The Museum Piece Called “Anglo-Papalism"

December 1997William J. Tighe

William J. Tighe is Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania.

A Tactful God. Gregory Dix: Priest, Monk and Scholar.  By Simon Bailey. Morehouse Publishing (P.O. Box 1321, Harrisburg PA 17105). 268 pages. $19.95.



This book is a study (rather than a full biography) of the life, vocation, scholarship, and labors of the Anglican Benedictine monk and historian Dom Gregory Dix (1901-1952). Born George Eglington Alston Dix, he grew up in a strongly Anglo-Catholic family, read history at Oxford, was ordained in the Church of England, and served for two years as tutor and lecturer in modern history at Keble College, Oxford, before entering, in 1926, the struggling Anglican Benedictine community at Pershore (soon to move to Nashdom) — a community which had barely survived the conversion in 1913 of all but three of its members to Roman Catholicism.

It would appear that uncertainty about his future (we know he experienced at least two bouts of “Roman fever” — the felt need to enter the Church of Rome) held Dix back from making his solemn profession as a monk until October 1940. During the last two decades of his life he played a prominent and often controversial part in the politics of the Church of England (for which his private term of exasperation was “Jezebel”), but his lasting fame stems from his weighty and elegant tome, The Shape of the Liturgy, which has remained continuously in print since its publication in 1945. Dix’s book is more a synthesis than a work of original scholarship (although it is both), but its main importance lies in how it has affected (in ways its author would not always have approved) the course of “liturgical reform” in the Anglican Communion and the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church. Indeed, The Shape was one of those books that had a profound effect on me when I read (and reread) it during my adolescence, even to the extent of helping to “shape my soul.” Yet one of Dix’s effects on the liturgy is regrettable. The celebrant “facing the people” — now almost universal in the Roman Rite of Mass — is a practice that Dix recommended as the primitive one. This is now known to be historically inaccurate (the primitive custom was for the celebrant and congregation to face East) and the change in form is justly suspected of abetting the growth of the mischievous idea (criticized by Cardinal Ratzinger, among others) that at the Eucharist the “community” is celebrating itself.

Dix was what was once known as an “Anglo-Papalist”: He believed, in other words, that only the Roman Catholic Church is “the Church” in the proper sense of the word and that all of her defined doctrines (including that of papal infallibility) are true and binding on the Christian faithful. His very name in religion, Gregory, was taken not, as one might expect, from Pope Gregory the Great, who initiated the evangelization of the tribes of Anglo-Saxon England, but from Pope St. Gregory VII (d. 1085), the first of the imperious reforming medieval popes, who, as Dix once wrote, “deposed more bishops than any other man in history.” His first bout of “Roman fever,” some time between 1928 and 1932, ended with his conviction, “sick at heart,” that he had to remain in the Church of England, and that it would be his life’s work as an Anglican, a priest, and a monk to pursue a program of four points: “(1)…arresting the anthropocentric ‘Liberal’ drift in Anglican theology, reversing it and replacing [it with] the ‘classic tradition’ out of which Anglicanism sprang…, (2) disentangling the Anglican Church…from the State, (3) getting over (or round) the snag of Anglican orders…, (4) convincing the Roman Church that an Anglicanism thus renewed is fit for Catholic Communion and convincing the Anglican Church that it needs Catholic Communion….” When he was experiencing his second bout of “Roman fever” in 1940, the Roman Catholic monk Dom Bede Winslow did all he could to dissuade Dix from converting, arguing that, as an Anglican, he enjoyed more intellectual freedom than he would as a Catholic. For Dix, however, the decisive point was his belief that the 1896 encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, Apostolicae Curae, which declared Anglican Orders “absolutely null and utterly void,” was flawed in its premises and mistaken in its conclusion, and that to accept it would violate both his conscience and his integrity as an Anglican priest.

For all of Dom Bede Winslow’s emphasis on Dix’s freedom as an Anglican, Dom Gregory was not a Modernist (in the sense of the theological movement condemned by Pope St. Pius X), even if some of his speculations offered the prospect of radical reinterpretations of some traditional beliefs. One instance of this is his belief that the idea of the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time was a creation of St. Paul which superseded the “primitive” view that Christ’s “coming” and the “end of time” occur at every celebration of the Eucharist.

Yet he was orthodox in intention and did not shrink from the contemplation of drastic measures if the Church of England should repudiate what he understood to be Catholic orthodoxy. His opposition to the “church reunion” scheme which from 1947 onward amalgamated Anglicans and various Protestant denominations into the Church of South India led him to envisage, if the Church of England should give its unqualified approval to the proposal, the separation of himself and like-minded Anglicans from it, and their constituting themselves into a body of “Continuing Anglicans” (a phrase he seems to have invented). On the other hand, his private notebooks contain a fragmentary essay on “female ministry” in which he expressed strong dislike for the idea of priestesses while at the same time inclining to view the exclusion of women from Holy Orders as a matter of discipline (which can change) rather than of doctrine (which cannot).

Simon Bailey’s study of Dix is thematic rather than chronological. The chapters run from “The Early Years” through “The Monk and the Priest,” “The Gadfly,” “The Scholar and Teacher,” and “Travels: America and Sweden” to “Death and Life.” At the end there is a bibliographical appendix listing all of Dix’s published works. Throughout the work there is abundant evidence of Dix’s wit, pastoral ability, political skills, and pugnacity, as well as his scholarship. The account of his death from cancer in May 1952 is almost unbearably moving.

Bailey was a priest of the Church of England who grew to admire Dix without (as he notes) sharing many of his core beliefs: A supporter of the liberal “affirming Catholic” movement, he died of AIDS shortly after the book was published in 1996. Curiously, it appears that the two Anglican Benedictine communities to which Dix devoted so much of his life, Elmore Abbey (Nashdom’s successor) and St. Gregory’s Abbey, Three Rivers, Michigan (Nashdom’s American foundation where Dix served as prior in 1947 and 1950-1951), have in recent years moved away from their foundational theological moorings and now would “affirm” those novel transformations of Anglicanism which have convinced the Roman Catholic Church that Anglicanism is not “fit for a Catholic Communion” — Dix’s fond hope and a basic goal of his work.



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