Whether you’ve been Anglican your whole life or are just starting to explore your local parish, chances are you’ve encountered the terms “Anglo-Catholic” and “Anglo-Catholicism.” What exactly do these terms mean? (How) is Anglo-Catholicism different from Anglicanism? What do Anglo-Catholics believe, teach, and do?
I want to try to begin answering these questions in a simple way. This article is for the inquirer. It is an introduction to Anglo-Catholicism, which means I necessarily have to speak in generalities. Just like every other tradition (and sub-tradition) of Christianity, there are nuances upon nuances of variation within any given “family.” Anglo-Catholicism is no different, and might actually possess an even wider range of options than other sub-traditions. There are right-wing and left-wing Anglo-Catholics, traditionalists and progressives, and even some who like contemporary praise music (most of us, though, prefer Gregorian chant in Latin while wearing a biretta). But even still, there are characteristics that unite and identify most Anglo-Catholics across the globe today. These revolve around the way Anglo-Catholics approach theological identity, liturgy, and devotion.
Before we jump into these, I want to offer one note: I’m not here to argue the merits of Anglo-Catholicism, whether it is a valid expression of Anglicanism, or if you should be one or not (though, of course, I think you should!). If you are interested in that discussion, then I would recommend these two articles on Mere Orthodoxy. One is by M. H. Turner, who argues against the movement; and the other is by Paul Owen, who argues for it. You can also check out this episode of The Sacramentalists that engages both articles and offers further reflections.
My purpose here is simply to introduce Anglo-Catholicism and some of its distinctives. Of course, I hope you’ll be intrigued and compelled, but in the end, I’ll leave it to you to decide how well we contend for “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
Anglo-Catholic Theological Identity
Anglo-Catholicism traces its immediate roots to a time when the Church of England was in crisis during the mid-1800s. For decades modernity had been slowly infiltrating the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Church of England and producing an anemic church that lacked much of a soul. Rather than approaching the Church with biblical vision as the “Body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:27) and “the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), many of the faithful (especially the clergy!) acted as if the Church were nothing more than the Crown’s tool for furthering local and global interests of the British Empire. In other words, the Church had become too worldly, too political, and too interested in one particular nation’s success. Revival was desperately needed.
At the risk of oversimplifying history, we can think of two responses to England’s Church crisis. The first is the Evangelical movement. It had already been in place for years thanks to the Wesley brothers and others who prompted the Methodist movement. Its answer to the crisis of modernity was to diminish the importance of an established church by focusing on the lives of individual believers. If everyone could be “born again” (have a conversion experience), then the national issues would work themselves out organically.
The second response is known as the Oxford Movement. Around 1830, clergy and laity centered in Oxford began publishing tracts (pamphlets) that argued for Anglicanism’s rightful heritage as a full member of the ancient Church by virtue of her unbroken succession of apostolic bishops. Because of this tactile connection of authority to the patristic Church and her Holy Apostles, Anglicans could, if they so desired, reform themselves to be more in sync with the universal Church. As a distinctly Western branch of the Church (i.e., one that doesn’t celebrate Byzantine liturgy in Byzantine vestments with Byzantine iconography), this meant reviving Anglicanism by striving to bring it into greater conformity with the ancient and venerable Western rite. That is, the theology, devotion, and liturgy common in the Latin West from the time of the Church Fathers to the Middle Ages and beyond. It was the Oxford Movement’s hope that such “catholicizing” of the Church of England would reclaim for her a proper vision of herself as a divinely founded institution. This in turn would loosen the grip of modernity on the Church and empower her instead to fulfill her rightful call to preach the gospel and celebrate the sacraments.
The Oxford Movement itself eventually died out, and so I’ll leave it to the historians to debate how effective the movement was in accomplishing its original task. What can’t be denied is that the claim of a catholic Anglicanism struck the hearts of many within the Church. And so, over the next century, men and women continued the task of “catholicizing” Anglicanism by pressing deeper into the theology and practice of the Ancient Church. The “end result” came in the early 20th century with what is now called “Anglo-Catholicism.”
The identity and claim of Anglo-Catholicism are thus the same as those of the Oxford Movement, yet more developed: by virtue of our valid apostolic succession, Anglicanism is truly a Western branch of Jesus Christ’s One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. This means she can and should strive to maintain the theology, practice, and devotion of the ancient and undivided Church (pre-AD 1054) while giving preference to the West when there is significant disagreement between it and the East. Anglo-Catholicism goes even further, though, to claim that what her movement embodies is Anglicanism in its fullest expression. It is not one option or party equally set alongside others because all the others fall short in one way or another, according to Anglo-Catholicism, to live out the biblical catholicity of Anglicanism completely.
In practice, this means we adhere to the theology of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. We believe in and celebrate the Seven Sacraments of Christ, with an emphasis on Eucharistic Sacrifice and Baptismal Regeneration. Those coming from a more Protestant background will notice that we also take a more nuanced approach to Justification, emphasizing incorporation into Christ over imputation of righteousness. Regarding the Anglican formularies (e.g., the 39 Articles of Religion), we view them as historic documents that need to be read through the lens of the larger catholic tradition.
As a side note, it’s important to mention here that many misinterpret Anglo-Catholicism’s mission. Because we value conformity to the larger Western rite, we are often seen as doing nothing more than copying Rome. This isn’t true, though. Rome represents the major player in Western Christianity, and so of course we draw from her ancient forms of worship and devotion (as we’ll talk about below), but that is because we believe we fundamentally share the same heritage. Becoming Roman Catholic is not the goal; rather it is to live into the fullness of Christ as found in catholicism, particularly the Western expression.
Perhaps no other arena manifests Anglo-Catholic identity more than our liturgy. Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer (BCP) is a masterful work that exemplifies worshipping the Lord in the “beauty of holiness” (Ps. 96:9). However, it isn’t perfect. Many parts of the ancient Mass were edited out due to Cranmer’s personal theological opinions. This is why many Anglo-Catholic parishes in the United States prefer to use what is called the Anglican Missal. This liturgy takes the Prayer Book’s rite for Holy Communion (usually the one found in the 1928 edition) and brings it into conformity with the Western rite by reintroducing those deleted elements. Things like the Introit (opening Psalm chant), the Gradual (chant before the Gospel reading), the private prayers (prayers said by the priest as he sets the altar), and the “Behold the Lamb of God” (just to name a few) are set within Cranmer’s liturgy to create an “English” version of the Western Mass. Recent BCPs (1979 and 2019), though, have contributed to a decline in the use of the American Missal. This is because these newer liturgies incorporated many catholic elements back into Prayerbook tradition.
Outside of America, Anglo-Catholics often go in various directions. While some use the Anglican Missal or BCP, many parishes in England and Australia celebrate a straight Gregorian Mass (think traditional Latin Mass, like the Roman Catholics used to use, but in English…or sometimes Latin!). More “contemporary” Anglo-Catholic parishes will even use the current edition of the Roman Missal, but will be careful to keep traditional vestments, gestures, and ritual.
The point is this: while the BCP is definitely cherished among Anglo-Catholics, it is not upheld as the unbendable standard of worship. For that, we look to the larger Western tradition.
It’s also worth mentioning that many aspects of liturgy that are taken for granted by Anglicanism today were originally prompted by Anglo-Catholics. Here are some questions for you: Does your local Anglican parish celebrate Communion weekly, put candles on the altar, bow or genuflect in the service, use incense (even if only on occasion), or put a colored stole on the priest? If so, you can thank an Anglo-Catholic!
Anglo-Catholic Devotional Life
The heart of Anglo-Catholicism is Jesus, which is clearly seen in our devotional life. Everything we practice is for the sake of knowing Christ and his gospel better. Of course, most of what we do is similar to other Anglicans: we pray the Daily Office, study Holy Scripture, and serve our neighbors. A few practices, however, definitely set us apart.
For starters, because of its ancient and universal pedigree, we practice the invocation of the saints, particularly of Our Lady—the Blessed Virgin Mary. It’s not uncommon for Anglo-Catholics to take up the Rosary as a daily devotion, to make pilgrimages to shrines like Walsingham in England, and to litter the pages of our Prayerbooks with laminated saint cards. For us, this is nothing more than living out the creedal profession of being surrounded by the “communion of saints.” Just as we ask our friends and family on earth to pray for us, we ask the saints in heaven to pray. Death has been defeated by Christ and no longer divides the Church’s members from each other.
The Blessed Virgin has a unique and elevated place in our devotion because of her role in the Incarnation. As one ancient Eastern hymn puts it, “Magnifying him [Jesus] we call the Virgin blessed!” Contemplating Mary is crucial in contemplating Jesus and his identity as fully God and fully man.
Another major distinguishing facet of Anglo-Catholic devotion revolves around the Eucharist. Because we firmly believe in the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the transformed bread and wine, we celebrate Western eucharistic devotions like the Feast of Corpus Christi and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. On Maundy Thursday, for example, after the Mass and the reserved Sacrament is placed on the Altar of Repose, it is common for the faithful to keep a Holy Hour vigil and pray before the Sacrament. Some Anglo-Catholic parishes even have adoration chapels where the Lord’s sacramental presence is continually adored.
Because very little of these devotions exist in the BCP, other resources have been produced to help Anglo-Catholics. The most notable and well known is the little volume St. Augustine’s Prayer Book. It combines all that I’ve mentioned, as well as other traditional prayers, litanies, and devotions found in the traditional West.
Want to Learn More about Anglo-Catholicism?
So much more can be said about the rich depths of Anglo-Catholicism. There are dozens of books and articles for those who want to explore more, but the best way to learn about Anglo-Catholicism is to visit a parish. Anglo-Catholic parishes exist in all branches of American Anglicanism, from TEC to ACNA to the Continuum. One easy way to spot an Anglo-Catholic parish is to look for priests that are part of the Society of the Holy Cross (SSC). This is the world’s largest fraternity for Anglo-Catholic priests.
If you want to do more reading and research on your own, here are some places to start:
The Catholic Religion by Vernon Staley. This is an introduction to Christanity from an Anglo-Catholic perspective. It is often used for adult confirmation classes.
Christ, the Christian, and the Church by E. L. Mascall. This is a miniature systematic theology book by a premier Anglo-Catholic scholar of the 20th century. Be warned! It’s not an easy read, but it’s worth it.
Corpus Christi, 2nd Ed, by E. L. Mascall. The book is a series of essays on Eucharistic theology from an Anglo-Catholic perspective. Topics such as sacrifice, presence, adoration, and benediction are addressed.
English Spirituality by Martian Thornton. This book explores catholic spirituality particular to the English context and tradition.
The Gospel and the Catholic Church by Michael Ramsey. In this volume, Archbishop Ramsey discusses the relationship of the more “Protestant” elements of Anglicanism with its more “catholic” elements. His thesis is that Anglicanism is both evangelical and catholic, because to be catholic is to be evangelical, and vice versa.
St. Augustine’s Prayer Book. As already mentioned, this is the most widely used Anglo-Catholic devotional book. Whether you are Anglo-Catholic or not, it is worth having on your shelf. Even Christians from other communions (notably Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy) have either used it or published their own versions.
Earth & Altar. This site seeks to be a “one-stop-shop” of resources for more catholic minded Anglicans.
The Sacramentalists Podcast. I co-host this with another priest, Fr. Wesley Walker. We seek to catechize and address theological issues from an Anglo-Catholic perspective.