The Caroline Divines and the Church of Rome
A Contribution to Current Ecumenical Dialogue
By Mark Langham
Routledge. Pp. xiv + 270. $140; eBook from $27.48


Review by Richard J. Mammana

The Caroline Divines — who flourished during the reigns of King Charles I and King Charles II — are often mentioned in Anglican life but seldom studied directly. They positioned themselves in 17th-century religious writing not just as defenders but also ardent practitioners of the Church of England’s liturgical order, spiritual discipline, canonical resources, and homiletic traditions.

They also engaged other strands of Christian tradition in conversation (although in their time this was often in the register of controversy or open hostility). Mark Langham delves into their writings to examine current questions of dialogue and difference between Anglicans and Roman Catholics: “Have the Caroline Divines any relevance to contemporary ecumenical issues, and do their methods and works provide any reference which modern Anglicans might find of assistance?” His strong answer is a Yes on matters such as eucharistic doctrine, Christian morality, ministry and ordination, authority, salvation, ecclesiology, Mary, and modern doctrinal development in both churches.

The shape of this scholarship is all the more important for its source: Langham is a priest of the Diocese of Westminster who served in Rome at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity from 2008 to 2013. He has been co-secretary to the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), and is a chaplain at the University of Cambridge. His deep engagement with this vast, often overlooked corpus of writings is a gesture of sincere offering and direct encounter.

The book begins with elucidations of the historical context for the 17th century’s theological debates and fixations: antiquity, typology, essential elements of church life, moderation, conscience, civility and urbanity of knowledge, jurisdiction, the beauty of holiness, and the distinction between doctrine and discipline.

Langham’s primary resource is the Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology, a selective retrieval of a core group of 20 writers, including Lancelot Andrewes, William Beveridge, John Cosin, William Laud, and Thomas Wilson. An ultimately abandoned effort, it included 95 volumes by these writers, out of a projected edition and publication project of 53 authors. The library was an Oxford counter-volley to the parallel Cambridge editions of the historic Low Church party in the Church of England, published by the Parker Society.

To this list of writers, Langham pulls in John Donne, Jeremy Taylor, George Herbert, Peter Heylyn, Richard Hooker, Robert Sanderson, and Izaak Walton, but curiously not Thomas Ken or William Sancroft. A small lost opportunity in this connection is not having covered in depth the formation of this critical edition, working from the 19th century backward, and its principles of selection. But Langham is wise and correct in including poets and musicians in his wide view of the breadth of Caroline church thought.

Langham next combines this impressively broad survey of old resources and their insights with the fruit of the last 52 years of ARCIC dialogue since it was established under the authority of Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Michael Ramsey in 1967. ARCIC’s documents outlined broad yet precise agreement about our churches’ teachings on the sacraments, legitimate variation in doctrine or practice regarding the Blessed Virgin Mary, and divergence on issues of Petrine primacy, infallibility, authority considered more generally, the separated work of modern moral discernment, and the interpretation of Scripture.

In seven chapters, he unpacks the insights of Caroline writers on all of these topics, sometimes using material from conversation with contemporary Roman Catholic writers and sometimes using material written for Anglican consumption.

“In the twentieth century, Anglicans and Roman Catholics came together in a new spirit of engagement, [and] there existed a history of dialogue between them to which they could look back,” he writes. “Modern ecumenical theology itself proceeds, not in an abstract fashion, but by a process of connecting with issues raised by partners.”

On the most popular controverted matters between the two large international communions of Christians — the validity of Anglican orders, the ordination of women, and the nature of marriage — Langham seeks to set the clock back aux racines et sources: to roots and sources. He notes that it is in the texts surrounding the early establishment of breaches that we can find our self-definition and self-presentation very well already. To begin the conversation anew in each generation is folly and defeating if our predecessors have covered ground that we try in ignorance to retread. The gift of this book is the offering of the Caroline Divines as guides in this work.

This imaginative book begins with a commendation from Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, who reminds readers that “the search for unity is a task of intense scholarship, but more than that, of imagination, creativity, and holiness.” It ends with the hope that deeper reading by Anglicans in the riches of our tradition in this school will “inspire new generations of theologians as they seek to deepen the real but imperfect communion that exists between Anglicans and Roman Catholics.”

Richard J. Mammana is the archivist of the Living Church Foundation and serves as staff for the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue Consultation in the United States.

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