Sunday, September 12, 2010

Our precarious Anglo-Catholic heritage

As Protestants, we high church Anglicans live in a very fortunate time in history. Much of our rich liturgy would have been unavailable (or confined to library books) a few centuries ago.

In America, we owe a lot to the hard work of C.W. Douglas, and all the plainchant that he provided for Hymnal 1940. But most of all, Anglo-Catholics benefit from the Oxford Movement of 1833-1841, the basis of our modern Anglo-Catholicism.

The movement brought an awareness of many medieval traditions and principles that had been long-forgotten by the English Protestants. Among other things, it inspired and enabled the success of John Mason Neale with Medieval Hymns and Sequences and the many medieval or ancient hymns in our modern hymnal.

Last week, I learned a lot about the Oxford Movement from a series of podcasts about the life of John Henry Newman (1801-1890). With John Keble, Newman was the key leader of the Oxford movement and the most active of the Tractarians.

Newman has been both an inspiration and cautionary tale for Anglo-Catholics for the next 150 years. On one hand, the former vicar of Oxford's University Church was one of the intellectual leaders that created Anglo-Catholicism.

On the other hand, Newman's efforts to reconnect with his historic roots led him in 1845 to join the Roman Catholic church, creating a national scandal. In the final tract of the Tractarians, Tract #90, Newman showed how the 39 Articles — nominally the loosely controlling statement of Anglican doctrine — could be stretched to subsume Catholic doctrine.

Pope Benedict’s visit to England this week will beatify Newman, the next to last step en route to sainthood.

The podcasts are from the series “Cardinal Newman at 2000,” broadcast a decade ago in anticipation of the Newman bicentennial. The podcasts at the EWTN website appear to be from TV interviews with Catholic experts at that time.

While I learned a lot from the interviews, it was difficult to sit through some of the later portions of each show, as the Catholic host and guests talked about the onetime leader of the Anglo-Catholic movement as their late cardinal and future saint.

On EWTN, in the New Advent Encyclopedia and elsewhere, the Catholic view is that Newman has done what every doctrinally sound Protestant should do: abandon his or her church and become Roman Catholic. We have an echo of that today in the decision by some Anglican clergy (especially those in TAC) who now want to become Catholic priests via the personal ordinariate.

What about Newman’s contribution to Anglo-Catholicism? The podcasts captured some of the efforts by Newman and others to offer Anglo-Catholicism as the Via Media, a middle way between Reformed and Catholic. However, this movement and theology have been rejected by ECUSA and (it appears) the CoE as well.

So is the Via Media an inherently unstable and infeasible effort to capture the best (and reject the worst excesses) of both the Reformed and Catholic traditions? Do we Anglo-Catholics have a future, or are we just a minor eddy in the river of Christian history?

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