Our strengths and our faults

File:Fra Angelico - Scenes from the Lives of the Desert Fathers (Thebaid) - Google Art Project.jpg

“Remnant communities remember their traditions at least in part, and attempt to resurrect the meta-narrative out of nostalgia. This can never be done completely, but can heal the ruptured meta-narrative enough for its survival.”

Orthodox bookstores sell monastic literature to spiritual inquirers, hoping that its depth will open their eyes to “Eastern spirituality.” The problem with this approach is that those works are extremely austere, and can unhinge a layperson who lacks discernment and a very attentive spiritual father. The state of spiritual distress that can result from such reading is called spiritual delusion, scrupulosity or prelest.

After reading a great deal of such ascetic literature, I began to notice that I learned more about virtue from Marcus Aurelius, or the letters of Theodore Roosevelt to his sons, than I did from the Fathers. That was a problem to me, even though Roosevelt was Episcopalian, and the Righteous Pagans gave us some of our theological language! Why did secular treatments of virtue inspire me so? Was well-roundedness a compromise with the world, the flesh and the Devil? Privately, I became quite a fundamentalist.

I even began to avoid cultivating virtue. If I were successful, organized or happy, my Western mentality was interfering with ascetic struggle. Especially when I learned a good moral lesson from ordinary struggles in daily life.

Since, I’ve come to believe that this attitude was itself a form of delusion. It receded when I took a break from spiritual reading. It was, of course, the worldview that I brought to my reading, and most of all my pride, that was responsible. But I should never have been in a position to make that mistake! Convertitis is the bug caught by amateur political bloggers, self-diagnosing hypochondriacs and consumers of pop psychology. It has now infected our religion. It’s the Sokal Affair of religion.

The story of us

One of the great things about Anglo-Catholicism is that ours is the only religion with a comedic tradition. I returned to the light after Colin Stephenson’s Merrily on High reminded me that even clergy were allowed to crack jokes and be happy. Further reading informed me that “morbid” young men who spend too much time worrying about church affairs were long a part of AC history. Had I lived somewhere that AC culture still matters, this may have been recognized. Instead, I learned the hard way. Let’s examine Church history, and see what else the Fathers can save us from!

Rev. John Keble’s sermon against national apostasy, provoked by State interference in Church of Ireland affairs, inaugurated the Catholic Revival in 1833. Yet it was not Protestantism that was the Tractarians’ enemy, but the Erastianism of the Enlightenment, when even clergy rarely attended church. In spite of criticism, the Tractarians returned near-full “Catholic privileges” to their parishes without contradicting the 1662 BCP. However Protestant its intent, the BCP affirms doctrines of Succession, Real Presence and Baptismal Regeneration. After all, Reformed Anglicanism isn’t pop Evangelicalism.

Later Revivalists re-appropriated not only patristic thought, but liturgics and vesture. Many of their “shrine parishes” came to have far too many liturgical ornaments for their size: ACs convinced themselves that sensible arrangements were excuses to lower their churchmanship, then responded accordingly. The affect was precious, but it led to the adaptation of ancient customs to the modern world. After all, King Josiah had to reconstruct Temple worship, but Judaism survived.

Ruptures in continuity can be patched, even if they aren’t patched perfectly. Medieval parish churches didn’t have surpliced choirs. They became the Victorian fashion anyway; surplices are still produced partly for that reason. After all, churches now have pews, hymnals and organs. “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent,” a Syriac chant, is in the 1940 Hymnal! We have adapted the good old ways of the good old days. Nonetheless, the Revival made enemies. Some of its clergy were legendary for eccentricity, lacking common sense, and provoking their bishops; the rest were legendary for eccentricity, saintliness, and provoking their bishops.[1] Had early ACs been wiser, perhaps we would have achieved consensus in Anglicanism and reunion with the wider Church.

Two events desolated the Revival. First, the 1896 Papal Bull “Apostolicae Curae” declared English Orders invalid on grounds that would make even Roman Orders invalid.[2] Regardless, conversions ensued. Second, Vatican II liturgical reforms made ACs look like a joke. Combined with further defections and the Charismatic Revival, Anglo-Catholicism declined into irrelevance. In other words, an institution lost employees and brand loyalty. Divine or not, institutions can only bleed resources for so long. The gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church, but they are prevailing against our Branch. For now.

Who are we really?

And whose foolishness could bring this about? The person of the spike turns up a great deal in AC literature. The spike is obsessed with the liturgical splendor of religion, but doesn’t care for its disciplines, such as fasting and prayer. But when one considers the history of Anglo-Catholicism, it’s apparent that ours is the religion of the spike. As the Revival progressed into Ultrarubricianism, Ritualism, and finally Anglo-Catholicism and Papalism, it remained heavily clerical. AC laity were often liturgical “extremists” for whom religion was also a hobby. The most dramatic tended to “Pope.” Even so, this suggests that the worst people we normally attract are just goofballs. That isn’t so bad.

Many ACs, particularly the most “extreme,” often came from Protestant backgrounds. Newman and others have been credibly accused of swimming the Tiber partly in order to “swing as far in the opposite direction as it is possible to go.” But the fact that AC clergy are so often converts (and so often convert), while not bad in itself, also demonstrates that some are individualistic, over-educated dilettantes. In terms of obedience to the Church, they’re spikes. They’re the same as the church-shopping Protestants and New Age enthusiasts they contempt. That’s why we can’t go over: God may curse our disobedience, even if we are received by the One True Church. We must keep our first estate.

And what sort of person becomes AC, anyway? T.S. Eliot, who shored the fragments of Western civilization against his ruin? Most of our converts are like students whom professors inspire to keep the Classics alive in a progressive humanities department. This sort of Anglican isn’t brought into the Church by the sort of message that the average  spiritual inquirer can understand. We have nothing to say to the unchurched except, “We are going to ‘advance the churchmanship’ of ‘our’ parish because it’s too ‘low.’” The Baptist church down the road preaches the Gospel better! We care too much for candles and beads. Let’s look outside ourselves to see what others see. This totally authentic transcription is from a study conducted on average Americans.

“Hi, I’m [Joe Average]. I’m 40, I work IT, and I have a wife and three kids. I’m not that interested in religion, but the world’s kinda going to hell in a hand basket, so we’re looking for a church. My dad always said, ‘you need a religion, and I don’t give a damn what it is.’ We wanna do this right, so we’re sticking to one church to making sure the kids don’t get mixed signals. We’ve already been to a Bible church, and a Baptist and a Catholic one.

The Anglican one we just visited was interesting. They told me not to say Roman Catholicism, because catholic means “universal” in Latin or something. This church had like one kid, he was altar boy. I mean, the stuff we need to hear about redemption we can get at that megachurch, Covenant, and it isn’t gonna close when everyone dies. Hell, they have a coffee shop and yoga. That part always struck me as phony, but again, I’m not the expert. My wife does most of the research.

I asked these Anglicans why not go to a bigger church, and they started telling me about sacraments and things that we could just go to Rome for, as they say. They don’t know how to talk to people who aren’t already part of the club. Still, the Anglicans are tight. They even have in-jokes about pranking the old priest’s boss, apparently. Some of the families have been Anglican for like, six generations. And the music in this storefront is better than the Catholic cathedral across town!

A lot of the Anglicans are lapsed Catholics who got into it because the services are like the church they grew up in. Apparently, the Latin Mass chapel looked cool, but the people were weird. A bunch of Evangelicals convert too. Basically, the early Church was liturgical, so they got tired of the gimmicky stuff. Anglicans aren’t old school. They’re ancient school. And I do respect that. Even the Baptists didn’t have a damn coffee shop.”

We need to communicate to people like this. Conservative Anglo-Catholics in 21st century America face secularization and a state religion that persecutes or ignores them. Nothing has changed. We should begin by provoking the megachurch pastors, for they will be our bishops.[3] The Second Catholic Revival can begin in the time-honored way! Conservative Anglo-Catholicism is the case study in resurrecting “dead” traditions. This is the only manner in which Christianity, no longer the default view of any group within its borders, can survive in the West. None of us were born before respectable unbelief among our society’s custodians. Our succession has not been broken, but we are all converts now.

[1] The ignorant have called the Revival avant-garde kitsch, and dismissed it for a sandy foundation in hypocritical clerical disobedience. In 1844, when the Rev. Dr. E.B. Pusey’s daughter, Lucia, died of tuberculosis, she requested that her jewelry be made into communion plate. The Cambridge Camden Society obliged; the silver debuted during an episcopal visitation to St. Savior’s, Leeds; the bishop refused to officiate until Pusey replaced it with plainer stuff. He did so. (Reed, pp. 23-24).

[2] Francesco Cardinal Coccopalmerio said this publicly. The East recognized our Orders for decades. Father Chantry-Pigg communes a Greek in The Towers of Trebizond.

[3] I should have done this to Intervarsity. The opportunity has passed. Mea maxima culpa!

This outline of AC history is not scholarly, but I hope it’s adequate. I hope that Classical Anglicans find it charitable. Next, we will examine the purpose of both religious and secular liturgies. If you want to know what that means, please keep reading!


2 thoughts on “Our strengths and our faults

  1. This is a great blog! Many thanks for your insights and observations. May the Most Holy Trinity continue to bless you as you continue to follow Jesus in the Anglican branch of His Church.


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