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I Was Wrong

By Victor Lee Austin

The late Bishop Paul Moore of New York liked to describe the Episcopal Church as “the Catholic Church with freedom.” In New York as in many places, the Roman Catholic was the big church against which we Episcopalians defined ourselves. The idea was that we were, at heart, truly a catholic church, and perhaps we were able, in some manner, to be more truly so than those we referred to as “the Romans.”

When I was a new priest, this came out in moral matters. Being from a state just north of Texas,[1] I knew that Episcopalians self-identified themselves over against Baptists. “We drink,” we would say. But in New York, where Baptists are rather thin on the ground, “We do birth control” was the identifier.

I came into the Episcopal Church during college, during the final years before the adoption of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The church’s proper name then was the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. That word Protestant stuck in many an Episcopal craw, and the standard narrative was that we were really catholic, a church that had a particular history in England going back to St. Alban, the first martyr. That is (we would emphasize), Anglicanism did not start at the Reformation, which was in truth a rather regrettable period of history; and the future lay in focusing on and more explicitly recovering our catholic heritage. Thus the movement to have Eucharist on every Sunday — a movement whose success is enshrined in our 1979 prayer book’s claim that the Holy Eucharist is to be the principal worship service on the Lord’s Day.

One year in seminary I was assigned to work at a parish near New York whose rector had been involved in the Anglo-Catholic movement all his life. He scratched his head over some of his previous comrades-in-arms’ refusing to use the 1979 prayer book. These were men who continued to use the Anglican Missal or other such. “We won” was his evaluation: the 1979 book contains all the essentials for which they had striven over many years.

I’m sure I’m not the only Episcopalian of a certain age who caught this spirit of the times. We said (and I believed) that the best of the Episcopal Church was its catholic heritage. Protestant elements in our heritage and in our worship were regrettable and should be minimized or ignored. We who were new clergy should seek to use incense whenever we could, to chant prayers often, and to do such other things as would accentuate the catholic side of Episcopal faith. True to this form, I got a thurible donated to the parish where I was a curate, and later a monstrance donated to the parish where I was a rector.

Another mentor urged me to join the Ecumenical Commission of the Diocese of New York. This was a serious, working commission, meeting five times a year; I was appointed to its committee on Lutheran-Episcopal dialogue, which involved another four meetings per annum. This mentor told me that priests with serious theological interests gravitated to ecumenism. He said closer relations with Lutherans would hold Episcopalians closer to orthodox Christian teaching, because that was strong and central in the Lutheran churches at that time in the United States. The same point was understood to be important in Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogues: that the closer our relations with them were, the closer we would be drawn to maintaining orthodox teaching in our church. Such ecumenical work was hoped to counter-balance tendencies in our church to pursue one social cause after another without regard for whatever theological ground might (or might not) be given for them. (Another memory: At a convention of the Diocese of New York, debating a resolution on same-sex relations, a leading lay person spoke from the floor: “When it comes to justice, I don’t want to talk theology.”)

I got involved in writing part of the official commentary on the Lutheran-Episcopal “Concordat of Agreement.” The commentary was published but the Concordat was rejected by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American. In revised form (and under the name “Called to Common Mission”) it was eventually approved. The result, however, was far from the orthodox grounding my mentor had hoped for.

Along the way I met a professor, a former Episcopalian, who said he used to think the Episcopal Church was the Catholic Church for English-speaking people. This rang true for my experience of the 1970s. I had discovered the Episcopal Church, which offered dignified worship that involved the body and its senses and that touched the mind with its thoughtful, elegant, and understated prayers. When my future wife and I would visit a Roman Catholic church, we found sloppy liturgy and, frankly, a sense of a post-war scenario: altars ripped off the walls, no overall integrity to the layout of worship, and language and music that was simplistic. In 1974, a young man looking around the American worship scene could well conclude that the Episcopal Church was indeed the Catholic Church for those of us who spoke English.

Need I point out this is no longer credible? Looking around today, the Roman Catholic Church is often beautiful. Roman Catholics have had decades to figure out how to reframe their worship spaces. They have at least subcultures that desire thoughtful music. And about a decade ago they recovered some dignified English for their prayers. I love visiting a friend’s Catholic church and professing of Jesus that he is “consubstantial” with the Father. And on the other hand, the average Episcopal congregation is small and getting smaller, riding on the exhaust fumes of the past. The Book of Common Prayer is seldom handled — seldom in the hand; instead, the liturgy is printed every week, at great cost in time and money and environmental damage. In both churches, of course, the gospel is still proclaimed and people do come to a living relationship with Lord Jesus; in both, the gospel is carried into the world with sacrificial good works. True to his character, the Lord continues to work in mysterious ways.

I will not give names. I will merely say that I am not surprised, whenever it happens, that another of my friends just cannot take it any longer. These friends want out. They have found that “the Catholic Church with freedom” is really just “Catholic lite,” and they would prefer the real thing.

I think it is true that the Episcopal Church has Catholic substance in it. But also I think I was wrong to put so much emphasis upon that. I no longer think Anglicanism is essentially an alternative version of Catholicism. Instead, it seems to me its own thing.

My first Covenant post included an effort to say what, positively, constitutes Anglicanism. It is not, in my opinion, the Eucharist, although that rite has always been essential to Anglicanism (along with baptism, it is understood as being necessary for salvation). Look instead to our rites of Morning and Evening Prayer. Here the genius or “charism” of Anglicanism is manifested in services that are uniquely “stereo” in our thinking, i.e., we read both Old and New Testaments, one lesson from each, morning and evening, day after day.[2]

These readings are not chosen to fit with each other or for other extrinsic purpose, but rather are the sequential proclamation of the Word of God, chapter after chapter, day after day. This could be called scriptural formatism: a belief that just by reading — hearing — the Word of God, we can be formed as Christian people. Of course, there is more to Morning and Evening Prayer than those two readings. We respond to the readings with canticles, especially the Benedictus in the morning and the Magnificat in the evening. We say the Apostles’ Creed (a practice also peculiar to daily Anglican worship). We say the Lord’s Prayer and other fixed and variable prayers. It all is preceded by confession and Psalms. This “package deal” is unlike anything else in Christendom. It is our special gift to the broader Church. When others discover it, they often find it attractive.

There is also, it seems to me, a particular Anglican reticence in speaking about God. I have called this “epistemic humility.” For instance, while affirming that the bread offered in the Eucharist becomes the Body of Christ, we do not define how that change occurs. We rule out transubstantiation, understood as a change of substance, but we do not foreclose the possibility of a variety of other ways of speaking of the change. We hold tightly to the Bible as being a coherent book, no part of which should be construed in a manner abhorrent to another part, and containing all things needed for salvation. But while giving us rather clear parameters, this hardly closes all questions; indeed, one might say the most characteristically Anglican conversations are precisely here. The Old and New Testaments are read daily in stereo. But we have no “program notes” to tell us how that stereo should be understood.

Indeed we need to say: we are Protestant. We do “protest” the truths of Christianity, “protest” in the positive sense of proclaiming them, affirming them, owning them — not least those truths that pertain to the comforting of a troubled soul. “Jesus has died for you” is not a manipulative sentence but a liberating one.

Even as to confess the Christian faith (as in the creeds) leads also to the confession of sin, so the protestation of Christian truth leads to a personal affirmation —a personal protestation — that is liberating. I need no longer be trapped by my past, limited by my accomplishments, concerned over whether my resumé is good enough. I need only — only! — recognize in me the sin of the world in my personal form. “Alas, my treason” we sing in Passiontide: “’Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; I crucified thee.” Salvation is not in “vain” repetition of prayers or “multiplication” of Masses or any other “works” of any character, but in the surrender of the heart to Jesus who intends to remake it a living heart, as prophesied by Jeremiah and Ezekiel, a heart that pumps in accordance with God’s own Spirit, a heart that will know from within itself (and thus delightedly live by) the law of God.

We Anglicans need not be embarrassed by being Protestant. Yes, we need to claim being Catholic, but without making that our sole or overarching identity. To my mind, today especially we need to recommit to daily Morning and Evening Prayer, with Old and New Testament readings heard in stereo and allowed to speak of themselves directly to the heart.


[1]Texas is also known as Baja Oklahoma. It all depends on where one sees the opposition.

[2]I am not one who longs for pre-1979 prayer books, yet it must be said that while the 1979 BCP makes Baptism and Eucharist central, it also has needlessly introduced confusions in Morning and Evening Prayer, especially in the lectionary. In practice, despite the rubric’s clear statement that when two readings are desired the first is always to be from the Old Testament (or the Apocrypha), in practice many places have just one reading, or two from the New Testament. This seems to have derived from the revision process, in which it was proposed at one point to have a single “daily office” that could serve for morning or evening or both, and in other ways. That proposal was rejected by General Convention, but the work in coming up with the current prayer book was rushed and the residue has left unfortunate confusion.

5 COMMENTS

  1. We are roughly the same age and have a similar experience of the (earlier) decades you recount. If someone wants to define and defend the peculiar ‘catholic version’ that we claim to be, have at it. But simple assertion with a smile will no longer suffice. As you note, much of the claimed self-evidence arose in the context of a Catholic Church (in the USA) in disarray or desuetude (this going back to 19th century Lambeth Conference assertions, where the state of the Catholic Church was even more cloudy).

    I gather your claiming ‘protestant’ does not arise with new-found love for Nicholas Ridley, et al., but instead as a recognition that use of the term ‘catholic’ lacks power of persuasion, or the need for more cogent argumentation. My own position is that any use of the term would have to give more deference to the existence of a Catholic Church as its exists, as well as a rationale for our toggling between ‘catholic’ and ‘Catholic’ (even in the creeds of our eucharistic rites). At some point the ‘via media’ idea could just be expedience or fuzzy thinking.

    And now one needs to throw in the manifest confusion the Anglican Communion finds itself in, and the witness of that to the world. What is a ‘Catholic’ Church in which national entities are not in communion with one another? If we are a ‘Lutheran World Federation’ or something like that, could there be the courage to admit it? Facts on the ground are more persuasive than ideas and assertions.

    One final thing, if I may. My wife and I worshipped in the Catholic Church in France for several years and were warmly welcomed. You can hear a eucharistic liturgy very close to our own. We have a penchant for saying that what we prayer is definitional. But rites do not make something ‘catholic.’ We can say so (though the proliferation of rites in our churches is itself problematic) , but again, it is just an assertion. There is a Catholic Church. In the light of that, any use of the term requires a robust ecumenical investment and manifest progress. Our present situation globally makes that case poorly and that progress even less obvious.

  2. Thank you for this reminiscence. It’s interesting to me to note that the two Episcopal vices mentioned, drinking and birth control, have not stood us in good stead. The former having led to some disastrous outcomes and the latter to our demographic collapse.

    • Yes, it’s curious that Episcopalian culture has embraced these two literally toxic things as marks of identity.

  3. As a seminarian, I was deeply enticed by Anglo-Catholicism because I felt that it offered the promise of connection to the catholic heritage of Anglicanism.

    What I found over time is that Anglicanism is decidedly Protestant and from its Protestantism, it derives its catholicism. The magisterial reformers, including Cranmer, Barnes, Ridley, Latimer, et al, were all catholic in its truest sense. They affirmed the truth of the creeds as accurate interpretations of Scripture. But what they understood is that the retrieval of things like justification by grace through faith alone was actually a return to Biblical truth and early church theology.

    The promise of Anglicanism is not from some feigned middle way between Rome and Protestantism, but rather in its Protestantism expressed in the liturgies of the BCP.

    Unlike you, I do pine for prayer books past. 1662 or bust!

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