There is enough to say about my Anglican past that I could probably dedicate an entire work to it. I am conscious, however, that it is all too possible to descend into unhelpful polemic, and so to undermine one’s own argument in the process. Besides, there is so much good material available on the history of Anglicanism and its theology that there is really no need for me to reiterate things. Works of particular relevance to me included that of Aidan Nichols, who, in The Panther and the Hind: A Theological History of Anglicanism, first caused me to realise that there might be more than one reading on the subject of Anglicanism than I had so far encountered. Like the Zahl book, whatever criticisms one could make of Nichols’ writing, it would still have to be admitted that he proffers significant points to ponder. Above all, I realized that everything I had heard of the Protestant - and of the English - Reformation, was heavily biased.
But of course it was. Where would I have learned my history of Anglicanism if not from Anglicans (and other Protestants)? Yet in no other field would I have considered such a one-sided presentation of major historical and theological questions adequate. As obvious as it may seem to some, the very fact that an equally legitimate Catholic interpretation of the Reformation (and more particularly, the English Reformation) even existed was new to me – and quite revelatory. As a result of this discovery, I began to question whether or not it was entirely legitimate to assume that the Church of the Middle Ages was as greedy and corrupt as it was traditionally portrayed.
In this regard, to visit Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire is very telling. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, its beauty is outstanding in an already beautiful country, and its status as an ancient holy place is almost palpable as one walks through the grounds. Equally striking, though, is the Tudor manor at one end of the park. Called ‘Fountains Hall’, it was built with stones from the dissolved abbey: a standing testimony to the religion of the theological mercenary. The difference in atmosphere between the manor and the abbey ruins is nothing short of disconcerting. What makes it particularly so, however, is the Orthodox adage: ‘The Church is only as healthy as its monasteries’. Fountains Abbey, like all the monastic communities of England, was shut down, the religious dispersed, and the assets sold for next to nothing to accomplices of the Tudor regime. This is a very different picture of the English Reformation than the one I held as a Catholic-minded Anglican, when I alternately believed beyond reason that the iconoclasm of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was either a momentary aberration, a necessary purging of a corrupt Church, or at least transcended by the retention of Catholic spiritual tradition in the Prayer Book.
A New Dawn
Once I had discovered some of the compelling weaknesses of my Anglican paradigm, I felt I had no choice but to explore them and follow wherever they might lead. And once I had realized this, two things of importance happened in my mind: 1) I came to see that the worthy worship of God was not dependent on the extreme effort I was putting into using the Prayer Book on a daily basis, and 2) I read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the Roman Missal, and saw that many of the reservations I had continued to hold toward Catholicism were entirely comprehended by the Church, or misconstrued in the first place. I will deal with these in order.
Questions surrounding the Liturgy
There can be no doubt that Anglican Liturgy, according to the traditional rites, can be exceedingly beautiful. What it has done to inform the Church as a whole is immeasurably valuable, and something that I continue to make appeal to as a Catholic. Anglican history may be such that from time to time the icons got smashed, but in the Book of Common Prayer enough was retained that believers could at least count on being reminded of them. Due to my influences, however, I came to mistake these resonances of Catholic tradition as the fullness of Catholic tradition.
For this reason, when I found the best of Anglican practice was being everywhere disputed (just one of the battles being fought in the Anglican front of the broader ‘Culture War’), I began first of all to wonder if the gates of hell might not in fact prevail against the Church, and then to dig myself in for the fight. I invested everything in traditional Anglican practice because I saw it as the best possible repository of Catholic faith. For the innovators to assault the Prayer Book was tantamount to assaulting the very Person of Christ it conveyed. The Book of Common Prayer, with its spiritual orderliness, sublime language, beautiful – albeit implied – musical tradition, became for me a sort of papacy: a touchstone of Christian faith, grounded in Holy Scripture and faithful to Tradition.
Was I ever surprised, then, when listening to an English-language recording of Eastern Orthodox music celebrating the North American saints, to realise that the Catholic Faith I desired so much to live and uphold could be expressed in such a wonderful way outside of the Prayer Book. The idiom of the recording, so far from the poetry of the Prayer Book, was almost vulgar; yet musically and linguistically I had never heard anything that communicated the beauty of the doctrine of the Communion of Saints like it. As an Anglican who professed a belief in this doctrine every time I recited the Creed, I had longed to make it an explicit part of my own devotion. Yet according to the Prayer Book I was bound not to. As a result, when I heard this celestial idea being sung in such an accessible and musically wonderful a way, I was left hungry for more and I knew I was not going to get it, even in the most Catholic-minded of Anglican communities.
So I worked hard to make everything I could of what I had. I sought to manifest in every Liturgy I celebrated, the mystery of all those beautiful doctrines of the Creed. From how I vested to the gestures I made with my hands, I was scrupulous in making sure that everything was right and according to Tradition. Now, this is probably a good thing to do anyway, insofar as a celebrant who does it is ideally subordinating his own idiosyncrasies to the objective practice of the Church, but that was not my whole motivation. For me, being liturgically precise was also about doing my best to manifest in as explicit a way as possible the Creedal doctrines that were but implied in Anglican liturgy. And it was not easy. It was not easy because to do so as an Anglican priest is to do so both alone and in defiance of both wider practice and the straightforward intent of the Prayer Book itself. Which is when I began to see that the manifestation of the entirety of Catholic doctrine at every celebration of the Holy Mysteries is not the prerogative of the Catholic priest. His is simply to make present the Body and Blood of Christ for the people, and when he does so (at least ideally), all the music, and iconography, and collegiality, and behind-the-scenes catechesis, along with everything else, lends itself to marking the Body and Blood and revealing its cosmic implications.
Encountering the Sources
The other great revelation I experienced in light of my exploration of Catholicism occured when I read the Catechism and the Missal.
First of all, I remember when the Catechism was first released in English. Its appearance on the shelves of the bookstore in which I was working at the time was a Godsend, in that it pushed our sales well up for a number of months running. People were buying it in droves, but I failed to look inside. I assumed that it was full of those overdefinitions of questions of faith for which the Catholic Church was famous, and that it constituted merely another dry document: fit for the shelf but not for the coffee table. I had to learn alot more before I would finally pick it up.
Learn I did, though, and so it was that early in the ‘naughties I finally picked it up to read with a friend. We plodded through it some way before we left it to each other to carry on alone. Which, over time, I did. My great realisation in reading the text, though, rested on no one detail in particular. It was simply that, after many years of assuming the Catholic Church to be laden with a legalistic, almost forensic, worldview, it became clear to me that the mystical approach to doctrine I had more associated with the Orthodox Church was very much present in the Catechism, and that all of those pages were simply infused with the reality of Tradition and the necessity of Love. This document, about which I had held so many preconceived notions, was actually a document unlike any other I had read. I would later come to understand that this was my first glimpse into the real operations of the Church. It was all so comprehensive.
Likewise with the Missal. As something of a liturgical traditionalist, I had always assumed that the Novus Ordo Missae was a revolutionary Liturgy, fundamentally disconnected from its ancient parent liturgy. My perception, after all, had been formed entirely on my experiences of liturgies in average parish churches, and parish churches in North America no less. Such appalling examples of the celebration of the Mass were sure to confound an historically-minded inquirer! But then I read the texts in Latin and saw that they diverged very little from their predecessors. Yes, there were differences in order and (in certain instances) practice, but what was clear is that there was no difference in intent. This meant everything to me. With an vested interest in historical theology, I am always suspicious of developments without precedent. For this reason, I can still not abide liturgical disobedience and innovation; they smack too strongly of subjectivity, personal pride, and a callous disregard for our forebears – whom, we believe as Catholic Christians, are as alive and present in Christ as we are ourselves. But it meant that what some priests did with the Order, and what the Order actually said, were not necessarily the same thing, and I could see then that what the Novus Ordo represented was an appropriate evolutionary development, and not the revolutionary one some people had created.
Of course, now that I knew these things, I could no longer stay away. All of my traditional objections to the Catholic Church were quickly tumbling down. Even my vascillation between the Orthodox and the Catholic Church was resolved in light of the two discoveries described above. First of all, because of my reading of the Roman Missal, I could finally understand that what the Eastern Liturgies and Roman Liturgies were trying to do was the same thing. Then, I could see that the dichotomy of theological method I had perceived as existing between the two Churches was false. In fact, as a Western Christian with Eastern sympathies and interests, I felt that my position was far better comprehended in the Roman Catholic Church than it could be in the Eastern Orthodox Church. I liked Pope John Paul’s analogy of the two lungs of Europe, and came to believe that such an analogy sat better in the minds of Catholics than of the Orthodox. My direction was clear.
Still an Anglican, I now had serious problem. Should I become Catholic immediately and walk away from my job; my house; my history; my life’s work? Or should I give Anglicanism another chance to prove its Catholic nature? I came down in favour of the latter, and moved from Canada to England. I was going to the heart of the Anglican world, and I was going to test both its, and my, mettle.
to be continued…