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Is Anglicanism a Gateway to Catholicism?: A Defense of Anglo-Catholicism

May 1st, 2020 | 12 min read

By Paul Owen

M. H. Turner’s “Why Is Anglicanism a Gateway to Catholicism?” seems to be written largely as a lament of the influence of the Oxford Movement on the ACNA. Turner calls Anglicans back to what is characterized as “Anglicanism in the past,” “pre-twentieth-century Anglicanism,” and “the historic Anglican approach to ceremony.” Turner feels that the ACNA is attempting to be a weaker and pathetic copy of Rome, and in the process merely prepares Christians to use Anglicanism as a stopping point on their path of conversion from low-church evangelicalism to the bosom of the Roman Catholic Church.

The best way to avoid this outcome, we are to believe, is by returning to the Anglicanism which existed in the stable form of modest, reverent, limited ceremonial prior to the rise of the Oxford Movement in the nineteenth century. Basically this means, for Turner, the Anglicanism envisioned in the liturgical genius of Thomas Cranmer.

But in fact, is it true that Anglicanism has become a gateway to Catholicism? As a member and lay reader in the Anglican Province of America (part of the continuing Anglican movement tracing back to the 1970’s), the policies of the ACNA are of no direct importance to me, but the underlying question certainly should concern all adherents to the Anglican Way. And it seems to me that Turner’s eloquent lament gets Anglicanism quite wrong, because of the way the author chooses to frame the evidence. In point of fact, Anglicanism, rightly understood, cannot be a “gateway” to Catholicism, for it can be argued that Anglicanism is simply historic English Catholicism, which in the sixteenth century revived a robust Augustinian theology of grace via the movement of evangelical reform.[1]

It is no accident that the Anglican church looks like a hybrid of Catholic and Protestant faiths. Turner does a good job of highlighting the Protestant impulses of the sixteenth century Anglican Prayer Books and Articles of Religion.

However, other aspects of Anglican history fit less neatly into the writer’s agenda, at least insofar as I understand it. If I am correct, that Turner would have the liturgical norms of 1552 (the high water mark of Cranmer’s Reformed Protestant Church of England) be the benchmark of authentic Anglican worship, what should become of the original 1549 Edwardian Prayer Book? Should modern Anglican liturgists expunge its memory? After all: “To the horror of advanced evangelicals, Cranmer so constructed the 1549 Prayer Book that the old vestments and much of the old ceremonial could be used with it, despite the radical shift in its underlying theology.”[2] Does the original edition of the Book of Common Prayer no longer have a place at the table of authentic Anglican history? Or what are we to do with the later Scottish Prayer Book of 1637, which reintroduced (almost a century later) the more primitive Catholic features of that first Edwardian liturgy, thus “making it easier to proclaim a theory of the real presence in the Eucharist”?[3] Was that an aberration too?

Did the liturgical renovations of Archbishop Laud (including altars, pre-Reformation chalices and patens, and enforced kneeling at the communion rail) reflect authentic Anglicanism in the view of Turner?[4] Would Queen Elizabeth, who would have preferred a celibate priesthood, and kept an ornate altar, silver cross and candlesticks in her private chapel (much to the chagrin of more rigid Protestants) qualify as a genuine Anglican?[5] Or what should we make of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, who focused his enormous intellectual energies on the Church Fathers and mostly ignored the writings of the Reformers?[6] Is there room in Turner’s vision of Anglicanism for him?

Diarmaid MacCulloch has written that,

A synthesis was essential because of the paradoxical nature of the Elizabethan Church Settlement, with its peculiar arrested development in Protestant terms, and the ghost which it harboured of an older world of Catholic authority and devotional practice.[7]

That sounds much like the theory Turner is arguing against, for whom the ghost of Catholicism has been largely expelled from the mainstream Anglican Way.

Would Turner agree or disagree with the Puritans at the Savoy Conference in 1661, who when speaking of the earlier periods of the English Reformation, said that “our first Reformers out of their great Wisdom, did at that time so compose the Liturgy, as to win upon the Papists, and to draw them into their Church-Communion, by varying as little as they well could, from the Romish Forms before in use”?[8]

This sounds like Turner’s view of the nineteenth-century Oxford Movement, but in fact the Puritans are speaking of the Anglican worship throughout the eras of Edward VI, Elizabeth I, James I, Charles I, and Charles II in their own day—which was in their view still contaminated with Popish ceremonies. Or were the Savoy Bishops correct in their response to the Puritan party: “It was the wisdome of our Reformers to draw up such a Liturgy as neither Romanist, nor Protestant could justly except against”?

This likewise sounds like the view Turner attributes to the ACNA. Notice that the bishops expressly declare their Anglican liturgy to be one which no Romanist could justly take exception to; furthermore they expressly use the term Protestant in the narrow sense of those on the Continent who subscribed to the Augsburg Confession: “so it was never found fault with by those to whom the name of Protestants most properly belongs, those that profess the Augustine [Augsburg] Confession.”[9]

Turner states that the stole and chasuble were not in “mainstream” Anglican use prior to the twentieth century, “because of their strong associations with Roman sacrificial understandings of the Eucharist.” While technically true at the level of historical Anglican practice, it is not reflective of historical Anglican theology for the simple fact that in the 1549 Prayer Book “the chasuble was retained, with the cope as an alternative; in that of 1552 it was abolished; but it has been widely held that the ‘Ornaments’ Rubric of 1559, reenacted in 1661, reimposes its use.”[10]

When the Puritans at Savoy objected to the 1559 Act, they correctly noted that the Ornaments Rubric “seemeth to bring back the Cope, Albe, &c. and other Vestments forbidden by the Common Prayer Book” of 1552.[11] Their concerns over such Popish ceremonial were dismissed by the Anglican bishops at Savoy nearly 200 years before the Oxford Movement brought the issue back to the surface. Turner’s statement that, “The mass-associated eucharistic vestments—the chasuble and stole—were gone” is strictly true only during the short window of 1552-1553 since Mary restored them in 1553 and they were again affirmed in 1559 by the rubric, though such vestments certainly disappeared at certain periods.[12]

Now of course Turner is well aware that Cranmer was not a Puritan, but the essay so emphasizes Cranmer’s reduction of medieval Catholic ceremonies as to make it sound as though the impulse of Anglicanism as a whole is toward the beauty of sound to the exclusion of the other senses. However, the Ornaments Rubric of 1559 explicitly allows for such ceremonial (or “Ornaments of the Church”). As J. L. C. Dart notes:

All the Ornaments of the Church, altars, pyxes, aumbries, and tabernacles, crosses, roods, images, lights, fonts, holy water stoops, banners, thuribles and so on, which were in legal use in the second year of Edward VI, are still to be ‘in use.’[13]

It is in no small part because of the Elizabethan Ornaments Rubric that the Oxford Movement (having truth on its side) eventually won the intellectual field of battle, and Anglo-Catholicism has been a regular fixture of Anglicanism ever since.

What Turner’s version of Anglicanism fails to explain is why the reaction of the Puritans in England as well as the Presbyterians in Scotland was so violent, if what they saw was simply a dignified church of the Bible, prayer and beautiful music, which severely curtailed elaborate ceremony? That sounds more like the religion of the Presbyterians in the Westminster Assembly than the historical Anglican church. Here is what the Puritans thought of the Church of England in the days of Richard Hooker:

For so it is judged, our prayers, our sacraments, our fasts, our times and places of public meeting together for the worship and service of God, our marriages, our burials, our functions, elections, and ordinations ecclesiastical, almost whatsoever we do in the exercise of our religion according to laws for that purpose established, all things are some way or other thought faulty, all things stained with superstition.[14]

That sounds more like a critique of the Oxford Movement than the church of Thomas Cranmer as envisioned by Turner. With such consequential matters of religious practice at stake, the English Civil War (1642) and the Bishops’ Wars in Scotland in 1639 and 1640 (which were essentially provoked by Anglican ceremonies) begin to make sense. Why any wars would be fought over Turner’s subdued, austere religion of the Bible, prayer and music is difficult to imagine.

How could that version of Anglicanism have provoked the response of George Gillespie, A Dispute Against the English-Popish Ceremonies, Obtruded Upon the Church of Scotland (1637)? Turner looks at the Anglican church and sees a reverent, dignified version of Reformed Christianity with a slightly more formal liturgical structure—one which could never be mistaken for the superstitions of the Roman Catholic Church. But this is not what other English Protestants (Presbyterians, Independents, Baptists) saw when they looked at the Church of England in the early modern period.[15]

So is Anglicanism a gateway to Catholicism? No, it is not; for properly understood, Anglicanism simply is the Catholic church in its English tributary. Though John Henry Newman made his way across the Tiber for his own reasons, there is no need for other Anglicans to swim across a dangerous river in order to find what is already there on one’s own shore.[16] Whether it be the historic episcopate, the sacred altar, the shape of the liturgy, beautiful church ceremonial, the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist, baptismal regeneration, ancient hymnody, a traditional (Western) calendar, the Daily Office, the blood of martyrs, the intercession of saints and angels, the veneration of Our Lady, or any other facet of the life of one, holy, catholic and apostolic church—there is no need for the thirsty soul to keep searching for what is already richly present in the spiritual resources of the Anglican Way.

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  1. See Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History (New York: Viking Penguin, 2003), 103-11.
  2. Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Later Reformation in England, 1547-1603 (New York: PALGRAVE, 2001), 14.
  3. MacCulloch, The Reformation, 504.
  4. MacCulloch, The Reformation, 501-03.
  5. MacCulloch, The Later Reformation in England, 25.
  6. MacCulloch, The Later Reformation in England, 81.
  7. MacCulloch, The Later Reformation in England, 85.
  8. See Colin Buchanan, The Savoy Conference Revisited (Cambridge: Grove Books Limited, 2002), 18.
  9. Buchanan, The Savoy Conference, 18.
  10. F. L. Cross (ed.), The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford: OUP, 1958), 269.
  11. Buchanan, The Savoy Conference, 36.
  12. See Andrea S. Albright’s (unpublished) M.A. thesis, “The Religious and Political Reasons for the Changes in Anglican Vestments Between the Seventeenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” (University of North Texas, 1989), which is available online at
  13. J. L. C. Dart, The Old Religion: An Examination into the Facts of the English Reformation (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1956), 27.
  14. Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity in Two Volumes: Volume Two: Book V (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2003), 24.
  15. In other words, I do not think Turner’s thesis takes Puritan instincts and objections to the Church of England seriously enough, and the failure to do so creates an exaggerated difference between the Oxford Movement in the nineteenth century and the church of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. By failing to break decisively with the forms of medieval Christianity in church polity, outward ceremony, calendar, and forms of prayer, the Anglican church signaled that it was choosing to depart from the path of the “best reformed churches” on the Continent. The Puritans wanted a Catholicity which joined them to Geneva and Zurich, whereas the Church of England was adopting a path of Catholicity which tied them to the English church of the pre-Reformation period. This is precisely what the Oxford Movement attempted to recover.
  16. See the classic work of John W. Burgon, England and Rome (New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1869).