The Glory of Inessential Things: On the Anglican Ordinariates

The Holiness of Things

I was serving at a food kitchen with another Catholic man, in the town I used to live in, and overheard this gentleman telling a friend that one of the main reasons he was Catholic was that, as far as I can recall his words, was “the…just the holiness of it, the holiness of things in Catholicism,” or words to that effect.  He was referring to the way Catholics treated the rosary, to the holiness associated with sacramental objects used in the liturgy.  (And mind you, he was talking about the post-Vatican II liturgy, not the Extraordinary form, when he said this.)  This is exactly the sense I had when I entered communion with the Catholic Church; that to the Catholic Church, the whole world, and all that was in it, despite all its sinfulness, was holy, and that its blessing of material objects–candles before icons, rosary beads, incense, holy water, making the sign of the cross, and the whole paraphernalia of its devotional life–were a reflection of this.

In my last post, I considered the importance of inessential things in regards to knowledge of the Catholic faith, and compared the situation within the Catholic church today with that of the English Reformation in the 16th century, when the English reformers targeted the devotional life of Catholicism in their attempt to root out more essential beliefs.  In this post I want to point to the more positive aspects of inessential things, and how the traditions of Anglicanism might have something worthwhile for Catholics to consider in this regard.  I have recently taken on the duty of being an associate member of a group within the Anglican Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.  (For those of you who do not know what an Ordinariate is, it is a canonical structure erected by Pope Benedict XVI, to allow groups of Anglicans–those Christians who were members of the Anglican communion–to enter as a body into communion with the Catholic Church.)  One of the reasons I have agreed to do this is that, as a British historian, I have a great respect for the traditions of Anglicanism and of the Church of England in particular, and I was very glad when the Pope emeritus decided to do this.

Now is perhaps not the most auspicious time to do this; with the Church of England’s recent decision to ordain women as bishops, most Catholics of my acquaintance (who are all “traditionalist” when it comes to doctrine) I’m sure don’t see what could be learned from such a body.  This reaction, by a traditionalist blogger whose opinions I very much respect, is quite understandable, as is this one by a former Anglican for whom I also have a great deal of respect.  I have no intention of defending the Church of England or any its sister institutions as institutions, and they have clearly adopted beliefs and practices which are incompatible with the Christian faith.  I will not belabor the point, and I hope, should I have any Anglican readers of this blog, they will not be offended by my saying so; that is simply the only judgment I can render on its actions, which would be the same with anyone who holds to the Catholic Church’s teachings (r with the Orthodox Churches, for that matter).  But this post is not about institutions.  It is about tradition–and note I am not referring to Tradition with a capital “T” as Catholics understand it.  I mean merely those quite human habits, customs and by which people appropriate and pass on their beliefs, the types of practices Eamon Duffy wrote of in Stripping of the Altars.  What I want to say here is that–despite the embrace of serious errors by many of its institutions–that Catholics could learn a great deal which is of positive value from the experience of the Anglican tradition, if they are willing to listen, and learn.


The Experience of “traditional” Religion in Anglicanism

Perhaps it would be a good idea to go back to Duffy’s book for a moment.  Near the end of Stripping of the Altars Duffy remarked that by the 1580s, “traditional” religion had largely begun to pass into the institutional care of the Church of England; the rhythms of bible and Prayer Book were replacing the liturgical inheritance of medieval England, but there were still survivals of a much more direct sort at the level of practice among the English people.  Not only did the physical remains of churches, ruined abbeys and other reminders of the old faith remain to take hold in the imagination of antiquarian writers such as John Stowe and others at the end of the sixteenth century, but also in terms of the official liturgy itself, such as the Prayer Book itself, much of which was a translation from older missals by Cranmer.   This is to say nothing of more localized customs in various parts of England as well.   It was not for nothing that those hyper-Protestant agitators–those artists formerly known as “Puritans”–arose at the same time in the late 16th century to trouble the peace of Protestant England.  Those in the Church of England were quite aware of continuity with the older religion in practical terms, even if, from a Catholic view, that body’s teaching in the abstract were certainly a novel contradiction to what had preceded it.  Of course, without the Magisterium, they could no longer distinguish between what was truly essential and what was not, but this actually makes the experience of the English Church in particular significant, I think, for the Catholic Church to consider today, because the Church of England held onto many essential elements of Christian Tradition until very recently, despite all of this.

Consider for a moment that the “traditional” religion of the English suffered from another devastating attack during the Civil Wars in the 1640s, when the Church of England was abolished and the Prayer Book banned.  The Church of England survived partly because the gentry thought of it as a bulwark against fanaticism, but also because many pious Anglicans, such as John Evelyn, kept the Book of Common Prayer alive as a part of a living tradition during the 1650s when the Church of England was lying in ruins.  In some ways, one could say that the civil wars were in some sense about “traditional religion”; Archbishop Laud was anathema amongst Puritans partly because he tried to resurrect some of the “inessential” aspects of pre-Reformation worship, and the second civil war itself was started when Puritan authorities in Westminster tried suppress Christmas day celebrations in Canterbury in 1648, setting off riots which led to large swathes of Kent to rise in favor of the king.  After the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and the re-establishment of the Church of England in 1662, the Church of England and its rhythms of prayer and devotion remained the “traditional” religion of England, and it was only in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, with the rise of first of Wesley and then the Evangelical movement,and later on the Oxford Movement and eventually Anglo-Catholicism, that this ceased to be the case in a meaningful sense.  And even then, and even today, as a matter of fact, despite the collapse of belief in Christianity, the Church of England is still in some sense the institution most closely associated with the “traditional religion” of the English people.  Even in an American context this was also the case somewhat, as the Episcopal Church had a cachet and influence that belied its numbers within the old unofficial, Protestant establishment in the U.S.

Now, here a conservative Catholic might reasonably object–and many do–so what?  What difference does adherence to all of these inessential things make, if the Church of England can embrace contraception, divorce, and women’s ordination?  And didn’t the Church of England already throw out essential doctrines concerning the papacy, purgatory and prayers for the dead, the sacrifice of the mass, the nature of holy orders, and a host of other essential doctrines, in the 16th century?  What difference does it make if the small “t” traditions of Anglicanism are wholesome, and possibly good in themselves, if the essentials are wrong?  If one has the Magisterium–an infallible teaching authority–what does this stuff matter in the end?

Good questions all.  My response to them is twofold.  First, one might want to turn the question around:  if the Church of England was so corrupted from the beginning, how has it lasted so long?  Most conservative Catholics point to the Anglican approval of contraception as a proof of what happens without the Magisterium, but this occurred 400 years after Henry VIII’s break with Rome.  In fact, after the break with Rome, I’m not aware of any other essential Christian belief the Church of England officially altered (the Trinity, baptism, etc.) until the twentieth century–not even during the civil wars, nor despite the fact there was a major debate over the nature of the Trinity at the end of the 17th century.    It might behoove one to ask;  if the C of E got the essentials so wrong, how could it have survived for so long?  I would say it was precisely because the Church of England was the repository of “traditional” religion, insofar as Englishmen understood it.  I think at an unconscious level this is why certain parts of the Anglican tradition have been so very adept at the more aesthetic aspects of worship, for example, or why there seems to have been such a strong tradition of antiquarianism among Anglican clergymen–knowing that they lacked access to big “T” Tradition, it is as if they compensated for it by a greater emphasis on small “t” traditions whatever they may have been.  It is precisely this emphasis on “traditions” that I believe the Catholic Church can learn from.


Of Mediating Experiences & Complex Relations–The Burkean Quality of Anglicanism

Why should this be the case?  For one, it is important to understand that when the Church of England (and then later the Episcopal Church) began to unravel, it was not merely because it lacked an infallible Magisterium–which is indeed the main cause–but also because, historically speaking,  small “t” traditional religion has become increasingly marginalized in the modern world.   It is probably not a coincidence that the Church of England began to experience serious doctrinal problems in the 1840s and 50s, in both the controversies of the Jerusalem Bishopric, over the issue of intercommunion with German Protestants, and the Gorham controversy, over the issue of infant baptism.  Nor was it likely a coincidence that the Oxford Movement, which was anything but traditional, sprang to life about the same time period.  England in the 1830s was going through the upheavals of the first Industrial Revolution, one which transformed and in some cases erased traditional patterns of work, time, and play, that had existed for millennia, and this was bound to have an effect on the popular religious customs of the English.  Of course, religious observance did not fall off the face of the earth with the coming of industry, but as elsewhere in Europe, it meant that the Church of England, would become a religion primarily of the middle classes, rather than that of workers bound to the land (it would also see a decline in the religious observance of the working classes, which has never really changed either; insofar as people are religiously observant in Western Europe and North America today, it is an almost completely middle class phenomenon).  With that shift, religion in England passed out of the hands of the aristocracy, whose life was based in the land and the natural rhythms of farming, and therefore much more hospitable to the maintenance of the sorts of customs integral to “traditional” religion in England, to that of the bourgeoisie, whose life is one of constant flux, determined by the vagaries of money, the market, and mechanical time–not necessarily antithetical to “traditional” religion, but often so in practice.   A similar shift, from a rural, agrarian society to one determined by industry and the global market, is currently taking place in South America, and the results are not totally dissimilar:  the Church of England lost ground in the 19th century to Methodists and other Dissenters, just as the Catholic Church is losing ground in terms of membership to Pentecostals in places like Brazil.   And yet, despite all of this, it was not until the 1960s that religious observance in the Church of England fell off the face of the earth–as it did in Catholic countries as well.  I would suggest that this relative persistence on the part of the Anglican tradition, such as it is, was partly due to this sensibility concerning “inessential” things that I have described above.

Again, one might think that none of this matters.  As Catholics, we have the Magisterium, we have the promise that God will not allow the Pope or his Church to fall into serious error; what do we need to bother with older customs, or with the experience of Anglicans, since we have that?  The response to this type of thinking can only be this:  yes, God will always protect the precious deposit of the faith, we have that guarantee; but many, many people have been led astray, have been lost to the faith, will be lost, because of this lack of common understanding at the level of what I would like to call “mediating” experiences–shared customs, such as not eating meat on Fridays–which mediate to people those more central, permanent beliefs, while binding them together as a community, as the Body of Christ.  The reason, I believe, that this was such an issue in Anglicanism was that because they had broken with essential aspects of the Catholic faith–most importantly, of course, its doctrinal authority–they were left with little else besides those “inessential” things to bind them together, which is why when one group or another threaten to change them wholesale–as Puritans did in the 17th century and the Oxford Movement did in the 19th–upheavals tended to follow.  Much of Anglicanism’s traditionally vaunted nuanced “via media” is due to its having to be careful about how it treated “inessential” things, lest it upset the delicate balance of factions that it held together.  Normally, Catholics tend to despise this, seeing in it a mere consequence of the Church of England’s lack of authority;  the Church having a guarantee that its major doctrines won’t change doesn’t have to worry about such things.  It can alter “inessential” things at a whim, because it has the authority to do so.  And indeed it does, but this does not mean it should necessarily do so, or that it is healthy for it to do so very often.

This is one of the things I think I appreciate about the traditions of Anglicanism, as far as I understand them.  There is a sort of intuitive understanding of what Edmund Burke, following John Locke, called “complex relations.”  I believe he meant by that phrase the intimate connection of experiences by which we come to understand the world, and it is this idea that lies behind Burke’s famous encomium to the “little platoons” in which we are raised, in which we learn our larger loyalty to country from these smaller, more local communities.   Burke was suspicious of the French revolution just because it raised up certain types of goods–liberty, equality, fraternity, but above all liberty–to point of blotting out other virtues he thought were necessary to not only the flourishing but also the perpetuation of a just society, as well as to the effacing of customary boundaries in order to set up a geometrically constructed nation in the place one which had grown up slowly over time.   Just so, there seem to me in Anglicanism a sense that once comes to fully embrace the great truths of the Christian faith through such mediating experiences at which Anglicans tend to excel–theological and historical scholarship, liturgy, musical traditions, and ceremonies more generally speaking, to name a few.  And yes, I am aware that the institutional bodies of Anglicanism have readily abandoned those truths for which such mediating experiences should be a preparation, but I still think the idea is basically a sound one.  The Catholic Church has issued many declarations of its unchanging truths in the past fifty years, and I heartily recommend them, but it should be obvious to anyone reading this post that it had precious little effect on its intended audience (I am thinking of course about Humana Vitae, and other such pronouncements).  The reason for this, on a human level, is obvious:  the Church’s teachings do mesh easily with the experiences of modern Westerners.  This is why I believe better effort and care should be taken to cultivate and support those types of “inessential” things which bind us together, and not only “us” in the sense of the Catholic Church as it is today, but with those of all the times and places it has existed, and with those souls in Purgatory and in Heaven.   This in the long run, beside prayer, is the primary action one can take to counterbalance the experiences of modern life which make the Church’s teachings seem unbelievable in one way or another to so many people.  I believe there is much in the traditions of Anglicanism that can further this effort, which is why I have chosen to support the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter with my time and treasure.


Conclusion:  Prospects for the Ordinariates

I have the feeling that what I have said so far may not be terribly persuasive to one who is not already on board with the idea.  I suppose, for those conservative Catholics out there who loved Benedict XVI, I can give no better recommendation to the Ordinariates than that the pope emeritus thought the traditions of Anglicanism worthy of a home within the Catholic Church.  But I am of course arguing for more than this.  I am arguing for the positive value of the traditions of Anglicanism to the Catholic Church, but more importantly the people and communities that have brought these traditions with them from Anglican bodies into the Catholic Church.  I do believe they can be an important, even vital element of the Catholic Church going forward–not in terms of demographic or numerical strength, obviously, as these communities are quite small most of them.  But I believe they can be an important leaven in the great breadth of the Church, in a variety of ways.  First and foremost, pretty much every former Anglican I have met who has become Catholic and remained one, did so because they believed it to be true–that the Catholic Church it what it has always claimed itself to be, the Body that Christ founded upon earth.  Thus the Ordinariate communities are definitely “intentional communities,” made up of people who had to make a hard choice in many cases to leave people and institutions behind that they were deeply attached to, some making great sacrifices, all for the cause of truth.  Many have a long arduous experience of fidelity to the main wells of Christian Tradition (yes, bit “T”) despite being marginalized within their own communities, something that is likely going to become a much more normal experience for Catholics of the Western world in the near future.  And these former Anglicans did this, I might add, without being in communion with the infallible Magisterium of the Church, and so they can offer what I take to be a very precious thing to the Catholic Church as a whole, but even more so the Latin Rite Church in particular:  a felt need for the authority of the Church combined with a shared experience of Christian life that does not seem to depend exclusively upon it.  Or to put it another way, they managed, via their love for “inessential” things in their own traditions, to hang onto the great Tradition, enough to find their way to the Church Catholic, and so they can serve as an example and resource for the wider Latin Church, where the relationship between essential and inessential things has become so distorted in recent years.

And what can the Ordinariates do practically and concretely at the present moment? Several possibilities have been mooted by minds more well informed about them than my own, and the examples of particular practices are not hard to think of if you know anything about the Ordinariates, or Anglicanism.  Both the previous pontiff and the current both see them as possible vehicles of evangelization, both of non-Catholics but also of fallen away Catholics and perhaps even of non-Christians as well.   Especially in this first generation of the Ordinariate, where most members are likely to be converts, this makes sense.  The liturgical inheritance of Anglicanism, if you know nothing of it, could be a model for how the liturgy could be observed with a greater sense of solemnity and decorum in the vernacular (this is particularly the case in the United States, where the Episcopal Church’s worship was shaped by the Scottish Rite of the Anglican Communion, its bishops being ordained by them after the American Revolution rather than from England.  Thus the liturgy of the Episcopal Church always had a  bit more “Congregationalist” feel to it than did that of the Church of England).   These are probably the two most likely influences they might have on the Latin Church at the moment.  But it may be in the end the mere existence of groups of former Anglicans who have visibly maintained their identity, as it was formed by customs in the Anglican tradition, enshrined in “inessential” things, and who have come into communion with the Catholic Church, that is the most important gift the Ordinariates have to offer.

In the last analysis, I have no idea how or if the Ordinariates will succeed; it may be that they will simply melt into the Catholic Church and become indistinguishable from other Latin rite Catholics in the end.  All things are in God’s hands, to be sure.  But I think this would be a tremendous loss for the Church if the Ordinariates failed to maintain their traditions from Anglicanism, on several fronts.  It would be a loss of the many gifts that the members of the Ordinariate would bring with them to the Church.  It would be a lost opportunity to demonstrate charity and understanding toward members another Christian tradition, by making  a home for them, especially after the centuries of bitterness and hostility between us.  But most of all, it would be a failure to embrace the real treasures of the Ordinariates:  the people who seek the fullness of the Christ in the Catholic Church.  The men and women who come into communion with the Catholic Church from Anglicanism were made Christians in part by those traditions, and the Church should do all it can to help them flourish on their path to eternal salvation.   It will, if I am right, be richly rewarded, in the end.  Failing to do so would be a very dolorous prospect indeed, in my estimation.  It is the Church’s task to gather up men and women from all nations, to bring them to God’s salvation, from whatever customs may have shaped their journey.  For, when all is said and done, what is the Church but the place on earth where the most inessential “things” of all–human beings–find their way to He whom is the only really essential “thing” at all–God himself.  It is in the Church, by becoming first attached to those inessential things which attract us toward God, that we gradually become closer and closer to his eternal light.  And so, whenever we hear the sonorities of Gregorian Chant, the stately cadences of the Book of Common Prayer; when our noses tickle with the odor of incense, or sing the lovely phrases of “O God Our Help In Ages Past,” we move from glory to glory–from the glory of inessential things, which we create without our own hands, and which will pass away, to that greater Glory which will never fade nor wither.






Alypius Minor

~ by Alypius on July 29, 2014.

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