Thoughts, Anglo-Catholic: On ‘Traditionalists’ or “You Can’t Handle the Oxford Movement”

Tony SigAs a movement, as a theologically ‘centered’ or ‘coherent’ vein of Anglicanism, at least in my experience, and in the West, traditionalist Anglo-Catholicism is dead.  There are of course many Anglo-Catholics, many of whom drive the theological wheels.  I’d say in fact that the theological heavyweights in Anglicanism are in fact predominately though not exclusively ‘Anglo-Catholic.’  Long-lasting effects of Anglo-Catholicism can be felt in our revived Prayer Books; they can be seen in various liturgical performances; we like to recount the Oxford Movement and the (poorly understood and barely read) ‘Liberal Catholics’ in our histories; but if we are to take it as a continuing theological presence, and if we are to take the Oxford Movement and the Liberal Catholics as paradigms, then I personally don’t see many indicators that ACism sustains a theological vein apart from certain British movements of recent memory.

Maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong.  I’ve gotten into not a few conversations about this with people who mostly disagree with me and/or disagree with how I define ‘Catholic.’  But as an example lets look at the possible move of some traditionalist AC clergy from the Church of England on account of the likely move to allow women to be bishops.

Without a ‘conscience clause’ these clergy would have to accept the sacramental and pastoral oversight of a woman if such a thing came to pass.  For these people, this would amount to an abandonment of true sacramentality; a transgressing of the apostolic office and the foundation that Christ himself laid and set out for eternity:  If you have a mitre, you must have XY chromosomes and a penis.

Let us assume for the sake of the argument that the Oxford Movement (OM) and probably even the Liberal Catholics (LCs) would disagree with both womens ordination and especially women bishops.  Current traditionalist ACs until this point have suffered their conscience on the matter of women clergy in the C of E so long as it didn’t happen in their parish.  Indeed, if a ‘conscience clause’ had not been rejected as it seems it will be, even still, so long as they themselves were able to practice their piety in good conscience, then it seems few if any would have been tempted to leave the C of E.

Enter a proposition: AC clergy (in the C of E) will not leave the church even if there are women clergy and bishops in the church so long as they are able to maintain their own practice.

That is, they can suffer a diversity on this issue in their wider fellowship, both in the C of E and in the wider Communion.

Proposition II – AC clergy are in Eucharistic (that is, the highest level of) fellowship with women clergy and bishops and parishoners ‘under’ them.

If we are to assume that a ‘true’ traditionalist AC does not ‘recognize’ the sacramental validity of women clergy, then:

Proposition III – ACs are able to abide ‘invalid’ sacraments in part of their church.

If these three propositions are true, and broadly of traditionalist ACs they are, then:

Traditionalist Anglo-Catholics are in fact high-church Congregationalists.

The OM and even the LCs were very concerned with authority.  Indeed, many in the OM were not even thurible swingin’ high-churchers.  No.  Time and again when you read the Tracts for the Times, you realize that the OM was concerned to establish that the C of E sat in proper sacramental, that is episcopal continuity with the church of the apostles and that it wouldn’t have mattered if they had been allowed a thousand parishes to fill with chant and incense.  What mattered was whether or not they were practicing in the same church and with the same authority as the apostles.  Additionally, this would have had to have been true of the entire C of E, and indeed when Newman and many others deemed that it wasn’t, they left for Roman Catholicism.

Similarly Bishop Gore spent an awful lot of time defending the catholicity of the C of E.  Indeed he wrote an impressive and persuasive book on just that topic. (cf. Order and Unity)

Now, I usually situate myself within Anglo-Catholicism seeing a clear line from ABC Michael Ramsey to Rowan Williams to RadOx.  I would then consider myself a “liberal (charismatic and evangelical) catholic” though not in the way that term is generally used today.

But my point isn’t really in this essay to establish my own perfect catholicity (I’m pretty sure there isn’t such a thing) but rather to show that if traditionalist ACs have so far suffered sacramental invalidity in their church they should never have been in the C of E to begin with.  I wonder if they simply don’t get what it means to be ‘Catholics;’ whatever the case they have a long way to go before they can legitimately say that they stand in continuity with Anglo-Catholicism.



  1. Yeah, I think followed that, mostly. Are you’re saying that “traditionalist” ACs aren’t actually ACs, and their griping about women bishops is illustrative of this point? That’s what the last paragraph seems to say, but how does that tie in with the first paragraph that says “traditional” AC is dead. Have women in the priesthood killed it/moved it into communion with Rome? Or did the movement collapse under its own theological weight? It may be that I am simply too uneducated to understand your full nuance here.


  2. Yeah I think you pretty much got it. I mean that according to the pattern and concerns of the Oxford Movement, specifically traditionalist anglo-catholicism as it is practiced today simply isn’t ‘catholic.’ Not only does their logic break down but they don’t reflect thoroughly enough on the episcopacy.

    In essence, the ordination of women dissolved traditionalist anglo-catholicism so long as it maintained that true sacramentality is sustained soley by men. So long as they didn’t affirm and accept womens ordination, they became in vision and practice, congregationalists. A Roman Catholic wouldn’t even understand what it would mean for a section of their church to ‘live’ with ‘invalid’ sacraments; it just wouldn’t compute.

    Am I making it any clearer? Do you have any other points or questions? I’m looking for a devils advocate at some point too.


  3. Well, yes, and, hmm, not quite. In a certain way the Ritualists were always congregationalists… such things took years to gain any sort of even begrudging episcopal approval.

    Also: The Compromise (i.e. the Act of Synod) from ’93 (I think it was) allowed a sort of alternative episcopate, and the ability for trads to maintain a witness in the Church without being (totally) congregationalist. I don’t think it’s fair to say that it’s “congregationalist” for a congregation to insist that it needs to be part of a coherent episcopate. But all that’s over now. No more flying bishops, etc. No more idea of a totally separate structure for traditionalists — now, as Bishop Andrew has rightly pointed out, we degrade to mere sexism: certain parishes demand male ministers, and apostolic continuity is irrelevant. (So much the conversation surrounding Synod, even at a very high level, never seemed to get this basic point: the point is not that parishes want male priests (for there are male “priests” ordained by female “bishops”), but that want priests in clear continuity with Catholic tradition.

    But I think you’re getting to the real issue that a lot of Anglo Catholics are now seeing: we’re at a watershed moment where we have to decide whether we’re going to be Catholics or Protestants. We could continue to dress up and act like Catholics in a clearly Protestant Church, but for most of us that’s not good enough…


    1. I’m not saying that “technically” the trads are congregationalist, simply that in their vision of the Church they are; Even and perhaps especially the ones that were under ‘flying’ bishops since those same bishops were in ‘communion’ with the other ‘illegitimate’ bishops. You see they just weren’t thinking episcopally.

      This can really only be a “watershed” moment if the C of E is considered the ideal paradigm of Anglican existence since outside of them women bishops have been the norm in several Anglican bodies. No doubt, as William Sachs argues in his must-read book “The Transformation of Anglicanism,” the decision to go ahead with womens ordination was monumental and monumentally important in later Anglican problems up to the present day, but the “watershed” seems to me to be still yet to come, in where Anglicanism will be at the next Lambeth and/or whether or not the Covenant ‘works.’

      I think that it’s a fair point that both you and Scott make that finding a coherent “Anglo-catholicism” is perhaps a pointless endeavor, but I’d like to think it a labor that is worth undertaking, to train ‘Catholic’ clergy and to compose an appropriate catechism. But it will certainly end up being pointless if we fizzure out from fellowship with one another. I don’t know if ACs just don’t communicate enough or if we don’t spend sufficient energy in laying out what is ‘Catholic’ as compared to what is ‘Protestant’ and where those two find homes in various Anglicanisms but I wish we had more public and informed conversations about it.

      At root I’d locate the insufferable Anglican ‘toleration’ which so easily and has often degenerated into indifference to doctrine and practice. But most people love this about Anglicanism so I usually just end up pissing people off when I say this. Nevertheless current global problems cannot but be at least in part caused by the elevating of difference to a virtue. It’s not so-called “diversity” that is glorious but the patient struggle within diversity that generates holiness! *off soapbox*

      With Scott, I find attempts to locate the bene esse of the Catholic tradition in male episcopal succession to be unjustifiable. While I recognize the significance of the change in practice to include women – whereas I feel that many don’t totally appreciate the divergence with historical practice – I’ve found the ‘arguments’ against the practice so very weak and unchristological that I ultimately have no sympathy with the traditionalist position on that; especially when it is made so core to our identity.


  4. Kind of a lot to bite off in one blog post… I wonder if we can really generalize about Anglo-Catholicism. Ask two Anglo-Catholics and you will get four opinions…

    Although the “traditionalist” ACs in the Church of England would like us to believe otherwise, I don’t think the issue of women’s ordination has much to do with Anglo-Catholic theology or traditions. Indeed, some of the most Roman of Anglo-Catholics are female Anglo-Catholic priests celebrating the EBVM in all her apparitions, performing liturgical rites not seen in Roman Catholic churches for centuries…

    Likewise, most Anglo-Catholics are not hoping for a magical reunion with Rome, and are unlikely to jump ship over issues such as women or homosexuality. Anglo-Catholicism is about our Church’s place in the continuity of the larger Catholic Church, about an Anglican tradition that began before the great schism and places our Communion alongside Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism as one of the greater branches of the Catholic Church.

    Here in the Pacific NW, St. Paul’s Seattle is just one of several Anglo-Catholic parishes that are considered politically and socially progressive, while maintaining ultratraditional theology and liturgy. If you ever get a chance to spend a Sunday there, you will be impressed with Mother Melissa and her church’s glorious liturgy.

    The Anglocatholic Socialism website and the associated Anglican Left listserve would argue that the debate over women bishops has nothing to do with Anglo-Catholicism.

    Finally, your devotion to old theology reminded me of this lovely meditation by Maggi Dawn yesterday:

    Sorry if the links don’t work…


  5. I think Sam states the argument clearly, but many would disagree about this being a watershed moment. The theology that Sam articulates is not Anglo-Catholic but Roman Catholic, and for that matter it may be less a theology and more of a ‘lesser doctrine.’ I think most of us Anglo-Catholics will choose neither Calvinism or Popery but will continue on the Via Media.


  6. True: perhaps one watershed moment among many. (But looking at the public reactions in Britain, I don’t see any self-described Anglo-Catholic voices who don’t see this as a watershed moment; and that’s inclusive of those who don’t see themselves as pro-Rome.)

    And as far as the whole “That’s Roman Catholic not Anglo Catholic,” I think that a cop-out, something that means we don’t have to listen to anybody else because we’ve got Catholicism covered. It devolves quickly into simple anti-roman bigotry.

    None of us can speak of “most of us Anglo-Catholics” anymore; it just doesn’t work, because nobody knows what that means.

    Now it may be true that a lot of Anglo-Catholics don’t see the necessity of communion with Rome — and that’s fine (even if such folks are rapidly dwindling in number). But it does nobody any good to accuse those who do of ceasing to be “Anglo.” That creates an insular sort of catholicism that was never before recognized by the Tractarian tradition, which steadfastly insisted that the Anglican Church, if it were truly Catholic, had no doctrine of its own. Such a catholicism is a via media not because it rejects Calvinism and popery, but because it holds to the paradoxical course of dogma given by the early Church. The “via media” conceived as a middle way between Rome and Geneva is a caricature of 16th century polemics that has no intelligible place in a post-Vatican II ecumenism.


  7. Oooooo, a spicy comment thread. This hasn’t happened in ages!

    I’m cooking lunch but I’ll weigh in when I can. In the meantime, let’s talk Anglo-Catholic cause I love to do that; preferably over a nice wine: I feel merlot fits the stereotype.


  8. Scott’s comment is interesting, and it does reveal the diversity implicit in “Anglo-Catholic,” whether or not the Tractarians or ritualists of last century would recognize its current form. Most of us in the “traditionalist” crowd would prefer simply “Catholic”.

    There was of course, a parting of the ways, drawn out over the last few decades, punctuated mainly by women’s ordination in the US and then in Britain. Forward in Faith and Affirming Catholicism are its offshoots, and they can argue to death over which one is the true inheritance of the Tractarians. Personally it is very odd to hear female clergy and parishes with female clergy describing themselves as “Anglo-Catholic,” but I can’t stop anybody from doing it, so there’s no sense in trying.

    The SSC has come to be known by many people as a trad organization against the ordination of women, even though it got started by ritualist priests long before this was ever an issue. Surely those of you of more “affirming catholic” tendencies can at least see the traditionalist point of view. The intolerance of the American and (now) English governing structures is rather appalling, but not totally surprising. I appreciate the suggestion that has been offered elsewhere that in the process of demanding women bishops the Synod has effectively destroyed any illusion of an episcopally governed Church… there will be women bishops, but there will no longer be any coherent idea of the episcopate (other than nominal administrators of a democratic church).

    And Tony, I do see what you mean about congregationalism, though I still don’t see it exactly. But it’s true that there is something deeply problematic about the whole “I’m in communion with this bishop but not that bishop even though we claim to be in the same church.” But that is the way it has been everywhere in the Anglican world following women’s ordination… and this is why it was such a stunning defeat to its opponents, no matter how you look at it: even if we were allowed to keep to ourselves, in a sense, we were forced to live with the dissonance of such arbitrary and uncatholic arrangements.


  9. As with all things Anglican, not least Anglo-Catholic, I find myself made to wait in patience for ‘things to happen’ that are outside of my control.

    I was recalling a “Tract” by a certain Samuel Keyes on “Baptism Being Bigger Than Schism” and I wonder if Baptism is bigger than gender?

    …and I hope by now you will be able to recognize the difference between how I mean that and how that might sound coming from a more progressive Episcopalian. After all, by all most accounts I’m pretty damned conservative!


  10. There has long been a sub-school of Anglo-Catholics who have been attracted to episcopi vaganteed. Some Anglican clergy got themselves ordained by various episcopi vagantes 2, 3, 4 or more times by vairious episcopi vagantes to try to ensure that they were within the apostolic succession.

    And those who remain in the Anglican Church and want some sort of special episcopal provision are in fact doing the same thing. They want their own Anglican episcopus vagans. I think this is so far from the spirit of the Tractarians that it is something else entirely.


  11. Tony I appreciate the reference… (Plug here.) And of course I’d second that “baptism is bigger than gender.” So I’d say the same thing here that I said there: let’s at least treat each other like Christians. But that is what the Episcopal Church has refused to do… the assumption is that if you leave you’ve left the faith and are worthy of only being sued. Likewise the C of E has now enacted a policy in which those Christians who maintain the Church’s traditional view are systematically exterminated. Whatever you think of the issue at stake, there is a lack of basic Christian charity here.


  12. With the Roman Catholic Church beatifying John Henry Cardinal Newman, the question bears asking to those considering the Anglican communion: Has anyone here read Newman?

    I’ve heard his works are profound. A difficult challenge, but profound.


  13. Anthony,

    Well I can hardly say I’m a JHN scholar. Mostly I’ve read his contributions to the Tracts For The Times, though I also had a failed attempt to slog through the Apologia Pro Vita Sua. I fully intend to engage with him more in time.


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