Volume > Issue > The Halifax School & the Fallacy at the Heart of Anglicanism

The Halifax School & the Fallacy at the Heart of Anglicanism


By Richard Upsher Smith Jr. | November 2023
Richard Upsher Smith Jr., a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is retired from teaching Classics and Honors at Franciscan University of Steubenville. After serving for 19 years in the Anglican ministry, he converted to Catholicism in 2001. His book A Quaker Colonel, His Fiancée, and Their Connections: Selected Civil War Correspondence was published in July by Lehigh University Press. His book The Catholic Holy Sites of the Mohawk Valley: The True Locations of the Deaths of the Jesuit Martyrs of New York, and of the Birth of St. Catherine Tekakwitha has been accepted for publication by Franciscan University Press.

Ulysses was lucky. His nostalgia brought him home to Ithaca. Prayer Book Anglicans in the late 20th century were not so lucky. Their nostalgia could find no home, no resting place in the Anglican Communion, not even in the breakaway churches.

Nostalgia is a deep and painful longing for something dear but lost. The longing for Eden is nostalgia. The wanderer’s longing for home, for place and kin, is nostalgia. The Prayer Book Anglican’s longing for truth in liturgical praxis was nostalgia, a nostalgia for Eden, a nostalgia for home. I would like to tell the tale of this nostalgia in its most sophisticated manifestation, a tale of historical importance, though it is a bittersweet tale to me as one who was ordained in the Anglican Church of Canada in 1982.

It is a tale of a well-organized and lofty effort by theologians, parish clergy, and laymen to recover the essence of Anglicanism — intellectually, liturgically, spiritually, and pastorally — while remaining in the Anglican Church of Canada. Let us call the engine that powered this effort the Halifax School of Theology, although it is a name that was never used historically. The movement was centered at the University of King’s College and in the Department of Classics at Dalhousie University, both in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The Halifax School was deeply influenced by two strands of thought: the Hegelianism of Prof. James A. Doull (1918-2001) of the Dalhousie Classics Department and the Augustinianism of Rev. Dr. Robert D. Crouse (1930-2011) of Dalhousie and the Foundation Year Programme at King’s College. The extraordinary learning of these two scholars, and their deep attention to the original texts from antiquity to the present day, profoundly shaped this school of thought. Another significant influence was the old Christian socialism of the Anglo-Catholic clergy of Nova Scotia, paralleled in the Catholic Antigonish Movement (about which I wrote in the Jul.-Aug. and Sept. 2018 issues of the NOR). These strands were woven together in the mind of Rev. Dr. Wayne J. Hankey (1944-2022), a student of both Doull and Crouse, who supplied, in addition to his own extension of the thought of his masters in studies of Thomism and Neoplatonism, the political will to confront first the faculties at King’s College and in Dalhousie Classics, then the hierarchy of the Diocese of Nova Scotia, and finally the liberal ecclesiastical establishment in both Canada and the United States.

The precious fruit of the Halifax School was its reassessment of the Anglican Prayer Book tradition, which provided, for those who were not too wedded to ecclesiastical party or theological ideology, a truly evangelical and catholic view of Anglicanism that was also open to a Christian socialism closely resembling Catholic social teaching. This ressourcement seemed to me and to many the only hope for Anglicanism at the end of the 20th century.

Dalhousie Classics and King’s College were great generators of vocations to the priesthood both in the classroom and through the glorious liturgies celebrated in King’s College Chapel. Most of those young priests took parishes in the Maritime Provinces of Canada and taught theology, celebrated liturgy, and practiced pastoral care in the way they had learned in Halifax. Their devotion to the 1959 Canadian Book of Common Prayer was welcomed by their people, as was their adherence to traditional teaching and their concern for the welfare of the common folk.

Crouse and Hankey led many retreats, which were well attended by laymen, often in a moribund Catholic monastery near the causeway to Cape Breton. These two priests also preached tirelessly throughout Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island (PEI), supporting and encouraging their former students who were now parish priests, as I was. Crouse was the greatest preacher I have ever heard. Their preaching also took them throughout Canada and the United States.

An important forum in which the theology of the Halifax School developed was an annual theological conference held in various cities in the Maritimes. The title of the published proceedings of the first such conference, held in Charlottetown, PEI, in 1981, was “The Need for a ‘Catholic’ Voice in the Church Today.” The title of the proceedings of the second conference, held the following year in St. John, New Brunswick (the first conference I attended), was “Christian Initiation.” Each conference addressed critical issues of the day. Remarkably, the conferences are still being held.

A genuine Anglican ressourcement was attempted in these conferences through a careful study of the foundations of Anglican teaching. First, in order of importance, were studied the Book of Common Prayer, the Ordinal, the Thirty-nine Articles, and the Book of Homilies. The fundamental Anglican text The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, the work of the eminent theologian Richard Hooker (1554-1600), was studied deeply. The Caroline Divines, the talented theologians, moralists, and spiritual writers who lived under the Stuart monarchs, such great men as Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626) and Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667), were thoroughly examined. Of course, the underlying patristic and medieval traditions were probed by the great scholars who led the movement. Thus, the conferences dug down deep underneath the early 19th-century Tractarians and their later 19th-century successor Ritualists to find true Anglicanism, evangelical and catholic Anglicanism, in a way that was challenging and exhilarating. I have never felt so alive as I did during those years.

Through the publications of the conference proceedings, the theology of the Halifax School was disseminated, but not just the theology of that school. Many scholars from elsewhere in Canada, Great Britain, and the United States were invited to speak, including the great English evangelical Rev. Dr. Roger T. Beckwith (b. 1929), who was deeply surprised and gratified to find Anglo-Catholics taking Richard Hooker so seriously.

There were several reasons for the movement’s failure. Our own sins were one reason, of course. Ultimately, the power of the Broad Church Liberals was overwhelming. They controlled the finances, clergy appointments, synods, and diocesan courts. The Prayer Book Society also compromised on the issue of women’s ordination in order to gain evangelical allies in the Anglican Essentials Movement. Some individuals compromised under various forms of coercion or temptation; others turned their backs on the wider church and devoted themselves exclusively to parish life. I could go on.

The deepest reason for the movement’s failure was the fallacy at its heart. In 1993 Hankey, recently a convert to Catholicism, presented a paper at the annual conference, held that year in Charlottetown. Titled “Tradition and Development of Doctrine,” his paper undermined the view of Prayer Book Anglicanism that our ressourcement had reached. Where our work had led us to believe that Anglicanism, as embodied in the Book of Common Prayer, the Ordinal, the Thirty-nine Articles, and the Book of Homilies, was a scriptural and patristic (i.e., reformed) catholicism, Hankey showed that the Anglican “reform” was actually as much a doctrinal development as any in Roman Catholicism.

Assuming the argument of John Henry Newman’s An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), Hankey first demonstrated how the dynamic elements in the constitution of the Apostolic Church — the community and the tradition — “cannot in principle be reduced to the New Testament.” The canon of Scripture, after it arose out of the community and the tradition, became, to be sure, the third constitutive element of the Church, but it was a fixed, static element of the Church’s constitution. The dynamism of both the community and the tradition — and their irreducibility to Scripture — can be seen in the New Testament itself, Hankey argued. In fact, a dialectic of changelessness and change, which is development, is characteristic of and crucial to the New Testament.

Next, Hankey showed how the dynamic elements in the Christian constitution have caused a development of both Christian tradition and Christian traditions. In particular, despite their belief that they were returning to the purity of the primitive Church, the Reformers themselves introduced developments into Christian doctrine (e.g., justification by faith alone). Consequently, the claim of Prayer Book Anglicans to be governed in their thinking by Scripture and the Fathers of the Church alone, as embodied in the Prayer Book, Ordinal, Articles, and Homilies, was no longer tenable. The incapacity of Anglicans to deal with the ordination of women as a doctrinal issue, because it squares with neither Scripture nor the Fathers, demonstrated this point. In fact, only the Roman Magisterium, which can recognize and authenticate doctrinal development, Hankey argued, is capable of dealing with such an innovation.

Finally, Hankey put before the conference the grounds of the present crisis in Christian thinking. Assumed, he said, in all talk of doctrinal development, even the tacit recognition of development in early 20th-century Anglo-Catholicism, has been the dialectic of changelessness and change. But with the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), the idea of a changeless ground — the idea of truth — has been challenged. Thus, the older theological notion of continuity, known as development, is being overwhelmed by a notion of discontinuity, a notion that has no room for the development of living and true ideas, for ideas are the ephemera of their times and places and cannot be true for other discrete epochs.

The only philosophical answer to this crisis, in Hankey’s view, lay in a reappropriation of “modern Cartesian philosophy as advanced by the German Idealists…. Like Heidegger, German Idealism knows thought to be historical, and against him, it understands the fundamental shifts in the form of thought to expose rather than to obscure the logic of the divine being: the logic of God before the worlds were made.” In fact, in this philosophy can be found an “adequate rational form” for Cardinal Newman’s “conception” of development. Indeed, in reading Newman’s Essay, it is evident that he sees the development of true and living ideas as occurring within history and according to human nature. Thus, where the German Idealists uncovered the Trinitarian form, present in human subjectivity, moving in nature and history, Newman demonstrated how the Christian idea developed according to the limits of human mental processes and in the various circumstances of history, geography, and the like.

Incidentally, Rev. Dr. Jeffrey N. Steenson, later the first ordinary of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter established by Pope Benedict XVI, also presented a paper at this conference. In it he argued persuasively, on the grounds of patristic evidence, for the necessity of papal primacy and infallibility.

The Halifax School persisted for some time after this conference and may be said to exist still in the annual theological conferences and in the Prayer Book Society of Canada, but as an effective ecclesiastical movement, it declined after 1993. The legacy of Prof. Doull, Dr. Crouse, and Dr. Hankey is largely philosophical. Both the Dalhousie Classics Department and the King’s Foundation Year Programme are now run by younger philosophers, most of whom appear to have little professional interest in the Anglican tradition or in this colorful but little-known Anglican efflorescence. However, thanks be to God, a few of us, at any rate, have made our nostos in the Roman Catholic Church, some in the Ordinariates, others in the Roman Rite, with the result that the legacy of the Halifax School is preserved and even perpetuated, if only tenuously, in the True Church.


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