If you have been an Anglican in North America for more than a decade or two, there is an experience you have almost certainly had. You have known someone who got up one day and jumped into the Tiber River. In fact, you may know many people who did that. The departures to the Roman Catholic Church are especially pronounced among the young, the highly educated, and those who came to Anglicanism as disaffected evangelicals. But by no means are these the only groups. Just in the last few months there have been high-profile conversions of older leaders in the conservative Anglican world, including a prominent rector of one of the largest parishes in the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA).
Why? From the perspective of our fellow Christians who are Catholics, the answer is simple enough: truth wins, and the bark of St. Peter is always willing to rescue those who find themselves in the water. But if you, dear reader, are still an Anglican, that explanation will not satisfy.
For those of us who are Anglicans, the question is not simply why this or that conversion to Rome happens. The question goes deeper: what is it about Anglicanism that makes it so susceptible to conversions to the Catholic Church? There are conversions to Rome by Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians, but not nearly so many. Why is Anglicanism so vulnerable?
The enigma deepens if viewed in historical perspective. It has not always been this way. There has always been an occasional convert from Canterbury to Rome, and vice-versa, but once the Reformed English Church took shape under Queen Elizabeth I, this was a two-way trickle, not a one-way stream. The change begins with John Henry Newman. Since his conversion to Rome in 1845, there has been a steady and disproportionate flow of Anglicans into the Catholic Church. For modern Anglicans, especially conservative Anglicans in North America, the pace of the conversions seems to have quickened. Again, why?
To answer this question, we have to consider the ways in which modern Anglicanism differs sharply from Anglicanism in the past. Of course, in a worldwide fellowship of churches representing roughly 85 million Anglicans, there are sure to be profound differences. To avoid vague generalities, I will take the ACNA as the exemplar for modern Anglicanism in North America. It is, of course, a small denomination, with an average Sunday attendance that is only a small fraction of the combined attendance of its geographic rivals, The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada. But it has an outsized influence in the Anglican Communion, and for all of its fractures, the ACNA is trying to offer a coherent vision of modern Anglicanism. This vision, for those who share it and those who do not, is worthy of consideration.
Ask two questions: What is the relationship of Anglicanism to other churches? And what would draw disaffected American evangelicals to Anglicanism in the twenty-first century? For each question I will start by sketching an answer rooted in pre-twentieth-century Anglicanism, and then I will offer for comparison the answer that is being prominently advanced by the ACNA. Then, at the conclusion, I will venture a suggestion about why the answers given by the ACNA make it so susceptible to being a pipeline from evangelicalism to Catholicism.
I. What is the relationship of Anglicanism to other churches?
Whether the Church of England is one of the churches of the Protestant Reformation is not an open question. Its formularies, including the Thirty-Nine Articles, leave no doubt on this subject. Many of the articles align with the Protestant positions on Scripture alone as the supreme authority (Articles VI, VIII, XX, and XXI), salvation by grace alone (Articles IX-XIV), and justification by faith alone (Article XI). The great archbishop of Canterbury who drafted the Book of Common Prayer was a Reformation martyr. The most widely read book of divinity in the Elizabethan and Jacobean church was Calvin’s Institutes. The church sent a high-profile delegation to the Synod of Dordt, which signed the canons on behalf of the English Church—which is consistent with how that church saw itself as part of the international network of Reformed churches. Thus John Cosin, a Caroline Divine not known for his Puritan tendencies, could say unabashedly of the Church of England: “we . . . by the grace of God are numbered among the reformed Churches.”
True, among the churches of the Reformation, the Church of England had some distinctives. One was the retention of bishops (like another church of the Reformation, the Moravian Church of Bohemia). Another was liturgical uniformity as a primary instrument of reformation. Another was sustaining for a longer time the patristic emphasis that characterized all of the magisterial Reformers. But Cranmer, Latimer, Jewel, Bancroft, Andrewes, Hooker, Herbert, Laud, Whitefield, Wesley, Wilberforce, Martyn—none would have had the slightest doubt that their church was a Protestant church. Even to this day, the preamble to the constitutions and canons of The Episcopal Church attests that it is The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. The contrary view, that Anglicanism is historically a via media between Catholicism and Protestantism, has been so often debunked it only lives on in potted histories for Anglican rookies.
The ACNA offers a different account of the relationship of Anglicanism to other churches. It borrows the title of a famous book by C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, and uses this as its descriptor. Consider for example the self-understanding presented on the ACNA website’s “Theology” page. It does call the 1662 Book of Common Prayer “a standard for Anglican doctrine and discipline,” and it says that the Thirty-Nine Articles “express[ the fundamental principles of authentic Anglican belief.”
Yet it avoids the word “Protestant.” Instead, it employs a quotation from the twentieth-century Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher: “The Anglican Communion has no peculiar thought, practice, creed or confession of its own. It has only the Catholic Faith of the ancient Catholic Church, as preserved in the Catholic Creeds and maintained in the Catholic and Apostolic constitution of Christ’s Church from the beginning.”
The page then offers this summation of Anglican theology: “To be an Anglican, then, is not to embrace a distinct version of Christianity, but a distinct way of being a ‘Mere Christian,’ at the same time evangelical, apostolic, catholic, reformed, and Spirit-filled.” The hint, to use the metaphor from Lewis’s Mere Christianity, is that if the distinct versions of Christianity are the rooms, then Anglicanism is not a room but the hallway. This theme in the ACNA branding appears in the title of its catechism, which is called not To Be an Anglican but To Be a Christian.
This idea of Anglicans as Mere Christians has had a wide influence. It is central to how many ACNA churches describe and present themselves to would-be worshippers. It is part of how many ACNA clergy think of themselves. As an ACNA priest and founder of an influential website put it, Anglicanism isn’t a denomination at all, for “Anglicans love to hang out mostly in the hallway.”
The “just Mere Christians” idea cannot be squared with the Anglican formularies and the pre-twentieth-century understanding of Anglicanism. Many of our fellow Christians find their beliefs distinguished and decisively rejected in the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Black Rubric, and the exhortations in the Communion service. These Christians—including Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, and Anabaptists—would be rightly surprised to learn that what was rejecting their views was just Mere Christianity. This is putative humility; in reality it has more of hubris and self-congratulation.
The idea that Anglicans are “Mere Christians” is currently central to the self-understanding of the ACNA. It takes a theme from Anglo-Catholic sources, which try to present the Church of England as an essentially pre-Reformation church, and then slaps on a popular label from a writer widely revered by all sorts of American evangelicals, C.S. Lewis. But the claim is pure P.T. Barnum, with no basis in the Anglican formularies or historic Anglican practice. Anglicanism as Mere Christianity is mere marketing.
II. What would draw disaffected American evangelicals in the twenty-first century?
There is obvious anachronism in asking what pre-Newman Anglicanism might offer to American evangelicals today. But one possibility is a saturation in the Scriptures. Anglicans have traditionally been marked by an enormous diet of Bible reading. Every minister was canonically required to say the daily offices, which in a typical day would mean reading about ten or eleven chapters of Scripture. Many Anglican households, including Jane Austen’s, held themselves to this same standard of daily reading of Morning and Evening Prayer with the appointed psalms and lessons.
Not only was the Scripture read, but there was a strong emphasis away from individualism in interpretation. After every psalm, the Gloria Patri affixed a Trinitarian (and thus a Christological) interpretation. After every lesson, a canticle offered a norm for how to interpret the previous reading in light of God’s salvific purposes for Israel and the world. The Thirty-Nine Articles sided–by name–with St. Jerome and St. Augustine on contentious questions about the canon and the sacraments, showing that Anglicans are supposed to read the Scriptures with the church fathers. And the widespread reading of the Apocrypha in the daily offices underscored that we accept the value of extrabiblical works that have been read over the centuries by the Church. The English reformers were of course not the only ones who appealed to patristic interpretation and claimed the mantle of true catholicity–the same appeals were made by Luther, Calvin, and Melanchthon, for example. But these appeals have been an enduring characteristic of Anglicanism.
In other words, one thing that historic Anglican practice could offer to disaffected evangelicals today is vastly more reading of Scripture, and also a turn toward less subjectivity in interpreting it. This can be presented in terms of “tradition”—the hermeneutical tradition of reading the Old Testament with the New (Article VII), and of reading the Scriptures with the church fathers (Articles VI and XXIX), recognizing always that the Church and its councils have erred (Articles XIX and XXI) and the Scriptures alone are the supreme authority (Articles VI, VIII, XX, and XXI).
But there is another kind of appeal to tradition that is widely made by the ACNA, and it is central to how broad swathes of the ACNA think of what they have to offer disaffected evangelicals: ceremonies. The ACNA Book of Common Prayer (2019) is replete with ceremonies that do not appear in the historic prayer books. There are ceremonial additions to the ordinal, including for example vesting with a stole and chasuble (neither of which was in mainstream Anglican use before the twentieth century, because of their strong associations with Roman sacrificial understandings of the eucharist). There are still more ceremonial additions in the controversial new ACNA altar book. It is standard practice in many ACNA churches for the service bulletin to offer some kind of explanation of some of their ceremonies. A large portion of the posts on Anglican websites, especially for newcomers to Anglicanism, are about ceremonies. And this appeal to the ceremonial side of worship has been central to the “Canterbury trail” literature by Robert Webber and others that still influences a certain segment of the ACNA. It all takes an enormous amount of attention and energy.
This state of affairs would seem very strange to most Anglicans throughout history. The English reformers hacked away at the medieval ceremonies with a vengeance. Archbishop Cranmer banned all of the Catholic sacramentals—no candles at Candlemas, no ashes at Ash Wednesday, no palms at Palm Sunday. He prohibited lighted candles on the Communion table. Not only did he remove all crossings in the Communion service, he even revised the text of the service to remove the places where late medieval priests had been in the habit of making the sign of the cross. The mass-associated eucharistic vestments—the chasuble and stole—were gone.
Now Cranmer was no Puritan. He fought for the surplice. He retained the sign of the cross in baptism. He prescribed kneeling at Communion (and resisted the last-minute insertion of the Black Rubric). But he also thought that the medieval ceremonies were not simply an indifferent matter to be left to the consciences of priest and parishioner. And according to the canons, ceremonies that were not prescribed were excluded (Canons of 1571, iv.5; Canons of 1604, xiv).
The established Anglican position on ceremonies is laid out in an official text called, quite simply, “Of ceremonies, why some be abolished, and some retained.” It was written by Cranmer, and was included in the first Book of Common Prayer, where it was located right after the service used on Ash Wednesday. Beginning with Cranmer’s final Book of Common Prayer (1552), “Of ceremonies” was printed at the very beginning of the book as part of the prefatory material, and it remains there in the Book of Common Prayer of 1662. (Tellingly, the ACNA appends to its Book of Common Prayer the prefatory material from the 1662 prayer book, but with one striking omission—it leaves out “Of ceremonies.”)
According to “Of ceremonies,” ceremonies could be good or bad, and different nations could make different decisions about them. The overriding question was edification. And it is not enough to simply say “Here’s some good and true thing this ceremony reminds us of.” Every one of the ceremonies that the English reformers put out of the church—and it bears emphasizing that these all remained overwhelmingly absent from Anglicanism for more than three centuries—had some kind of symbolic significance. Sometimes it was tied up with Catholic eucharistic theology, but often the significance was not in itself objectionable—for example, ashes because of our mortality, or lighted candles on the table either because Christ is the light of the world or from the example of early Christians in the catacombs. And yet the English reformers still rejected these ceremonies, and overwhelmingly they were rejected by all Anglicans before the twentieth century. Why?
Much more could be said on this point, but one of the hallmarks of the historic Anglican approach to ceremony was simplicity. On the one hand, edification was served by certain ceremonies that enforced decency and order—these included kneeling for Communion and the impersonality afforded by the surplice. On the other hand, edification was served by avoiding multiplication of ceremonies. However well intended they might be, the multiplication of ceremonies would become a “yoke and burden,” and would distract people from the pure teaching of the Gospel, for “Christ’s Gospel is not a ceremonial law.” Zero was not the right number for ceremonies, but the number should be pretty low. And Cranmer anticipated in “Of ceremonies” that over time more ceremonies would need to be excised as they proved to be distracting or grounds for superstition.
One can see in this a very modern recognition of the scarcity of human attention: something will attract the attention of the congregation, something will occupy the rector’s explanatory time, something will be the focus of observation and remark for visitors. The traditional Anglican practice strips away much of the outward trappings, fixing the attention on the Word of God, prayer, and music (the one place where ornate elaboration in the service was most characteristically Anglican).
In short, before the twentieth century Anglicanism was a religion of the word. It appealed constantly and pervasively to the ear. The reading and preaching of Scripture, the reading of the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer, and the reading, chanting, and singing of psalms and hymns—these were the regular staples of devout religion. Sights and smells were not. Ceremonies were thought to be as much a matter of danger and distraction as they were a matter of benefit, and with “Of ceremonies” this nuanced and careful view was given authoritative status in the prayer book itself.
In ceremonies as in theology (for can they really be separated?), the Church of England was a via media, not between Catholicism and Protestantism, but between Lutheranism, which retained images and vastly more of the medieval ceremonies; and the Reformed churches on the Continent and in Scotland, which tended toward greater austerity, often eliminating even the modest residue of ceremonies retained in the Church of England. Far from being distinguished by its retention of pre-Reformation ceremonies, the Church of England was distinguished by the reverence and modesty of its ceremonial.
On both points discussed here, there is a difference of opinion in Anglicanism today. Some think of Anglicanism as the hallway in Mere Christianity; others think of it as one of the churches of the Reformation. Some think the more, the merrier for ceremonies; others think the traditional Anglican simplicity is more edifying in the long run.
But these alternatives do not simply stand alone. They cluster together (not, perhaps, irresistibly). The historic Anglican position represents one set of answers to these two questions: Anglicanism is one of the churches of the magisterial Reformation, and what could be offered to disaffected American evangelicals today is a vastly greater emphasis on Scripture and the humble reading of it with the Church. The vision of Anglicanism that is currently being advanced in the ACNA represents a different set of answers: Anglicanism is simply a form of mere Christianity, and disaffected American evangelicals should be drawn by the heightened ceremonial of modern Anglicanism.
Set to one side which of these clusters better fits the Anglican formularies. And which cluster is more biblically grounded and spiritually sound. Ask instead the question that this essay began with. Why is modern Anglicanism so uniquely vulnerable to conversions to Rome, so much so that it often seems like the antechamber for the Catholic Church?
For that question, the answer is not hard to discern. It is found in the self-definition of modern Anglicanism (and, as considered here, of the ACNA).
When Anglicanism is presented as the hallway, and Anglicans leave for Rome, they are simply following the logic of the metaphor. It is simply astonishing that this has been missed by those who are trying to spin the idea of Anglicanism as a least-common-denominator Christianity, as simply one way to be a Mere Christian. If you make it past the title of Mere Christianity, and continue on to the preface, Lewis makes this clear:
“I hope no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions–as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable.”
If modern Anglicanism presents itself as the hallway, it is celebrating its own irrelevance.
Modern Anglicanism offers much of the ceremonial of Catholicism, but it can offer only a second-best. Constrained, however modestly, by its own history and the Articles, it cannot match the full range of Catholic ceremonial. It cannot match the frankness and candor of the Catholic explanations. It offers coyness, fudging, indirection. If you come to Anglicanism for the ceremonial, there’s a decent chance you will move on for the same reason.
Again, when modern Anglicans move on to Rome, they are following through on the logic of their position. They have been taught that they have no beliefs except for those of “the Catholic Church,” and they have been nurtured with a profusion of pre-Reformation ceremonies. Why is it surprising, then, if they embrace a church that lays claim to precisely the same inheritance, but with a more perfect unity of its pre-Reformation ceremony and pre-Reformation doctrine?
For Anglicans who are reading this, especially ACNA clergy, I urge thoughtful consideration of the course you are charting and the tastes you are nurturing in your flock. Anglicanism now is not the way Anglicanism has been. There was no one perfect Anglican moment that should be recreated, and every pastor, like the householder praised by our Lord, must bring out of his treasure something old and something new (St. Matt. 13:52). But there is nothing inevitable about the choices the ACNA is making, nor is there anything safe in its trajectory away from historic Anglican practice. The denomination’s decentralization has many ill effects, but one good result is that no diocese and no parish needs to be a lemming.
For my Catholic brothers and sisters, perhaps the analysis here will be less welcome, though I am sure you would understand the need for such an inquiry if the shoe were on the other foot. But I do have one suggestion for you. If you could only find out who set Anglicanism on its modern path, you should make him a saint.
Julie Zauzmer, “Prominent Virginia church seeks to explain Anglican rector’s sudden exit,” The Washington Post (February 22, 2020), p. B1. ↑
John Cosin, The Works of the Right Reverend Father in God, John Cosin, Lord Bishop of Durham, Vol. 5 (John Henry and James Parker: Oxford, 1855), p. 526. ↑
E.g., Anthony Milton, “Attitudes towards the Protestant and Catholic Churches,” in The Oxford History of Anglicanism, Volume I: Reformation and Identity, c.1520–1662 (OUP: Oxford, Anthony Milton ed., 2017), p. 333. ↑