20 November 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (13) The Anglo-Catholics

The evangelical movement brought a unique vigor to the Church of England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, literally transforming both church and nation. All this was accomplished, not through any overall political program, but largely through the endeavors of individual men and women working together in a grass-roots level. This strength proved also to be its greatest weakness. The lack of internal cohesion meant that in many places the movement lost its original animus within a generation or two. At its worst, lack of cohesion led to suspicion, divisiveness and party spirit.

The evangelicals also failed to respond to two other movements which were gaining in popularity: Romanticism and the challenges being posed to the biblical record by scientific discovery. By the late nineteenth century evangelicals had moved almost entirely into a defensive posture. No longer leaders and innovators, they were perceived as reactionary and old-fashioned—a state of affairs that was to continue for the better part of a century.

At the same time, new winds were beginning to blow through the church. The voices of young Oxford men like John Henry Newman (1801-1890), Frederick William Faber (1814-1863) and Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800-1882) were beginning to be heard. These men and their cohorts were all scholars of great ability. They had been deeply affected by the Romantic movement in art and literature. And they sensed the loss of vitality in the church with the wane of the evangelical movement.

Their esthetic sense led them to want to return to the church some of the beauty and grandeur of the medieval period, which they equated with the current practices of the Church of Rome. To disseminate their views, they began publishing a series of Tracts for the Times in 1833. The tracts came to an abrupt end in 1841 with Tract 90, in which Newman sought to reinterpret the Thirty-Nine Articles in such a way that they did not conflict with Roman Catholicism. The publication of this tract led to a storm of controversy, and Newman left the Church of England for the Roman Catholic Church in 1845.

Gradually, over the course of the next century what had been seen as the dangerous eccentricities of the early Anglo-Catholics became accepted practice within the Church of England. Neo-gothic church buildings, coloured vestments, candles on the holy table, weekly communion services and even holy water and incense became incorporated into the Anglican ethos.

These changes did not occur, however, without a great deal of controversy, and the battles continued throughout the Anglican Communion to well into the twentieth century. In the intervening years the church has generally come to recognize the contribution made by Anglo-Catholicism. Ironically, many evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics have found common cause in taking a stand against the wave of theological liberalism which began sweeping through the church for nearly a generation.

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