RE-APPROPRIATING THE SUBJECTIVE WITH THE OBJECTIVE
What Does the Anglican Patrimony Have to Offer the Church?
by Richard Upsher Smith Jr. in the New Oxford Review, April 2015
Professor Dr. Richard Upsher Smith Jr. teaches classics and honors at Franciscan University of Steubenville. After serving for nineteen years in the Anglican ministry, he converted to Catholicism in 2001. He recently published Ecclesiastical, Medieval, and Neo-Latin Sentences: Designed to Accompany Wheelock’s Latin (Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 2013).
November 2014 marked the fifth anniversary of the promulgation of Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus, which established personal ordinariates for Anglican converts to Roman Catholicism “so as to maintain the liturgical, spiritual and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion within the Catholic Church, as a precious gift…and as a treasure to be shared.” Anglicanorum Coetibus was not greeted with universal applause among former Anglicans already in communion with Rome, at least not among those of my acquaintance. These converts, who had left Anglicanism for what they had come to believe was the true Church, and who had been attending ordinary Novus Ordo parishes, sometimes for decades, wondered what substantial patrimony Anglicans could bring into the Church. To be sure, Anglicans have (or used to have) splendid liturgies, and their church music was incomparable, at least into the middle decades of the past century. But what do Anglicans have to give to the Church that is not of common inheritance from the pre-Reformation centuries or simply Protestant heresy?
A number of writers has tried to answer this question by taking an inventory of the strong and attractive characteristics of the Anglican heritage — for example, the Book of Common Prayer, the King James Bible, theologians like Richard Hooker and Jeremy Taylor, poets like John Donne and George Herbert, not to mention moderns like C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot. This method is useful, if only because it sets us thinking about what Anglicanism really is; but it does not arrive at the essence of Anglicanism.
The answer lies instead in the origins of Anglicanism at the beginning of modernity. Modernity came into being by means of a re-appropriation of the theology of St. Augustine. Modernity resulted from a recoiling inward of the rational soul from sacramental and natural hierarchies toward Christ, whom Augustine considered the Teacher at the apex of every single human mind. In their debate on free will, Martin Luther seemed to convict Desiderius Erasmus on precisely this point of the inward experience of Christ, of the inward assurance of one’s election by Christ. In an analogous way, René Descartes largely abandoned Scholasticism in order to ground reality in an inward, subjective certitude of the existence of the self and the self’s Creator. Thus, as Dr. Wayne J. Hankey has argued, modern subjectivity is essentially Augustinian in that it assumes unmediated access to God.
In this mental tempest, in this spiritual ferment, Anglicanism was born. While recent research has demonstrated that the majority of sixteenth-century Englishmen — clerical and lay, noble and common — were content with the liturgical and devotional practices they had inherited from the Middle Ages, royal policy and reformed theology made common cause and transformed the religion of the country at first institutionally and then finally in the hearts of the people. Thus, three hundred years later, John Henry Cardinal Newman could observe that the English were native Protestants — that is, deeply opposed to the claims made by the Roman Catholic Church for the objectivity of her sacraments and hierarchy, as well as the demand made by the hierarchy upon the lower clergy and laity for docile obedience.
This was a people profoundly shaped by the subjective Neoplatonism of Plotinus handed down by Augustine, a philosophy marked by an inward turn from the sensible world to the faculties of the human soul, and thence upward through the kindred realities of divinity to the One. This was a people who had become accustomed to a vernacular liturgy and Bible, who at some profound depth felt themselves free to judge the teaching and institutions of the Church, whose intellectual leaders were heirs of Locke and Hume and contemporaries of John Stuart Mill and Charles Darwin. As such, they could not submit to the hierarchic view of sensuous reality maintained by Rome, which saw creation and the Church as a series of descending and ascending participatory ranks and levels. Rome had received this view from the systematic Neoplatonic theologian Proclus through the teaching of the Pseudo-Dionysius, the latter of whom taught the Church how God’s love descends through the ranks of created being and ascends again to Him through the orders and sacraments of the Church.
The English were a people thoroughly shaped by modernity, and their ecclesiastical institutions were among the principal agents in that shaping. The vernacular Bible opened Scripture to all English-speakers, revealing the contradictions and radical judgments of the Word to every man, forcing him to decide whether to hold with tradition or not. The vernacular liturgy, filled with didactic elements and conducted in plain view of the congregation with plain ceremonial, encouraged the laity to seek inside themselves, as St. Augustine taught, for Christ’s confirmation of the claims made upon their rational souls by the teaching Church. The clergy were now ordained not for sanctification and sacrifice as their essential functions, but to open the Word of God to their people, to feed them in the green pastures of Scripture, and to lead them forth beside the comforting waters of what in Anglicanism are known as the two dominical sacraments (baptism and the eucharist).
Of course, this subjectivity is now native throughout the West, even among Catholics, which the following demonstrates. In St. Robert Bellarmine’s account, John Calvin’s argument for a vernacular liturgy ran this way: “From prayer that is not understood no usefulness follows…. Therefore, all prayers, whether public or private, ought to be made in the vernacular.” To which Bellarmine replied:
“It is false that no benefit is gained by the people from the public prayer of the Church, unless that prayer is understood by the people. For the prayer of the Church is not made to the people, but on behalf of the people to God. Therefore, it is not necessary that the people understand, in order that the prayer may benefit them, but it is enough that God understand. In the same way, if someone were pleading for a peasant in the presence of a king, surely the peasant could benefit from it, even if he did not understand the pleading of the lawyer.”
Now, Bellarmine’s belief in the objective and sacramental reality and efficacy of the Church’s liturgical prayer is as true today as it was in the sixteenth century. In fact, the postmodern world stands in great need of this objectivity. Yet even the most conservative contemporary Catholic — whose preference for the Tridentine liturgy, for example, has been practiced until recently in opposition to the hierarchy of the Church and thus represents the conclusions of his own subjectivity — would at least squirm on reading Bellarmine’s comparison of the role of the laity to that of an unlettered and docile rustic in the courtroom of his betters. Such uneasiness would arise from the very transformation in Western subjectivity accomplished by modernity.
At any rate, by the early eighteenth century, Anglicanism was already becoming self-reflective. This is seen in the commentary tradition on the Book of Common Prayer — most notably, in the work of the clergyman Charles Wheatley and the layman Robert Nelson. This tradition presented the Prayer Book as a comprehensive liturgy for every day and week, for each season of the church year, and for the great personal and communal moments of life. The commentators demonstrated how the Prayer Book deliberately integrates the clergy and laity into a daily round of liturgical edification, penitence, and praise. They also showed how the eucharistic lectionary, designed to teach the great moments of the faith, was complemented by the lectio continua of the Daily Offices, a relationship further explicated by David Curry as long ago as 1985, but sadly neglected by liturgists. The Prayer Book’s integration of the clergy and the laity in one common liturgy; its union of edification, penitence, and praise; and its employment of both a doctrinal lectionary and a continuous lectionary are at the heart of the Anglican patrimony. They are of its essence.
Anglicans bring this patrimony to the Catholic Church at a time when she is at last trying to evangelize modernity. The magisterial disposition to modernity was at first reactionary. Neo-Thomism, the great project initiated by Pope Leo XIII to study St. Thomas Aquinas’s Aristotelian side, was promoted to insulate Catholics from modern German idealism, interpreted as Platonic, as Dr. Hankey has argued. Neo-Thomism, however, as demonstrated by the widespread contemporary study of Thomas’s Platonic sources, is a failed historical project. Thomas was as serious a Platonist as he was an Aristotelian, so that his philosophy is as beholden to Platonic idealism as it is to Aristotelian realism. (It is even argued nowadays that Aristotle was merely the greatest of the Platonists!) Neo-Thomism can no longer buttress the weak walls of a one-sidedly Procline and Dionysian thought. The Plotinian, the Augustinian, must be re-appropriated if the Church is to re-evangelize her own people, and evangelize the surrounding world.
It is precisely here that the Anglican patrimony may be of use to Mother Church. The Prayer Book tradition effectively embodies the Augustinianism of modernity and, corrected by the objective, hierarchical, sacramental nature of its Mother, might well assist her in welcoming home those who are wandering in exile.
Dr. Philip Hughes, a great Evangelical Anglican scholar, is reported by Msgr. Jeffrey N. Steenson to have observed that Vatican II solved the difficulties about Tradition felt by the reformers of the sixteenth century. By this Dr. Hughes meant that the conciliar teaching that two equal streams — Scripture and Tradition — flow from the one spring of the Word of God has removed the objection (well-founded or not) that Rome had subordinated Scripture to Tradition. He also probably meant the new vernacular liturgy. Indeed, since the Council, Catholicism has made tremendous efforts to promote scholarship on the Scriptures, as well as the study of Holy Writ by the laity. Moreover, Rome has carried out a commendable, if ill-conceived, reformation of the reading of Scripture in the liturgy. Finally, Rome has tried to incorporate the laity more fully into the liturgy, although it has done so not only by the rational use of the vernacular but also by the irrational method of transferring clerical duties to the laity.
These are areas in which the Prayer Book tradition brings the gift of long experience to the Universal Church as she tries, so far by trial and error, and not altogether successfully, to incorporate the subjective freedom of modern man into the liturgy. For example, the Prayer Book Anglo-Catholic’s way of celebrating the Mass might assist the Church in reforming her liturgy more positively than she has been able to do so far. This ceremonial combines the stance ad orientem with the stance versus populum. The former is used for all the prayers directed to God: the Kyrie, Collects, Creed, Intercessions, Confession, Preface, Sanctus, Prayer of Consecration, Agnus Dei, Our Father, Thanksgiving, and Gloria. The latter is used not only for salutations, absolution, and blessing, but also for the Decalogue or Summary of the Law, the proclamation of the Epistle and Gospel, the Offertory Sentences, the Biddings, the Invitation to Confession, and the Absolution and Comfortable Words. This ceremonial tradition — this arabesque of edification, penitence, and praise — shows how the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the Mass might be combined so as to preserve the best of each, while eliminating certain undesirable elements.
While the Anglican patrimony has the potential to make its profoundest impact on the liturgy of the Universal Church, it might also have some influence both on Church governance and theology. A Platonic tradition exists in Anglicanism — whether one thinks of Richard Hooker’s Procline Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, the Cambridge Platonists’ rediscovery of the capacities of reason, or even the novels of Charles Williams, in which the eide erupt into mundane reality — that could provide some guidance as Roman theologians wrestle with Thomas after Neo-Thomism. Also, the absolutism of Roman clerical governance is not a necessary concomitant of the authority of the Magisterium; Anglican experiments with lay involvement in ecclesiastical polity have been responsive to the growth of modern subjectivity through the centuries — the headship of the British crown was only one such experiment! — and Anglicanism could have a contribution to make here too.
As the Universal Church admits this patrimony into her bosom, far from being obliged to cast the Protestant utterly out, she must incorporate its true insights and best elements, since the skeptical freedom of modern Western man has been shaped as much by Protestantism as by Enlightenment philosophy. As this modern subjectivity, this Augustinian rationality that assumes an unmediated access to God, now wanders the “waste-howling wilderness” of postmodernity, it must submit again, for its own health and preservation, to the mediated forms of grace God has bestowed upon His Church, and which were so present to the thinking of the Dionysian tradition. A re-appropriation of the objective is critical for postmodern man. On the other hand, the Church, for the sake of evangelism, must make herself open to this free modern subjectivity, for it is an historical fact, and its achievements — “pluralism,” the “autonomy of the temporal,” the “freedom of persons,” equality, and the impetus toward “fraternal community,” to use Jacques Maritain’s terms — must be made part of the life of the Church insofar as they are as yet inadequately realized. The Anglican experience has much to teach in this regard. This experience, embodied and transmitted in a liturgy, is indeed a tremendous patrimony and a substantial gift to the Universal Church.
“[The] single Church of Christ, which we profess in the Creed as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, ‘subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him. Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside her visible confines. Since these are gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, they are forces impelling towards Catholic unity.’”— Anglicanorum Coetibus
(Hattip for this article to Steve Cavanaugh and indirectly to Prof. William Tighe)