Coming to a Point

by Charles A. Coulombe

On my desk is an old Anglo-Catholic Prayerbook, published sometime in the 1920s by the Church Literature Association, and bearing the signature “Evan R. Williams, Oxford, 1951.” Acquired in a second-hand store, it would not be too surprising to find out that it had belonged to the late Fr. Williams, sometime rector of St. Nicholas, Encino, whom I knew slightly. He had quite a wild background, had known T.S. Eliot while at Oxford, and had the rare ability to use the Missale Romanum at the Anglican Mass, translating from the Latin as he went.

Both the book and the man who may have owned it summon up for me the Anglo-Catholicism of about 1880 to 1960, a time when it looked as though the entirety of the Anglican Communion might one day be Catholicised. This was the era that produced the great Anglican missionary and slum priests, the religious orders and devotional societies, and social and political theorists and writers ranging from Conrad Noel to T.S. Eliot. The Anglo-Catholic Congresses and groups of dioceses from South Africa to the Biretta Belt of the Midwest showed forth the power of the movement which, in America at any rate, had its high noon with the torpedoing of the union discussions with the Presbyterians in 1946. In England it was bound up with all sorts of sorts of exotic things: Young England, the Arts and Crafts Movement, Neo-Jacobitism, Anglo-Catholic Socialism, and the “Merry England” Ideology. For the more esoterically-minded, there were C.G. Harrison’s work, Charles Williams’ Order of the Co-Inherence, and Dom Robert Petitpierre’s work with exorcisms. In, with, and under conventional Anglicanism a whole Anglo-Catholic parallel universe had been carved out; if some of its denizens seemed a trifle bizarre, there could be no arguing with the solid doctrinal foundations of the Advent Papers and the American Congress Booklets, the fervour of apologists like C.S. Lewis and such philosophers as George Grant, or solid architectural masterpieces like Nashdom Abbey (to which went the myrrh offered by the Queen at Epiphany to be mixed with the incense the monks prepared) and the renewed shrine at Walsingham.

To-day, of course, unless one is a part of the Affirming Catholicism crowd, it all seems in retrospect no more solid than a soap-bubble. The implosions of Nashdom Abbey and the formerly world-wide reach of the Cowley and Mirfield Fathers pale in comparison not only to the failure to Catholicise Anglicanism as a whole, but for the latter to retain adherence to any sort of “mere Christianity” at all – at least on the part of its leadership in the British Isles, North America, and Australasia.

Although there was always a certain amount of flummery in Anglo-Catholicism, there was an awful lot of real good in it – indeed, that very “Anglican patrimony” of which Pope Benedict XVI speaks. I believe that Anglo-Catholicism has not failed, for all that its concrete expressions and its influence have withered. Rather, it seems to me that a process is moving, in a way well expressed by C.S. Lewis’ Dr. Dimble in That Hideous Strength: “…if you dip into any college, or school, or parish - anything you like – at a given point in its history, you always find there was a time before that point when there was more elbow-room and contrasts weren’t so sharp; and there’s going to be a time after that point when there is even less room for indecision and choices are more momentous. Good is always getting better and bad getting worse: the possibilities of neutrality are always diminishing. The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder.”

In the novel, of course, this referred to there being ever less room for “neutral” magic in the world. For our purposes, however, it is a fine description of what has been happening to Anglo-Catholicism over the past six decades. Again, unless one cares to “Affirm Catholicism,” then bit by bit there has been ever less room within the official structures for the Anglo-Catholic. By the same token, resistance groups within the Canterbury Communion and the Continuum become ever more Evangelical; the ecclesiology of the alphabet soup bodies in the latter becomes progressively more incomprehensible and Episcopi Vagantes-like. In the midst of this dilemma has burst Anglicanorum coetibus.

The birth of the Ordinariates here and in Great Britain has been accompanied with a great deal of pain; Australia’s is just aborning, and South Africa and elsewhere are further off. The attempt to mesh quasi-congregationalist Anglo-Catholics with Roman local hierarchy is often fraught with misunderstandings and missed communications. It seems to have everything, humanly speaking, against it. Yet, in the long-term, the Ordinariates appear to be the only available formula for Anglo-Catholicism to survive – and more than that, to thrive, to return to its once and proper place in evangelisation.

Moreover, on the Roman side, this development comes at a critical time. Sixty years ago, when Anglo-Catholicism was at its most confident – and many Anglo-Catholics were as convinced that they did not need Rome any more than they did their local Broad – or Low-Church Bishop – so too was the Catholic Church. But that same period has been a humiliating one for us as well. It is not merely the growth and flowering of the pedophile scandals, awful as they have been. Far greater has been the near universal “Hermeneutic of Rupture,” denounced by Benedict XVI in his message to the Curia of December 2005. In his letter to the bishops accompanying the 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum which “liberated” the Tridentine Mass, the Pope declared that “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.” But as a practical matter it has been – not only in liturgy, but in catechetics and popular devotions – in the greater part of the Latin Rite. To fight this, he has, among other things, strengthened the motu proprio with a hard-hitting clarification; but documents are not sufficient. This is why he has worked so hard to make a settlement with the Society of S. Pius X – a pre-existing and world-wide network of traditional Catholic communities – and why he sees the Anglican patrimony as so important for English-speaking lands. The current situation against which he and like-minded clergy and laity are struggling is a terrible scandal, to be sure: as I have said, a terrible humiliation. But without humiliation there is no humility, and without humility, no holiness. Six decades ago, both sides would have been too proud to come together.

It may well be that the same can be said for the Polish National and European Old Catholics of the Union of Utrecht – the latter proud to reject the supposed “innovations” of Vatican I, only to fall prey to so many liturgical and doctrinal alterations as to become unrecognizable to their 19th century forebears. The PNCC and the small Scandinavian Lutheran and German Old Catholic groups who have joined with her in the Union of Scranton may one day be more amenable to union with Rome in the light of that humiliation – and Rome may thusly be better able to deal with and for them.

So too with the East. To be sure, Communism and the horrors in the Near East (which latter have sent so many Christians – Catholics and Orthodox alike – fleeing west) were and are horrible things. But Constantinople, Moscow, and the rest have begun to see that Rome is their only real ally in the struggle against secularism, and certainly the Holy See is very much aware of this. The humiliations all have suffered may well be a catalyst to becoming aware that it is no longer possible to be separate and yet triumph over the enemies of Christ. We have lost the luxury of indifference that has characterised so much of our joint history. It may be, despite the hurdles that remain, that Benedict’s vision of restoring the kind of unity between East and West that prevailed during the First Millennium may come to pass in a shorter time then could have been imagined 60 years ago.

Those outside the visible communion of Rome who nevertheless love the Sacraments and wish to struggle for the Kingship of Christ are, through the course of events, being forced ever closer to her; those within that visible bond who do not are similarly being leached out. The Anglo-Catholics who enter the Ordinariates will be able to be truly the same sort of Anglicans as were Alfred the Great, S. Bede the Venerable, Julian of Norwich, and indeed, Ss. John Fisher and Thomas More, and the English recusants. By the same token, however, the heritage of Charles I and Bishop Ken, Cram and Eliot, Sayers and Lewis and all the rest will be made available to the entire Latin Rite, and indeed the Church as a whole. In this way, the ability of Catholics to re-evangelise the English-speaking world will be immeasurably strengthened. Indeed, all history is coming to a point.

 

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