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An Evangelical Agenda for Catholic Anglicanism

After Dinner Address, Feast of the Assumption, 15 August, 2013
The Revd Canon Dr Scott Cowdell
Research Associate Professor of Theology at Charles Sturt University and Canon Theologian of the Canberra-Goulburn Anglican Diocese

There's always been a High Church presence within Anglicanism but it wasn't always Anglo Catholic. The old High Church dries favoured decorous prayer book worship as befits a state Church committed to constitutional monarchy and an obedient society. This is a far cry from a between-the-wars Anglo-Catholic socialist like Conrad Noel who flew both the Sinn Fein and the Soviet flags from his church tower in Thaxted—though he could also be counted on for a reliable Sarum Eucharist, reminding his socialist parishioners that their Catholic Anglicanism had deep roots in distinctive pre-Reformation English traditions. Others preferred a French baroque perfection of ceremonial with the acme of Marian devotion. Their plainer descendents might still use the Roman rite, though substituting for Francis our Pope their allegiance to Alison our area bishop. Yet others define themselves against the supporters of women's ordination, including against those who claim the Catholic title such as Affirming Catholicism and the Society of Catholic Priests. Though even Forward in Faith has adherents who prefer membership in the English Chapter of the movement.

As for the claims of Rome, we have Anglo Catholics who welcome the Ordinariate, others who think it's a mistake and wouldn't join it even if they did cross the Tiber, and the strict Anglo-Papalists who retain their commitment to corporate Anglican submission to the Church of Rome and will hold out until then. Meanwhile ARCIC continues its painstaking work, advocating significant giving of ground from both Rome and Canterbury.

In all it's a complex and confusing story, containing real rivalries and hostilities. Perhaps the only way Catholic Anglicanism can make common cause amidst its many differences is by opposing Evangelicalism. After all, group cohesion, according to the wisdom of this world, is best achieved by cultivating a common enemy, or by lynching a suitable scapegoat. But that's not the mind of Christ, and we can't let the definition of Catholic Anglicanism simply be that it's not Evangelical.

My own spiritual instincts are traditionally Catholic, rooted in Christ and his Gospel reshaping our sense of God in the Holy Spirit, who forms a community that shares in Christ's being, and in his continuing mission. That is to say, Trinity and ecclesiology are at the heart of the world, of humanity and of history. So the Church is the sacrament of Christ, and the Eucharist is our sharing in advance of God's dream for creation. Our mission emerges naturally from this Eucharistic logic, as we go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

What I'm suggesting to you is that Evangelical Catholicism is not Anglo Catholicism to which we reluctantly add some ill-fitting Evangelical techniques for outreach. Rather, the Catholic vision is itself Evangelical, spilling over with the good news of Jesus Christ to transform the world in love, so that mission lies at the heart of Catholic Christianity rightly conceived. It's not Church plus evangelism and mission but Church as the fountain of evangelism and mission according to its inner logic, rather than these representing merely optional external practices.

I suggest that the Feast of the Transfiguration provides us with a template for Evangelical Catholicism. First, it's a vision glorious, to borrow the title of Geoffrey Rowell's fine book on the Anglo-Catholic imagination. On the mountaintop Jesus Christ is revealed in the foreglow of his resurrection as the pinnacle of creation. Even his clothing and the air around him are transformed, to which our Eucharistic vestments and our incense give expression.

Next, Jesus Christ is revealed as the fulfilment of God's word encountered throughout history, testified to by the presence of Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus about the fulfilment that's underway. Here's a mandate for Catholic Gospel preaching, which proclaims Jesus Christ as the beating heart and leading edge of all truth and joy and hope and life-giving richness wherever we find it in the world. On this basis, Catholic largeness of Spirit fuses with Evangelical delight in Christ's liberating, transforming work, rather than there being any kind of opposition between them. We need the language of both Catholic and Evangelical if we're to do justice to what God reveals on that pinnacle of world history, where Jesus is transfigured to reveal in advance a wonderful meaning for it all.

Then, in the Transfiguration gospels, Peter is shown to be not quite infallible: his proposal to build booths and settle down in the eschatological sunset is certainly understandable, and many Anglo Catholics do follow Peter in building booths on the liturgical mountaintop from which the glory will never depart. And they're half right—this is where we're ultimately meant to be. But not yet, says Jesus, and Anglo Catholics must join him on his path down the eschatological mountain into the mission field, to the work of bringing their vision glorious to a world plainly starved of it.

Bishop Frank Weston reminded one of the great Anglo Catholic congresses in their heyday that since they had obtained their tabernacles and their full Catholic privileges they must go out and find Christ in the faces of England's poor and neglected. Now that we have our rich traditions of Catholic worship, our aesthetics and our romance, we need to serve that vision by honouring the beauty and worth of a threatened creation and a humanity sold increasingly cheap.

How do we improve our mission as Catholic Anglicans? Recovering the vision glorious by attention to our liturgy and our Gospel preaching is surely important, so that beauty and mystery begin to reveal their deepest truth in the face of Jesus Christ and our people begin to really understand this. We have to be more converted as Catholic Anglicans by the vision that we celebrate. Letting the transfigured Jesus Christ begin to transform our community life in parishes is part of this, so that we become more mature Christians together—welcoming not peevish, bold not risk averse, eager to gather new converts into our parishes to teach and nurture as they take on the mantle of Christ in life, rather than seeing them as threats to a comfortable status quo and to our own accustomed place in the parish pecking order. To which end I want to emphasise the Catechumenate as a natural and necessary expression of Catholic evangelism, so that it becomes as accustomed a part of parish life as the fête and the flower roster.

In addition I'd encourage us to rethink our approach to the young people with whom God blesses us. What if instead of a youth devoted to the escapism of multiple short-term dalliances and the ersatz relationships of social media we encouraged them to form Christian community and begin to discover Christ's mission, to live with other young Christians for a time of meeting Christ both on the mountain and on the plain? The jeunes ouvriers chrétiens of France, the so-called Jocists, set a pattern last century that many catholic worker groups and houses followed in English speaking countries, as centres for outreach and evangelism through Christian life together, teaching converts the mind of Christ through programs of seeing, judging and acting. What if we encouraged our young to consider vocation to the sacred ministry, rather than directing them towards more worldly and successful careers? There's no higher calling in life for a young Sydney Anglican than to go to Moore College and seek ordination. Can we match that in our parishes, or indeed in our families? The same can be said for the religious life, which is so far beyond the imagination of our times that few if any of us would encourage a son or daughter of obvious thoughtfulness and prayerfulness to follow that counter-cultural calling.

To sum up, the vision glorious of Catholic Anglicanism is evangelistic to its roots, though it's not evangelistic if that means our world needs to be saved from an angry God. Rather, our world needs to come to its senses and learn the truth of God's love for it, and to be transformed by that love. Living and celebrating and exploring and proclaiming that vision is what Evangelical Catholicism means for me.


Topical Articles

 Ministerial Priesthood
 Lay presidency
 Catholic Anglicanism
 Women bishops

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