Catholic Anglican thoughts (again)

13th-c mosaic on loggia, Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

I think that perhaps one of the great problems with our society is that too many of us spend time thinking about our identities. For me, I spend time thinking about my religious identity. In particular, I often find myself feeling somewhat alone as a catholic Anglican — and not an Anglo-Catholic.

Like the majority tradition of Anglicanism, I embrace the teachings of the Fathers, the 39 Articles, the BCP, and what I’ve read of the Books of Homilies so far. I agree with Richard Hooker so much I wrote an essay recommending him for a real publication (as opposed to just another blog post). Moreover, I cherish the poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Guite, as well as the hymns of Charles Wesley and JM Neale. I recently called Lancelot Andrewes a saint, so there’s that in the mix, too!

Most of this doesn’t really make me much of “catholic”, though, does it? I mean, it mostly makes me an Anglican. I reckon John Wesley liked those things, too, except for the ones from after he died.

But what if I told you, despite spending 8 years as a Presbyterian, the only other church that seemed truly enticing was the Eastern Orthodox Church? That an Orthodox priest (now bishop!) once said that I am Orthodox in all but name? Although this actually isn’t true (I don’t seek saints to intercede for me [filed under: 39 Articles] or believe in tollhouses [filed under: umm…], to grab two really quick examples), I do have enormous respect for the Eastern Church and think that we can learn a lot from them in the West after a few centuries of Enlightenment and Romanticism under our belts.

So, yeah, I read St Sophrony, St Porphyrios, Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Father Andrew Louth, The Way of a Pilgrim, and others in my devotional time. I love the Greek Fathers, and sometimes I think I’m a Palamite. Byzantine chant and Byzantine icons, yes, please. I love the Divine Liturgy of Our Father Among the Saints John Chrysostom. Once when I was in a foul mood, I read the Divine Liturgy of Our Father Among the Saints Basil the Great just to cheer me up. And it’s beautiful and rich and makes anything from the West post-Vatican II (BAS and Common Worship, I’m looking at you) look like wading in shallow water when God has given us the skills requisite and necessary for surfing (or something like that).

I embrace the ancient and medieval heritage of the church — as interpreted through the 39 Articles and the BCP. Give me St Augustine. Give St Maximus the Confessor. Give me St Anselm and St John of Damascus and the Venerable Bede and St Benedict of Nursia and St Symeon the New Theologian and St Gregory of Nyssa and The Cloud of Unknowing and St John of the Ladder and St John of the Cross and St Bernard of Clairvaux and St Gregory of Nazianzus and St Basil of Caesarea and Origen of Alexander and St Athanasius of Alexandria and St Irenaeus of Lyons and Pope St Leo the Great and Pope St Gregory the Great and St Cyprian of Carthage and St Francis of Assisi and St Bonaventure and Stephen Langton and Julian of Norwich and Richard Rolle and Walter Hilton and Aelfric of Eynsham and Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl and The Dream of the Rood.

Give me the Ruthwell Cross. Give me Mt Athos. Give the Benediktinerstift Sankt Paul im Lavanttal. Give me St Paul’s in London. Give me Durham Cathedral. Give me the Durham Gospels.

Give me these things, clothe them in the music of Tallis or Purcell or Gibbons. I’ll kiss your icons. I once kissed the alleged crozier of St Gregory. Give me the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament. Give me a little incense.

Give me these things, for when I encounter these things, I find Jesus in them.

Most of all, then: give me Jesus.

And I find that Jesus is found in this catholic Anglicanism. I find him there better than elsewhere — whether because of my own temperament or something in the nature of the catholic tradition itself. But Jesus comes to me in the poetry of John Donne and the teachings of the Orthodox monks. He comes when I read Pearl and I am drawn up to him through the architecture of a place like York Minster.

IRL, one finds oneself with almost no Anglicans round about, and few digging deep into this.

But Jesus comes amidst them, anyway — of course.

This is part of the secret of the catholic tradition, that God is always right there waiting for you. If you can cultivate hesychia and find, by grace, some level of purity of heart, you will find Jesus wherever you are, and not just listening to Byzantine chant on Spotify or with fellow catholics on Twitter, but at your own local parish.

Watch out for him. He’s there. Pray the Jesus Prayer. Memorise a poem or two by John Donne. Like St Pachomius, see God wherever He is, especially in your brother in Christ. He’ll be there — he has promised he will.

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Reformed catholic? (Part two)

In my last post, I talked a bit about my slow development to a willingness to use the term “Reformed” — but what about catholic? How is a person both? Well, this has sort of a broad, historical answer, and a narrow, personal answer.

Broad, historical answer

The broad, historical answer is that the Reformers and others in the early Protestant movement considered themselves “catholic”. And a lot of them would have considered those whom we commonly call “Catholics” today Romish or Popish or Papist or at least members of the Roman Church. Now, we don’t need to get into the latter part. It is enough to note that the early Protestant movement saw itself as catholic.

Catholic, as you may know, means universal. The magisterial Reformation (Lutherans, the Reformed, Anglicans), tended to see themselves as the continuing life of the apostolic church. That strand in the Church of England that would come to define Anglicanism (and, thus, for self-definition, something that matters more for me than would the ideas of Luther or Melanchthon or Calvin or Knox) frequently saw itself as restoring the Church of England to an existence prior to the abuses of the later Middle Ages.

Matthew Parker (Archbishop of Canterbury, 1559-1575) was really into this vision of the Church of England. For example, he argued that what the reforms were doing was bringing the church back to how it was in 597 under St Augustine of Canterbury. This, sadly, is not true. But it’s a lovely idea, and it shows the ideals of the English Reformation. He also, notably, printed the sermon of Aelfric of Eynsham (d. 1010) on the Holy Communion to argue that transubstantiation was a later addition to the dogma of the church, and that the C of E was just restoring the ancient doctrine of the church on this matter. In this way, the Reformational, or even Reformed, Church of England was very catholic, seeking to stand in continuity with the universal church in history.

Similarly, Richard Hooker, who is often cited as being the progenitor of real “Anglican” theology, litters The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity with references to the Fathers. His treatment of the Eucharist, for example, cites many of the early fathers in support of his position. That said, you could just as easily deploy a different set of fathers against Hooker’s position, so his catholicity is not as cut-and-dried as all that.

Finally, it is worth remembering that the catholic church of medieval Latin Christendom was deeply and thoroughly Augustinian. Sts Augustine and Gregory the Great are the two most cited and read fathers throughout the entire Middle Ages. Whatever else went on in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, both movements were a reinvestment in the teachings of St Augustine of Hippo in the church’s approach to questions of justification, grace, merit, etc. Both sides are Augustinian, they just read him differently.

There’s more that could be said about the relationship of the early Protestants to Scholasticism and to the Eastern Churches and to more recent things like St Thomas a Kempis and the Devotio Moderna, but I’ll just leave it there, simply noting that a vast quantity of medieval theology and medieval piety was part of the inheritance of the Reformers and the Protestant Scholastics.

Narrow, personal answer

As I said in the last post, when I was going through a bit of a spiritual crisis during my year in Durham, my brother called me a “catholic Anglican”, and a friend sent me a copy of Alexander de Hale’s commentary on Peter Lombard about grace. Moreover, I had coffee with Father Andrew Louth at his home in Darlington. Father Andrew is a great man — he writes good, important books full of big thoughts, but is also ready to sit with a cup of coffee in his study with a young man searching for help and answers.

Anyway, those three facts about the hard year in Durham are indicative of my personal, spiritual trajectory for many years. I read books by desert monks and modern Athonite elders. I pray the Jesus Prayer. I sometimes (less than I’d like) pray Morning and Evening Prayer. I read medieval mystics. I sometimes attend Orthodox Vespers, maybe even the divine liturgy.

Add to this my embrace of the patristic heritage, including the spiritual sense of Scripture, not to mention the wonders of St Maximus the Confessor as he draws deeply from the Cappadocian well, bringing forth the beautiful synthesis of the trajectories of both Athanasius and Evagrius, and you start to see how I am pretty … catholic.

Nevertheless, I affirm the Articles of Religion, which excludes me from being Roman Catholic. I believe in justification by faith in a Luther kind of way. I also hold to a historically Anglican understanding of the relationship between Scripture and tradition. Some days, I admit that I’m not wholly certain about the Eucharist — but not because Baptist memorialists sway me to be “more ‘Protestant'”, but because St Cyril sways me to be less. Or, maybe, to be more Luther.

So, yes. Catholic. Most assuredly.

Reformed catholic? (Part one)

I think I might be Reformed?

The labels we give ourselves are not always that important — what matters in, say, a religious/spiritual “label” is that a person is seeking to know and live according to the truth. Sometimes getting the words just right can be a bit of an unhealthy obsession, though — either because you are trying to overdefine yourself, or because you are trying to watch out for every possible misinterpretation someone else could have. Beyond religion (or, rather, in the false religions of fandom):

“Not a mere Trekkie — a Trekker.” This, when I liked Star Wars more than Star Trek, led to, “What do you call a Star Wars fan?”

Anyway, why might I cautiously say I might be Reformed? What do I mean by this? Why the hesitation? Why do I couple Reformed with catholic? Am I a Calvinist papist?

For most of my life, like so many in the pre-schismatic Anglican church, I was happily and proudly Anglican, embracing the 39 Articles and BCP (and Solemn Declaration of 1893) as doctrinal norms, but fighting with the article about predestination. So, by no means a Calvinist. In fact, the common view for many of us in the Anglican Church of Canada, at least, whether liberal, conservative, evangelical, charismatic, was that we are our own thing, our own branch of Protestantism, growing in our own crooked path beside Lutherans and the Reformed, but perhaps twisting our path on some patterns clser to Rome than either, especially the Reformed.

As a teenager, the whole “Calvinism” vs “Arminianism” debate was a Thing. I remember a friend’s dad — a Baptist fellow and big fan of John Piper — asking me whether the Anglican Church was Calvinist or Arminian. And I happily said neither. I mean, when pressed, the 39 Articles skew closer to Dordt than to Arminius, but to slap the word “Calvinist” on a doctrinal standard that has nothing to do with him and everything to do with the Augustinianism of the western church — well, that seems misguided. Not that my answer at age 17 was anything like that!

But I recall asking an Anglican ordinand about this sort of thing, and he said he preferred calling himself Reformed to Calvinist. The Reformed tradition is bigger than John Calvin and is not simply his church, although he is one of its early founders. This makes sense.

But when I was asking that ordinand about such things, I was also meeting a variety of people within Anglican circles (we’re still pre-schism here, folks) who were probably New Calvinists, some of whom read more Presbyterians than Anglicans, who said things like, “Luther started the Reformation, and Calvin ended it,” who were laying claim to Anglicanism for themselves in a way that seemed to say to me, “Any vision of Anglican theology that is not New Calvinist is not real Anglicanism.”

I wasn’t interested.

As we entered the age of social media, I had my chance to play with my religious descriptors. “East-leaning, Franciscan Anglican” was one that I recall using on Facebook. I knew “Anglican” would never be enough. Anglican could mean almost anything doctrinally. And after some of the liturgical free-for-alls I’ve met, it may sometimes mean nothing liturgically, to boot!

But then I spent six/seven years in Edinburgh (9 months of this time I was going back and forth between Edinburgh and Rome). My regular Sunday church of which I eventually became a member was the Free Church of Scotland, a Reformed denomination if ever there was one. Reformed and evangelical. And, when we started, super-old school with naught but a cappella Psalms. I also frequently attended Greek Orthodox Vespers and had the local Orthodox priest as a spiritual mentor.

By the time we went to England in 2017, I was still not Reformed, but I was no longer allergic to them.

However, the church we attended with greatest frequency in Durham led to some problems in terms of self-identification. People said some crazy stuff up at the front, such as how grace does not make us holy, it only justifies us (in a narrow, forensic sense), and we stay otherwise the same. That was whack. At the same time, I was reading a lot of mediaeval canon law and Eastern Orthodox stuff, not to mention a deep dive into St Benedict. Was I even Protestant anymore? A friend of mine wondered if these labels were that helpful these days, and to help guide me pastorally, gave me his edition and translation of Alexander de Hales’ commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, specifically the sections on grace. Well, Alexander helped with the question of grace, but not the question of Protestantism!

And my brother unhelpfully said that I sounded like a catholic Anglican. That’s probably still my go-to.

Fast forward, please, to my year of unemployment, 2019-2020. During this year, I sent out tendrils everywhere seeking academic work. One place was Davenant Hall — Brad Littlejohn, the President of the Davenant Institute, did his PhD at Edinburgh a few years ahead of me, so I knew him from the time we overlapped. I was also nudged by a friend to consider doing a Cascade Companion on my favourite monastic author; these two things dovetailed in reading Brad’s Cascade Companion to Richard Hooker, Richard Hooker: A Companion to His Life and Work.

Brad Littlejohn’s work on Richard Hooker opened my eyes to what my ordinand friend had said so many years previously, about the bigness of the Reformed tradition. It also helpfully laid to rest some notions about early Anglicanism and Richard Hooker you’ve probably heard, most notably that he consciously pursued a “middle way” (via media) between Roman Catholicism and the Reformed. In fact, Richard Hooker was very much part of a large, Reformed world on both sides of the Channel. In essence, Hooker believes that those “Catholic” of Anglicanism as simply part of healthy, Reformed Christianity. I’ve no doubt misrepresented both Brad and Hooker; read the book for yourself.

Well, that made me more comfortable with the idea of being Reformed and Anglican — I didn’t have to become a New Calvinist or move to Sydney or agree with the style of preaching at St Helen’s Bishopsgate in London. *whew*

In January 2021, I started teaching for Davenant Hall, and engaging with a lot of the wonderful people associated with the Davenant Institute. My first course was “The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy”, and my second was “Augustine: The Major Works.” And now, although I’d read huge quantities of Augustine before, I read Augustine on predestination at great length for the first time (I’d read On Grace and Free Will ages ago [2006?], actually), and I really couldn’t see a way around Augustinian predestinarianism. I’d rather it were otherwise, for I have a soft spot for St John Cassian, and ever will. I will always take note of what Cassian is attempting to do in Conference 13 and why that pursuit of balance between divine sovereignty and human responsibility is important. But I simply think that Augustine is right. [Enter trolls in the comments, I assume?]

And so, over the past year, as a guy who thinks he believes in predestination, I’ve been interacting with these really great people, a lot of whom are Reformed, and I’ve even read some Bavinck, and then also, at a quicker pace, James K A Smith’s Letters to a Young Calvinist, and I’ve been seeing the breadth and diversity of the Reformed tradition, how these great thinkers old and new engage with the patristic and medieval heritage in a thoughtful way, seeking retrieval where possible, but always letting Scripture win while also pressing our forebears in the faith in terms of logic and reason.

And so I’ve learned about people like Franciscus Junius and Peter Martyr Vermigli and their relationship with Scholasticism, besides seeing living Reformed thinkers engaging with Thomas Aquinas and Maximus the Confessor and Hilary of Poitiers and all the rest — all of this in a time when I’ve also been revising my book about medieval manuscripts of a patristic pope, teaching the Fathers, teaching the medieval church, and maintaining my usual round of Orthodox thinkers.

And one of the terms I’ve seen a few times is Reformed catholic. And I’m starting to like it.