450 years later: Updated

Since The Better Half is Episcopalian (born and bred, not a convert), I have a fair knowledge of the Anglicans, and all I can say about the fracture is that it’s amazing it took as long as it did.

Back in the early 80s, I got a comprehensive course in Anglicanism, so to speak. The latitudinarianism, the Anglican policy of incorporating a wide liturgical and theological variety, was already beginning to crumble. But unlike, say, the exodus of Archbishop Lefebvre after the Second Vatican Council, disaffected groups did not fall into one, but four different categories. The first two form the “theologically serious” part of the Anglican spectrum in the US:

  • Anglo-Catholics
    This significantly large faction falls at the extreme “right” of the Anglican spectrum, both theologically and liturgically.
  • Protestant Anglicans
    This is my term for theologically and liturgically Protestant (Methodists without being Methodists, more or less) Anglicans. These Anglicans, also called low church, lie at the other end of the spectrum from the first group.

Then there are the other two groups, which form the “theologically apathetic” part of the church. The larger of the two is the “mainstream” Anglicans, who may have either liturgical preference, and whose idea of Christianity is dressed-up Marxism. The smaller is the “smells and bells” group, which prefers extremely Catholic liturgy and is therefore exclusively found in Anglo-Catholic parishes, but is either unconcerned about theology, or theologically falls with the Jesus-wore-birkenstocks crowd.

I am only concerned with the first two groups. The second two are, as far as I’m concerned, Christians in name only, along with the bulk of mainstream Protestants. These first two groups are the ones who are disaffected.

Anglicans were splintering over two issues: Theology and liturgy. What was odd was that most didn’t seem to perceive the relationship between the two, that liturgy reflects theology. I suspect this is due to that same latitudinarian policy which had for so long allowed (essentially) Methodists and Roman Catholics to co-exist in the same ecclesial body, and use the same liturgical text.

Anglicans in the US had been using the 1928 Book of Common Prayer until 1979, when the church issued a revision, containing two rites. Other than some updated English, Rite I was more or less the same as the 1928 text. More at issue was Rite II.

To my Catholic eyes and ears, the 1928 rite (and the 1979 Rite I) were undeniably Protestant in theology. Not radically so, certainly, but Protestant nonetheless. Rite II was very different from Rite I (and the 1928 liturgy), and crucially, was nearly indistinguishable from the Novus Ordo, so much so that I could nearly go through the whole service without glancing at the prayer book.

I’ll leave criticism of the Novus Ordo for another time, because it’s tangential. Whatever its failings, the theology underlying it is strictly and wholly Roman Catholic. So was the Rite II liturgy. Yet, Anglo-Catholics violently rejected the 1979 prayer book.

This made little sense to me. Yes, the English was lame, as it is in the Novus Ordo, but liturgy reflects theology, and it seemed to me that Anglo-Catholics should have embraced the 1979 Rite II. But no, they wanted to retain what was a far more Protestant prayer book.

Initially, at least, it made sense that the theologically low church (Protestant) faction also wanted to retain the 1928 liturgy. It seemed to, anyway, until after talking to these people, it became obvious that like their equally theologically conservative Anglo-Catholic brethren at the other end of the latitudinarian spectrum, theology had nothing to do with their disaffection. And the Episcopalians in Louisville who happily embraced Rite II were the theologically nihilist, Jesus-was-a-Marxist faction that today is in charge of the church.

I suspect that this disconnection between theology and liturgy is the result of 450 years of a wide theological spectrum using the same prayer book. Still, I found it bizarre.

I’m not suggesting that either of the groups is disaffected primarily because of the liturgy. Far from it. The fracture is widening in response to a national church that has purged its theology of all Christianity. But the theology and liturgy do not go hand in hand.

At the time, there were a few very tiny splinter groups. Those disaffected Anglicans who did leave, however, for the most part either became Orthodox (the Antiochians received so many Episcopalian converts that they established an English Rite) or Roman Catholic (today, there is an English Rite, corresponding to the one mentioned). And while the Episcopal Church in the US was bleeding members, it didn’t seem to be in danger of splitting up.

That was then. It’s different now.

In the early 80s, Grace Church on Goldsmith Lane in Louisville was a disaffected parish. They obstinately refused to adopt the 1979 prayer book, and exclusively used the 1928. They were theologically conservative, but fell into the low church end of the spectrum. Today, they have left the Anglican Communion and are listed as a parish in the Anglican Catholic Church, which falls on the opposite end of the theological spectrum. I suppose some theology is better than none.

It looks like the Protestant Anglicans are going to split. I don’t take pleasure in seeing the Body of Christ asunder, but it makes more sense for theologically serious Anglicans to separate into one of two bodies that reflect their theology. Certainly, they agree on far more than they disagree, but to recreate the same latitudinarinism would only invite another fracture later.

I’m surprised the Anglican Communion has lasted these last 450 years. The latitudinarian unity traditionally rested on the Thirty-Nine Articles, which did provide a solid basis of faith. The articles began to fall out as Anglo-Catholics all but rejected the more Protestant articles, and the church in the US then declared that their unity rested on the Lambeth Quadrilateral, moving from 39 relatively specific points of faith to four broad points. Over the intervening years, the national church has become more and more mushy, ejecting more orthodox Christian doctrine, and doing so with less and less concern for traditional Christian members across the spectrum. The ordination of women and gay marriage are not the issues; they are the tipping point for much a much deeper, more fundamental issue.

Update: And it begins.

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