By the Rev. Fr. Samuel L. Edwards SSM
Anglican Church in America/Traditional
As a prevailing feature in the life of the Anglican
churches, the Anglican mind is all but dead. This is analysis, not epitaph; a
description of reality, not a prescription for despair. In fact, it may well
prove that wrapped within this gloomy shroud there is reason for orthodox
Anglicans to hope.
The Anglican mind fell victim to a degenerative, parasitic
disorder, which itself is now in the process of dissolution, having all but
consumed the institutional host which sustained it. The culprit parasite is
The Anglican mind (also referred to as the Anglican Way or the
Anglican ethos) was a variety within the species of the Christian mind. To be
sure, there was a distinct flavour to its mixture of aesthetic, moral, and
intellectual styles – a sort of golden moderation, reflecting a blend of the
temperaments of the British, Celtic, and Norse cultures which were a part of
the making of England, yet there was never any serious contention that such
things as distinguished the Anglican mind from, say, the Roman or Gallican or
Iberian or Germanic or Slavic or Greek or Syrian or African or Oriental
Christian mind were indicative of a difference in kind. All these were at least
implicitly considered to be local or cultural streams flowing from the great
well of Christian orthodoxy, and the Anglican mind habitually enriched and
renewed itself by drinking liberally from all of them.
The Anglican mind, in its highest state of development, was
supple without being flaccid, liberal yet disciplined, conservative yet open.
It recognised that the opposite of protestant is not catholic, but corrupt, and
that the opposite of catholic is not protestant, but sectarian. Even at its
most polemical, it sought more reconciliation with its opponents than triumph
over them. In every generation of its life – from Hooker and Field to Taylor and Cosin to
Wesley and Wilberforce to Keble and Pusey to William Temple and Michael Ramsey
– it has produced pastors and theologians who exemplify these characteristics.
Its ethos informed an entire family of national Churches. Now, however, though
the Anglican intellectual tradition remains alive in certain individuals and
groups of Anglicans, it can no longer claim to have any substantial influence
on what currently passes for life in the national and international
institutions of the increasingly moribund Anglican Communion.
It should be noted that the death of the Anglican mind in
the institutional Anglican Churches is not an isolated phenomenon or a curious,
rather sad sideshow. Rather, it is a subset of the moribundity of the Western
Christian mind which lies beneath the continuing slow decay of western
civilisation and thought. This, too, is the result of a parasitic infestation,
in which the parasites are the various ideologies – the ‘-isms’ – which
foolishly pluck up one flower from the garden of reality and seek to make it
the focus of the entire garden at the expense of all the other flowers,
forgetting that the separation of the plant from that in and by which it has
been rooted and grounded – Reality Himself – ensures both the death of the
plant and the marring of the garden.
It is necessary to spend some time considering the characteristics
and consequences of -isms in general, so that at length we can see what has
happened to the Anglican mind in particular at the hand of Anglicanism. An
‘-ism’, as the term is used here, is an ideology. It is an intentionally
comprehensive system of belief which attempts to interpret and organise reality
in accordance with a single idea or agenda. This idea or agenda it substitutes
for God or religious dogma.
Please note that this definition refers to an ‘-ism’ as a
system of belief, not a system of thought. This is quite deliberate, for
-isms actually have the effect of inhibiting thought. Indeed, they end (and
often begin) by substituting slogans for thought. This is one of the things
that makes them so attractive to fallen man, who is lazy and likes nothing
better than a chance to appear to be intelligent without the effort of actually
exercising his intellect. Thought – logical analysis and intellectual synthesis
– is the deadly enemy of -isms, and this accounts for the mania among
ideologues for politically-correct ways of expression, for the purpose of these
is to bind and direct thinking into channels which do not threaten the
credibility (and thereby the existence) of the ideology. Since the ideologue
does not believe in concrete, objective truth, he lacks the conviction of the
orthodox Christian that the truth will eventually triumph (with our assistance
or without it), and therefore he must exercise himself to guarantee the success
of his -ism by whatever means.
It might be argued that all -isms derive from or through
Nominalism, which (in consequence of its rejection both of the notion of a
common nature and its focus on God as absolute Will rather than absolute Being)
laid the foundation for the collapse of Christendom into the abyss of individualism,
relativism, and positivism. After all, the road is open to the complete
dissolution of thought once one accepts such nominalistic propositions as that
which asserts that the classification of things into categories is a matter of
subjective decision on the part of, and for the convenience of, the taxonomist,
rather than a recognition on his part of an objective, inherent, natural
commonality which existed prior to the classification.
As has been mentioned already, -isms are parasitic in
nature. This is unsurprising. Error is always a parasite on the truth; were it
not for the element of truth in the error, the error would have no existence at
all. An -ism often behaves in much the same way as does a creature known as a
rhizocephalan, or ‘roothead’. This relative of the barnacle attaches itself to
a crab, pierces the crab’s shell, and injects specialised cells into the crab.
These quickly subvert the crab’s immune system so that it can no longer
recognise the roothead as an intruder rather than a part of itself. They then
take over the crab’s internal systems, shut down those which they do not need
(including, interestingly enough, the generative organs) and convert the crab
into nothing more than a factory for the production and support of more rootheads.
The net result is the destruction, if not of the crab’s life, at least of its
basic purpose (the production of more crabs) in the interest of the production
of more rootheads.
The ultimate result of an -ism, in the intellectual, moral,
and aesthetic as well as in the biological sphere, is the destruction of the
very thing upon which it centres its attention. It erects an idol, but (so to
speak) it then loves it to death. Theologically speaking, -isms are forms of
idolatry, for, whether explicitly or implicitly, they uniformly put something
less than God in the place of God.
As the result of idolatry is always the eventual
humiliation, or even the destruction, of the idolaters (and often of the larger
group of which they are a part), so is the result of the -ism. Thus, on the
political scene, ideological liberalism destroys liberty and after anarchy
(which can never be tolerated for long) it ends in tyranny. Likewise,
ideological pacifism paves the way for war; militarism destroys the military;
nationalism brings down nations (and imperialism empires); feminism destroys
women. Rationalism destroys reason, issuing in madness; activism overwhelms
measured and purposeful activity, resulting in accidie; sentimentalism
jades the affections, precipitating anaesthesia.
In the history of the Church we see the same phenomenon
amply demonstrated. For example, Calvinism and Lutheranism brought about the
dissolution of the Reformed and Evangelical vision of a renewed and more
faithful Church, and Protestantism as a whole, by accepting the false
characterisation of itself as anti- catholic, and thus paved the way for the
overthrow of the Reformation by the French philosophies and the German
liberals. In each case, a shift of focus within the institutional manifestations
of these movements away from the original vision, of their founding figures and
toward narrower aspects of that original vision led eventually to a failure of
the movement to achieve its goals, and to the emergence of a new and permanent
denomination existing either in truce or in competition with the parent Church
– a result quite contrary to the intent of the founders to reform the existing
The Anglican Church, on its face, probably had less reason
to succumb to emergent denominationalism than the continental Churches, having
gone out of its way to avoid claiming that It was more than part of the true
Church of Jesus Christ. Yet by the middle of the nineteenth century, the
denominational style of self-consciousness had taken firm root in it and the
erosion of the Anglican mind at the hands of Anglicanism had already begun.
It is noteworthy that the very word, ‘Anglicanism’,
(according to the Oxford English Dictionary) has no recorded written instances
prior to 1846. In the same way that consciousness precedes speech, phenomena
tend to predate the words which designate them, but not by much. So it is safe
to assume that the erosion of the Anglican Church’s concept of itself as the
reformed Catholic Church in England
into an assumption that it was but one of a variety of denominational options
began before 1846, but not by very much. The roots of the shift are likely to
be found in the situation of the Church following the Revolution of 1688, when
a general weariness with religious strife found expression in a broadening
tolerance for, and enfranchisement of, non-Anglican Protestants, which was
eventually extended to Roman Catholics and non-Christians in the nineteenth
This attitude of tolerance need not have been, but
nonetheless was anti-ecclesiological, which contributed substantially to the
theological tepidity which characterised the following century. The association
(fairly or not) of the High
party with the
Jacobite cause seriously impaired their ability to mount an effective
challenge. As it was, most of the opposition to the decline in the self-concept
of the Established Church was instinctive rather than reflective, which made it
an easy mark for charges that it was mere Tory prejudice. The High Church party
indeed vigorously opposed such reform through the 1830s, and the Oxford
Movement itself was occasioned by a reform measure, but in fact (as by this
time was being more clearly articulated) their opposition was not based on an
undifferentiated hatred of change but on the reasoned conviction that if the
Church of England was what her formularies said she was, a Parliament which now
included many who had nothing in her should not be dictating reform to her.
It was the misfortune of the Oxford Movement that it arose
when secularising liberalism had attained a well-nigh irresistible momentum.
The nineteenth century was the first full century in the age of -isms, and the
intellectual landscape of the time, both ecclesiastical and secular, was
cluttered with them. The list of them would be good fodder for a Gilbert and
Sullivan patter-song: Liberalism, Socialism, Communism, Fascism, Conservatism,
Romanticism, Impressionism, Scientism, Fideism, Anglo-catholicism,
Anglo-papalism, Evangelicalism, Ritualism, Ultramontanism, Unitarianism,
Universalism, Humanism, Feminism, and so on almost ad infinitum and
certainly ad nauseam. In such a climate of fragmentation, it is
hardly surprising that the genuinely comprehensive and unifying vision of the
Body of Christ toward which the Oxford Fathers (continuing in the central
stream of the Anglican Way)
were pointing would not have sustained success in effecting and maintaining the
full interior renewal of the Anglican Churches.
Given that historical environment, it may have been
practically unavoidable that the Tractarian movement would decline into
Tractarianism and become just one among a variety of rarely co-operating and
frequently competing ideologies within the Anglican stall of the fold. Combined
with the tendency to confuse the God-given order of the Church with the
humanly-constructed institutions that are meant to serve that order, the lesser
heirs of the Catholic renewal (with some shining exceptions) led the movement
into the status of one party among many, with interests to be balanced against
those of the others (the same thing happened on the Evangelical side). For the
health of the Anglican mind, this was not a good thing. The initial character
of the renewal movements was prophetic, but (again with notable exceptions)
they became political, and serious thought about the long-range implications of
ideas and policies is not a normal component of the politician’s makeup.
As the Anglican mind was supplanted by Anglicanism, and in
exact proportion to that pre-emption, the institutional Anglican Church began
to be excessively concerned with questions of its identity. ‘What does it mean
to be an Anglican?’ and ‘how is Anglicanism distinctive?’ became new and
fashionable questions, asked in scores of different ways with scores of different
answers. This sort of concern is a salient characteristic of any organisation
which has been infested by an -ism. It results from the loss of a true focus on
the central purpose for which the institution exists, which is a consequence of
the ‘-ismatic’ substitution of internally-focused, institutional concerns. The
loss of the original purpose issues in the loss of a sense of identity, and
since the human person is so constructed that he cannot bear such chaos, he is
likely to accept any plausible alternate purpose that is proposed.
Another key symptom of infestation by an -ism is a
preoccupation on the part of the infested institution with its own survival,
and this is certainly evident in the multiple reports and schemes documenting
and suggesting means of combating the numerical decline of the various Anglican
Churches in the First World. This concern implies the existence of an unspoken
assumption that the institution is intended to continue its independent
existence indefinitely. So far as the Anglican Churches are concerned, this is
a clear sign of a major shift in self-understanding, since the Anglican
Reformers never intended or envisioned that the institutional separation within
the Church would continue indefinitely, still less that it would come to be
considered an acceptable state of affairs. They would have found fatuous and
bizarre in the extreme the notion that a national Church could unilaterally
alter basic elements of the common ecclesiastical order without both destroying
its internal relations and fatally compromising the prospects of restoring its
impaired external relations. Yet such is the very attitude now firmly rooted in
the centres of governance and learning in the First World Anglican Churches.
Anglicanism insinuated itself by slow degrees and with
little notice on the Anglican Church, which was to become its host. Like the
rhizocephalan mentioned earlier, once in place inside, it began to take over
the organism, to anaesthetise its defences by undermining the Anglican mind,
and to subvert its purpose from the fostering of Christians to the making of
denominationalist Anglicans. At the latter task, it has proved all too
effective. The capacity of the institutional Anglican Churches in the First World
to accomplish their designed purpose has
practically vanished on all but the parochial level (and even there it is all
too rare). The prospect that the parasite will soon have destroyed its host is
very real. In the judgment of some, this has already happened in principle.
Yet, for a people formed by the Resurrection, the virtual
death of the Anglican mind and the dissolution of the ecclesiastical
institutions commandeered by Anglicanism is not an unmitigatedly bad prospect.
After all, taken both as persons and as a whole, Anglicans are not crabs. The
dissolution of institutional structures may leave us naked for a while, but it
will not of necessity be fatal. The Anglican mind may no longer have an
effective life in the institutional Anglican Church, but that is bad news more
for the institution than for its members. In what setting these dry bones may
live is as yet an open question. Whether they shall live is not, and we may
confidently hope that at the breath of the Holy Spirit, they shall be knit
together, clothed in power, and spring up an exceedingly great host which will
move resolutely forward in faith.
This essay appeared in a collection titled Quo Vaditis
? The State of Churches in Northern Europe
(1996). The volume was edited by
Bishop John Broadhurst, a leader of Forward in Faith UK
|Samuel L. Edwards|
Fr. Edwards departed for Rome in 2010. Here he describes his journey and reasons for his decision.
As a young man, in order to remain, and more perfectly be, Methodist, I became an Anglican by confirmation in the Episcopal Church. Since I had learned that, so long as John and Charles Wesley lived, they refused to countenance the separation of their movement from the Church of England, I believed I was simply doing what they would have wanted.
As a middle-aged man, following years of “fighting the long defeat” of apostolic Christianity in the Episcopal Church and the official Anglican Communion and concluding that there was no lasting desire or intention in them to allow the survival, let alone the extension, of the catholic faith within them, I entered the Continuing Anglican movement in order to continue to be an Anglican.
My combined experience within both the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Continuum has finally led me to the same conclusion so many of my friends, mentors, and colleagues reached long before I did, which is that nothing good about the Anglican Way ultimately can survive if it remains cut off from its fount and origin. The past four and one-half centuries of organic disunion have demonstrated to my own satisfaction that apart from its union with the main trunk, the Anglican branch of the Christian tree –finest and most humane product of the Reformation though it is – can only either (1) rot from the heart out, until merely the bark is left to give it shape until it is fragmented by external pressure, or (2) become fossilized, in which case it may be more solid but no less subject to fragmentation.
Thomas Edison once said, “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” Experiments succeed whether they prove or disprove their hypothesis. So far as I can see, the Anglican experiment has succeeded in that it has disproved the hypothesis that catholic faith and practice can endure indefinitely apart from visible communion with that See of which Peter and Paul were co-founders.
This is coupled with the realization that – notwithstanding all the faults and sins of its members and even of its leaders (which it acknowledges) – for the last hundred years and more (while one by one the churches of the Reformation have succumbed, through surrender to or by retreat in the face of the spirit of the age) there has been in the world but one Christian communion which has consistently and proactively stood for divine truth and the dignity of man against every idolatrous tyranny which destroys and degrades him. This perception finds confirmation in the prophetic ministries of Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, and – and with more besides – it has made clear to me beyond a reasonable doubt my own call into full communion with the Catholic Church.