“I found myself on 11 November 1992, when the Church of England voted to ordain women, overwhelmed with a sudden and mysterious conviction of the truth of Roman Catholicism.”
So wrote Sheridan Gilley in his contribution to The Path to Rome: Modern Journeys to the Catholic Church, edited by Dwight Longenecker. In the same vein as “Surprised by Truth”, this book is a collection of conversion stories of men and women who left the Church of England and converted to Catholicism.
I’ve been enjoying it immensely. When the Church of England voted to allow women priests, a mass exodus of clergy and laypeople occurred, moving from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, including four Anglican bishops.
One author in the book, Kenneth Noakes, recognized the contradictory problem in the Church of England by allowing women priests; not everyone recognized the validity of women priests.
“Comprehensiveness has been taken beyond any tolerable limit in the legislation for women priests. Now it is possible for bishops or parishes either to accept women’s ordination or not to do so. How can there be, within a Church, officially tolerated diversity of view over who is and who is not an ordained minister?”
The sacraments depend upon a valid minister. If the validity of a minister is recognized by some but not all within the same Church, how can one know if the sacraments are real? It is an officially tolerated contradictory view and that just leads to chaos.
In college I dabbled in Anglicanism, albeit a very American Evangelical version of it, but it was my first real exposure to liturgy and I learned it was the way Christians worshiped for hundreds of years—it was much later I learned that it was the way of worship from the very beginning of the Church. So I have soft-spot in my heart for the Anglican Thing because even my minuscule experience of it was a stepping-stone toward Catholicism.
Within Anglicanism is a theory called Anglo-Catholicism. This is an attempt to call their faith “Catholic” without being in communion with Rome and being English instead. As one author in the book put it, “Our task was to remain where we were, to emphasize, live out, and defend our Catholic heritage within the Anglican tradition.” Anglo-Catholicism sees itself as part of the Catholic Church but the English branch of it. They hold to traditional teachings of the historic church and the importance of apostolic succession, they hold to sacraments, some have devotions to Mary and pray the Rosary, and some even believe in transubstantiation (the Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ). An Anglo-Catholic would say something like, “We’re Catholic too; we’re just not Roman Catholic.”
This view has gone by a few different names over the years—Anglo-Catholicism, Branch Theory, via media, Church Diffusive—and I’m sure some would quibble that these are all different. But practically, they are all essentially the same to my mind. They attempt to be “Catholic” without being “Roman Catholic”; a hybrid of Protestantism while trying to cling to the historic church.
Of the stories in this collection I’ve read so far, one theme seems to run through them all—a glib disregard toward Anglo-Catholicism. While these authors temporarily believed in Anglo-Catholicism, they eventually saw it as a theory with no substance.
Ian Ker discussed John Henry Newman, one of the fathers of the Anglo-Catholic via media. Ker said Newman “had a great horror of the merely theoretical, that is unreal to use the most condemnatory word in Newman’s vocabulary.” Ker then quotes Newman on the merely theoretical position of Anglo-Catholicism; “Protestantism and Popery are real religions…but the via media…has never had existence except on paper….” and “since many theories are not more than theories, and do not admit of being carried into effect, it is exposed to the suspicion of being one of these, and of having no existence out of books.”
“What so bothered Newman about Anglo-Catholicism was, after all, exactly the same as his old objection as an Anglican to the abuse of what he called ‘private judgement’. Anglo-Catholics had to decide themselves, from their reading of the Fathers and their own particular way of interpreting the formularies and the liturgy of the Church of England, what constituted Catholicism….[Newman] clearly saw that if development was a necessary part of any living organism, such as the Church claimed to be, then ipso facto a legitimate authority was needed to distinguish genuine developments from inauthentic corruptions. But only one Christian communion claimed to possess such an authority and that was the Roman Catholic Church.”
Anthony Symondson quotes Sheridan Gilley describing Anglo-Catholicism as “the most culturally attractive form of Christianity” and that “in its learning, its devotion, its sheer beauty, it is a preparation without equal, but no more.” It is mere theory with no real substance.
Hearing these men and women talk about their rejection of Anglo-Catholicism is reminiscent of Robert Hugh Benson a hundred years prior. Benson felt the same disregard for Anglo-Catholicism and the Branch Theory (what he called the Church Diffusive). In Confessions of a Convert, Benson described what he believed as a young man: “Where Rome, Moscow, and Canterbury agreed, there was the explicit voice of the Holy Spirit; where they dogmatically disagreed, there was the field for private opinion….This was a very convenient theory, for by it I was able to embrace practically all the doctrines of the Catholic Church proper, except that of Papal Infallibility and the concurrent necessity of external communion with Rome.” But like Newman before him and many men later, Benson rejected this theory as smoke and mirrors.
“The theory of the ‘Church Diffusive’ is made by Ritualists the foundation of their belief, but the ‘Church Diffusive’ rejects that theory; Rome, Moscow, and Canterbury, though they may agree upon other points, do not agree upon this. Therefore the authority to which the appeal is made implicitly denies that it is an authority at all. Therefore the whole thing is illusive.”
Recognizing the illusiveness of the Anglo-Catholic theory permeates the conversion stories of many Anglican converts into the Roman Catholic community.
The Path to Rome: Modern Journeys to the Catholic Church is a worthy read for anyone interested in the Church of England, Anglo-Catholic theory, how substantial they are, and how they measure up to Roman Catholicism and the historic Church.