Archive Nota Bene Steven Wedgeworth

Alister McGrath on Anglo-Catholicism

In a 2007 article for an Irish Anglican publication, Alister McGrath evaluates the merits of Anglo-Catholicism in light of history and leading contemporary scholarship. He concludes that any narrative which attempts to explain Anglicanism as being an alternative to Protestantism is, “historically indefensible.” Dr. McGrath gives some specific pieces of evidence:

Many Anglican writers sympathetic to the nineteenth-century High Church ‘Oxford Movement’ (often known as ‘Tractarianism’) were generally dismissive of any suggestion that Anglicanism could be considered ‘Protestant’. After all, they argued, their ‘Anglo-Catholicism’ could be traced back to developments in the early seventeenth century. They pointed to a group of writers during the reigns of James I and Charles I who, they argued, show a much more ‘catholic’ outlook than their colleagues in the reigns of Edward VI or Elizabeth I. Anglicanism was never Protestant; it retained its Catholic identity and resisted any temptations to become part of the Protestant movement.

Historians now regard this account of Anglicanism as an unfortunate aberration. It is certainly true that some significant members of the Church of England during the reigns of James I and Charles I laid greater emphasis on its sacramental life than some of their contemporaries. Some also showed themselves to be critical (at points) of the first generation of Protestant leaders in the English Reformation. Under Charles I, this group began to gain the ascendancy, with William Laud (1573- 1645) becoming Archbishop of Canterbury and Richard Neile (1562-1640) Archbishop of York.

Yet such figures cannot be thought of as ‘Catholics’, nor can their Protestant identity be denied, for that reason. In the first place, they were generally affirmative of their Protestant credentials. In the second, their sacramental and ecclesiological views can easily be accommodated within the spectrum of Protestant possibilities. Protestantism is a ‘big tent’ movement, offering a surprising variety of possibilities within its vision of Christian thought and life. Luther, it must be remembered, had a much ‘higher’ view of baptism and the eucharist than Zwingli – a fact which is reflected in modern Lutheranism at this point. Yet nobody has seriously suggested that Lutheranism is not a form of Protestantism on account of these sacramental views.

Some point to Charles I as the classic representative of this ‘Anglo-Catholicism’. Yet they too easily overlook the awkward fact that, on the evening before his execution, Charles told his thirteen-yearold daughter, Elizabeth, that he was to die for “maintaining the true Protestant religion”, and urged her to read the works of Lancelot Andrewes and Richard Hooker “to ground [her] against Popery”. Others suggest that Anglicanism is a ‘middle way’ (via media) between Protestantism and Catholicism. For that reason, it is argued, it is neither Protestant nor Catholic, but combines the strengths of both. Yet historians such as Diarmaid McCulloch have rightly pointed out that the ‘middle way’ developed in England in the late sixteenth century was between Lutheranism and Calvinism – two quite distinct versions of Protestantism. The ‘middle way’ which resulted was neither Calvinist nor Lutheran – but it was certainly Protestant.

From an historical perspective, the English national Church must be regarded as a Protestant variant – the ‘Protestant Episcopal Church of England and Ireland’, as state and parliamentary documents regularly describe it. And, as many readers will recall, the body which now prefers to describe itself as ‘The Episcopal Church’ was originally entitled ‘The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.’ (Indeed, this remains the Church’s legal title).

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the Rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a founding member of the Davenant Institute.