Volume > Issue > The Crisis of Anglo-Catholicism in England

The Crisis of Anglo-Catholicism in England


By William K. Klimon | June 1994
William M. Klimon is a doctoral student in history at Cornell University. Currently on leave from Cornell, he is on the staff of the Milton S. Eisenhower Library of the Johns Hopkins University.

The November 11, 1992, vote of the General Synod of the Church of England to admit women to the priesthood (ratified by Parliament and Crown and put into effect by the actions of the Bishop of Bristol on March 12, 1994) certainly raises a serious obstacle in ecumenical relations between the Church of England and the Church of Rome, if in fact it does not spell the end of any hope for ultimate reunion. It is all the more tragic because Anglican-Catholic rapprochement is such a relatively recent phenomenon.

It seemed that the Act of Settlement (1701) not only precluded a Catholic from becoming king of England, but also effectively ended any consideration of a reunion of Canterbury with Rome. It was not until the middle of the 19th century that serious thought was again given on both sides to the question of re­union. The Tractarians developed their ecclesiological thought in the direction of unity with Rome (or in some cases with Eastern Orthodoxy). Yet the relative weakness of their position — small num­bers, embroilment in “ritualist” controversies, and the accession of many of their leaders to Rome — produced few immediate results. Similarly, the nascent Association for the Promotion of the Unity of Christendom, founded in 1857 to encourage Angli­cans, Catholics, and Orthodox to pray daily for unity, was condemned by the Holy Office in 1864, and the Catholic participants were forced to withdraw. More ambitious schemes for partial union had almost no success, more often floundering in shadowy intrigues, like the debacle of the Order of Corporate Re­union (1877-1883). In succeeding years anxiety, oc­casioned no doubt by the still tenuous position of the Catholic Church in England, led the Church to adopt a strategy of counter-offensive. What has been called a “conversion mentality” informed the attempt to swamp the union-minded Anglo-Catholic movement and draw its leaders into the Catholic Church. The culmination of this effort was Leo XIII’s condemna­tion of Anglican Orders in his bull Apostolicae Curae (1896). With Anglican Orders declared “absolutely null and utterly void,” it was thought that the Anglo­-Catholics would have no choice but to jump ship for Rome, as some did. Any more meaningful ecumeni­cal conversations, though, would have to await the 20th century.

And this indeed has been the century for dia­logue. From the Malines conferences (1921-1925) to ARCIC-II (1982- ), the Anglican and Catholic churches have carried on extensive theological dis­cussions, particularly after Vatican II. Despite the op­timistic tone of Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Michael Ramsey as they inaugurated ARCIC (Anglican/Roman Catholic International Commission), these talks have not produced the hoped-for results. Those hopes were predicated on coming to some common formulation of a Catholic faith “founded on the Gospels and on the ancient common traditions” and already held by both sides. But if the inherent contradictions of Anglicanism had not already damned the project, then certainly the 1991 selection of George Carey as Archbishop of Canterbury, who expressed his belief that the apostolic doctrine and practice of an all-male priesthood was “heresy,” and the March 12 “ordina­tions” have. What these last two events have betrayed is a dramatic development in Anglicanism away from Catholic theology, broadly understood. The Anglo-­Catholics, who trace their theological heritage through the Tractarians of the 19th century to the Non-Jurors and Caroline divines of the 17th century, have been the promoters of Catholic faith and prac­tice within the Church of England. But these new developments have shattered the illusion, cherished by most of them, that the Church of England is in some sense a branch of the Catholic Church.

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