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The Future of Catholic Anglicanism

The Anniversary of John Keble's Assize Sermon (14 July 1833)

The Most Reverend Dr Keith Rayner
Archbishop of Melbourne, and Primate of Australia
at St Peter's, Eastern Hill, Melbourne: 14 July, 1999

John Keble's Assize Sermon, preached in Oxford on 14 July 1833, was in Newman's reckoning the catalyst which sparked the Oxford Movement. The modern reader of the sermon might well be surprised that so great an influence was ascribed to it. It denounced as national apostasy pending legislation of the British Parliament [1] to reduce the number of bishoprics in the Church of Ireland by a process of amalgamation. There were in fact too many bishoprics and parishes for the number of Anglicans in Ireland, and the modern economic rationalist would have applauded this exercise in rationalisation. But for John Keble a great principle was at stake.

Keble was no anglo-catholic innovator. Owen Chadwick has described him as "a Tory high churchman of the old school". [2] He held to the Christendom model of the relationship of church and state. Of Britain he wrote: "as a Christian nation, she is also part of Christ's Church". [3] The English nation and the Church of England were twin sides of the one coin, but in this partnership the Church must be free to order its own life. What answer could now be given, he asked, to the partisans of the Bishop of Rome when they "taunt us with being a mere Parliamentarian Church"? [4] It was the parliament's demonstration of Erastianism - the subordination of the church to the state - which was being pushed by a Whig government imbued with the ideals of liberalism, which aroused Keble's wrath. It inevitably raised the question of the nature of the church and its authority; and that led to the renewal of the sense of the apostolicity and catholicity of the Church of England.

The effect of the Oxford Movement on the Church of England and ultimately on the emerging Anglican Communion was profound. Roger Lloyd, the historian of the Church of England in the twentieth century, put it this way:

'I believe in the Holy Catholic Church' - in 1800 hardly any Anglicans perceived the significance or rejoiced in the glory of this claim. In 1900 the catholicity of the Church of England was eagerly asserted by all instructed church people. [5]

Roger Lloyd may be right in his comparison of 1800 and 1900. But what of 2000? Is there still such clarity on the catholic nature of our church?

I have entitled this address The Future of Catholic Anglicanism. There is a deliberate ambiguity in the title. It could be taken to assert an inherent catholicity in Anglicanism, and indeed that is a claim that the Anglican Church makes. When we confess our faith we affirm our belief in "the holy catholic Church" in the Apostles' Creed, or in "one holy catholic and apostolic Church" in the Nicene Creed. The Fundamental Declarations in the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia begin uncompromisingly:

The Anglican Church of Australia, being a part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of Christ, holds the Christian Faith as professed by the Church of Christ from primitive times........ [6]

The nature of this church as an authentic embodiment of the Catholic Church of the ages is stated to be fundamental. By contrast, our formularies nowhere describe this church as protestant or reformed.

That is not to say that there is no sense in which the words protestant and reformed have a place in our understanding of this church. The Church of England underwent great reformation in the 16th Century, and this has had a substantial effect on the character of Anglicanism. Indeed we are not ashamed to say that the church constantly needs to be reformed. There is also a real sense in which Anglicanism is protestant. We protest for certain great truths which were neglected and downplayed in the mediaeval church, and we protest against certain errors and abuses which had crept into the western church. But the Anglican Church is basically and inherently catholic. It did not begin at the Reformation, and those who interpret the language of our liturgy and our formularies as if they stood alone and were not grounded on centuries of catholic faith and tradition profoundly fail to understand the history and character of the Anglican Church.

In speaking of the Anglican Church as being inherently catholic, I use the word "catholic" in its broad original meaning. A statement published by the movement for Anglican Catholic Renewal in Australia in 1983 defined "catholic" in this way: "Catholic means whole, integral, complete: its opposite is partial, unbalanced, sectarian". [7] I thought it was a good statement then; it is just as true today.

The title The Future of Catholic Anglicanism can, however, be given another meaning which I also intend. It can be taken to refer to that tradition within the Anglican Church that emphasises the catholic side of its heritage as against other traditions such as those labelled evangelical or charismatic. This is a narrower, more partisan, use of the word catholic; yet it is important, and it is the meaning on which I shall particularly focus in this address. First, however, I need to say something of my understanding of the character of Anglicanism.

I have long been dissatisfied with two ways by which Anglicanism is commonly characterised. One way is to speak of it as the via media, the middle path between Rome and Geneva, between papal Catholicism and the diverse Protestantism of the continental Reformation. This was the position taken by the young Newman, and his later disenchantment with it led to his submission to Rome. Its defect lies in the fact that it has no firm position of its own but depends on a mediating place between what may be shifting extremes. It also assumes that a middle way is necessarily best, an attitude that easily leads to a bland central churchmanship mentality which lacks cutting edge.

The other way is to speak of the comprehensiveness of Anglicanism. Rightly understood this can express a laudable desire for inclusiveness, recognising that truth is always larger than our perceptions of it. The trouble is that comprehensiveness as a basic principle easily issues in a woolliness of thinking where anything goes and there is no way of distinguishing truth from error.

My preferred understanding of Anglicanism is in terms of paradox. Because truth is bigger than our finite minds can grasp, much truth can only be expressed in paradoxical language. A paradoxical statement is one in which seemingly contradictory propositions stand side by side, but when held together in tension express a fuller truth than is possible with a simple univocal statement. In our finite minds the propositions seem to contradict one another; in the infinity of God they come together. Christian doctrine is full of paradox: God is three and God is one; Jesus Christ is truly God and truly human; God predestines and gives us freedom; the one who is not with us is against us, and the one who is not against us is for us. For the fullest grasp of truth these apparent opposites have to be held together in tension. Indeed, not to do so, but to take one side of the paradox by itself to its logical conclusion, is a sure way to error and possibly to serious heresy.

How does this relate to Anglicanism? Some would see the diversity, and sometimes the clash, of traditions within Anglicanism as a weakness. It can be, if the diversity gets out of hand and if it degenerates into factionalism in which each group sees all truth in its own position and none in that of others. So there are catholic and evangelical, conservative and liberal, freewheeling charismatic and rigidly liturgical, socially activist and piously withdrawn - all of them Anglicans. These are the polarities. Held together in the one church in dynamic tension they enable a fuller understanding and expression of God's truth; polarised and at war with one another, they will be destructive to the church, and will allow those at the opposite poles to drift into partisan error.

Let me illustrate from the situation in our Australian Church. There are two groups whose differences from the main stream of the church in this country give rise from time to time to the possibility of separation from the rest of the church. One is the Diocese of Sydney, our largest and wealthiest diocese, with its distinctive conservative evangelical stance; at the other end of the spectrum are those who would describe themselves as catholic traditionalists, with particular concerns about the ordination of women. There are some, both in these groups and in the rest of the church, who in moments of exasperation suggest that the bonds of unity in the national church be loosened or even broken.

The argument runs that unity should not be maintained at the cost of truth... truth, of course, as each side sees it. The fact is, however, that truth would suffer once the different perspectives, held often uneasily in tension, were separated and each went their own way without the balance which the other provides. The result would be a number of churches, each convinced it was right, and each characterised by the sectarian spirit of those who take one side of paradoxical truth to its logical conclusion. Certainly, whatever was left of the Anglican Church, or of a number of churches each claiming to be Anglican, would be severely deficient in its catholicity.

It cannot be pretended, however, that holding paradoxical perspectives on truth together in creative tension is easy. There is an essential ingredient: those who hold particular perspectives must have their centre of gravity within Anglicanism. The reason that Sydney and other dioceses have held together in healthy and constructive unity is that the top leadership have prized their Anglican heritage. That has been true right up to and including the present day. There are those, however, whose loyalty and centre of gravity lie elsewhere; and the pressure from them is very strong, and in Sydney shows signs of increasing. Departure from the liturgical norms of the Prayer Book tradition and the unauthorised practice of lay presidency at Holy Communion in certain places are disturbing signs of this trend which threatens to jeopardise the delicate balance in which our different emphases can enrich the church and enlarge our witness to the fulness of the catholic faith. This applies similarly to the catholic traditionalists. As long as their centre of gravity lies within the Anglican spectrum they bear a witness which is valuable to our whole church. If however their real loyalty lies elsewhere, and they look to some other church for their authority and their liturgical usage, they will lose the possibility of making their needed contribution to the genuine catholicity of our church.

What does this say to us who particularly prize the catholic nature of the Anglican Church? It says two things. One is that to be a catholic-minded Anglican does not mean devaluing other emphases within the church. To be truly catholic means being evangelical; it takes seriously the power of the Holy Spirit, so enthusiastically testified to by charismatics; it wants to conserve the treasures of the past; it knows it must be open to fresh initiatives for the future; it has a social gospel; it is alert to the real questions being asked by our contemporaries; it calls for personal holiness. So what we see of these qualities in other schools of thought in the church we should welcome, even if at times we disagree with some ways in which they find expression.

The other is that our own catholicism - using the word in its narrower, more partisan, meaning - should be unashamedly Anglican. I do not mean that in a cocky, self-satisfied way. The Anglican Church has never claimed to be the whole church, nor does it pretend to be without fault or weakness. But it is an authentic embodiment of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church, with its own ethos, culture and integrity. By all means we should be ready to appreciate and glory in the strengths of catholic Christianity as embodied in other communions, and we must long for visible unity with them. This should not be, however, at the cost of denying or devaluing the particular gifts and treasures which God has entrusted to us.

Having said all this, let us honestly concede that the catholic movement in Anglicanism has lost ground in recent decades. The growing edge of Anglicanism had been in the evangelical movement, both in its conservative evangelical and its charismatic expressions. There are various reasons for this, some of which I shall allude to when I speak of how we should face the future. One important factor, however, is the current climate of postmodernism. While the postmodernist approach to life is built on certain assumptions which are antithetical to Christian faith in general, it is particularly contrary to the catholic understanding of Christianity. Catholic Christianity believes in a visible church, which necessarily has an institutional character; postmodernism is critical of institutions. Catholic Christianity emphasises tradition and continuity; postmodernism trusts in what my experience tells me today. Catholic Christianity holds to a revealed faith interpreted with authority within the life of the Church; postmodernism makes me and my perceptions and feelings the test of truth (if indeed there is such a thing as truth). Catholic Christianity gives high place to order in ministry and sacrament; postmodernism is dismissive of structured, ordered ways of doing things.

While all orthodox Christians would have misgivings about some of the postmodernist assumptions evangelical Christianity has more successfully coped with the postmodernist climate than has catholic Christianity. Being less tied to the principles of the visible church, tradition, hierarchy, order and liturgy, evangelicals have been able to present an attractive Christian face to seekers who have grown up in the postmodern environment. They have been much more comfortable with the religious supermarket mentality where people shop around until they find the brand of Christianity that is most appealing. So growth is more evident in evangelical and charismatic churches than in the more formal and traditional catholic churches.

There are lessons here to be learned. There is all too often a catholic self-satisfaction and complacency which wins no friends, and an inflexibility even on matters where real principle is not involved. Yet I would counsel against losing our heads. I have been around long enough to see a number of changes of fashion in world and church alike. Trends seem to last for an increasingly short period; and postmodernism contains the seeds of its own decay. There is a basic contradiction in its denial of absolute truth, for if there is no final truth, postmodernism itself cannot be finally true.

I have never forgotten the account given by an Australian bishop who travelled some years ago through Wales and then through Russia. He described how in village after village in Wales he found large church buildings which once throbbed with vitality in the 19th Century evangelical revival movements that swept through the country, but which are now bereft of life. In Russia, after seventy years of virulent atheistic propaganda he found Orthodox churches crowded with people, many of them young, worshipping in an ancient liturgy apparently remote from 20th Century life. We must not oversimplify the reasons for this striking contrast; but it does remind us that what catches the passing attention of one age may lose its force in another. Already there are indications that the flow out of Pentecostalist churches is catching up to the flow coming in. There are lessons to be learned from the Pentecostal experience but unthinking imitation is not one of them. We would be unwise to put all our eggs in the postmodern basket.

For the catholicity of Anglicanism (in the broad meaning of catholicity) to be maintained, it is important that the catholic wing of Anglicanism (in the narrower meaning of catholic) have a positive future. Let me suggest some of the elements that are necessary if this is to be so.

First, there needs to be an inner, quiet, non-triumphalist confidence which is positive and not simply reactive. I make that last qualification because I observe a tendency for catholic-minded Anglicans to become negative and reactive when they find themselves in a small minority, as in Sydney. Let me illustrate with some of the ways in which reactive attitudes can lead to a serious loss in catholicity.

The Catholic faith, properly understood, takes the Bible with the utmost seriousness. Anglican Catholics have no difficulty in affirming the canonical scriptures, in the words of our Constitution, as "the ultimate rule and standard of faith given by inspiration of God and containing all things necessary for salvation". [8] We have noted with appreciation that reforms in the Roman Catholic Church in the past half century have significantly stemmed from a renewal of biblical study in that church. As I said in a sermon in another place last year, any development in the church's understanding of sexual morality can only come if we are satisfied that the change is in accordance with a full and proper understanding of scripture. So catholic Anglicans should use the Bible in teaching and preaching and small study groups with the same enthusiasm as evangelical Anglicans. Yet there will be a proper critique of some ways of using and interpreting the Bible. The Bible is the ultimate rule and standard of faith, but it does not stand in a vacuum. Keble argued that to understand the Bible it must be considered in the context of the tradition of the primitive church. There is an interplay between the written word of scripture and the living tradition of the church. The tradition, which can all too easily go astray, must be constantly tested against the written word; but the word is to be understood in the context of the tradition. The Bible is the ultimate standard, but it does not stand alone, and indeed makes no claim within itself to stand alone. May I add that those are most blind who imagine that they read and interpret the Bible free from the influence of any tradition of interpretation. That is why people who claim to be led by the Bible alone still come up with differing understandings of what is written. My essential point, however, is that we must not react to wrong ways of using the Bible by devaluing the Bible.

Again there is the matter of preaching. Evangelicals emphasise the preaching of the word. Good. In doing so, unfortunately they often give too little place to the sacraments. That is no reason for catholic minded Anglicans to devalue preaching. Indeed, I suggest that the poor quality of much of the preaching in churches of the catholic tradition is one of the major reasons for weakness in that tradition.

It is the same with evangelism. The dismissal of evangelism as a preoccupation of evangelicals which is of no concern to catholics is tragic foolishness. The great anglo-catholic priests of the past were motivated by what was called the love of souls. The phrase may sound old-fashioned, but the reality of which it speaks is an essential component of catholic faith. The church exists to bring human beings into communion with God, now and eternally. Lose that, and we lose everything. I know of nothing more uncatholic than the complacency of some so-called catholic parishes which take the attitude that people may join us if they wish but we have no obligation to search them out and nurture them.

The second necessary element for the resilience of the catholic wing in Anglicanism is to take theology seriously. The academic strength of the evangelical theological colleges in Australia is to be admired, as is the encouragement given to able students to pursue advanced theological study. The record of the Anglican catholic colleges in this respect is much less commendable. In the end, the world will be won for Christ and drawn into his church not by efficient administration or skilful techniques (useful as these are) but by the proclamation, exposition and living out of the catholic faith in a way that makes sense to people and gives meaning to their lives. All too often catholic faith has been seen in terms of the trimmings of liturgical or devotional practice, while the great central truths have been taken for granted or neglected. I have sometimes commented that bishops need to be theologians, not in the sense of academic theology but of being so in tune with the church's faith so that they are able to expound it in trustworthy fashion in ways understandable to their people. The same is true of parish priests. People should know that what they hear from the pulpit is not an expression of private opinion but of the catholic faith.

Thirdly, the church needs to learn from its catholic wing a sound ecclesiology. Again I quote from our Constitution:

A diocese shall in accordance with the historic custom of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church continue to be the unit of organisation of this Church and shall be the see of a bishop. [9]

The reason for this is that the diocese is the smallest unit which brings together all orders of the church - bishop, priests, deacons and laity. The diocese is not to be understood as the ecclesiastical bureaucracy - them as against us - but as the people of God drawn together in a common mission under the leadership of their Father-in-God. The current trend is towards a new congregationalism, and the stronger the congregation or parish the less its place as part of the diocese is often seen to be.

What is fascinating is to see the beginnings of a trend in the opposite direction among a number of the independent evangelical churches. The Pastors' Network which has recently been established in Melbourne, which has drawn in many pastors of evangelical and Pentecostal churches, has lately been emphasising the need for co-operation for the effectiveness of mission to the whole city. This seems to have been received as a striking new insight. Yet it is simply what catholic ecclesiology has always understood. Our mission is not only to individuals in local communities (crucial as that is) but also to the city, the state, the nation, and the world. The present trend to globalisation in world affairs, which is unlikely to be reversed, points to the need of geographical catholicity for the church. The world-wide impact of the pontificate of Pope John Paul II is a clear illustration of the need to think and act globally. For the church to do so, it requires a catholic ecclesiology. The present discussion of the role of a Universal Primate, promoted by the recent ARCIC report The Gift of Authority points to an issue that cannot be avoided. That is not to say - and the report does not say - that universal primacy should be seen in the terms in which it has found expression in the history of the papacy. There is adequate scope for mutual learning in this regard by both the Roman and Anglican Communions.

Finally, there needs to be a renewal in catholic Anglicanism of an element which has always been central in the Christian life but which is all too easily neglected. I mean a holiness of life which embraces a willingness for sacrifice in the pattern of the cross of Christ. We have frankly become too comfortable, and I might add, often too comfortably rigid. We have been too content with external fripperies as against inner discipline of life. How faithful are our clergy in the use of the daily office? How regular and reverent is our approach to the Eucharist (and is its sometimes excessive use as the only form of public worship a factor in the carelessness with which it is often approached)? What has happened to our practice of regular mental prayer and meditation? Does it not say something to us that when the world hears of meditation, it assumes a context of Buddhism or Transcendental Meditation and is surprised to find that meditation has been basic in catholic ascetic practice over the centuries? How seriously do we take self-examination, confession and absolution? How ready are our clergy to go to some demanding, sacrificial sphere of pastoral work rather than seek a comfortable established parish? In the end the greatest threat to our catholicity will be a failure in responding to God's call to holiness of life.

What John Keble reminded his hearers, and what the Oxford Movement took up, was the integral place of the Anglican Church in the great continuous stream of catholic Christianity. Because the church is composed of fallible human members it is constantly in need of reformation and renewal; but because it is the divine society indwelt by the Holy Spirit, the gates of hell will not prevail against it. That was Jesus' promise. His invitation to us is to be agents in the fulfilment of that promise. I believe in the future of catholic Anglicanism. May we all commit ourselves to that future.



  1. The Irish Church Temporalities Act 1833. See R.P. Flindall (ed) The Church of England 1815 - 1948. A Documentary history, p 34 ff
  2. Owen Chadwick, The Mind of the Oxford Movement, p 32
  3. Advertisement to the Fist Edition of the Sermon on National Apostasy, reproduced in R.P. Kindall, op. cit., p 38
  4. Ibid., p 27
  5. Roger Lloyd, The Church of England 1900 - 1965, p 28
  6. Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia, Section 1
  7. Quoted in preface to C. Reilly (Ed), Renewing the Drifting Church
  8. Constitution, Section 2
  9. Ibid., Section 7


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