What is Anglo Catholicism?
The diversity of Anglican traditions can be bewildering to many. There are many expressions of Anglican thought, worship and practise within the family of churches we call the Anglican Communion. We sometimes sum up and over simplify these expressions of Anglican spirituality with the terms “High Church” or “Anglo Catholic” (catholic oriented), “Broad Church” (somewhere between catholic and protestant), or “Low Church” (protestant oriented). These terms are not always helpful or accurate in today’s world, yet we still hear them used.
The term High Church arose in the 1600s as the Anglican Church was evolving its own identity after its break from Roman Catholic authority. Those in the church who sought a reformed catholic vision of the Church where referred to as being “High Church” as they had a high regard for many aspects of the ancient Christian faith. Those who sought more extreme reforms within the Church and had a low regard for anything that resembled the catholic traditions of the past came to be called Low Church.
In the 1830s, Anglican priests at Oxford started a movement (The Oxford Movement) which sought to enliven and revive the Church’s connection to its early Anglican roots and to its ancient Christian spiritual heritage. The Oxford Movement is sometimes also referred to as the Catholic Revival as it emphasised that the Anglican Church, although reformed, was deeply rooted in the catholic tradition. These convictions led to significant changes and an outpouring of creativity in the Church’s worship, music, its spiritual life of prayer and sacraments, the revival of the monastic life, as well how the church expressed itself in theology, art and architecture. The Oxford Movement sought to create and renew the vision of the Church not by inventing new programs or models of “how to do Church”. Rather the Oxford Fathers dug deep into the soil of our Anglican past to nurture and revive the roots of our spiritual heritage that had often lain neglected.
Our Spiritual Heritage at St. Peter’s
For decades St. Peter’s has been locally known as the “High Church” parish in our area. Many may ask what makes an Anglican parish “High” or “Anglo Catholic”. Is it just the style or flavour of worship with its bells, incense and icons, its chanting and vestments? It may be all those things to some degree but all of those outwards sacred signs and symbols used at St. Peter’s are there to help us experience the reality of Christ’s Incarnation. Through the Incarnation, God in Christ desires to be seen, heard and to connect with his people in real and tangible ways here and now. Anglo Catholicism sees little difference between Christ who came to us in the cradle at Bethlehem, Christ who comes to us at the Altar in the Holy Eucharist, and Christ who comes to us in others, especially the wounded and marginalized in our communities.
Anglo Catholicism has a high regard for tradition. Tradition is the passing on of the essence of our faith to the next generation. In keeping with that reception and passing on of insight, I conclude with an excerpt from a work written by an Episcopal priest, Father John Alexander, in 1933. In the article, he summarises some of the elements of what it means to be Anglo Catholic or “High Church” I was originally going to update and edit some of the material and language for our modern context, but I decided to let the good Father speak for himself.
- A High View of God. Anglo-Catholic worship at its best cultivates a sense of reverence, awe, and mystery in the presence of the Holy One before whom even the angels in heaven veil their faces.
- A High View of Creation. At the same time, we delight in the beauty of God’s creation. The Anglo-Catholic view of the world is highly sacramental, seeing signs of God’s presence and goodness everywhere in the things that he has made. In worship, we gather up the best of creation—as reflected in art, craftsmanship, music, song, flowers, incense, etc.—and offer it all back up to God.
- A High View of the Incarnation. Our salvation began when Christ took flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary. God became man in order to transform human existence through participation in his divine life. The Collect for the Second Sunday after Christmas expresses the Anglo-Catholic vision perfectly: "O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored the dignity of human nature: grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ..."
- A High View of the Atonement. An authentic Anglo-Catholicism looks not only to Christ’s Incarnation but also to his Sacrifice. The image of Jesus on the cross reminds us of the depth and horror of human sin, and of the price that God has paid for our redemption. Anglo-Catholic spirituality entails a lifelong process of turning from sin and towards God. Many Anglo-Catholics find the Sacrament of Penance an indispensable aid in this process.
- A High View of the Church. We come to share in the divine life of the risen and ascended Christ by being incorporated through Baptism into his Body, the Church. Thus, we regard the universal Church neither as an institution of merely human origin, nor as a voluntary association of individual believers, but as a wonderful mystery, a divine society, a supernatural organism, whose life flows to its members from its head, Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
- A High View of the Communion of Saints. The Church, moreover, consists not only of all Christians now alive on earth (the Church Militant), but also of the Faithful Departed, who continue to grow in the knowledge and love of God (the Church Expectant), and of the Saints in Heaven, who have reached their journey’s end (the Church Triumphant). We have fellowship with all who live in Christ. Anglo-Catholicism thus affirms the legitimacy of praying for the dead, and of asking the Saints in Heaven for their prayers.
- A High View of the Sacraments. We believe that Jesus Christ really and truly communicates his life, presence, and grace to us in the Seven Sacraments, thus enabling us to give our lives to God and our neighbour in faith, hope, and love. Holy Baptism establishes our identity once for all as children of God and heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven (although we can by our own free choice repudiate this inheritance). And in the Holy Eucharist, Christ becomes objectively present in the Blessed Sacrament of His Body and Blood. Eucharistic adoration is thus an integral component of Anglo-Catholic spirituality and devotion.
- A High View of Holy Orders. Since the days of the Oxford Movement, Anglo-Catholicism has borne witness that the threefold ministry of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons in Apostolic Succession is God-given. The validity of our sacraments, and the fullness of our participation in the life of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, depend upon our faithful stewardship of this divine gift. For this reason, innovations threatening the authenticity of our apostolic orders must be resisted at all costs.
- A High View of Anglicanism. We affirm that the Anglican Churches are truly part of Christ’s Holy Catholic Church. The prophetic vocation of Anglo-Catholicism has been to bear witness to the catholicity of Anglicanism. Yet it can be an uncomfortable vocation that requires us to take unpopular stands against developments that threaten this catholicity. Since the days of the Oxford Movement, our standard has been the faith and practice of the ancient, undivided Church. Our vocation as Anglo-Catholics remains one of holding ourselves, and our Anglican institutions, accountable to the higher authority of the universal Church.
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light, look favourably on your whole Church,
that wonderful and sacred mystery.
By the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation.
Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up,
and things which had grown old are being made new,
and that all things are being brought to their perfection
by him through whom all things were made,
your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Solemn Intercessions for Good Friday, Book of Alternative Services, Canada.
Article by Dean Rose.
Permission is granted to use and replicate this or parts of this article with the following ascription;
From an article by Dean Rose, St. Peter’s Church, Oshawa, Diocese of Toronto.