A great essay from EpiscopalCafe:
Anglo-Catholicism: what the heck is it?
By Derek Olsen
Thinking and arguing about Anglican identity is new territory for some. Not me. Every since I’ve become an Anglican almost a decade ago, the question of identity has been intertwined with my Anglicanism. And with good reason—I identify with the most fractious and tribal of the great Anglican traditions, Anglo-Catholicism.
Since the beginning of the Twentieth century, Anglicanism has been described as a threefold cord consisting of three distinct parties, the Evangelicals, the Broad-Church, and the Anglo-Catholics. As if negotiating these positions weren’t difficult enough, Anglo-Catholicism has been in a tough spot since the ‘60s. The theological and liturgical changes of Vatican II combined with the movement for women’s ordination were a one-two punch that rocked the movement. The emergence of women’s ordination brought the matter to a head in the early 70’s in the Episcopal Church, calving the movement into several major branches, some remaining within the Episcopal Church, others leaving for the Anglican Continuum consisting of other Anglican entities not in The Episcopal Church.
At the root of the problem is identity: what does it mean to be a catholic Anglican? For some outside the movement or on its fringes the answer seems simple, it’s about liturgical ceremonial. If you wear a chasuble, know what a cope is, swing around incense, and chant, you must be Anglo-Catholic.
Trust me, it’s not that simple.
As any Anglo-Catholic in good standing will tell you, it’s not about the externals. Or, rather, the externals are driven by the internals. As I’ve said before, we don’t do a solemn high mass or use incense because we like it (though we do, of course…) but because of what it communicates about who and what God is and who we are in light of that reality. It’s about theology. And our theological commitments come with liturgical implications. Defining that theology is what drives us crazy.
One simplistic definition is that catholic Anglicans hold the doctrine of the Undivided Church (those things that the Orthodox East and the Catholic West agree about) but hold different discipline. That is, our faith is the same but our principles of church order are different. But defining what is doctrine and what is discipline, and deciding who gets to be the final arbiter is what’s been giving us fits since the ‘60s.
I’ve said in jest that the true definition of an Anglo-Catholic is a person who knows three other people who think they’re catholic Anglicans but who aren’t because they’re either not “catholic” or not “Anglican” enough.
The most obvious and polarizing argument is over women’s ordination—is it doctrine or discipline? The major divisions in the party have been over this issue, but a host of others complicate even agreements on that point. Which way to lean in matters of faith and morals: towards the Orthodoxen or towards Rome? What liturgy to use: the ’28 BCP, the ’79 BCP, or the (Anglican or American or English) Missal? What ceremonial to use: pre- or post-Vatican II? And so I say, matters of Anglican identity have never been far from my mind lo these years.As I survey the current squabbling and bickering amongst the worldwide Anglican Communion and especially here in the Episcopal Church, I find myself in familiar territory. Out of that familiarity, I return to one of the positions that I’ve found the most helpful. It’s not strictly about doctrine or about discipline but about practice. The most succinct expression that I’ve found comes not from a committee or report, but a book on spirituality written by the English Anglo-Catholic Martin Thornton. In writing about the monastic father St. Benedict and his impact upon English spirituality he says:
The greatest Benedictine achievement (from this point of view) is the final consolidation of the threefold Rule of prayer which is absolutely fundamental to all Catholic spirituality: the common Office (opus dei) supporting private prayer (orationes peculiares) both of which are allied to, and consummated by, the Mass. . . . Here is the basic Rule of the Church which, varying in detail, is common to East and West, monastic and secular, to all the individual schools without exception, and which forms the over-all structure of the Book of Common Prayer. Amongst all the tests of Catholicity or orthodoxy, it is curious that this infallible and living test is so seldom applied. We write and argue endlessly about the apostolic tradition, about episcopacy, sacramentalism, creeds, doctrine, the Bible—all very important things—yet we fail to see that no group of Christians is true to orthodoxy if it fails to live by this Rule of trinity-in-unity: Mass-Office-devotion. (Martin Thornton, English Spirituality, 76)
It’s a position that certainly doesn’t answer all problems or arguments—and Thornton admits as much—but in this statement, I find the heart of the matter expressed more simply and clearly than in any bishops’ statement.
At the end of the day the question isn’t whether we are “authentic” Anglo-Catholics or Anglicans. The question is whether we are authentic Christians seeking to pattern our lives according to an Anglican shape that proceeds from catholic and orthodox roots. Yes, we do need to argue whether women are valid sacramental matter for the priesthood (and I argue they are); yes, we need to argue whether queer folk in relationships are appropriate leaders for our church communities (and I argue that it’s about the relationships not the folk and applies equally to us straight people…); yes, we need to argue about how to interpret and apply the Scriptures (and I argue without a formal or de facto magisterium). More fundamental than these, however, we need to agree and be united in a common Anglican way of life.
It used to be said—and I’ve heard it many times both before and after my move to the Episcopal Church—that rather than confessional documents we have the Book of Common Prayer. Despite the history and legacy of colonialism and its aftermath, the one thing that all Anglicans hold is a Book of Common Prayer—none identical across the provinces, but all rooted in common precedents, all embodying the fundamental principles of Eucharist, the Daily Office, and personal prayer.
Can we live up to, is there any point in, a new Anglican Covenant if we don’t bother to live up to or have regard for the more basic Anglican covenant that sits in our pews? On the other hand, it’s terrific to call ourselves Anglicans or Episcopalians, but do our daily and weekly habits reflect that reality—or display some other truth?
Yes, let’s navel-gaze. But more important, let’s pray. And let’s live our praying. Don’t just argue about being an Anglican; act like one.
Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.