Tuesday 8 June 2010

The seeds of its own dissolution?

I'm currently reading Fr Colin Stephenson's amusing memoir Merrily on High, a very interesting first-hand account of some of the churches I know and love in the glory days of Anglo-Catholicism. I'm only about half way through, but one thought which Fr Stephenson repeats at various junctures of his story deserves comment and interrogation.

From the beginning of his testimony, Fr Stephenson asserts that the strain of Anglo-Catholics who threw their lot in with the "Baroque Catholicism of the Continent" were really dooming themselves to failure, as the fruits of the Liturgical Movement (perceived by Fr. Colin as intrinsically a good thing) percolated into the stuffy mainstream of Western Catholicism.

At points he recalls individuals whom he accuses, and I'm sure not erroneously, of adopting Papalism or Ultramontanism as a foil for inflicting their own whims on their congregations and communities. There is one passage in the book which typifies this opinion:

"Yet for all its [Anglo-Catholicism's] triumphalism it held within it the seeds of its own dissolution which the disorganisation of the last war simply accelerated. It had become congregationalist and cut off from the main stream of the Church of England and rejoiced to have it so. It had thrown in its lot devotionally with the baroque Catholicism of the continent just when that movement was about to be discredited in the church of its origin, and looking back at it now one realises that it had about as much chance of appealing to the average Anglican as the Folies Bergeres to the Mother's Union."

There are also frequent digs at "fussiness" in the Liturgical and Devotional aspects of the movement in the 20s and 30s :

"'It's not a sermon you have [at St Bart's, Brighton] but an interval while the wind performers empty their instruments'. Some months ago I should not have thought this funny, but now I could see the point and as I was leaving he said. 'Our High Mass is always over within the hour'." p66

"I did not see him [Fr Kenrick] often after this pilgrimage, which is recorded in his memorial in Holy Trinity, Hoxton, but I did once visit him there on a Sunday and was surprised to find only a handful of people at High Mass. I was still at the stage when I honestly thought that the externals of Catholic worship were bound to attract crowds. Mature experience has taught me that they are far more likely to drive them away!" p.69

..a reflective passage towards the end of the book...

"[Mount Athos] did reveal to me very clearly the dangers of trying to shut the Church up in the past. So much of the Catholic Movement in the Church of England has been a turning backwards and a holding on to certain positions with a fanaticism bred from a sense of insecurity." p186

"... the new Roman instructions for the rites of Holy Week laid down that on Good Friday the cross, if wished, could simply be held up for people to venerate in their places. When Duncan-Jones did this twenty years earlier in Chichester Cathedral he was the laughing stock of the whole Anglo-Catholic world." p. 77

It is difficult to isolate passages of the book which articulate in full Fr. Stephenson's retrospective critique of the fussiness, extremism and punctiliousness of the Anglo-Catholicism of his youth, but I hope you get a general idea of the argument, which could be summarised as follows: Some of the more Romanised Anglo-Catholics were only attracted to the movement for its colour and exoticism and had no interest in an authentic Catholicism (strangely never fully expounded in this memoir, whereas the "externals" are). The truest Anglo-Catholicism found its expression in the Reformed religion adopted later on in the Roman Catholic Church under its greatest hero-Pope John XXIII, which became far more palatable to Anglicans in general and has proved itself over time."

This retrospective criticism of the Anglo-Catholicism is common among the generation who grew up in its Golden Era, and who subsequently had to mourn its passing, and then took charge of the the introduction of the New Catholicism into the mainstream of the CofE. It is also the heritage of that generation of priests who were taught by Fr Stephenson's generation, and who knew him at Walsingham as youngsters, the same exuberant generation of fallen Catholics at places like Staggers, before Ena the Cruel put an end to their shennanigans; a generation that simultaneously revels in the old party badges of lace, birettas, continental vestments and baroque fittings, while owing complete allegiance to the Reformed Roman Liturgy and a vague notion of Papalism. There is a dreadful schizophrenia among these two generations of Anglo-Catholic clergy. The glory days were brilliant, but there is bitterness stemming from the fact that the movement failed to deliver on its promises. They do not know how to deal with the fact that while the Liturgical Movement and its most radical reforms in some ways signalled the death of Anglo-Papalism, Anglican Ultramontanism and Romanism as lively forces in the Anglican Communion, the subsequent Reformation and Iconoclasm of Western Catholicism turned out to yield a far more importable fruit the heady ecumenical decades of the 70s and 80s, apparently giving Papalist clergy what they'd wanted all along : a vernacular Eucharistic liturgy, expressed in the ASB and CW texts.

I have two main objections to this point of view. Firstly, there is an unhealthy distinction between the "externals" of worship and the "interiority" of the faith, with the assumption that those who cherished the externals spurned the Faith itself. Secondly, the attitude that Papalism has proven to be the magic ingredient that has kept the small flame of Anglo-Catholicism alive into the present day, and that it continues to be the guiding light of the movement.

On the both points, I concede that the Romanised Anglo-Catholic dependence on Ultramontanism for its self-expression was the reason for its dramatic death in the 1960s, as the "old ways" were markedly changed (at least inasmuch as the faithful perceived this "radical" change) and old certainties were eroded. However, I would also like to suggest that the reason why some of the most "extreme" and "fussy" Romanised Anglicans enjoyed any degree of success, and I have no hang ups in including the wealthy, largely White Anglo-Saxon congregations of places like S. Magnus (it its day) along with the famous but over-fetishised Slum Parishes (like Hoxton); is not so much because they espoused extreme liturgical Romanism and Ultramontanism, but because these places offered the fullness of the Sacraments, the fullness of the Liturgy, the rootedness in something authentically ancient and identifiably so, a true living School of the Faith. The Ultramontanism of these Parishes was certainly one factor in their decline; but their subsequent side-stepping of Vatican liturgical regulation in favour of asserting their own autonomy in matters liturgical under the authority of tradition is part of the secret of their survival. I have been to English Missal Masses at Hoxton (ergo not a strict 1962 celebration!), but I know far more about S. Magnus, where after years of increasing isolation and a liturgical regime of slack modernism, the Old Rite is flourishing and managing to find its feet again. We have learnt the lesson that good liturgy needs no special dispensation from the Holy Father, to whatever degree we accept his Spiritual Jurisdiction here in our little corner of the Anglican Communion. The prospect of an Anglican Ordinariate full of Anglican clergy bowed down under Roman liturgical law and so using the modern Roman Missal and the "liturgical Bonsai" that is the 1962 rite, has brought our cherished freedom into even sharper relief, despite our perilous position in the wider Communion. These days are for us an opportunity to explore that tradition, and I personally am coming to realise that the "fussiness" denounced by the Colin Stephenson generation is actually the beginning of a spiritual revival for our little group (small, but outward looking, intimate but not exclusive), where all around us is death and division.

Moreover, I hope we can steer clear of the label "traditionalist", which is bandied around so often by Forward in Faith circles, as if we were the same movement that in the Roman church cherishes the heritage of the Liturgical Movement and its "saints" Bugnini and Pio XII, abhorrs Vatican II and exalts Papal Authority. We are rather the "orthodox", who value the genuine authority of tradition, without wanting to go around harrassing gay rights activists and abortion doctors with it.

The new generation of orthodox Anglican seminarians, as well as their established faithful, are entering an era where the issue is no longer "Women Bishops", but whether or not to take the leap into the Roman Jurisdiction. They will need to decide how to live out the faith, or to pick up Stephenson's terms, which "externals" to adopt, in this new and uncertain territory, both inside the ordinariate and outside it. Is the only future for orthodox Anglicans under Roman authority? Is the alternative to submission complete division into various laity-lite bodies calling themselves "Anglican"? Is it possible that the Ordinariate will close the book on Anglican Ultramontanism? What and who will be left behind? I wonder if we're onto an answer....


  1. Ex Fide,

    A most thought provoking and pertinent post if I may say so.

    I for one would have loved to have seen Thaxted in the days of Conrad Noel, or indeed when his son-in-law was incumbent, when the Sarum rite was celebrated every Sunday with a Procession and High Mass. (Whether of course, had I been alive at the time, I could have entered a church where the Red Flag of Communist Russia and the Irish Tricolor both flew from its tower is a more complex issue.)

    I most sincerely believe we should be looking beyond the generation of Colin Stephenson (if I become desperate for cash my first edition 'Merrily on High' may become for sale) and return to a, IMHO, wiser and more circumspect generation of learned men epitomised by Dr. John Wickham-Legg, one of the co-founders of the Henry Bradshaw Society, and a great liturgical hero of mine.

    At the beginning of the twentieth century Dr. JWL, concerned at the growing Romanism in the Anglican Church, wrote: "...and that modern Rome [1887] will only lead us astray if we trust to its liturgical decisions. Because a practice is Roman, it is not therefore of necessity good, or ancient, or Catholic."

    How pertinent this great, under appreciated, prophet of the liturgy's words are today, even more so than when written a century or so ago.

  2. The very elderly papalist clergy I met gave me the impression that they followed the Missal,breviary and their roman ceremonial because they were "Roman" and they wanted to be in perfect obedience to the regulations of the Holy See; there was also a flavour of being naughty and trying to shock or amuse.Many wanted to emulate Rome not because they loved and believed in the doctrine of the liturgy but through sheer obedience. The old little blue manual of The Catholic League (there may be some around St Magnus, its spiritual home) gives this impression and none more than in the rules of the priests' Sodality of the Precious Blood. When Rome changed they were eager and ready to change too and they,mostly, welcomed the changes, again not because they believedin them, but because: Holy Father Says.....Many became agressively modern Roman in the same way as they had been agressively Old Roman.Colin Stephenson would have been one of these. He says in his book little about the theology or spirituality of old style Anglo-Catholic
    worship.An old priest told me that he saw the writing on the wall for Anglo-Catholicism when they were preparing the Anglo-Catholic Congress of 1933, and he could see them all floating to the Albert Hall on the gin that was poured forth, the quantity of which alarmed him.
    And Rubricarius: my copy of MERRILY ON HIGH has a dust jacket, so I might retire on the proceeds, so there !
    Alan Robinson.

  3. Edna? Duly noted and corrected. It's difficult trying to remember both names of each CofE clergyman!

  4. I appreciate the point differentiating between ‘traditionalist’ and ‘orthodox’. Though I consider myself the former, it is only in terms of my love and appreciation for the ‘old’ form of worship. Being liberal minded in general, I am loath to be defined as a ‘traditionalist’ then when it comes to certain politics/beliefs – that I by conscience cannot follow - usually attached to the label as well. For example, as a gay man, I’d be the last person to hassle rights activists, and as a Christian, anyone else for that matter.

    The point made about the Ordinariate is good food for thought. I must reconsider my own view on the matter.

  5. What a muddled post! There is no future for Anglo-Catholicism beyond comic opera with thoughts like these.

    As for 'Merrily on High', Dr Eric Mascall is on record as saying that no book did more harm to the classic Anglo-Catholic case than this. It succeeded where polemical Protestant works failed by ridiculing the movement from within. He did not like it.

    Having myself lived through that period, however, I think Canon Stephenson's analysis was right. Before Vatican II Rome was seen to be immutable, unchanging, eternal. It offered a rock of stability as well as a goal of unity and nobody could imagine anything otherwise. The Council did more than any other influence to sweep the carpet from beneath Anglo-Catholic claims and practices and was more lethal in effect than the Liberal Protestant influences adopted by the Establishment of the Church of England. They survive in order to apply the coup de grace.

    Poor St Magnus. I suspect that Fr Fynes-Clinton might have preferred it to have been destroyed by German bombs than come to this level of ritualistic play-acting. It is a mercy that he died in the early years of Blessed Pope John XXIII.

    One further point needs to be made about him. Unlike many of his confreres, followers and successors, Fr Fynes-Clinton was heterosexual. Canon Stephenson and the main body of Anglo-Catholic clergy represented by him then and since were homosexual. There is an underlying spirit of camp that pervades 'Merrily on High' as much as it pervaded and pervades Walsingham. If Ena the Cruel had not cleared up St Stephen's House it would have closed, and many thought not before time.

  6. Dear Anonymous,

    You are cordially invited to a free ticket for this Sunday's comic opera "La Missa" by J. Christus,

    RSVP The Sacristan

  7. A most interesting article ('The rise and fall of Anglo-Catholicism...') at:


  8. Referring to Anonymous’ posting - homosexuals in the church – true, but devotees of high camp fixated on ‘ritualistic play-acting’ – not true. While there is no denying that the ceremony and ‘theatricality’ of traditional worship has attracted a significant number of gay men to the High Church, that is not say it is the only reason. For me at least, the awe and wonder that the ‘externals’ invoke my senses to at worship mirror that which I feel within, helping to strengthen my belief. I’m sure this view this shared by others - gay or straight - in the clergy or in the laity.

    In regards to the negativity about the ‘gay element’ in the Church, I want to share an enlightening view put forth by Sister Helen Prejean. Sister Prejean is an American nun and an advocate of human rights who wrote the book ‘Dead Man Walking’ (she was played in the movie version by actress Susan Sarandon). Anyways, Sister Helen was invited by the chaplaincy at my university to give a talk. Her speech was mostly on the plight of political prisoners, but at one point she addressed the audience and asked who – that is what ‘needy’ group - might Christ especially want to minister to and have a care for if He were walking the Earth right now? One would assume Sister Helen meant victims of poverty and disease in the Third World, or those suffering in the Middle East, or those affected by terrorism, etc., etc.

    Surprisingly, Sister Helen’s answer was gay men and women. In her long experience of working with victims and the disenfranchised, in her opinion, she thought that such persons were particularly deserving of Our Lord’s love and acceptance. Coming from a nun (nuns not known to rock the boat or be liberal thinking), I thought that was pretty cool. It gave me reassurance that there is a place for me in the Church.

    Speaking about ‘Ena the Cruel’, the former Archbishop’s ambiguous statement about the ‘grey area’ of his private life, spoke volumes in itself.

  9. Anonymous thanks the Sacristan of St Magnus-the-Martyr, London Bridge, for his kind invitation to the comic opera, La Missa, on Sunday, 14 June 2010, but he has already accepted a prior invitation to the London Oratory at the same time,and is unable to attend on this or any ensuing Sundays.

  10. Excellent post and most interesting... One wonders though how close "Anglican Ultramontanism" and "Anglo-Paplism" actually are... afterall, wouldn't the former require immediate Canonical submission to the Holy See... the latter perhaps suggesting a spiritual rather than Canonical desire for unity? Or are they interchangeable and in the present climate thus without argument for non-submission to the Holy See ref "Ordinariates"?
    What still is very unclear is, what "is" Anglican Patrimony? The ability to see both sides of an argument and take the middle course... the ability to do what Rome does "better" liturgically... the claim to be Catholics exercising autonomy only by virtue of historical circumstance or indeed as an expression of a more ancient politic concerning the government and possibly dogma of the Church...?

  11. Anonymous, that explains a lot! Perhaps you could make a weekday performance? You wouldn't be the first ex-oratorian to darken the doors of the church!

  12. The problem for many gay Anglo-Catholics is that decorative religion is largely subsumed by camp and camp becomes an end in itself. From the rise of ritualism in the 1850s to the present time the Anglo-Catholic movement has provided a cloak and setting for this tendency. It is a recognized failing characterized by a sense of exclusiveness.

    What is likely to survive in future is Campo-Catholicism pure and simple. After all, remember Fr Gill's reply to the question, 'Why is St Magnus largely attended by old ladies and young men?' 'The old ladies come because they love Our Lord; the young men because they love each other.' These elements were also to be found in Fr Fynes-Clinton's time but were not encouraged.

  13. You wrote : "We are rather the 'orthodox', who value the genuine authority of tradition, without wanting to go around harrassing gay rights activists and abortion doctors with it."

    I certainly would hope that no 'orthodox' Christian would want to go around bullying or harrassing anyone, but that does not mean the the Church does not have clear moral teachings about things like abortion and homosexual acts - which one could not reject while still remaining an 'orthodox' Christian. Speaking as a Roman Catholic, one thing that has often perplexed me about (some) Anglo-Catholics is a scrupulous adherence to Catholic DOGMA paired with a great nonchalance about Catholic MORAL TEACHING. The rector of one Anglo-Catholic church in the States, for example, once dismissed Roman Catholic moral teaching as so much fundamentalism because whereas those poor R.C.'s have only Scripture and Tradition to guide them on moral questions, Anglicans are lucky enough also to have "reason" to guide them. It is not clear from you post whether you accept traditional Catholic moral teachings, or just the Creed.

  14. For whatever reasons young men were/are attracted to St. Magnus’, I’d like to believe it was/is fundamentally for the same sincere love of God as the old matrons sitting next to them.

  15. I think there are lots of people who are reading the wrong blog. If you want to assess the orthodoxy of the writer of a blog without meeting him, read Fr Z or something. I'm sorry I can't make it clear in every blog post that I'm 100% kosher, so perhaps find a blog that you can "trust", something with lots of pictures of the Pope and no comments about gays on it. Puleeeez.

  16. Sir,

    I regret if I may have offended you; it certainly was not my intention to do so. It is neither my intention or my duty to assess your orthodoxy or that of anyone else. I simply regretted the insinuation in your post that attacking gays and abortionists somehow flowed naturally from accepting Roman Catholic teaching in its entirety. It is because I enjoy reading your site, which is evidently written from a very well-informed Anglo-Catholic perspective, that I asked about these moral teachings. I realize that not all Anglo-Catholics will have the same view on these subjects; it is simply that, as I noted, there is *sometimes* among *some* Anglo-Catholics a curious coupling of Roman Catholic dogma with modernist moral theology. I personally fail to understand the justification for such an approach. I hope you will receive these comments in the spirit in which they are offered and believe me when I say that I sincerely regret any impression that I may have given about a desire to judge your intentions or your sincerity - such would be entirely foreign to my intentions in asking the question I asked.

    Your comment about being kosher will not prompt me to enquire whether you are secretly a marrano!

  17. Peter,

    Of course.

    I wouldn't suggest that being Catholic makes one violent. My comment was more directed at the unhealthy edge to the New Traditionalism, especially in the states, which is a slightly extreme response to what is seen as a lapse in doctrinal teaching in the Catholic Church today. There are many individuals who take a very uncharitable and Pharasaical position on those issues, turning them into their own "Catholic" manifesto. I am also referring to a small number of "traditionalist" individuals and would never accuse Roman Catholics of fanaticism.

  18. I bought Colin Stephenson's two books (Merrily on High and Walsingham Way) when they were first issued and enjoyed them greatly. I gather from people who were directly responsible for their recent re-issue that it was deemed appropriate for his Executor to add new introductions because in the intervening years we have moved on and, also, not all that he wrote about Walsingham (in particular) is now considered to be either accurate or unbiased. The more recent book on Hope Patten by Michael Yeltin, written with access to far more archive material, seeks to redress the situation and does so very well.

    The church and its liturgy need to meet people where they are and lead them, gently and caringly, towards God. In one of his books Colin Stephenson refers to Hope Patten's admission that he may have been wrong in some ways after the young men of Walsingham went off to fight in WW2 and, on discovering that religion elsewhere (and certainly in the military) was not exactly "a la" Hope Patten, they lapsed. Stephenson had been a wartime Naval chaplain and understood this.

    Some may suggest that re-introducing folded chasubles and broad stoles is what, in my far off teenage days, we used to call "playing at churches" and to some degree I can see their point. However, if it is done in the right spirit and it leads people into that church then it must be a good thing. They may start going there for the wrong reason - just as some people start going to church to hear or sing the music of Gounod - but then they may catch the true spirit and stay in that church for the right reason. (A former PP at Margaret Street was often quoted as saying "They came to hear Mozart and stayed to pray".) Of course, in 2010, folded chasubles wouldn't be appropriate everywhere but they are appropriate in some churches. My perception is that Ex Fide (whom I have seen in action once but never spoken to)does have a firm, sensible faith and pastoral concern. I know from personal experience that even as a very young immature Deacon, Fr Philip showed great pastoral concern for the people in his parish (in which I lived and still live). Students from St Stephen's House do have a justified reputation for being silly over-grown adolescents but they very often grow into some of the best pastoral priests the church has.

    Whenever Anglo Catholicism is mentioned, homosexuality and camp behaviour seem to enter into the equation sooner or later. It is the one thing that I, personally, find utterly repulsive about Anglo Catholicism and it has more or less put me off the whole thing more than once. For what it's worth, my own opinion is that homosexual acts are wrong and are contrary to the teachings of the church. However, the fact is that a sizeable number of people are, by nature, homosexual and it is better that they are welcomed into Anglo Catholic churches where more flamboyant ritual may appeal to them than that they don't go to church at all. It is not entirely unknown for clergy whose natural inclination is homosexual - often totally celibate - to be exceptionally good pastors. The Anglo Catholic wing of the Anglican church, and the Anglican church in general, seems to be much more open to the salvation of all people - irrrespective of who or what they are - than the rather more exclusive Roman church.

    Until the age of almost 14 I attended a church which had sung Mattins, and HC was celebrated in surplice and stole. I then discovered that there were a number of other Anglican churches in Brighton which did things rather differently. Those Brighton churches have also always done things quite differently from each other. Perhaps as an impressionable boy of 14 (48 years ago now!) I may have been attracted to it out of curiosity and because it had more colour and action than I had been used to but I VERY quickly discovered the deeply spiritual side of things and now my greatest joy is to sit on my own, silently, for long periods in the Holy House at Walsingham.

  19. Anglo Catholics aside, surely even amongst ‘good’ Roman Catholics there has not always been a strict adherence or the ‘same view’ to Church teachings.

    I mean hasn’t there been increasing openness by a considerable number of RC’s towards formerly taboo issues such as divorce, contraceptives, etc.?

  20. Another thought - the future of Anglo Catholicism is also dependant on who will be going to services 10, 20 years from now. Church attendance, at least in the Western world, is increasingly in decline in our ever more secularized world. The Anglican High Church is not immune from this unfortunate trend.

    If the quoted statement by Fr. Gill still holds true (“Why is St. Magnus largely attended by old ladies and young men?”) the composition of attendees – not only of this particular church but comparable ones as well – will be shifted towards the latter. In the years to come as the old dowagers naturally trail off, that leaves the much maligned (unfairly I say) ‘young men’, like it or not.