Dreams of Canterbury

“He wants to turn the Church of England into a religious movement.” — Jim Hacker

By the time I was old enough to know my thees and thous, the Episcopal Church had descended into pure modernism. Lucky me. If it hadn’t, I’m not sure I would have ever worked up the nerve to swim the Tiber.

Really, put yourself in the shoes of men like John Henry Newman and G.K. Chesterton. The rot in the Anglican Church had only just to show when these High Church heavyweights defected to the papists. Even a generation later, strident traditionalists like T.S. Eliot were still trying to shore up the old C of E.

It was only by some heroic foresight or a superabundance of grace that any Victorian made it to Rome. Even our friend Chesterton admitted to a lingering twinge of affection for the Anglican tradition. As he wrote in The Well and the Shallows,

The Book of Common Prayer is the masterpiece of Protestantism.  It is more so than the work of Milton.  It is the one positive possession and attraction; the one magnet and talisman for people even outside the Anglican Church, as are the great Gothic cathedrals for those outside the Catholic Church.  I can speak, I think, for many other converts when I say that the only thing that can produce any sort of nostalgia or romantic regret, any shadow of homesickness in one who has in truth come home, is the rhythm of Cranmer’s prose.

Back when the Anglican Church still kept up the appearance of orthodoxy, there was very little to obviously recommend the Church of Rome against the Church of England. The old Tridentine liturgy was beautiful, yes. But was it more beautiful than the old Cranmerian liturgy? I’m not so sure… and neither was GKC.

So, what did the Catholics have that the Anglicans didn’t? Priests without beards or wives. The former was a matter of preference, I suppose, though it might’ve depend on the priest. The latter, however, must have been a real challenge. It certainly was to the first Christians.

Those who’ve grown up Catholic, or near Catholics, or with a vague awareness of Catholics, can’t imagine how strange that must have been: men who forego romance and marriage and sex and kids and all that domestic bliss for… well, what, exactly? To join the clergy, they say. But why not become an Anglican priest, so you can be a cleric and a family man?

You see the conundrum.

And while “traditionalist,” right-wing Catholics are the most strident defenders of clerical celibacy today, many of them also place a great emphasis on male virility. That’s all well and good, of course. But had they lived in England circa 1860, I suspect many would have felt some sympathy for the so-called Muscular Christians.

The Muscular Christians were Protestants who regarded Catholics (both Anglo- and Roman) as girly, in no small part due the whole celibacy thing. Their great champion Charles Kingsley famously said that, among these sundry Catholics, “there is an element of foppery—even in dress and manner; a fastidious, maundering, die-away effeminacy, which is mistaken for purity and refinement.”

Also, no beards. Hardly a mutton chop between them, even.

Of course, some of them were effeminate. Homosexuals have always been somewhat overrepresented in High Church circles. Take the scene from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, when Charles Ryder goes up to Oxford and his cousin Jasper is giving him the lay of the land. “Beware the Anglo-Catholics,” Jasper warns. “They’re all sodomites with unpleasant accents.” Waugh, of course, would know, having himself been both an Anglo-Catholic and a prolific homosexual during his stint at Oxford. (He was also deeply unpleasant, though it didn’t seem to have much to do with his accent.)

All of which I recall by way of emphasizing my point that, for the ordinary Englishman of that time, there didn’t seem much to recommend Rome, nor even the Romanizing strain of Anglicanism.

What was it, then, that drew them to the Catholic Church? Why, the fact that it was true. Nothing else could compel an Englishman to ditch Canterbury for Rome.

The same may be said for American WASPs like Eliot, Walker Percy, and Allen Tate. As Percy wrote in a letter to Tate’s wife, Caroline Gordon:

I agree with you about St. Thomas More.  He is, for us, the Road Back.  For our countrymen, I mean, for southerners.  For More is the spiritual ancestor of Lee.  He is the man to pray to for the conversion of the South.  One of the stumbling blocks to the Southerner (or the American) who is drawn to the Church is that he sees, not the Church of More, not the English Church which is his spiritual home, but the Church of St. Alphonsus Liguori by way of the Irish Jesuits.  If he does go in, he must go in with his face averted and his nose held against this odor of Italian-Irish pietism and all the bad statues and architecture.  Of course this is somewhat exaggerated and prideful, because it is a salutary experience in obedience and humility to take St. Alphonsus.  (Hell, he was a great saint!)  But if Allen is forming a St. Thomas More Society I want in.

No Anglican, Anglo-Catholic, or Anglican convert to Roman Catholicism has any doubt what Percy means by this “Italian-Irish pietism.” All of us, at one time or another, found St. Alphonsus Liguori a little over-sweet. “I love you, Jesus, my love” is a very fine sentiment, and one that ought to be encouraged. But it doesn’t come naturally to the staid, retiring WASP.

So, why do I bring all this up? Well, I was surfing the Episcopal corners of the internet when I came across a rather pitiful edict the Church of England just issued to its school system. It says,

Music and liturgies used in worship should reflect the best of traditional and modern Anglican worship, it should connect with the theme and explore the sacred to educate and engage.  Music used should reflect the diverse worship experience of the wider Christian community.

Care should be taken to ensure that pupils and adults do not feel compelled to sing strongly confessional lyrics.  There should be no assumption of Christian faith in those present.

“There should be no assumption of Christian faith in those present.” That’s the C of E in a nutshell.

I don’t mean to sound triumphalist, because I’m not. I don’t miss being an Anglican, but I don’t not miss being an Anglican, either. I first met Christ through the writings of great Anglicans like Eliot, C.S. Lewis, and Chesterton. (We forget that Chesterton had not yet swum the Tiber when he wrote Orthodoxy.) And while I never felt quite right about sharing a pew with Gene Robinson or John Shelby Spong, I admired (and still admire) great contemporary Anglicans like Rowan Williams and Geoffrey Hill.

To be a Catholic is a blessing—a greater blessing than I deserve. I’ve never regretted my conversion for an instant. But I’m grateful to have been an Anglican. Eliot himself said: “For some souls, I admit, there is no satisfaction outside of Rome; and if Anglo-Catholicism has helped a few such to find their way to where they belong, I am very glad.” As one such soul, I am, too.

I’m also unspeakably grateful for Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus, establishing the Personal Ordinariates and ensuring the best of our Anglican Patrimony (whatever the Hell that is) will remain safely in Peter’s Barque, even if—or, rather when—the Anglican Communion goes under.

I occasionally bug my wife to let our family join the Ordinariate of St. Peter. So far, she has demurred. But we pray Compline every night from the St. Gregory’s Prayer Book and use the new “King James Version–Catholic Edition” for the daily readings.

The Anglican Patrimony is my patrimony, and I love it. I love the Church of England. I even love that damn heretic, Cranmer. There’s nothing I don’t love about the Anglican Church… nothing, of course, except the fact that it’s wrong.

When I worked that out (or, rather, when God worked it out for me), there was no question what path I had to take—just as there was no question for Newman or Chesterton or Percy. I became a Catholic against my better judgment, only because God’s is better still.

Well, I could go on. I’ve been meaning to write something about the Anglican Patrimony for a while now. I have some theories about what it means, which have been well-received by some Anglicans and members of the Ordinariate. But that’s another day’s work.

In the meantime, here’s the most Anglican video on the YouTubes. Enjoy.

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