Divided by historiography? Anglo-Catholics and English Roman Catholics

A particularly confident diagrammatic representation of Anglo-Catholic ‘branch theory’ at Helmsley, N. Yorkshire

I dislike both the terms ‘Roman Catholic’ and ‘Anglo-Catholic’. ‘Roman Catholic’, at least when said by English people, always seems to have a slight sneer to it, as if it implies that English Catholics are all the deluded indigenous converts of greasy Italian missionaries. ‘Anglo-Catholic’ seems to qualify the Catholic credentials of Catholics in the Church of England, as though they are a special and particular ‘type’ of Catholic rather than just part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. Furthermore, since Pope Benedict XVI’s creation of the Ordinariates ‘Anglo-Catholic’ is ambiguous. What should we call an adherent of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, for example? However, there can be no doubt that the terms are convenient. I find myself forced to use the term ‘Roman Catholic’ when writing about the history of the Church of England; not to do so risks readers confusing Roman Catholics with Anglo-Catholics. But I would never use the term in a book or article primarily concerned with Roman Catholics – then they would just be ‘Catholics’. Likewise, I am somewhat reluctant to use the term ‘Anglo-Catholic’ when writing about the Church of England, preferring to refer to ‘Catholics’ when the context makes it clear I am referring to people who conceive of the Church of England in Catholic terms.

More troubling to me than what language to use, however, is the lack of understanding there often is between English Roman Catholics and Anglo-Catholics. There are certain easy explanations of the divisions, but these fall apart when examined closely. Anglo-Catholics are almost identical to Roman Catholics in belief and practice, but the Pope is the big sticking point, we are told. Yet anyone familiar with either denomination will know that many Roman Catholics have scant regard for the Pope and that some Anglo-Catholics (perhaps we should call them Anglo-Papalists) have more interest in the papacy than some Roman Catholics. Or we are told that the ministry of women is the big sticking point, or clerical marriage. Yet, as we know, Anglo-Catholics are themselves divided on women’s ministry – as indeed are Roman Catholics in England; the only difference is that the Church of England and the Roman Catholic church have different rules on the subject. Roman Catholics who support clerical marriage are perhaps even more numerous than those who support the ordination of women, not to mention the existence of a significant number of married priests in the Roman Catholic church in England dating from 1994 or since admitted to the Ordinariate.

Anyone would be hard-pressed to find substantive theological (or even ecclesiological) differences between Anglo-Catholics and Roman Catholics, and the liturgical similarities are even closer. The reality is that both groups are Catholics, but one group feels more at home within the institutional structures of the Church of England and the other within the institutional structures of Rome. It is easy to see why even the most ardent Anglo-Papalist might still choose to remain a priest of the Church of England, no matter how heartily he despises his bishop or the General Synod. The discipline of the Church of England is so light that a priest can get away with almost anything. I have even heard apocryphal stories of Roman Catholic priests who became Anglicans after 1965 because it gave them the freedom to continue celebrating the Tridentine Mass, although I am unsure whether these stories are true.

Apart from the obvious institutional distinction between Anglo- and Roman Catholics, the main difference is cultural. Pope Benedict XVI, perhaps the Pope who understood England better than any pontiff since Hadrian IV, realised this when he created the Ordinariates. The Ordinariates allow ex-Anglicans to retain their cultural distinctiveness within communion with Rome by granting them the privilege of an alternative liturgy, and by allowing them to venerate the memory of great Anglicans such as the Caroline Divines, as well as continuing to minister as married priests. These privileges and the special status of the Ordinariates raise many questions that there is no space to discuss here – but clearly there are many Anglo-Catholics for whom the Ordinariate is not an attractive option, since there remain many committed Anglo-Papalists outside the Ordinariate. Cynical Roman Catholics may say that anyone who remains in the Church of England yet holds orthodox Catholic beliefs is a hypocrite, doing so only for the stipend, the vicarage and the nice medieval church that go with the job (although the most ardent Anglo-Papalist parish churches are usually Victorian buildings, it should be noted). I do not think this is true, although the freedom allowed by the Church of England may explain a great deal. Furthermore, many Anglo-Catholics may also be put off by the Roman Catholic church’s demand that priests undergo conditional re-ordination; it is not easy to ask someone to undergo a ceremony that implies he has not been a validly ordained priest for most of his working life. The huge cultural differences between Anglo-Catholicism and Roman Catholicism should also not be underestimated. Imagine the challenges for an Anglo-Catholic priest, perhaps used to ministering to a self-selecting congregation of mostly elderly liturgical enthusiasts, being thrust into a multicultural Roman Catholic parish whose church is packed to the gunnels on every holy day of obligation.

Yet given the infinitesimal closeness of Roman and Anglo-Catholics in doctrine and worship, it is remarkable that there is not more dialogue, interchange and socialising between them. Perhaps this should not be surprising – it is a truism that the Christian denominations who are closest to one another despise one another the most. Yet the case of Roman and Anglo-Catholics is especially tragic. Anglo-Catholics (and Anglo-Papalists in particular) strove so hard for reunion in the twentieth century, justifying their continued adherence to the Church of England by the belief that they could bring the entire institution (or at least a large part of it) back into communion with the See of Rome. Those efforts came to nothing, for many reasons – the Roman Catholic church of Vatican II was not, for many Anglo-Catholics, any longer the church they had striven so hard to unite themselves with; and the decisions taken by the Church of England to ordain women to the diaconate and priesthood in the 1980s and ’90s convinced the Roman hierarchy that union was impossible. What has followed is a retreat by both sides into their comfortable core identities, which worries me.

Fundamentally, I do not think it is doctrine, practice or even culture that creates the divide between Anglo- and Roman Catholics today, but historiography. Anglo-Catholicism is a complex and subtly graded phenomenon, ranging from ‘high and dry’ Laudian-style clergy to liberal liturgical experimenters and full-blown Anglo-Papalists (although the latter are a dwindling band). As a general rule, however, most Anglo-Catholics seem to be ignorant of the history of English Roman Catholicism – wilfully ignorant, in some cases. As Benedict XVI recognised in the way he set up the Ordinariates, Anglo-Catholics see themselves as having their own history – which, to some extent, is true. It is possible to trace a line of high churchmanship from the Elizabethan anti-Puritans to the seventeenth-century Laudians, then to the Nonjurors and those influenced by them, and finally to the Oxford Movement. But although there is a tradition of high churchmanship within the Church of England and always has been, at any point along the line high churchmen conceived of themselves differently; they certainly did not worship like, nor did they believe the same as, contemporary Anglo-Catholics. Until the 1840s, for instance, high churchmanship had very little to do with the way a clergyman would celebrate the liturgy. Perhaps the one thing that high churchmen in the Church of England have always had in common is that they are unembarrassed to see themselves as continuators of the medieval church.

But therein lies the rub: because Anglo-Catholics see themselves as continuators of the medieval church in England, they are reluctant to acknowledge the rival claims of Roman Catholics to have effected a different kind of continuity by another method (i.e. remaining in communion with the See of Rome). It does not suit their narrative that Roman Catholics continued to exist in England throughout the period before the re-establishment of the Roman hierarchy in England in 1850; even more inconvenient is the fact that some of the most avidly high church bishops were also the most eager to persecute Catholics in the seventeenth century, and that high church Tory bishops repeatedly blocked Catholic emancipation in the early nineteenth century. In fact, high church Tory opposition to Roman Catholicism made perfect sense; the Nonjuring bishops, who loyally served a Roman Catholic king to the point of giving up everything, were adamantly opposed to Roman Catholicism itself because they saw themselves as the true inheritors and not the Roman Catholics. For low churchmen it was simply a matter of Roman Catholics being doctrinally in error, like any other kind of heretic; but for high churchmen the ultimate offence of Roman Catholics was that they intruded into a space that the high churchmen considered their own. Prejudice against Roman Catholics – it would perhaps be going too far to call it anti-Catholicism, which has different connotations – is deeply rooted in the Anglo-Catholic psyche.

But the blame does not just lie with Anglo-Catholics. Roman Catholics are to blame, too, for oversimplifying the Reformation and portraying the Church of England as a monochromely Protestant institution. Most English Roman Catholic historiography (with notable exceptions such as John Lingard) post-dates the ultramontane triumphalism of the nineteenth century, which Roman Catholic historians attempted to project (with varying degrees of success) onto a complex past. The reality is that ultramontane papalism (usually associated with the Jesuits) was just one strand in the history of English Roman Catholicism. The Anglo-Gallicans, those seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English Roman Catholics who believed the church should be governed by the king after the French Gallican model, and took a low view of papal authority, came within an ideological hair’s breadth of high churchmen in the Church of England – but they were still divided from high churchman by their different perception of history. For them, Thomas More was still a hero and Elizabeth I a villain, whatever they might have thought of the papacy.

So it is my contention that it is historiography, first and foremost, that constitutes the dividing wall between Anglo-Catholics and English Roman Catholics: the two groups cherish fundamentally different constructions of the ‘Catholic’ past, and function according to different models of continuity and tradition. But both groups are in error: Roman Catholics are wrong to sneer at the Church of England’s institutional continuity on the grounds that it is a ‘Protestant’ church, and Anglo-Catholics are wrong to dismiss the Roman Catholic church in England’s failure to maintain the ancient sees as evidence of discontinuity. Church historians of both sides need to get down off their high horses and engage in more meaningful historiographical dialogue.

One reply on “Divided by historiography? Anglo-Catholics and English Roman Catholics”

Thank you for sharing – and keep sharing! It’s so important to pursue unity, as we are all in this together. Some of that means taking an honest look at the things that separate us and asking whether that should really have prevented continuing dialogue all along!

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