Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Fossilized Church of England

From Father Dwight Longenecker, with my comments:

Since the Oxford Movement in the nineteenth century members of the Church of England have tried to claim that the Church of England was “Catholic”. As a sideline it is interesting to note that for about 350 years before the Oxford Movement the Church of England was quite clear that it was NOT Catholic. They were a Protestant church. They resisted all signs of papacy, Catholic worship or Catholic theology. There were riots if a priest wore a surplice–much less Eucharistic vestments. If a priest put candles on the alter (sic) he could be ousted for being papistical.

Then in the mid nineteenth century John Henry Newman and his chums started to read the church fathers and lurched toward Rome. Newman–who was the brainiest among them followed the logic and became Catholic. Many others remained in the Anglican Church and pretended to be Catholic. Note that during the Ritualist movement that followed the Oxford movement, the response was the same: "There were riots if a priest wore a surplice–much less Eucharistic vestments. If a priest put candles on the alter (sic) he could be ousted for being papistical." Remember Arthur Tooth's arrest and Bishop Edward King's troubles.

When I say they pretended to be Catholic, they did a damned good job of it. They promoted Catholic spirituality. They were expert liturgists. They revived the ancient choral tradition. They built beautiful churches. Or maintained the beautiful Romanesque and Gothic churches and cathedrals built by Catholics before the Reformation that had survived different periods of iconoclasm. They started religious orders, did missionary work, started seminaries and for a hundred years really did seem to be bringing the Church of England around to being Catholic once again.

This passage reminded me of one of the articles we discussed at our Chesterton reading group meeting last Friday, "My Six Conversions: The Religion of Fossils" in The Well and the Shallows. Chesterton writes about six times he could have become Catholic--except that he already had. This first time was when he realized that the Protestant churches were fossils:

The whole point of a fossil is that it is the form of an animal or organism, from which all its own animal or organic substance has entirely disappeared; but which has kept its shape, because it has been filled up by some totally different substance by some process of distillation or secretion, so that we might almost say, as in the medieval metaphysics, that its substance has vanished and only its accidents remain. And that is perhaps the very nearest figure of speech we can find for the truth about the New Religions, which were started only three or four hundred years ago. They are Fossils.

It is easy to see the sense in which they are now dying. But in a much deeper sense, they have long been dead. The extraordinary thing about them was that they really died almost as soon as they were born. And this was due to a fact not always emphasised, but which always strikes me as the most outstanding fact of the mysterious business; the incredible clumsiness of the Reformers. The real Protestant theologians were such very bad theologians. They had an amazing opportunity; the old Church had been swept out of their way, along with many things that were really unpopular, and some things that were deservedly unpopular. One would suppose it was easy enough to set up something that would at least look a little more popular. When they tried to do it, they made every mistake that they could make. They waged an insane war against everything in the old faith that is most normal and sympathetic to human nature; such as prayers for the dead or the gracious image of a Mother of Men. [This reminded me of Sir Kenneth Clark's comments about the Reformation in
Civilisation.] They hardened and fixed themselves upon fads which anybody could see would pass like fashions. Luther lashed himself into a sort of general fury, which obviously could not last; Calvin was logical, but used his logic for a scheme which humanity manifestly would not long find endurable. Perhaps the most successful were those who really had no ideas to offer at all; like the founders of the Anglican Church. They at least did not exasperate human nature; but even they showed the same blindness, in binding themselves instantly to the Divine Right of Kings, which was almost immediately to break down.

According to Chesterton, the founders of Church of England, as a whole, did not make some of the same mistakes the 16th century reformers did: they maintained order and ritual, beauty and devotion--but these are accidents, according to Chesterton's metaphysical analogy. As Father Longenecker notes, the Anglo-Catholics in the Church of England from the 19th century until today have tried to build upon those accidents to claim that their Church was Catholic, somehow a branch of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church founded by Jesus Christ, and that reunion was somehow possible between the Church of England and the Catholic Church or between the Church of England and the Orthodox Church. With the ordination of female priests and now a female bishop, however, even the accidents are gone--the fossil that remains never really was what they thought it was. Fortunately, for those who seek the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham is there to welcome them home.

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