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Affirming Catholicism

October 19, 2013

affcath(An article I wrote for The Reader magazine.)

The catholic revival within the Church of England flowed from the Oxford Movement and led to the centrality of the Eucharist, celebrated with a sense of awe and mystery, as the normal Sunday service and to the practice of ‘going to confession’.  There were ‘extreme’ churches that copied Roman Catholic practice and many more ‘moderate’ parishes that were loyally Anglican.

During the latter half of the Twentieth Century, Anglo Catholicism became negative and rigid, known more for what is opposed that what if affirmed.  The United Church of South India, Anglican-Methodist unity and the ordination of women were seen as threats and many Anglo Catholics retreated into a ghetto of the like-minded and had little to do with the rest of the Church; a very uncatholic stance.

Following an article in the Church Times in which Bishop Richard Holloway lamented the fossilisation of Anglo Catholicism, Bishop Rowan Williams spoke to a conference in St. Alban’s Holborn in June 1990, calling for Anglo Catholics to affirm tradition ‘in its proper and fullest sense,’ not as a ‘lifeboat in which to escape the present’ but as a ‘crucible in which the experiment of Christian life is constantly tested’.

Affirming Catholicism grew from the conference as an educational charity.  It seeks to foster disciplined prayer and spiritual direction amongst its members and in the wider Anglican Communion.  Wishing to get away from the ‘Father knows best’ tradition of some parishes it tries to enable lay people to have a questioning faith that they can articulate to enquirers.  We believe it essential to bridge the gap between the theology taught in universities and that preached in the pulpit and to ensure that ‘outsiders’ can meet a faith that is broader than the fundamentalism they are most likely to encounter.

It also encourages inspiring worship.  In a post-modern age where symbols communicate more effectively than the written word, we need liturgy that communicates ‘the beauty of holiness’ and involves all our senses, whilst avoiding ceremonial that is either stiff and formal or sloppy.

We seek the visible unity of the currently fragmented Church.  In the past catholically minded Anglicans have seen themselves as a bridge between Rome and the Orthodox on the one hand and Protestantism on the other.  The stumbling block has been the insistence of a particular understanding of episcopacy based on tactile succession.  Whilst we believe that our Anglican style of episcopacy, which has retained the ‘apostolic succession’ and has a dispersed authority in contrast to the highly centralised Roman catholic model, we recognise that other churches have gifts to offer us and we wish to proceed with moves towards church unity which may involve anomalies in the short-term.

Catholicism is, by definition, universal, yet many of our parish churches are monochromely middle class and middle-aged.  Outsiders view us as self-righteous test, as Michael Marshall pointed out, ‘the acid test of a truly Catholic Christianity is that it seeks not to make good people better but bad people holy’. We encourage churches to be welcoming and inclusive.

Most non-Christians encounter Christianity as a call to accept Jesus as their ‘personal saviour’.  Whilst affirming the need for personal commitment, we emphasise the social nature of the gospel.  Many pioneer priests of the catholic revival went to work in inner-city parishes and soon realised that it was not enough to offer charity as a sticking plaster over wounds but to seek to change the social structures which caused the wounds.  In a climate where many Christians equate ‘morality’ solely with issues of sexuality, we encourage a wider involvement in social and moral concerns, such as third world poverty and the environment through political parties and pressure groups.

Our membership includes those who identify themselves as ‘Anglo Catholics’ but who do not share the current pathological obsession with women priests, Rome and sexuality issues and who want to remain Anglican.  Other members are ‘broad’ Anglicans who seek a Church that is open to new insights from scholarship and from other traditions.  We also have some evangelical members who are concerned about the trend towards fundamentalism and who embrace a wider vision of what salvation entails.

We further our aims through publications; booklets for the ‘educated lay person’ and tabloid newsletters, through local groups and conferences.  The Movement has grown from the Church of England to Wales, Scotland, Ireland, the United States, Canada, Australia and Sri Lanka

As a reader I have found ample scope within the movement for using my gifts.  I convened the Bristol diocesan group at a time when lay people chairing church meetings were unusual and organised conferences on liturgy, sexuality and ministry.  I have also addressed local house groups and currently was the first web keeper of our website.

Newman said, ‘To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.’  It is our hope that the Anglican Communion of the Twenty-first Century will continue to grow in appreciation of the catholic riches in its heritage and enable Christians to become more whole.

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