I’m someone who defines myself as an Anglo-Catholic. On a superficial level, this means I am an Anglican who loads up my Protestantism with a lot of Roman Catholic flair. Yet it is more than that. As an Anglo-Catholic my doctrine and spiritual practice share many things in common with Roman Catholicism (and in a way Eastern Orthodox) doctrine and practice that are alien to much of the Protestant world. This leads a lot of people, especially Roman Catholics, to ask me “if you're already an Anglo-Catholic why haven't you decided to take the plunge and become Catholic?” The answer to this question is that as an Anglo-Catholic I believe I am already standing in the Catholic tradition. That means I practice and believe many things most Protestants don’t, but that doesn’t mean I buy into all of the claims of the Roman Catholic Church. Specifically, while I do believe there is great importance to be accorded to the Petrine See, I am not convinced of papal infallibility, nor of the claim that all bishops depend upon the Pope for their authority.
Anglicanism as Catholic
What does it mean to be Catholic? The early Church referred to itself as “Catholic” in many places, including its creeds. By this it meant that it was the universal Church, both the Bride and Body of Christ in the world. Yet, the religious movement adhering to the ecumenical creeds continued to splinter as history moved on, and with reformation the Roman Catholic Church (being those churches in unity with the Bishop of Rome) defined itself as the Catholic Church and all others as apostates and schismatics
As the Anglo-Catholic writer Fr. Matthew Kirby has aptly described it, typical modern Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theology holds that “Any break in communion that discontinues the visibility of unity between one Christian body and another, if the two groups were previously united within the Catholic Church, must leave one group outside the Catholic Church until that breach is visibly healed.” While this is certainly a logically tight position, it doesn’t actually account for the historical reality we find in the church. Fr. Kirby has compiled several examples of this, two of which I’ll summarize here:
- During the Meletian schism, there were two rival bishops of Antioch. Meletius was recognized by Eastern bishops, but not by Rome. Yet, after the death of Meletius, his claim was universally recognized. “[V]isible unity was broken without either side being considered by anyone in hindsight as outside the Church.”
- During the Western Papal Schism when there were several claimants to the papacy, clear visible unity in the western church was broken, yet the Roman Catholic church has canonized saints on both sides of the schism, and even today no official binding declaration has been made as to which were the true Popes.
The Anglo-Catholic response to this reality, therefore, is to argue for something often called the “Branch Theory.” Critics of this theory often believe it claims that the Anglican Communion, the Orthodox Church, and the Roman Catholic Church are three branches of one catholic (universal) Church tree. This implies that they are organic developments of one core “trunk,” and so each is perfectly fine as it is. But this is not really the Branch Theory as originally formulated. The actual claim of the Branch Theory is more minimal than this. Branch Theory claims that catholicity is established by some basic adherence to:
- Scriptural truth
- the Traditions of the primitive Church (particularly those enshrined in the seven ecumenical creeds)
- The right administration of the sacraments, including apostolic succession through the “laying on of hands.”
Anglo-Catholic theologian Edward Pusey has put it even more minimally: “the only principle really involved in [Branch Theory] was that there could be suspension of intercommunion without such schism as should separate either side from the Church of Christ.” This idea that there can be breach of intercommunion within the Church without separating from the Church established by Christ is not unique to Anglo-Catholic thinking. Orthodox thinker David Bentley Hart has pointed out that during the Council of Florence “both sides spoke of the division between East and West as a wall of separation erected within the one universal Church” (“The Myth of Schism,” emphasis mine). Schism between bishops (and even Patriarchs) does not necessarily create an ontological breach in the Church. As far as I can tell, the historical reality supports this understanding much better than the official positions of the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Church (that the One Holy Catholic Church is coterminous with the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox communion respectively). This is not to say schism is all well and good. It is scandalous, but the Anglo-Catholics don’t accept that this sad reality gives us no right to call ourselves Catholic (see this article for more on this point).
The Validity of Anglican Orders
Even if one accepts the Branch Theory as I have described it, the question of why I don’t convert to Roman Catholicism isn’t necessarily settled. After all, maintenance of apostolic succession was one of the conditions I mentioned as necessary for a communion to be part of the universal Church. Thus, the catholicity of Anglicanism would depend upon the validity of Anglican orders, something the Roman Catholic Magisterium denies. I believe it is vital to salvation to be part of the Church universal, so if the Roman Catholic rejection of our orders is correct, I ought to convert to a communion with valid orders.
So what of the Roman Catholic argument that our orders are invalid? The goalpost for why they are invalid has moved. At first, it was claimed that the line of succession was broken. This was not historically accurate, and eventually the claim was dropped. Then it was argued that there was an insufficiency of form on the basis that much theology had argued that the chalice and paten which the Roman church had taken to presenting to candidates for ordination was the matter of the sacrament. This, however, was shown to not hold when it was firmly established that this was not the practice for the first thousand years of the church. The argument was thus forced back onto claiming that the “intent” of the ordination was wrong and invalidated our orders. This, we Anglo-Catholics do not accept. Since intent is an internal matter, the burden of proof for claiming a lack of intent must rest with those claiming it is lacking, and we are not persuaded by Roman Catholic arguments that there was a deficiency of intent. As with the sacrament of Marriage, validity should be assumed unless the lack of intent can be definitively proven.
Specifically, the Roman Catholic claim is that the changes made to our ordinal during the Reformation were meant to create a non-sacrificing priesthood, and so there was a “defective idea of the priesthood,” thus invalidating our orders. Yet, the intention of the Anglican Church during the Reformation was not to create a non-sacrificing priesthood, but to return to antiquity because of a perceived imbalance in late medieval Christianity. During the late medieval period, the priest’s dual role as minister of word and sacrament had almost entirely been subsumed into the sacramental aspect of the ministry. This was a problem even Trent recognized. The intent was thus not to remove the priest’s sacrificing role, but specifically to “continue those orders which had been in the Church from the days of the Apostles, namely Bishops, Priests and Deacons, in the same sense as they had always existed.” The intent in removing specific mention of sacrifice was to restore the priest’s sacramental role into balance with its other aspects. Nothing else. With such an intent, sacrifice is necessarily included in the intention of our ordinal, for the Anglican Church “means her orders to be those of the New Testament. As such she confers upon her priests authority to 'minister the Holy Sacraments'. This includes the celebration of the Eucharist. Here again her intention is that the Eucharist shall be all that the Lord intended it to be. The sacrifice of the Eucharist is not something additional; it is the Eucharist itself in one of its chief aspects.”
Therefore, we consider ourselves to be a church that has validly maintained apostolic succession and apostolic doctrine (both Scripture and Sacred Tradition) and so to be part of the Catholic Church.
But Why Not Convert?
What I have said thus far should make it clear that I don’t think it is as necessary to leave the Anglican Communion and join the Roman Catholic Church in order to be part of the universal Church. Yet, as I said above, the fact that there are different communions within the one Catholic Church does not mean those communions are equally valid. Otherwise, I might as well hedge my bet and join the Roman Catholic Church. There are areas in which I believe the Roman Catholic Church has erred from apostolic doctrine in ways that are aberrations rather than valid developments. I do not believe these are fatal, they don’t invalidate the Roman Catholic Church as a church, but they are significant enough to keep me from joining the communion and proclaiming that “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.” Chief among these is the claims of the Roman Church regarding the role and authority of the Pope.1 As such, the question of “why not just go all the way and become Catholic?” is somewhat moot. I do not see myself as having gone part way to a goal but stopped short. I see myself as faithfully living out the Christian religion as a member of the universal Church. As one article has put it “Let us suppose that a man believes, on grounds which seem to him sufficient, in the doctrines of Transubstantiation, the Invocation of Saints and the Blessed Virgin, Auricular Confession and Purgatory; that he finds spiritual value in the use of rosaries, scapulars, relics, images, incense, holy water and what not; that he believes in one authoritative Holy Catholic Church outside of which there is no salvation, commissioned and empowered by God to preserve and transmit the faith and to administer the sacraments. It does not follow by any rule of logic that he must also believe that the criterion of catholicity is submission to the authority of the Bishop of Rome and acceptance of his infallibility” (Review of “Why Rome?” Christian Century, vol. xlvii., No. 51, December 17, 1930). But why don’t I accept the claims of the Bishop of Rome to be the guardian of the Church’s infallibility and apostolicity?
As a basic matter I have no problem with primacy of the Pope. It seems to be a matter of primitive doctrine and has clear scriptural warrant. Yet primacy is not the same thing as being able to define dogmatic truth infallibly. The idea of the Pope as the infallible Vicar of Christ (in its positive definition) is undeniably a development of doctrine. To call it this is not to make any judgment on it as such. Explicit doctrine develops from the deposit of faith. The question then becomes, “What determines authentic development versus aberration?” The Roman Catholic claim is that it is the Pope (in concert with the mind of the Church) that determines what qualifies as authentic development.
The Anglican position, in contrast, is that that it is Scripture, as rightly interpreted by the mind of the Church (chiefly represented by the seven ecumenical councils) that determines what qualifies as authentic development. We believe that the bishops of the Church are the guardians of faith, any particular bishop, including the Roman pontiff, can err (even in official pronouncements). Roman Catholics often appeal to the historical claim that no pope has ever officially defined heretical dogmas as a defense of their position, yet as an apologetic claim this is fairly useless, because it is tautological. There are many things Popes have officially taught which Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox, Old Catholics, etc. consider to be in error. The historical claim thus proceeds from the doctrine rather than proving it. This doesn’t mean it’s wrong, but it does mean it’s not very persuasive to those of us who don’t already accept it.
Instead of Papal Primacy as the control of Development of Doctrine, the Anglican Communion affirms a sense of Sola Scriptura. Some affirm it in a very Evangelical sense, but Anglo-Catholics do not see it this way. Scripture is not the source of doctrine. That is obvious because doctrine existed as Tradition before Scripture. Scripture is written down Tradition and so it can serve as a test of Doctrine, and thus as a safeguard (along with the interpretive guide of the Creeds and the Fathers) against illegitimate doctrinal development. So Scripture, rightly interpreted by the primitive teachings of the church and the ecumenical councils, is a corrective to human error. From what I have seen in my study of the early Church Fathers, they seem to be operating on this principle. When they argue that a doctrine they are teaching is part of the unchanging deposit of the faith, they bring Scripture forward as their primary witness. Naïve sola Scriptura this is not, but rather is what the Angelic Doctor St. Thomas Aquinas defended when he said “only canonical Scripture is a measure of faith (quia sola canonica scriptura est regula fidei)” (Thomas's commentary on John's Gospel). I am not claiming that Scripture can be separated from the rule of faith and interpreted scientifically to discover true doctrine. I am claiming that Scripture is the canon by which doctrinal development is measured and that this is what we see the Church Fathers doing. The Pope, because of his connection to Peter, has long been an important authority in rightly measuring doctrinal development against Scripture, but that is not the same thing as saying he is infallible.
I further have a problem with the Roman Catholic claims regarding the Pope because they seem to functionally make all other Bishops mere local representatives of the Petrine See in the same way that priests are representatives of their bishop. This seems to undermine, rather than develop, primitive understanding of the Episcopal office. Authentic development must always deepen understanding of the unchanging deposit of faith, rather than undermine it.
In conclusion, I am Anglo-Catholic because I believe in the importance of catholicity for genuine Christianity, that is, union with the original universal Church established by Christ. This means I accept the idea of Sacred Tradition as an authentic vehicle of divine revelation, in contrast to many other Protestants, and so believe and practice many things that are often considered Roman Catholic distinctive (for example: auricular confession). Yet, I do not accept Papal infallibility. Rather, I believe Scripture, rightly interpreted by the rule of faith, is the measure of authentic doctrinal development. Crucially, I believe that Anglicanism is authentically part of the universal Church. I would, in fact, say that Anglicanism is authentically Catholic. Again, I don’t expect to persuade any Roman Catholic by these claims. I am explaining why I am not Roman Catholic, despite being Anglo-Catholic. For my part, I would become a Roman Catholic if I ever became convinced that these Papal claims are correct, or if I became convinced that it was no longer possible for me to be an orthodox and Catholic Christian in the Anglican Communion. Given the way certain parts of that Communion are headed, this is certainly a foreseeable outcome.
- I focused on papal infallibility in this essay, but my concerns with the papal claims extend to the entire apparatus of the infallibility of the church as connected to the Pope. Since the Roman Catholic Church believes that licit apostolic authority requires communion with the Pope, it follows that the entire infallible Magesterium of the Roman Catholic Church depends in some sense on the Pope.