Old high churchmanship and moving on

I have been giving a little further thought to the notion of “old high church” as opposed to attempts to replicate post-Tridentine Roman Catholicism in an Anglican context. Over the last few years, using internet and the computer, I find dimensions of Anglicanism that I hardly experienced in England in the 1970’s when I was a teenager.

I have the impression that there is a certain amount of historical reconstructionism, especially by Americans, of an idealised seventeenth-century Anglican via media that rejected both Roman Catholicism à la Louis XIV and the fanatical iconoclastic Puritans. The one difficulty about Anglicanism is that it only really finds its stability and unity when founded on the English Establishment. Pockets of “old high churchmanship” can still be found in some of the Guild churches of the City of London and other places where “old fogeyism” and stuffy gentlemen hang out. The dark Jacobean oak panels, the large clocks under the organ gallery, the smell of beeswax polish, old wood and dust, the cracked plaster ceilings of those little Wren buildings that miraculously survived the Blitz of 1940 – it is all tempting for someone who has distant memories of London.

Are there specific tenets about “old high churchmanship” beyond memories of the City of London and the occasional conservative country parish? There is of course knowledge of the Jacobean and Caroline Divines, a vision of late Elizabethan churchmanship, but how accessible is all that to the average churchgoer? How many Roman Catholics are familiar with the philosophy of Aristotle and the Summa Theologica of St Thomas Aquinas?

When I was a teenager, before discovering the “spikey” places in London, I heard about central churchmanship mainly from adverts in the Church Times for organists. We called it “middle of the road”, like some of the churches where I played the organ or sung in the choir. These churches usually had the Prayer Book or at least one of the alternative service books in traditional thee-thou language. The usual hallmarks were two candles on the altar and not six, no incense but usually the use of vestments or at least a coloured stole over the alb and not a black tippet. The Eucharist was usually eastward-facing, though I saw the facing-the-people way coming in, usually by the wooden altar being moved forward just enough for the Vicar to squeeze behind it. The hymn book was usually Hymns Ancient and Modern Revised, which is a very good hymn book, and the Psalms were sung to Anglican chant. That is central churchmanship to someone who hasn’t done all the reading of literature that isn’t easy for people of our time.

One tenet, which is essentially in the doctrinal / scholastic approach, is the notion that everything has to be backed up by the explicit words of the Holy Scriptures. It sets the Bible up as an autonomous magisterium and oracle, over the life of the Church, replacing one “pope” by another rather than a more “communion” approach. It occurs to me that it is just post-Renaissance apologetics designed to beat the Papists at their own game. If we remain stuck in this dialectic, no one is going to get anywhere. We are also no longer in the days of gentlemen wearing wigs and swords and kings getting their heads chopped off!

I have always been quite embarrassed and bored by endless tales of double predestination and other manifestations of baroque scholasticism, from either side of the Tiber or the Medway, whichever way you look at it. Are we not fiddling while Rome burns?

Perhaps central churchmanship can be defined by a spirit of sobriety, plainness, the same kind of thing as you find in monasteries. The church has few statues or other decorations. The lines of the architecture are clean and simple, uncluttered. Beauty can be found in simplicity and symmetrical harmony. We find this spirit also in French and Dutch Jansenism, in a reaction against the excesses of baroque sensualism. I can sympathise with this quest for a moderate position between symbolism and sensuality on one side and sobriety and intellectualism on the other. The purer and contemplative soul has less need of sensual stimulation in order to arrive at contemplation. Perhaps the key to central churchmanship is less the old polemical positions against Calvinism and Roman Catholicism, but an appeal to the spirit of monasticism and its adaptation for those who are not monks.

Many of the preoccupations of Reformation theologians centred on the medieval abuses and simplistic catechesis designed for barely evangelised people. The Church has always had to strike a compromise with the religious instincts it found in the people it evangelised. The Druids were evangelised in much the same way as animists in Africa these days. How far do you go in constraint and punishing the old superstition out to get the “pure Gospel” in? The balance between Monotheism and popular religion goes far back into the Old Testament, and the notion of Israel’s fidelity to the Covenant is centred exactly on this question. The Reformation was essentially an attempt to prune back the accretions of popular religion to impose strict Judeo-Christian Monotheism, and the via media men and the Roman Catholics sought a pastoral compromise.

When this fundamental concept is apprehended, the rest is seen as a coherent whole. While some central churchmen engage in arguments and apologetics in the same way as scholastic Roman Catholics, others seek a more devotional and liturgical approach. Having been brought up to be “moderate” in all things, eschewing extremes and seeking a compromise, this is how I approach my use of the Sarum liturgical rites. I do not engage in historical reconstructionism in the way academic musicians play baroque music using period instruments, but I use the rites in the same spirit that religious priests use the proper rite of their Order.

There are big problems with the mutilated Prayer Book rites, evidenced by the constant attempts to reconstruct and repair them. The 39 Articles reflect a stage of theological scholarship of embarrassing archaism. Theological scholarship has moved on, as in the Roman Catholic Church, the Ressourcement “new” theologians grew out of St Thomas Aquinas, Bellarmine and Cajetan. They were labelled Modernists for their trouble! The foundational idea is great, but there has to be onward movement. The Church is not a club of American Civil War enthusiasts meeting once a year with their horses, uniforms, guns and blank ammunition.

The rite for the Eucharist in an Anglican context is a difficult one. I see no really viable alternative other than a classical English translation (or simply in the original Latin) of the old Use of Sarum or an invented rite. The alternative is that of the Anglo-Papalists using the Roman rite in English (English Missal or Novus Ordo) or constantly modifying and improving their eclectic creations – as has proved the bane of Anglicanism over the past century.

Tolerance is another great intuition in the via media idea, and that can go very far. Do we tolerate sin? On the other hand, do we persecute all those who are not in complete agreement with the strongest and most predatory men who occupy the Church institutions? The dividing line is all too brief.

Do we try to replicate the London Guild churches with their oak panels and fogeys both old and young? One thing that is lost in post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism, and also in the traditionalist communities is the notion of the Divine Office being tied to the church rather than individual clergy. I have not known the full fare of Mattins, Litany and Communion in parish churches. In Kendal Parish Church where I sung in the choir, we had Mattins three times a months and Sung Eucharist once a month (on the other Sundays, the Eucharist was a quiet congregational family service at 9 am – before Mattins). On occasions, we sang the Litany. We naturally had Choral Evensong every Sunday with a full service setting, versicles and responses and an anthem. When a church no longer has the Office, it dies. I see so many churches over here in France with choir stalls and lecterns for the coped precentors – and no one now remembers what all that was for! You now have to go to a monastery to find the fullness of the Office – and even then, not just any monastery.

Historically, there have been the difficulties faced by clergy when opposed by irrational Protestant prejudice and institutional inertia. They stuck to the Prayer Book because they would get further and face less opposition.

What I find very appealing in the central church movement, as I have mentioned, is the sobriety. I am aesthetically attracted to the “Percy Dearmer” type of church restoration or the more exuberant Comper and other architects nurtured in the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement. I had my fill at Gricigliano of lace albs and overloaded altars – and am “back at home” with plain linen and simple altars. I use the vestments I have, even though some are “Roman” – it matters little.

My schooling was also important in the “central” way – not too much religion beyond daily chapel and divinity classes. Our faith was more on the sports field or hard rowing in an eight on the Ouse. We were being trained for the English Establishment – or what still remained of it in the 1970’s, or more particularly schooled for success in professional and family life, which is what education is all about. I have kept much of that spirit, though I loathe the spirit of competition, and it has inspired me in my love of the sea, managing in life and finding a solution for every difficulty. For me, it is of paramount important to keep a Christian leaven in everything we do and take Christ far and wide outside church. We don’t go about “evangelism” the American way – ramming it down people’s throats, but through trying to aim ourselves for excellence in everything, kindness and every virtue.

I read in a piece by Bishop Peter Robinson:

Ceremonial was deliberately moderate, with the traditional Laudian idea of the beauty of holiness being given moderate rein. The overall ethos was one of orthodoxy, duty and devotion tempered by an abhorrence of fanaticism, the usual British reserve, and a fear of appearing Pharasaical.

That is exactly me. The big problem is whether this way has a future between an increasingly intransigent Roman Catholicism, fundamentalist Protestantism and secular “political correctness”. I look at the Continuing Anglican Churches, and make many allowances for the fact they have to affirm ideas independently from the Establishment I knew as a boy. I have installed my little chapel, but what will become of it after my death! I suppose a few bits and pieces may be left to other priests or sold. Sic transit Gloria mundi! I might be remembered as the eccentric English priest in France who used the taboo Sarum liturgy! It is of so little importance.

We need to be wary of navel-gazing and trying to set ourselves out and above. The fanatics and the secularists are going to win this one, and our vocation is to the contemplative cloister in one way or another, either as proper monks in habits or loners sailing boats on the sea. I am not bothered about whether we are doing things exactly like in the early Church. We know too little about it and how things were in those days. I am not interested in replicating the fifteenth, seventeenth or nineteenth centuries – but in learning from the whole of the Church’s tradition to take the Gospel of Christ into the future.

There are things one can do in America, because people get enthusiastic about things and lack the jaded cynicism of us Europeans. But there are limits as the Continuing Churches find it difficult to find references and landmarks for identity, stability and cohesion. People have to be free and not constrained to follow extremely narrow limits of conformity, something awfully European and not at all American!

I enjoy reading men like Bishops Robinson and Lee Poteet of another less-known Continuing jurisdiction. The ideal is there. It is just that the way of bringing it to fruition is not simple. It is the same with monasticism or rural parochial Catholicism. There has to be a whole social fabric that is now missing, swept away by the influence of fundamentalism (or intégrisme in its most generic meaning) and secularism. Perhaps, ironically, the least unfavourable context for central Anglicanism would be – England and the Church of England. Perhaps more harm is done through separation than by staying put and weathering the storm. I flipped as a young man and swam the Tiber – and have paid for it ever since. Ethnicity is something so easy to throw away and so difficult to recover.

Finally, we will not find the “call” by joining one church or another, because it is within each one of us. The Kingdom of God is within, and it is only when we find peace there that we can spread peace around ourselves. Perhaps my ideas are still a little muddled, as I have been so badly hurt by the TAC fiasco and the subject of my now-defunct English Catholic blog, but I still have peace and hope. As I learned during my months with the Benedictines at Triors Abbey – now fifteen years ago, the essential is our own self-stripping (kenôsis) and silence – and then God can do his work…

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4 Responses to Old high churchmanship and moving on

  1. ed pacht says:

    “Finally, we will not find the “call” by joining one church or another, because it is within each one of us. The Kingdom of God is within, and it is only when we find peace there that we can spread peace around ourselves. Perhaps my ideas are still a little muddled, as I have been so badly hurt by the TAC fiasco and the subject of my now-defunct English Catholic blog, but I still have peace and hope. As I learned during my months with the Benedictines at Triors Abbey – now fifteen years ago, the essential is our own self-stripping (kenôsis) and silence – and then God can do his work…”

    Well put. I’m in accord with the spirit of this piece and resonate well with most of what you say. I think the real genius of Anglicanism rests precisely in the concept of “via media”. The concept may have arisen as an attempt to compromise between Romanism and Calvinism (though I would strongly question that) but it led very quickly to the very Patristic realization that taking any idea, however sound in itself, to the limits of its logic always leads to that form of imbalance known as heresy. At its best the old high church approach leads to the beauty of balance in both theology and practice, though this too can be carried too far and produce a fundamentalism of the center.

    I am pleased to be a continuing Anglican precisely because not everyone agrees with me on all things, and precisely because there is not liturgical uniformity, but rather endless variety within an identifiable tradition. Seeking the balance between seeming incompatibles has become a keystone of my thinking in all matters, not merely theological. Unfortunately, though this is indeed (in my perception) the core of what makes us Anglican, there is a constant tendency for many to fall off the balance to one side or another, and controversies are always getting blown out of proportion, to the detriment of our witness and the hurt of many of our own. That needs to end.

  2. I’ve recently tried to determine if there was an “old high church” consensus at my blog: http://solideogloria10.blogspot.com/2012/05/theological-portrait-of-old-high.html. I would like to hear your thoughts.

    • I always feel quite strange looking at these “ideal Anglican” blogs. I suppose it’s because I am an Englishman and my origins were in the Church of England. If we have to have museum religion, I prefer the 15th century to the 17th. But we are in the 21st, and history has happened. There have been theological and liturgical movements. Rome has changed from the days of the Borgias. I just don’t care about things like “double predestination” and Calvin and that sort of thing. We just have to make the best of it.

      My intuition is to find the influence of monasticism in its varying degrees of commitment and adaptation to people who are not monks or nuns. That way we can find the balance between “devotional sensuality” and “pure” Monotheism – or the Christian equivalents of Epicureanism and Stoicism.

  3. James Morgan says:

    I’m always rather puzzled by posts like this since I’m an ‘anglican revert’ who went to Orthodoxy, and am still puzzled. I long for the pastoral ministry that I had long ago, when a priest would sit down and talk with me about my predicaments and such, and not try to drown me out by his pontifications etc. I’m getting too old (at 76 years) to listen to young punk priests drowning me out.

    Give me an honest monastic (ergo: humble, not egocentric clergy, male or female to nail me) but an honest quasi-agnostic like myself to just converse!

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