By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

BOSTON — Episcopalians who self-identify as Anglo-Catholics have reason to believe their niche packs a mysterious magnetism that draws both the well-off and the dirt-poor to seek God in the sacraments.

But Anglo-Catholics are also concerned that after nearly two centuries, their movement needs renewal. They are inviting hard questions to make sure it does not atrophy but instead enjoys a relevant, compelling future.

Such hopes, coupled with a shared interest in learning more about Anglo-Catholicism, brought together 120 people at Church of the Advent in Boston for “Anglo-Catholicism: Uncovering Roots,” a two-day conference in mid-November. Ordained and lay participants came from as far away as Texas and Nebraska to engage young scholars on topics covering the movement’s history, challenges, and outlook. The event was co-sponsored by Church of the Advent and The Living Church.

Anglo-Catholicism “is not important except if it brings people closer to God,” said David Lapin, a Church of the Advent member. “It’s another road toward God. Traditionally we think of drawing people as we’re opening our doors, and they can come in. But there may be a role down the road for a little bit more proactive and assertive profile for us to take.”

Though interpretations of Anglo-Catholicism vary, the term refers broadly to the legacy of the Oxford Movement, a 19th-century campaign to reconnect Anglicanism with its ancient roots. Anglo-Catholics became known for reclaiming age-old formulations of theology and liturgy, as well as serving the poorest segments of British society.

The movement’s liturgical sensibilities have endured. When conferees gathered in Boston for evening Mass, the scent of incense filled the nave. Church bells rang out over the city when the host was consecrated. Worshipers sang both the Nicene Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.

“We never really drilled down into defining what ‘Anglo-Catholicism’ is, exactly. That was intentional,” said Christopher Wells, editor of TLC, via email. “There have been several ‘schools’ that would lay claim to the term, and I think we were keen to invite them all.”

However it might be defined, Anglo-Catholicism attracts an eclectic flock. In the high-rent Beacon Hill neighborhood where Church of the Advent is located, worshipers tend to value traditional forms of beauty and high-brow culture, from Brahms to bow ties and the finer points of High Mass, said the Rev. Jeff Hanson, curate for Christian education at Church of the Advent and co-organizer of the conference.

Most Anglo-Catholic priests have traditionally been men, Hanson said. More than 80 percent of “Uncovering Roots” registrants were men. About 40 percent of attendees were clergy; laymen were well-represented too.

“There’s an attraction for a certain kind of broadly traditional man who may not feel at home in other environments, where perhaps they feel there’s less for them to do or less of a contribution to make,” Hanson said. Those who are not married with kids, for instance, might struggle to fit in at other churches, but Anglo-Catholic formality works for them.

Anglo-Catholicism strikes a chord with certain immigrant groups, especially those who recognize it from their home countries, including Caribbean natives who comprise much of the congregation at All Saints, Ashmont, in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood.

Overseas, Anglo-Catholicism remains prevalent among the poorest of the poor. In the most poverty-stricken 1 percent of English boroughs, nearly one-fifth (18 percent) of all Church of England congregations are Anglo-Catholic, according to new research from the Society, a group supporting Anglo-Catholicism within the church. That’s five times the rate at which Anglo-Catholicism is seen across the church’s 12,600 parishes.

“Ministry and mission to the poor and deprived in Anglo-Catholic parishes is as much a hallmark of their commitment today as it was in the past,” writes Anne Gray, projects officer to the Council of Bishops of the Society, in a 2017 report on the research.

In a spirit of deepening understanding, “Uncovering Roots” focused largely on what needs tuning up or recovering in Anglo-Catholicism.

“There’s a perception that numbers are declining and there’s not as much vitality in the Anglo-Catholic circles as there used to be,” Hanson said. “And also an identity crisis: we have to give people robust articulations for why they should be involved.”

In presenting a paper on race and ecclesiology, Wells looked back to 1920 when the first of six Anglo-Catholic congresses convened ahead of that year’s Lambeth Conference. He noted how the organizing congregation, St. Matthew’s Westminster in London, was known for attracting both the well-to-do and slum dwellers alike. He quoted from a report of the 1920 Lambeth Conference, envisioning a Communion that is “less Anglican and more Catholic.”

“Our sanctification will and must include confession, penance, amendment of life, and, I am sure, whenever possible, reparation and reparations, both personal and social,” Wells said in delivering his paper.

Historical theologian Liza Anderson of Claremont School of Theology said those who try to claim Anglo-Catholicism often equate it with particular practices, including some that are not well-founded.

For example, she said Anglo-Catholic clergy are exalted while lay contributions tend to be downplayed or overshadowed. She sought to debunk what she called the “myth of the Anglo-Catholic slum priest.” She acknowledged the laudable work done by these clerics in Christ’s name among the poor, but called for more recognition of lay contributors.

“For every Anglo-Catholic slum priest, you had basically 20 to 30 full-time, mostly female volunteers,” Anderson said. “We’ve sort of embraced this narrative that elevates the priests and thinks that he, or maybe now she, is supposed to do all of that stuff. It’s no wonder when my students go out into the world believing that that they all burn out.”

She proposed introducing payment for laypeople, in the spirit of equal pay for equal work, in a move that might show they are valued and not less important than priests.

Plans for another conference on Anglo-Catholicism in fall 2018 are in the works, Wells said. Participants at this year’s event said they were heartened to find more tough questions than nostalgia.

“What I was really impressed by was the self-criticism of the Anglo-Catholic movement,” said the Rev. Jim Ransom, a retired priest in the Diocese of Maryland. “People here were willing to be self-critical and to look beyond the old tradition and talk about how we might be more racially inclusive and embrace that in a Catholic spirit. That’s just right where we ought to be.”

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