Being an Anglo-Catholic in Australia.What does it mean, and why on earth do it?

‘Anglo-Catholic’. For many Australian Anglicans, there are perhaps only a handful of other words in the ‘ecclesial vocabulary’ so guaranteed to raise an eyebrow as this. For some, it has become a distinctly loaded term, conveying images of anything from liturgical fussiness to classist exclusivity, from doctrinal liberalism to papalist pretensions. For others, it may simply be synonymous with something perhaps peculiarly foreign, maybe even rather odd, and certainly ‘un-Anglican’. For a large part of my life, it was a blend of all these views that had shaped my perception of Anglo-Catholicism as, at best, rather confusing, and at worst, to be avoided. In this short piece, I intend to present something of an apology – albeit one based solely on personal experience – for that tradition in which I have now found my home, and perhaps explain a little of what drew a cradle Evangelical to the ‘other side’.

In preparing this article, I found myself reflecting on how I might define my childhood ecclesial or denominational identity. On the whole, I think it may be best described as ‘simply Protestant’. By this, I mean that my family – like so many others, in similar circles – was not especially concerned about whether the church we attended was Anglican, or Baptist, or Charismatic, or just broadly Reformed, so long as there was good Bible teaching, an engaging service, an active children’s and youth ministry, and a solid system of pastoral care. Beyond that, most other defining features of a given denomination were, to us, ancillary. This remained the case for me up until the later years of high school when, in the course of experimenting with a variety of church traditions in an attempt to develop my faith and life of discipleship as an increasingly independent young adult, I found myself one Sunday attending a well known Anglo-Catholic parish here in Melbourne.

This was, for the most part, my first real engagement with a tradition that was in some ways so familiar, and in others totally alien, to my childhood experience of Anglicanism. Yes, many of the same prayers were being said, and the broad outline of the liturgy was consistent with what I knew, but the service nonetheless stood out as strikingly and engrossingly unique, in comparison to anything I had seen before.

The first thing that struck me in it all was something I have sometimes referred to as a ‘sensory physicality’. By this, I mean that the worship into which one was drawn possessed a remarkable (and emotion-inducing) ability to take up one’s whole body into the experience of praise. From the dazzling sight of beautifully adorned vestments and frontals, bright candles and flowers, with the quiet dignity of ordered and calm movements, to the heady smell of incense and rosemary and oil, to the mesmerising sound of voices in harmony and a thundering organ, to the touch of wood and fabric and marble as we stood and sat and knelt, to the rich taste of the bread and wine from the altar; every sense was in some way involved in the act of worship. Perhaps more than anything else, it was this ‘sensory physicality’ that first drew me in, and sparked what began as a curiosity in, and has since developed into a deep love for, worship in the Anglo- Catholic tradition. And it is this word, ‘worship’, that is so important here. Because, for all the ceremonial and care taken in every aspect of the liturgy, it is all for naught if it does not first and foremost bring the people of God into a closer relationship with Him. If it exists for its own sake, and not for the sake of the gospel, then it is nothing. However, when done well, unselfconsciously, and ‘un-fussily’, I find myself most keenly and viscerally able to encounter the Lord, and (as the beloved hymn goes) be “lost in wonder, love, and praise”.

It could appear from all this, though, that Anglo-Catholicism is simply a ritualist movement, that it is only concerned with the liturgy. This is, of course, not true. Rather, if we take seriously that typically Anglican maxim, lex orandi, lex credendi, then we find that that which is expressed in the liturgy is nothing more and nothing less than a reflection of the theology which underpins it. Without the lex credendi, the lex orandi would be almost entirely immaterial. It is, therefore, from this ‘law of belief ’ – or, better, theology – that all our practices (should) spring. It is by this theology that they (should) be informed. And it is against this theology that they (should) be checked. Naturally then, all this begs the question: what exactly is distinctive about ‘Anglo-Catholic theology’? Is there even such a thing as a single, cohesive, ‘established’ theology of Anglo-Catholicism.

Well, perhaps slightly frustratingly, yes and no. The first thing to note is that, as I hope the reader will understand, I do not have nearly enough space in this short piece to give a full breakdown of the particulars of Anglo-Catholic theology. That would, and does, quite literally require tomes. And, even then, the author is presented with the decidedly fraught task of attempting to speak on behalf of the entire body of a particular tradition. And this problem is not unique to Anglo-Catholicism. As we will be well aware, one of the great blessings and curses of Anglicanism is its lack of a distinct confessional document, by which the distinctive theology of the denomination is clearly spelled out.

Yes, we all have the Prayer Book, and the Ordinal, and the Articles. But, if the past 450-odd years of Reformed Anglicanism have taught us anything, it is that these ‘base level’ unifiers still leave a great deal of scope for both individual and corporate variation. Accordingly, just as much as there does not exist a single, agreed-upon statement defining Evangelical Anglicanism (in anything more than broad, general fundamentals), neither does such a document exist for the Anglo-Catholics. Nonetheless, in the space remaining, I will seek to present a brief outline of those things which I understand to be characteristic, core elements of Anglo-Catholic theology.

First, and the distinctive feature from which most other beliefs flow, is a high doctrine of the Church. As Scripture tells us, the Church is both the Body of Christ on earth and His Bride. It is both that for which he died, and that into which he poured his Spirit at Pentecost. And, we are promised, it is that which waits expectantly for the blessed consummation of the Kingdom at the Day of Judgement. Further, as we affirm in the Nicene Creed, we believe the Church to be One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. Accordingly, this great treasure given us by Christ, this Body by which His gospel is spread and into which we are baptised, must be preserved and safeguarded.

While, as Anglicans, this guardianship of the Church is expressed most manifestly by our bishops – those to whom we look as the focus of our unity and pastors in the faith – it nonetheless remains the responsibility of all the faithful to take their part in the ministry, mission, and care of the Church. And it is here that a core element of this high doctrine of the Church may be found. Principally, this concerns how one understands the phrase ‘the faithful’. In a commentary on the nature of change in the Church, on matters of doctrine and faith, the great 20th century Anglo-Catholic theologian Eric Mascall wrote: “the voices in the room are never enough.” This somewhat perplexing phrase actually goes to the heart of the Anglo-Catholic view of the Church. Namely that, as members in this mystical Body, we here on earth (the Church militant) are but a small part of the Church, and that in worship and mission we are mysteriously joined with all those who have gone before, and now form that great cloud of witnesses (the Church triumphant). We continue, together with them, as active members of the Church of God.

In an Anglo-Catholic context, we believe this mystical union across the ages to be most keenly displayed in the Eucharist, wherein we join our worship to that of heaven, and trust with confidence that our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving may be one with theirs. We believe that, as we partake of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Sacrament, we do so, and are joined into one Body, with the saints who have gone before. As such, Anglo-Catholicism has historically had a tendency to lean towards conservatism; in a nutshell, given this view of the Body of Christ as united through the ages, there has to be a pretty convincing argument in favour of changing the received wisdom and (tried and tested) practice of our forebears in the faith. This is, of course, not to say that change must be avoided! That would be totally antithetical to our Anglican principle of ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei. Rather, it simply stresses that change (particularly on matters of doctrine and polity) must be done cautiously, prayerfully, and with appropriate discernment.

It is through this ‘lens’ of a high ecclesiology that the rest of characteristically Anglo-Catholic theology is, and must be, viewed. From the belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, while not presuming to try to explain how this occurs, to our trust in the Holy Scriptures as the authoritative Word of God, to the grounding of church life in the sacramental system, to asking for the prayers of the saints (especially, the Blessed Virgin Mary), to a high view of episcopacy and the sacred priesthood within the threefold order; all these, while but a few of those views typically identified as ‘Anglo-Catholic’, arise ultimately from the high doctrine of the Church, discussed above.

At a personal level, it was precisely this particular ecclesiological outlook that turned my heart to this tradition. Yes, the ‘sensory physicality’ I mentioned earlier, and the intention to express liturgically something of the beauty of God’s holiness, are those things that first caught my attention and drew me in. But it is quite particularly this high ecclesiology that helped me sit most comfortably within this tradition. For me, the knowledge that my attempts to live as a disciple of Jesus (however faltering they may be), and the struggles I face in living out the Christian life, have not only been experienced by a numberless host before me, but that those same witnesses who dwell with the Lord pray for me to Him (and, I hope, cheer me on, every now and then), touches my heart so deeply and gives me more consolation than I can ever express.

I began my life as an Evangelical, and the Holy Scriptures were at the heart of everything. I have discovered that the embracing of the Eucharist as the central action of my life has taken me closer to Scriptures. For, of course, both flow from the same Word who was made flesh.

This is why I am an Anglo-Catholic.




Rev Jack Lindsay is an Assistant Curate at Christ Church Brunswick in Melbourne