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  Home :: 2006 October :: The Future of Catholic Anglicanism

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, wasin Newman's reckoning the catalyst which sparked the Oxford Movement.The modern reader of the sermon might well be surprised that so greatan influence was ascribed to it. It denounced as national apostasypending legislation of the British Parliament [1] to reduce the numberof bishoprics in the Church of Ireland by a process of amalgamation.There were in fact too many bishoprics and parishes for the number ofAnglicans in Ireland, and the modern economic rationalist would haveapplauded this exercise in rationalisation. But for John Keble a greatprinciple was at stake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is not to say that there is no sense in which the wordsprotestant and reformed have a place in our understanding of thischurch. The Church of England underwent great reformation in the 16thCentury, and this has had a substantial effect on the character ofAnglicanism. Indeed we are not ashamed to say that the churchconstantly needs to be reformed. There is also a real sense in whichAnglicanism is protestant. We protest for certain great truths which were neglected and downplayed in the mediaeval church, and we protest againstcertain errors and abuses which had crept into the western church. Butthe Anglican Church is basically and inherently catholic. It did notbegin at the Reformation, and those who interpret the language of ourliturgy and our formularies as if they stood alone and were notgrounded on centuries of catholic faith and tradition profoundly failto understand the history and character of the Anglican Church.

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

The title The Future of Catholic Anglicanism can,however, be given another meaning which I also intend. It can be takento refer to that tradition within the Anglican Church that emphasisesthe catholic side of its heritage as against other traditions such asthose labelled evangelical or charismatic. This is a narrower, morepartisan, use of the word catholic; yet it is important, and it is themeaning on which I shall particularly focus in this address. First,however, I need to say something of my understanding of the characterof 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 andthe diverse Protestantism of the continental Reformation. This was theposition taken by the young Newman, and his later disenchantment withit led to his submission to Rome. Its defect lies in the fact that ithas no firm position of its own but depends on a mediating placebetween what may be shifting extremes. It also assumes that a middleway is necessarily best, an attitude that easily leads to a blandcentral churchmanship mentality which lacks cutting edge.

The other way is to speak of the comprehensiveness ofAnglicanism. Rightly understood this can express a laudable desire forinclusiveness, recognising that truth is always larger than ourperceptions of it. The trouble is that comprehensiveness as a basicprinciple easily issues in a woolliness of thinking where anything goesand there is no way of distinguishing truth from error.

My preferred understanding of Anglicanism is in terms ofparadox. Because truth is bigger than our finite minds can grasp, muchtruth can only be expressed in paradoxical language. A paradoxicalstatement is one in which seemingly contradictory propositions standside by side, but when held together in tension express a fuller truththan is possible with a simple univocal statement. In our finite mindsthe propositions seem to contradict one another; in the infinity of Godthey come together. Christian doctrine is full of paradox: God is threeand God is one; Jesus Christ is truly God and truly human; Godpredestines and gives us freedom; the one who is not with us is againstus, and the one who is not against us is for us. For the fullest graspof 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 toits logical conclusion, is a sure way to error and possibly to seriousheresy.

How does this relate to Anglicanism? Some would see thediversity, and sometimes the clash, of traditions within Anglicanism asa weakness. It can be, if the diversity gets out of hand and if itdegenerates into factionalism in which each group sees all truth in itsown position and none in that of others. So there are catholic andevangelical, conservative and liberal, freewheeling charismatic andrigidly liturgical, socially activist and piously withdrawn - all ofthem Anglicans. These are the polarities. Held together in the onechurch in dynamic tension they enable a fuller understanding andexpression of God's truth; polarised and at war with one another, theywill be destructive to the church, and will allow those at the oppositepoles 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 thechurch in this country give rise from time to time to the possibilityof separation from the rest of the church. One is the Diocese ofSydney, our largest and wealthiest diocese, with its distinctiveconservative evangelical stance; at the other end of the spectrum arethose who would describe themselves as catholic traditionalists, withparticular concerns about the ordination of women. There are some, bothin these groups and in the rest of the church, who in moments ofexasperation suggest that the bonds of unity in the national church beloosened or even broken.

The argument runs that unity should not be maintained at thecost of truth... truth, of course, as each side sees it. The fact is,however, that truth would suffer once the different perspectives, heldoften uneasily in tension, were separated and each went their own waywithout the balance which the other provides. The result would be anumber of churches, each convinced it was right, and each characterisedby the sectarian spirit of those who take one side of paradoxical truthto its logical conclusion. Certainly, whatever was left of the AnglicanChurch, or of a number of churches each claiming to be Anglican, wouldbe severely deficient in its catholicity.

It cannot be pretended, however, that holding paradoxicalperspectives on truth together in creative tension is easy. There is anessential ingredient: those who hold particular perspectives must havetheir centre of gravity within Anglicanism. The reason that Sydney andother dioceses have held together in healthy and constructive unity isthat the top leadership have prized their Anglican heritage. That hasbeen true right up to and including the present day. There are those,however, whose loyalty and centre of gravity lie elsewhere; and thepressure from them is very strong, and in Sydney shows signs ofincreasing. Departure from the liturgical norms of the Prayer Booktradition and the unauthorised practice of lay presidency at HolyCommunion in certain places are disturbing signs of this trend whichthreatens to jeopardise the delicate balance in which our differentemphases can enrich the church and enlarge our witness to the fulnessof the catholic faith. This applies similarly to the catholictraditionalists. As long as their centre of gravity lies within theAnglican spectrum they bear a witness which is valuable to our wholechurch. If however their real loyalty lies elsewhere, and they look tosome other church for their authority and their liturgical usage, theywill lose the possibility of making their needed contribution to thegenuine catholicity of our church.

What does this say to us who particularly prize the catholicnature of the Anglican Church? It says two things. One is that to be acatholic-minded Anglican does not mean devaluing other emphases withinthe church. To be truly catholic means being evangelical; it takesseriously the power of the Holy Spirit, so enthusiastically testifiedto by charismatics; it wants to conserve the treasures of the past; itknows it must be open to fresh initiatives for the future; it has asocial gospel; it is alert to the real questions being asked by ourcontemporaries; it calls for personal holiness. So what we see of thesequalities in other schools of thought in the church we should welcome,even if at times we disagree with some ways in which they findexpression.

The other is that our own catholicism - using the word in itsnarrower, more partisan, meaning - should be unashamedly Anglican. I donot mean that in a cocky, self-satisfied way. The Anglican Church hasnever claimed to be the whole church, nor does it pretend to be withoutfault or weakness. But it is an authentic embodiment of the one holycatholic and apostolic Church, with its own ethos, culture andintegrity. By all means we should be ready to appreciate and glory inthe 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 andtreasures which God has entrusted to us.

Having said all this, let us honestly concede that the catholicmovement in Anglicanism has lost ground in recent decades. The growingedge of Anglicanism had been in the evangelical movement, both in itsconservative evangelical and its charismatic expressions. There arevarious reasons for this, some of which I shall allude to when I speakof how we should face the future. One important factor, however, is thecurrent climate of postmodernism. While the postmodernist approach tolife is built on certain assumptions which are antithetical toChristian faith in general, it is particularly contrary to the catholicunderstanding of Christianity. Catholic Christianity believes in avisible church, which necessarily has an institutional character;postmodernism is critical of institutions. Catholic Christianityemphasises tradition and continuity; postmodernism trusts in what myexperience tells me today. Catholic Christianity holds to a revealedfaith interpreted with authority within the life of the Church;postmodernism makes me and my perceptions and feelings the test oftruth (if indeed there is such a thing as truth). Catholic Christianitygives high place to order in ministry and sacrament; postmodernism isdismissive of structured, ordered ways of doing things.

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

There are lessons here to be learned. There is all too often acatholic self-satisfaction and complacency which wins no friends, andan inflexibility even on matters where real principle is not involved.Yet I would counsel against losing our heads. I have been around longenough to see a number of changes of fashion in world and church alike.Trends seem to last for an increasingly short period; and postmodernismcontains the seeds of its own decay. There is a basic contradiction inits 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 Australianbishop who travelled some years ago through Wales and then throughRussia. He described how in village after village in Wales he foundlarge church buildings which once throbbed with vitality in the 19thCentury evangelical revival movements that swept through the country,but which are now bereft of life. In Russia, after seventy years ofvirulent atheistic propaganda he found Orthodox churches crowded withpeople, many of them young, worshipping in an ancient liturgyapparently remote from 20th Century life. We must not oversimplify thereasons for this striking contrast; but it does remind us that whatcatches the passing attention of one age may lose its force in another.Already there are indications that the flow out of Pentecostalistchurches is catching up to the flow coming in. There are lessons to belearned from the Pentecostal experience but unthinking imitation is notone of them. We would be unwise to put all our eggs in the postmodernbasket.

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

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

The Catholic faith, properly understood, takes the Bible withthe utmost seriousness. Anglican Catholics have no difficulty inaffirming the canonical scriptures, in the words of our Constitution,as "the ultimate rule and standard of faith given by inspiration of Godand containing all things necessary for salvation". [8] We have notedwith appreciation that reforms in the Roman Catholic Church in the pasthalf century have significantly stemmed from a renewal of biblicalstudy in that church. As I said in a sermon in another place last year,any development in the church's understanding of sexual morality canonly come if we are satisfied that the change is in accordance with afull and proper understanding of scripture. So catholic Anglicansshould use the Bible in teaching and preaching and small study groupswith the same enthusiasm as evangelical Anglicans. Yet there will be aproper critique of some ways of using and interpreting the Bible. TheBible is the ultimate rule and standard of faith, but it does not standin a vacuum. Keble argued that to understand the Bible it must beconsidered in the context of the tradition of the primitive church.There is an interplay between the written word of scripture and theliving tradition of the church. The tradition, which can all too easilygo astray, must be constantly tested against the written word; but theword is to be understood in the context of the tradition. The Bible isthe ultimate standard, but it does not stand alone, and indeed makes noclaim within itself to stand alone. May I add that those are most blindwho imagine that they read and interpret the Bible free from theinfluence of any tradition of interpretation. That is why people whoclaim to be led by the Bible alone still come up with differingunderstandings of what is written. My essential point, however, is thatwe must not react to wrong ways of using the Bible by devaluing theBible.

Again there is the matter of preaching. Evangelicals emphasisethe preaching of the word. Good. In doing so, unfortunately they oftengive too little place to the sacraments. That is no reason for catholicminded Anglicans to devalue preaching. Indeed, I suggest that the poorquality of much of the preaching in churches of the catholic traditionis one of the major reasons for weakness in that tradition.

It is the same with evangelism. The dismissal of evangelism asa preoccupation of evangelicals which is of no concern to catholics istragic foolishness. The great anglo-catholic priests of the past weremotivated by what was called the love of souls. The phrase may soundold-fashioned, but the reality of which it speaks is an essentialcomponent of catholic faith. The church exists to bring human beingsinto communion with God, now and eternally. Lose that, and we loseeverything. I know of nothing more uncatholic than the complacency ofsome so-called catholic parishes which take the attitude that peoplemay join us if they wish but we have no obligation to search them outand nurture them.

The second necessary element for the resilience of the catholicwing in Anglicanism is to take theology seriously. The academicstrength of the evangelical theological colleges in Australia is to beadmired, as is the encouragement given to able students to pursueadvanced theological study. The record of the Anglican catholiccolleges in this respect is much less commendable. In the end, theworld will be won for Christ and drawn into his church not by efficientadministration or skilful techniques (useful as these are) but by theproclamation, exposition and living out of the catholic faith in a waythat makes sense to people and gives meaning to their lives. All toooften catholic faith has been seen in terms of the trimmings ofliturgical or devotional practice, while the great central truths havebeen taken for granted or neglected. I have sometimes commented thatbishops need to be theologians, not in the sense of academic theologybut of being so in tune with the church's faith so that they are ableto expound it in trustworthy fashion in ways understandable to theirpeople. The same is true of parish priests. People should know thatwhat they hear from the pulpit is not an expression of private opinionbut 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 customof the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church continue to be the unitof 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 whichbrings together all orders of the church - bishop, priests, deacons andlaity. The diocese is not to be understood as the ecclesiasticalbureaucracy - them as against us - but as the people of God drawntogether in a common mission under the leadership of theirFather-in-God. The current trend is towards a new congregationalism,and the stronger the congregation or parish the less its place as partof the diocese is often seen to be.

What is fascinating is to see the beginnings of a trend in theopposite direction among a number of the independent evangelicalchurches. The Pastors' Network which has recently been established inMelbourne, which has drawn in many pastors of evangelical andPentecostal churches, has lately been emphasising the need forco-operation for the effectiveness of mission to the whole city. Thisseems to have been received as a striking new insight. Yet it is simplywhat catholic ecclesiology has always understood. Our mission is notonly to individuals in local communities (crucial as that is) but alsoto the city, the state, the nation, and the world. The present trend toglobalisation in world affairs, which is unlikely to be reversed,points to the need of geographical catholicity for the church. Theworld-wide impact of the pontificate of Pope John Paul II is a clearillustration of the need to think and act globally. For the church todo so, it requires a catholic ecclesiology. The present discussion ofthe role of a Universal Primate, promoted by the recent ARCIC report The Gift of Authoritypoints to an issue that cannot be avoided. That is not to say - and thereport does not say - that universal primacy should be seen in theterms in which it has found expression in the history of the papacy.There is adequate scope for mutual learning in this regard by both theRoman and Anglican Communions.

Finally, there needs to be a renewal in catholic Anglicanism ofan element which has always been central in the Christian life butwhich is all too easily neglected. I mean a holiness of life whichembraces a willingness for sacrifice in the pattern of the cross ofChrist. We have frankly become too comfortable, and I might add, oftentoo comfortably rigid. We have been too content with externalfripperies as against inner discipline of life. How faithful are ourclergy in the use of the daily office? How regular and reverent is ourapproach to the Eucharist (and is its sometimes excessive use as theonly form of public worship a factor in the carelessness with which itis often approached)? What has happened to our practice of regularmental prayer and meditation? Does it not say something to us that whenthe world hears of meditation, it assumes a context of Buddhism orTranscendental Meditation and is surprised to find that meditation hasbeen basic in catholic ascetic practice over the centuries? Howseriously do we take self-examination, confession and absolution? Howready are our clergy to go to some demanding, sacrificial sphere ofpastoral work rather than seek a comfortable established parish? In theend the greatest threat to our catholicity will be a failure inresponding to God's call to holiness of life.

What John Keble reminded his hearers, and what the OxfordMovement took up, was the integral place of the Anglican Church in thegreat continuous stream of catholic Christianity. Because the church iscomposed of fallible human members it is constantly in need ofreformation and renewal; but because it is the divine society indweltby the Holy Spirit, the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Thatwas Jesus' promise. His invitation to us is to be agents in thefulfilment of that promise. I believe in the future of catholicAnglicanism. 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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