In the two weeks since Archbishop Robinson's statements on the Joint Appeal to the ACNA, I've noticed the presence of a certain group of bloggers and commentators who advocate a return to what they are calling “Classical Anglicanism.” Though it's difficult to tell with any precision what “Classical Anglicanism” might be, it seems to have something to do with what that notably catholic and ecumenical body, known as the English Parliament, came together to ratify in 1559 (that would be the Act of Supremacy, which made Elizabeth I Supreme Governor of the Church, and the Act of Uniformity, which was meant to establish a certain standard of worship throughout the realm). To this we could add the elevation of the Articles to confessional status, a view of Augustine that is defined by the anti-Pelagian perceptions of the Magisterial Reformers, and, oddly enough, a deep suspicion of tidiness.
Whatever one might think about these defining characteristics, the term does have a nice ring to it. It conjures up visions of a golden age—the kind that existed before Anglo-Catholics messed up the virtuous and solid English Protestantism that Good Queen Bess bestowed upon her grateful subjects—and this is what it’s meant to do. The word “classical” has its origins in the early-modern era, when it was used to denote Greek and Latin writers of acknowledged merit. From there it was only a short semantic skip to expressing a general sense of highest, purest, or best. Five hundred years later, we get things like “Classical Anglicanism,” a term that has proven useful for those who seek to delegitimize the notion that our Anglican patrimony should be situated within the wider context of catholic Christendom. Things like the ACC's appeal to the Central Tradition (as laid out by Archbishop Haverland here and here) are characterized as “Western Orthodox” or “Old Catholic” but not really “Anglican” in any valid sense. This is curious, because the term “Anglicanism,” which didn’t exist prior to the Tractarians, was originally employed precisely to emphasize the continuity of doctrine and practice that existed within the Church of England as it went about the process of reform.
With this in mind, I would like to introduce into our discussions a new term: Classical Anglicanism™. This will help differentiate those such as Father Hart (who so far as I can tell sees no discontinuity between the faith of the English Reformation and the faith of the Affirmation) from those who would restrict Anglican identity to a “classical” age, which in its purity is distinct from the English Christianity of the past (and for that matter, much of the future as well). This idea of a "Reformational" rupture within the English Church is unsurprising given what one reads in the sort of old-fashioned Protestant historiography to which the Classical Anglicans™ seem to subscribe. In the words of J.C. Ryle, whom I’ve seen recommended with approval by Classical Anglicans™ elsewhere, the process of reforming the English Church was like taking “down an old, decayed house, and rebuild[ing] it from the very ground.”
To view the religious change of the early-modern era in this light is to see it in terms of “revolution” rather than “reform.” This is a topic I will deal with more fully in a later post, but for now I will say that in cultural terms, revolution is used to signify an abrupt and significant break with the past, while reform suggests a process that is patient of perceived imperfection and is ameliorative, rather than destructive, in its remedies for the same. The preference of the Classical Anglicans™ for viewing the period in terms of revolution rather reform is evident from the manner in which they tend to dismiss Henrician Catholicism as ephemeral and of little value. What I think they miss is the fact that Henrician Catholicism is in many ways the culmination of processes and ideas that can be traced to the beginning of the fifteenth century and the response of the English Church to the revolutionary program of the Wycliffites. In fact, if we can do away with the assumption that “medieval” is antithetical to “reform,” a sense of continuity between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries begins to emerge.
Led by men such as Robert Hallum, Bishop of Salisbury, we see the English Church taking an active role in the conciliar movement, which for a time, was able to impose real limitations on papal power. The writings of Hallum’s protégé, Richard Ullerston, reveal a serious and positive engagement with the issue of vernacular Bible production. The recruitment of Oxford scholars for parochial work by Philip Repingdon, Bishop of Lincoln, is emblematic of a commitment to sound preaching and catechesis, largely through the sacrament of confession. And while it’s unlikely that Archbishop Henry Chichele would ever have gone so far as to advocate “catholicism without the pope,” he was firm in his assertion of the traditional liberties of the Ecclesia Anglicana. This is just scratching the surface, but even so, the similarity between the goals of these fifteenth-century bishops and what one sees developing within Henrician Catholicism suggests to me not only a continuity of purpose, but also that much of what we understand as “Anglicanism” (in the original sense) can be found right at home. In fact, one could argue that the problem with those who guided religious policy under Edward VI is that they abandoned a native tradition of reform and replaced it with revolutionary foreign models.
I was discussing these ideas the other day with a friend, who brought to my attention a passage in Eamon Duffy’s book, Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor (New Haven & London: Yale, 2009). He followed up on our discussion with the following email:
"Duffy seems to be an agnostic papalist, reminding one of George Santayana, who was said to believe that ‘There is no God, and Mary is His Mother!’ But Duffy’s biases are not the point at the moment. The extract below is cited for its primary material, not for Duffy’s interpretation thereof. It is sufficient to know that by ‘catholic’ and ‘orthodox’ Duffy means papalist or Roman Catholic. In this passage Duffy notes the relative lack of executions in the diocese of Durham during the Marian reaction:
…from 1556, the aged Bishop Tunstall’s right-hand man there was his archdeacon and great-nephew, Bernard Gilpin. Despite having spent part of Edward’s reign in Paris to oversee publication of Tunstall’s defence of the catholic doctrine of the Mass, Gilpin was a waverer between catholic and reformed beliefs, orthodox on the real presence, but decidedly shaky on papal primacy, the English Bible and the marriage of priests. He was sufficiently suspect among hardliners in the diocese to have set aside a ‘long and comely’ shirt, in case he himself should be brought to the stake.’ (Page 130)
What Duffy is describing in Bernard Gilpin is an Henrician Catholic: a man who rejected the ‘modern’ papacy, accepted the positive value of vernacular Bibles, and was open to the reform of post-patristic developments such as mandatory clerical celibacy. But Gilpin was within the central tradition of the universal Church concerning the Eucharist and other doctrinal matters that were left untouched by Henry’s reforms."
In light of this observation, one could also argue that the Marian reaction represented the flip side of the Edwardian coin. It too was confessional in its approach, and as such, it reflected the hardening of Roman attitudes that were characteristic of the Tridentine era. The tragedy of religious developments under both Edward and Mary is that they cut off what could have been the natural development and reform of English Catholicism as something that was neither Calvinist nor Lutheran nor Roman, but if one has to put a label on it, Erasmian; that is, reformed, learned, and not discontinuous in essentials with either the Church of the Fathers or of the Middle Ages. Movement back in this direction resumed with Hooker, but that involved undoing damage done by religious revolutionaries of an earlier age.
Classical Anglicans™ have recently been suggesting that the ACC is attempting to transform Anglicanism into something that it was not. I think the real question is whether Continuing Anglicans are prepared to historicize our identity down to a few decades within the early modern era. I'm guessing this is something that most are not willing to do. Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est, combined with an understanding of English Christianity over the longue durée gives us a better guide to the future of Anglicanism than a return to the polemical and politically charged perspectives of the mid-sixteenth century. And as the example of the Henrician Catholics illustrates, we have more in the way of authentically English models from which to draw inspiration than today's Classical Anglicans™ would like us to think.