second and third generation pagan and secular cultures and this requires a radical change within the church’s understanding of mission and evangelism. The complexity and nature of the post-modern setting means that no one kind of worship or liturgy will be able to attract or retain major participation from varied and mobile communities.

Parochial ministry, the predominant form of Anglo Catholicism, is no longer sufficient and potentially no longer sustainable. The Church of England I think quite correctly has acknowledged that this failing is not restricted to anyone tradition and the failure to respond to the nature and speed of societal changes requires an act of repentance.

In interviews, it is clear many within the Anglo Catholic Tradition are seeking to respond to this challenge by looking to Pope Francis’s excellent Evagelii Guadium with its focus on depth of spiritual engagement, the quality of pastoral care and commitment to radical social action. Interviewees indicated the existence of a wide diversity of evangelical and missional approaches within the movement but when pressed for examples, these were both limited in number and very conservative in the extent of actual variation and innovation.

Examples were however given that addressed in some way decline and abandonment through a range of simple changes and actions: reaching out to schools, having a good quality Sunday school, running inclusive activities outside of mass, making services simpler, using at least some modern songs, providing services to those in need and perhaps most significantly the priest being ‘nice’, ‘kind’, ‘authentic’, ‘encouraging’ and ‘not being authoritarian, unkind, picky or terrifying’.

There is a growing hunger for spirituality within contemporary society but the last place most people would look for this is in a parish church. In the same way that the Ritualists within the early Anglo-Catholic tradition were seeking to find a relevant and holy expression of catholicity in the 19th century, the same movement needs to rediscover its experimental, evangelical and missional urgency for the post-modern context.

There is growing evidence that church attendance has stabilised and indeed Britain over the past 30 years has become both more secular and more religious. The post-modern thesis whilst helpful in its challenge has created an eschatological hegemony of fatalism and defeat. Experience says that Anglo Catholic churches, like other traditions, can grow and establish sustainability but evidence clearly indicates that to do this they need to change and respond to their immediate context and the wider changes in society. Churches that have a focus on mission and make changes to their life and services grow and thrive.

To achieve this the movement desperately needs a second period of radical and uncompromising deconstruction and reformation, a second Oxford Movement, if it is to challenge the things that are holding it back and preventing it from proclaiming the Gospel anew. Staying the same isn’t an option and indeed could be argued as the definition of madness. Conversely, merging with the surrounding culture is of course also not a desirable option.

In the same way, the movement’s success and key role was in the reform of the Church of England rather than the establishment of a large separate tradition, the movement I believe is, despite many signs to the contrary, powerfully placed to help the Church of England become relevant in the post-modern age. A second Oxford Movement would seek to enable Anglo-Catholicism’s re-engagement with its subversive missionary and incarnational heart, radically updating its understanding of holiness, worship and mission. The devotional approach of Anglo Catholicism experienced by many as exclusive and something that diminishes people’s understanding of God needs to be radically challenged. This is because society’s codes of understanding and communication are dramatically changing in the post-modern context. These codes have developed to such an extent that basic understanding and assumptions concerned with society and social thinking no longer hold any sense of shared meaning. These changes constitute a simulacrum or radical severance, where traditional Christian symbols are neither understood or valued.

Clark suggests that post-modernity constitutes a rupture characterised by two dichotomous agents; suspicion and retrieval. These agents can be understood and utilised through a fuller understanding of the Anglo Catholic apostolic theology. Whilst the Movement rightly understands apostolic as an inheritance that provides spiritual continuity, it now needs to recognise the missional responsibility of apostolic inheritance which requires the church to actively respond afresh to the Holy Spirit today. In retrieving ancient truths from the past and by engaging with present contexts, the movement can identify both true and new apostolic spiritual expressions for Christ’s church today. In this way the movement is uniquely placed to discover liturgies and deep devotional expressions which display the very nature of a relational and incarnated God and in so doing address the issues of the age including isolation, exclusion, marginalisation, diversity and poverty.

The apostolic nature of Anglo Catholic theology is also able to act as a safeguard for the Church of England keeping it from both syncretism with the negative aspects of post modernity and supporting a proactive and positive process of radical contextualisation and enculturation. In addition, the ancient Catholic traditions of holiness, sacredness and relationship (incarnational theology) place Anglo Catholicism in a powerfully prophetic place potentially able to challenge directly and through the broader church, the corrosive and negative elements of post-modernity’s individualism, consumerism and community dislocation.

A number of Anglo Catholics have applied this way of working within the Church of England’s Fresh Expression programme, an approach that seeks to reach out and engage with networked, diverse and pluralistic communities, in such a way that the traditional parochial system can’t. . Fr Simon Rundell for example has worked collaboratively with young people to create a service group called Blesséd which has successfully radically reinterpreted Anglo Catholic worship for today’s youth culture. Young people, often very excluded and with no experience of church, have come to church and developed a very strong ownership and spiritual response to the worship created in this way which whilst radical has retained the central Anglo-Catholic focus of sacramental mystery and holiness. Fr Richard Giles at St Thomas’s Church in Huddersfield worked with a declining congregation to leapfrog the traditions and restraining architecture of their church building enabling the parish to experiment, explore and reimagine new ways of worship: ‘we collectively forgot old habits and adapted new ones… We emerged blinking into the daylight of songs written by Christians today’.

Whilst certain priests and parishes have sought to respond to the challenges of modernity and post modernity it’s difficult to imagine that these are the majority. There is no Anglo Catholic equivalent for example to the highly successful Roman ‘Word on Fire’ evangelical mission based in the United States. There has been no creation or meaningful appropriation of the Alpha Course and the evident successes of HTB to engage with young people and bring people to faith. HTB in many ways is doing what the Anglo Catholic movement could have been leading on … taking on and modernising catholic worship so that it is recognisable as distinctly counter cultural and Christian whilst also accessible in the postmodern context. Hymns are not Victorian compositions played on Victorian organ pipes rather they are songs sung about Christ today, using the instruments of now. The stained glass window is a multimedia projector screen and the candles and incense have been replaced with uplighting and contemporary staging. Processions and adoration are instagram posts and YouTube videos. Just because we received light from a candle during the first 1880 years since Christ’s death does not somehow make them more holy than today's equivalent. God is not just seen through the past, he is now and he is tomorrow. The pandemic and the need to worship differently, including online, I believe has helped shift this view to some extent and this doorway needs to be kept open.

I’m sure these last few lines have been very problematic for those who simply can’t engage in the modern aesthetic, consumerist hues and digital wizardry …..and I am personally very sympathetic to this. In part I’m being provocative to make a point and the way forward is I think more about diversity and adaptability and less about absolutes and musts.

Let’s be clear, I think HTB and others in this mould need more mystery and less certainty, less literalism and more discernment of grace and critically that they need to rediscover the sacramental life and its theological significance with regard to really knowing Jesus Christ (John Chapter 6 for example).

Equally the Anglo Catholic movement has much to learn (and unlearn) and in this process needs to be able to offer more than just the traditional Catholic mass formulas from a bygone era. A historical reenactment of how worship used to be. Yes let’s have beautiful liturgies and music, deep and intellectually robust sermons and stunning art and architecture … (please!) … but we have to be honest with ourselves that when almost all of the city centre parishes of Brighton and Hove, for example, are offering some similar version of this - not everyone is going to get fed and supported in their faith, especially if you are young and unchurched, and this number of parishes offering the same thing to a diminishing number of older church goers who want ‘proper church’ is simply not sustainable or apostolic.

The argument that we need to support people in understanding the imagery, ritual and depth of traditional worship has merit and is one I am actively engaged with. However the assumption that true holiness and spirituality are only possible through traditional worship is I believe floored and rejects the active and very real work of the Holy Spirit in the wider church - and indeed outside of the church tent. Equally that Anglo Catholicity is only possible through traditional symbols and worship, largely only recognisable to a historian, is I would argue missing the point. I would go further and say it is a misunderstanding, indeed a misrepresentation of the original theological basis of the tradition and the nature and purpose of worship.

Part of all of this I think is the significant tension between artistic achievement in traditional worship (even if it is unfamiliar or even incomprehensible) and undertaking worship in a style and language that can be understood and engaged with by all. White reflects that this is a false and superficial alternative: worship is concerned with the sanctification of people and the glorification of God and nothing glorifies God more than people coming to faith (sanctification). To come to faith I believe, humanity must be engaged, supported and enabled to undertake worship in ways that make sense and are authentic to them. I think that even if you disagree with White's understanding of worship and see it more as centered on sacrifice, the argument holds; the more people coming to faith and partaking in and offering sacrifice, the greater the glory to God. This isn't to say worship is just about numbers but neither is it about some human aesthetic of what constitutes taste and high art.

My own experiences in all of this has been very mixed and full of ‘learning’. In one example of ministry in a previous parish before ordination I worked with the Parish Priest, members of the congregation and community representatives to develop a new worshipping community that was catholic, spiritual, contemporary and radically inclusive. In developing the service, we looked to early expressions of catholic Christian worship focusing on spiritual development, discipleship and social action. In response to the increasing BME and LGBTQ+ context we actively engaged local communities in the development of the service, supported by ideas reflected in Evagelii Guadium and Liberation Theology. In response to feedback, social projects were established; the worship at this new service would support the process of whole lives becoming worshipful acts. The new formats maintained dignity but also sought to be fresh, contemporary, accessible and of the highest possible artistic standards. Rituals were adjusted and updated but key ceremonial features were included as relevant, including candles, water, incense, traditional prayers such as the Hail Mary, acts of healing, confession and priestly absolution. Personal stories of recovery and faith were shared and acted to create a contemporary sacred narrative within the heart of the service. The centre of holiness was changed from a Eucharistic understanding to that of radical hospitality - a change that led some to question the Anglo Catholic nature of the service. The sense of holiness and spirituality reported by the congregation however indicates real and tangible catholicity. Critically this translated into growth in numbers and the improved diversity of those attending.

My current posting is in a village parish church that has what was described to me as a ‘country catholic tradition’ and I would, to a certain extent, agree with this. In reality the church has an Anglo Catholic heritage but is a genuine parish church where folk from all denominations come to worship, get baptised, married and be buried. At times I find myself looking like a Roman Catholic priest and sounding like a liberal Baptist and vice versa. We are catholic and reformed. The catholic inheritance and theology of the Church of England I believe is key to enabling all of these different traditions to come together, and with some compromise, worship happily together. Is there incense and the Hail Mary - not generally. Are all services traditional and Victorian in style - no though some are. Are most services Eucharistic - no…. But is it still distinctly catholic - yes and as part of this we work hard at retaining the mystery, holiness, incarnational theology and a focus on societal reform.

Do we have much more to do if we are to preach a fresh into this generation and guarantee another 1000 years in the life of the church in this parish? My goodness yes we do. The good news is we have much to draw on from the Anglo Catholic tradition (and others) - we only need to be bolder and more adaptable in our approaches.

In summary, I believe the Anglo-Catholic tradition in today’s context is poised between nihilistic irrelevance and prophetic missional restoration. In the same way that the Church of England needed the Anglo Catholic movement in the 19th Century it now needs its theological and devotional theology once again in order to effectively and appropriately respond to the post-modern challenge. The movement is uniquely placed to help find new ways of engaging with society and finding new ways of spiritual engagement whilst retaining the mystery, holiness and integrity of the Christian faith. In order to realise this calling the movement must fully realise the meaning of apostolic succession and completely re-examine the liturgies and devotional styles that are leaving many Anglo-Catholics restricted and trapped in a Victorian re- enactment that had limited success in its day and is increasingly seen today as unintelligible and irrelevant.

The post-modern context is radically different to what has been before and the church can no longer resist change if it wants to share the Gospel. The church by its very nature is missional and any refusal on its part not to meaningfully engage in mission means it is denying itself, it is no longer sacred or holy and has departed from the way of God.

The extent of the changes required are so significant that a second Oxford Movement is required, a movement strong enough to effectively challenge the skepticism and individualism within the movement itself. Evidence and experience shows that where the tradition does respond to the new context positively it is able to radically reinvent catholic worship that is relevant, accessible and desperately wanted by England’s communities.

Postscript - Wye Valley 2022

I have been revising and updating this reflection whilst on retreat with the Sisters of the Holy Cross at Tymawr, the Wye Valley. I am on the retreat by a small, last minute miracle – a week became free, a frantic online search via google maps (‘convent - Wye Valley’) followed and I have found myself in this beautiful Welsh piece of heaven.

To be honest I assumed it was a Roman Catholic Convent which would have been fine. I was brought up a Roman Catholic and went to a convent school, so it’s all familiar to me - though the prospect of not being able to receive Holy Communion wasn’t ideal of course.

I arrived just before the midday ‘Mass’ and was warmly welcomed by Sister Catherine who guided me to my seat in the beautiful and simple stone chapel dominated by a large wooden crucifix. Looking up I spotted a woman priest in a chasuble and there followed the most beautiful Eucharist. Clearly this was no Roman convent but was in fact a Church of Wales convent and the sisters were an order founded in Chichester in 1914 as part of the Anglo Catholic movement to re-establish monastic orders.

The services I have attended whilst being here have been a spiritual delight. The nuns, whilst dressed traditionally in habits and wimples, are joyful and unfussy in their worship. There is both great lightness and depth to their devotion. They quite rightly use the liturgy of the Anglican Communion and don’t appropriate the liturgy of Rome, recognising the sufficiency and catholic authority of their own church – and by extension their own ministries and calling. The services are therefore both traditional and modern and this was made powerfully apparent at the second Mass I attended, where one of the nuns was the presiding priest, wearing her wimple with a chasuble.

To me it was the most extraordinary sight and I was surprised, moved and inspired by the absolute catholicity and prophetic declaration of this beautiful nun taking the Mass. She presided with such gentle authority and grace that I found myself with Christ and through this encounter I was both healed and transformed in some way.

I can't imagine the journey this community of nuns must have been through to accept women's ordination, then for nuns in their own community to be ordained and to start presiding at the Mass in the convent. This radical, prophetic and subversive spirit is I believe God inspired and the presence of Christ in this community is tangible. For me this is a sign of what the Anglo Catholic tradition is capable of and I pray we see more of it, helping and inspiring the broader Church to respond and have meaning in this most challenging post modern age.


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