Anglo-Catholic priest from Christ Church, Winnetka, IL How can I set the tone for this post?  Perhaps by giving you a question to answer when you meet one: Are they ANGLO-Catholics or Anglo-CATHOLICS? And, will they stay on the Thames or cross the Tiber? Well, it depends. 

For my source, meet (or renew your acquaintance with) Br. Stephen of the Order of the Cistercians.  Brother Stephen was an Anglo-Catholic until he was received into the Roman Catholic Church a few years ago.  He is dedicating his life to God through the Cistercian Order.

The following is a summary of his highly informative post dated June 16, 2009, ‘So who are these Anglicans with nuns?‘   Don’t miss the pictures, either.  (The Anglo-Catholic priest on the left is from Christ Church, Winnetka, Illinois, north of Chicago.) I hope he will excuse my putting his essay into a Q&A format.

We should note that Br Stephen was not unhappy being an Anglican:

I have very happy memories of my life as an Anglo-Catholic and believe that tradition led me to where I am today. Anglicanism gave me more gifts than I could count and I do not believe that there are any people in the world who enjoy the practice of their faith more. On the other hand, by the time I left Anglicanism, I was one of those who was attached to the Roman Rite and Roman Catholic theology… If the Holy See wants to make a way for many of my old friends to come home and bring some of our better heirlooms with them then that is great by me, but I, like thousands of others, found my way home without special inducements and will probably be content where I am.

However, he acknowledges:

Even most Anglo-Catholics have deep doctrinal disagreements with Rome. Progressive or affirming Anglo-Catholics, who numerically represent at least half of the Anglo-Catholic party, often position themselves as an alternative to what they see as Rome’s conservatism on doctrinal and social issues.

How many are we talking about worldwide?

Traditionalist Anglo-Catholicism is a very small movement. The entire Episcopal Church in the US counts only 2.6 million members with an average Sunday attendance of around 750,000. Within that number, some single digit percentage of Episcopalians identify themselves as Anglo-Catholic, half of whom identify as liturgical modernists and/or social progressives

The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, the largest traditionalist catholic diocese in the Episcopal Church, counted only 14,000 members in the year 2000, about the size of five average Roman Catholic parishes. Outside of a few areas of concentration in the dioceses of Fort Worth, Quincy, and San Joaquin, Anglo-Catholics are thinly scattered across the Episcopal Church and among many Continuing Churches.

Are there any who swam the Thames, so to speak?

In fact, many Anglo-Catholics are ex-Roman Catholics who crossed the Channel because they disagreed with Roman Catholic doctrine or wanted to escape the post-Vatican II Church for both liberal and conservative reasons.

How Catholic are Anglo-Catholics?

Among traditional Anglo-Catholics, you will find those who believe in 3, 4, 7, 19, 20, and 21 councils as well as those who believe that no council taught infallibly. It is safe to say that traditional Anglo-Catholics generally believe in via media, 3 to 7 ecumenical councils, and lay government. Most traditional A-Cs get from a little to very queasy at the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, and any form of devotion that is too ‘sentimental’. Many hold an idea of the real presence that owes as much to Luther as to Trent. A confessional in the back of the church is often considered to be an important symbol, but few consider it necessary to be a regular penitent.

Tell me more.

Essayist Florence King spoke well to another aspect of the Anglican mindset when she wrote, ‘I don’t care about church and state so long as the church and stateliness go hand in hand.’ Traditional Roman Catholics hoping for reinforcements need to understand that traditional Anglo-Catholics are conservative compared to other Anglicans, but that is s a very different proposition than the ideological and social agenda held by many traditionalist Roman Catholics. Many, probably most, traditional Anglo-Catholics have no objection to things like women in the diaconate, contraception, remarriage, or suitably discreet same-sex relationships. There are certainly Anglo-Catholics who support the National Organization of Episcopalians for Life and who are vexed by the Robinson consecration, but these are generally not the parishes whose photos make their way around the Catholic blog circuit … The folks who agree with Catholic social teaching are more likely to be liturgically low-key modern rite people.

Oh.  So how many might convert?

At this point it is probably clear that liturgical altitude is not the same sort of index of theological belief among Anglicans that it is among Roman Catholics. Having two sacristies full of tat is no indication that members of a parish are putting on their trunks to swim the Tiber and head out on to the battlefield of the culture wars … Politically conservative Roman Catholics should also be aware that Anglo-Catholicism has a strong historic tie to Christian Socialism from the days when priests in the US and UK worked in some of the poorest missions. That relationship is not so strong as it once was–a pity to my mind since social witness was a hallmark of the early movement–but do not be surprised to find that politics runs a broad spectrum among Anglo-Catholics.

Explain Anglo-Catholic worship, please.

I believe that it is fair to say that I never saw two parishes where Mass was said in the same way. In the US, some use the 1928 Prayer Book, some the 1979, and others the Anglican Service Book. In the UK, you will find the 1662, Common Worship, and varying degrees of interpolation from the 1970 Missal. In both countries you will also find the missal parishes, which use the Anglican, American, or English Missals in their various editions with their various options. As a visual study, catholic leaning Anglicans range from those who concelebrate Mass in modern language versus populum in cassock alb and stole to Anglo-Papalist shrines where the English Missal, silent canon, pre ’55 Holy Week, and folded chasubles in Lent are the norm. In between there is every variant that could be imagined with occasional hat tips to the Orthodox.

Gee, that’s a lot of variation.

Anglo-Catholicism is a tradition where lay people own lots of theological and liturgical books and where parish priests are usually trying to balance one resident liturgist’s preferences against those of another. Battle lines are drawn by when and how you cross yourself at Mass and whether you kneel for the Sanctus or wait for the beginning of the canon. Liturgy is often just short of blood sport and many a toast has been raised to a Roman Use victory over the Sarumites of a parish and vice versa. This lay aspect of Anglo-Catholic liturgical practice often appears bizarre and unseemly to Roman Catholics, but to many Anglicans it is mother’s milk. I have often joked with friends that I became a devotee of the traditional Roman Rite because I am now too old and lazy to make stuff up.

My goodness.  It sounds complicated.

Creating any one liturgical book or uniate fold that could encompass all of these Anglo-Catholicisms is a virtually impossible task. Among the good, devout, and intelligent people you will find across the Anglo-Catholic spectrum, there is scant agreement on which parts of the Anglican patrimony should be cherished and preserved and which parts should be trimmed away …  The liturgical traditions of individual parishes and priests are matters of pride, heated debate, and wickedly funny anecdotes.

Back to an earlier point — how many would like to become Roman Catholics?

With God, all things are possible, but I do not believe that there are thousands of Anglo-Catholics wanting to hop on the Barque of Peter if only they could bring their traditions with them. Though there are certainly exceptions, my experience has been that Anglicans who feel drawn to Rome are not that interested in Anglican worship and those who are interested in Anglican worship are not in theological agreement with Rome.

Tell me more about their history, particularly how the Oxford Movement ended up manifesting itself in such ornate liturgical displays.

For early Anglo-Catholics, liturgy was often an important form of witness and resistance whereby the externals of worship became a theological rebuke to the Protestant theology of the majority. Anglo-Catholics believed that Anglicans had maintained valid orders and sacraments and that the sacraments should be performed with the dignity befitting their reality rather than the simpler forms that accompanied a memorialist understanding. An altar cross, candles, and vestments were powerful signs of the sacramental faith that a parish held. Early Anglo-Catholic priests defied English court orders and went to jail for using vestments. In a side altar at the Church of the Advent in Boston you can still see a simple gilt cross that so offended the Bishop of Massachusetts that he refused to return until it was removed. The externals of the liturgy became an important part of Anglo-Catholic identity and a way for a parish to clearly stake out its theological ground. In places, this remains so up to the present day. A visit to Sunday Eucharist at a middle-of-the-road Episcopal parish may tell the observer very little about what that community believes but a similar visit to one of the great Anglo-Catholic shrine parishes leaves no doubt that these are people who believe that in this place heaven tangibly breaks through to earth.

Gee, that just sounds so, well, trad Catholic!  Are you sure they won’t swim the Tiber?

Anglo-Catholics stay where they are for the theological reasons touched on earlier as well as various practical and cultural reasons that include attachment to parishes built by their ancestors, the odd person’s lingering penchant for the perceived social respectability of being an Episcopalian, an aversion to Roman Catholic aesthetics, or simply from the knowledge that Anglo-Catholics can have their liturgical cake and a Protestant congregation’s freedom too in the unsettled times we live in.

What do you mean by ‘Protestant congregation’s freedom’?

As long as an Episcopal parish sends its annual check to diocesan headquarters and lets the bishop visit once a year or so, few ECUSA or continuing bishops care which liturgical books you have on the altar or even whether you’re offering the occasional Latin Mass. If you are an Episcopal priest, you are getting a quite decent living with little interference from higher up. If you are an active layperson, you are in a tradition that has well-established ways to use your gifts. In general, you can do pretty much as you please provided it is done discreetly and in good taste. Unless you have come to believe the Roman Catholic Church’s claims about itself, life in the average Anglo-Catholic parish remains reasonably pleasant even with all of the hysteria swirling in the headlines.

But, I’ve been reading otherwise.

I think this seeming lack of alarm at the present state of the Episcopal Church can be another of the hardest realities for Roman Catholics to grasp about Anglo-Catholics. Alarmist bloggers are not representative of most of the people in the pews. When asked about the crisis of the week, the thinking of most A-Cs would probably go something like this:

Why should we leave over a woman primate, the Windsor Report or [fill in the blank]? … Why should we go now? Sure a few folks made the lemming run over all of those things, but history shows we’ve done just fine. We’ve always been an embattled minority and we’ve hung in there bearing witness to the vision of a restored catholicism in the Anglican Communion and we’ll keep going. We may be pushed out of ECUSA into the Continuum or we may have to call in foreign prelates for a while, but that’s exactly what the English A-Cs had to do a century ago and they held tough and weathered the storm and we will too. Anglican is who we are and Anglican is what we’ll stay.

Reinforcing this general tendency to stay put are all of the beliefs that many Anglo-Catholics have about Roman Catholics. Anyone thinking of going to Rome will be given graphic stories of pantsuit nuns preaching liberation theology, liturgical dancing, bad plaster statues, and how you will always be an outsider treated with suspicion. The waffling A-C will also be reminded of some less sensational things that are hard for many of us: lay pope is not a viable career path in Rome as it is in Canterbury; chances are slim that you will be in a place where you will hear daily Evening Prayer again; and that you may never again find the same bonhomie you have had in the small, plucky world of Anglo-Catholicism.

Any regrets from your own perspective?

Are there things I miss about Anglicanism? Certainly! Anglicans of most theological stripes worship with sobriety, dignity and care. I am amazed that even low and broad church Anglicans who do not believe in the real presence celebrate the sacraments with a degree of reverence that I rarely see in the Catholic Church. 450 years of worship in English has left Anglicanism with a great gift for crafting liturgical prose and a rich treasury of sacred music. I still stumble over the words of the 1970 Missal and the Liturgy of the Hours. I miss the friendliness, sense of community, and well-stocked bar that you find in most Anglo-Catholic parishes. (Stories of the ‘Frozen Chosen’ are greatly exaggerated.) Most of all I miss the regular public celebration of the Office, which is, to my mind, Anglicanism’s distinct glory.

Thank you, Br Stephen.

So, outward appearances notwithstanding, not all Anglo-Catholics are alike.  Indeed, they inhabit a complex, nuanced world — one which defies stereotypes.

Friday: Br Stephen’s advice to Anglicans considering crossing the Tiber — don’t miss it