There is an interesting thread going around by e-mail, based on two articles by Fr Hunwicke: ‘High Church’ or ‘Catholic’? (1): Church of England Games and ‘High Church’ or ‘Catholic’? (2): within the Catholic Church. Is the distinction between some notion of shallow and hardly reverent ritualism on one hand and sound Catholic ecclesiology on the other (Fr Hunwicke would recommend conversion to Roman Catholicism since he is an Ordinariate priest).
The term High Church has a number of interpretations. Does it mean silly young men living in London and going to “spikey” churches for the sake of aestheticism and foppishness without any real Christian commitment, substance or asceticism? It is often an accusation levelled by “serious” Roman Catholics against Anglicans. The term can also describe historical theological tendencies and movements like the Caroline Divines, John and Charles Wesley and the Oxford Movement. Those men were far from shallow impostors and their priority was not elaborate liturgy. Their notion of God was one of transcendence who gives himself to man rather than the théologie d’en bas that makes God a product of human thought and feelings.
I have had precious little to do with the young fops in London and Brighton for many years, and I have had my life and disappointments with “serious Catholicism”. It is one that tends to lack compassion like so much of the modern world. I do find his distinction between (Anglo) Catholic and High Church somewhat precious, with the idea that the former are serious and the latter are all glitter and tinsel. When I left the Church of England in the early 1980’s, I was disillusioned with the London scene and it didn’t occur to me to explore more of the Anglican world, perhaps the more solid of the central tradition like in the cathedrals. Perhaps my life would have taken a different turn.
In the 1980’s, I noticed a parallel in the Roman Catholic Church, and offended not a few by making comparisons. Should we make distinctions between those who are “into” liturgy and the “serious” doctrinal conservatives? Fortunately, it just isn’t my problem. In my own church, of course I am interested in the liturgy. I do not use lace and tend to be loyal to the “Dearmerite” English ways. I use Sarum rather than Roman or baroque, but the years have given me an interest in all theological disciplines and a more sober approach generally. It is a very long time since I was a seminarian!
We English can get so enthusiastic about things. We talk and write about them, and not just get on with doing it. Life on the Continent gave me a different approach. One thing I have discovered about English life is our culinary tradition. Poverty and laziness produce crappy food, and people of our time look to the exotic for new sensations. We eat Indian, Chinese, French, Italian and all sorts of foreign recipes. We have forgotten our own traditions. It is the same with the liturgy. Anglicans became fascinated with “over-the-top” baroque Roman styles – and priests and laity will not pierce the barrier of rediscovering our English traditions that resemble church life in Normandy up to the end of the nineteenth century and even the mid twentieth in some places. Many of us English talk and write about Sarum, but not a soul over here is remotely interested in the uses of Rouen, Bayeux or Paris. The roots are the same. Things just don’t add up, but sometimes the English approach beats the whitewash-and-forget approach of continental Europeans. The tin lid is about to come down on all Christianity!
I find that Fr Hunwicke’s attitude is close to the “serious” hardcore of buzz-cut French and German traditionalists. After all, Bishop Williamson is an Anglican convert who has no sympathy with anything other than scholastic theology and strict moralism. I hardly see our Oxford don in lockstep with those who would see the world under men like Franco, Pinochet or some other two-bit Spanish-speaking dictator in the name of Christ’s “social kingship”! My own experience at Gricigliano showed me that the political sympathies of the Ecclesia Dei lot are just the same as the SSPX.
I have drifted far away from “serious” Catholicism, seeking something more compassionate and of the best of the English spirit of dialogue, reasoning and kindness. Perhaps the city fops go too far away from serious commitment, but we do need something to release the tension of being “serious” and above all taking ourselves seriously. This is something I see in my own Anglican Catholic Church. We are serious, I would like to believe, but I find no fanaticism or ideology. I find humour, compassion and friendliness in our Synod and Council of Advice. Some of our clergy are more “Roman” than I am, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Some of us wear birettas and fiddleback vestments, but are just as unselfconscious about it as many Europeans.
I tend not to use the term High Church, and I hardly ever find it in ACC circles. Some of our priests in America would prefer to identify with Old High Church than Anglo-Catholic, meaning their attachment to more central churchmanship with patristic theology and historical studies. I have a lot of sympathy with Archbishop Peter Robinson, though I prefer to use Sarum rather than the Prayer Book rite for Mass. That kind of “high church” is totally different from “lace queen” fops at St Mary’s in Bourne Street!
The distinction is often made in a derogatory fashion to make “ritualists” shrink in the face of the converts to Roman Catholicism juggernaut. The reductio ad absurdam would identify the “serious” Catholics as those who are in communion with the Pope, and those left behind are fake Catholics and deceivers – the triumph of American conservative Catholicism. For many of us who are committed (though sinful) Christians, being reduced to that bleak choice would alienate us from our own beliefs. Is it time to “die” like the rest of the population, or find new life through other and less “orthodox” channels?
Perhaps many of the fops we denigrate have the compassion and love that eludes the rest of us or the “serious” set. The Church has always been of weak and strong, and those of us who discover through having been attracted to the spiritual by things like beauty and sensuality. I too am done with the Pharisees and inquisitors or our time, and would like to see a kind of Christianity that may have to die like all of us, but one that has not betrayed the spirit of Christ and the Gospel.