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Anglo-Catholicism—Missionary by theology and tradition[1]

Ascension Day: 16th February, 2014
Richard Wilson, Priest Assisting at St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Acts 1:1-11, Ephesians 1:17-23, Matthew 28:16-20

Last Sunday, Prof Andrew McGowan commenced our series on Anglo-Catholicism, speaking of the centrality of the Eucharist in Anglo-Catholic worship. The Eucharist, of course, reflects the first great commandment: to love God.

I want to argue this evening that a Church that does not project itself into its community as a force for the proclamation of the Gospel has left unattended the other great commandment: to love one's neighbour. Of course, such a demand on a church does not distinguish it from its so-called Evangelical brothers and sisters, but it is the historical and theological elements of the Anglo-Catholic experience that, to my mind, equip it in a particular way for mission in the community.

Arising in the early-mid nineteenth century on the back of the Oxford Movement, Anglo-Catholicism had a hard fight to become a force in the English Church. It suffered from being a counter-social movement in that it challenged the dominant, comfortable, established position of the so-called Evangelical Church, and had the temerity to bring back all those pope-ish affectations of dress, liturgy, theology and, of course, its attitude to the State.

As something of a thorn in the side of the Church at the time, the new Anglo-Catholics experienced resistance in settling into the established parishes and so were forced into new areas that were under development, under-churched, and less comfortable in the way the established Church had become.

This was at the time of England's industrialization so, not surprisingly, these new Anglo-Catholic parishes found themselves in the midst of some of the poorest, most hard-bitten and desperate families of English life. They were the disenfranchised people forced off the land by the Enclosure of the Commons, forced by poverty to work in the new industrial factories (those dark satanic mills, recalling Blake's poem). They were working for the new industrial enthusiasts, with all their fumbling incompetence in how to treat a new workforce in a new work and new working conditions. Anglo-Catholics learned early how to support poor people in poor circumstances.

This experience was to come into its own with the outbreak of WW1, when Europe was thrown into the most God-awful war where the sheer scope and expanse of the destruction of land, property, livelihoods and above all, people's lives was unprecedented. As we know, the world wondered what on earth it had done.

In the face of the pitiable conditions in the trenches, Anglo-Catholics distinguished themselves. Having something in common with the working-class soldiers who made up the front line soldiery, their approach to chaplaincy and identification with suffering was unique. Chaplains of all demoninations in the Army were given (and still have) the name 'padre' — the slightly pope-ish Italian term for a priest, Father.

Likewise at home, with the loss of so many lives, Anglo-Catholic practice was able to respond in a way no other expression of Church could — with the prayers for the dead and requiem masses, banned by the more reform-minded Church authorities. Anglo-Catholic liturgy provided comfort in an otherwise incomprehensible sorrow.

In these few examples we can see how Anglo-Catholic experience has fitted it for mission. Like the Church of Rome to which it sometimes looks, the Anglo-Catholic has an understanding of social justice that is unique. It is reflected not only in its theological preferences, but also in its experience of the world.

My own observation is that, unlike her more demanding reformed couterpart, the Anglo-Catholic is prepared to sit in received community with the one whose faith is a journey rather than a destination, not demanding any particular singular commitment, yet being in full communion. It is, I believe, more gentle, more open, more flexible, more simpatico. And so it has a particular ability to come into community with the outsider, it is suited to mission, it is missional by its very theology, nature and history.

In his recent book, A Public Faith[2], Miroslav Volf discusses the nature of prophetic religion in which he describes the call to mission. All three of the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, are prophetic, he says, and he proposes that every prophetic action is characterised by ascents and returns. Ascents to the objective centre of faith, which is God, and return to the subject of God's love, the people.

Indeed, the formational texts of each of these faiths describe occasions when someone goes to God, then returns with a missionary task. In the Torah, Moses ascends Mt Sinai and returns with the tables of the commandments that set the boundaries of political life in Jewish understanding.

In the Hadith, the authentic traditional life of Mohammed, he ascends to highest heaven from the place that is now the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, returning to continue his world-altering mission.

In our own tradition, Jesus ascends the mount of transfiguration with Peter, James and John, and returns to continue his mission of healing and exorcism of a broken world.

Today, of course, we celebrate Jesus' most dramatic ascent, his departure from his human life, not dead, but risen, and ascending, leaving his disciples — that's you and me as well — to wait until his return as promised.

To wait, and then what? Here is a source of difficulty for most Christians. What is it we are to do? We are told Jesus will come again and complete the Kingdom-creating work he started in his earthly life — his missionary task — on returning.

The early Church believed it was imminent, and behaved accordingly. We have a different view now, and we have developed an elaborate theology, called eschatology, to describe this period. In less technical terms, it is a period of waiting, or the time between the times. It is a period of expectation, and in the expectation we look searchingly at what the completion of it will be like — the end of time, the eschaton. Ultimately, however, we find we are unable to arrive at any firm conclusion. We are not to know the times and the periods the Father has set by his own authority.

What we can do is participate. To participate in what we believe will be Jesus' final return, and that is, to be instruments of his prophetic mission in the world. It is to do those things that we Anglo-Catholics are particularly equipped and experienced, to engage with the world, to be prophetic, as Jesus is prophetic, by bringing the Gospel in the word and in action, to be Jesus' witnesses — in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Were we in any doubt what the concrete task of this mission of witness is, it is given unequivocally in the Gospel, in the Great Commission that we have just heard: to go, to make disciples, to baptise, and to teach.

Last Sunday, Prof. McGowan quoted Frank Weston, Bishop of Zanzibar and leader at the 1923 Anglo-Catholic congress, who said:

You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum.

The Lord be with you.


  1. Historical references and reflections are based on: Pickering, W S F. Anglo-Catholicism: a study in religious ambiguity, London: Routledge, 1989.
  2. Volf, Miroslav. A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good, Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2011.


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