|The Hon. Frederick|
of Canterbury at the
time of the American
Revolution and uncle of
the famous General
Well, let me get to the next chapter of the Church of England and then I will revisit the challenge the Church faces in preaching the Gospel in this “Postmodern” culture. I also need to return to my series on why the Liturgical Reforms of and since the 1970 Missal are an improvement over the preconciliar rite. But that in time.
By the end of the eighteenth century the Church of England still had its Latitudinarian leadership but there was a strong Evangelical movement that had over time morphed into what we generally call “Low Church.” Today “Low Church” and “Evangelical” are somewhat synonymous terms. I should also like to clarify my personal prejudices at this point. I tend to prefer the Low Church/Evangelical approach, at least when it doesn’t shy away from sound Biblical scholarship in favor of a somewhat crazed fundamentalism. I find, in my limited experience of Anglicanism, that the Diocese of Sydney and a number of Churches in the “Global South” are somewhat religious Neanderthals when it comes to a biblical literalism and gross ignorance of Christianity’s theological and intellectual heritage. But then every religion has its Raymond Burkes and the accompanying entourage of flying monkeys. I have always felt comfortable with the Church of Ireland brand of Anglicanism which has a tradition of theological (and musical) quality but avoids liturgical exaggerations. In fact, when in Dublin I tend to prefer Sundays at Saint Patrick’s over the pro-Cathedral. I especially like Sunday Evensong after a few gins and tonic and a plate of smoked salmon for lunch; it gives one a cozy feeling, especially when the Dean seems to have had his gins and tonic as well and officiates with that blasé indifference one can only find among the smarter set. One gets all the sentiment of piety without any sort of ugly demands to take a serious look at one’s life.
The Evangelicalism of 18th century Anglicanism was not so much a return to the biblical roots of Christianity as it was a resurrection of its Calvinist heritage which had more or less been abandoned in the Anglicanism of the Anglican Divines and then whatever trace remained shoved into schism with some of the Non Conformist sectaries after 1660. The theological cross-pollinizing of the First Great Awakening reintroduced to the Anglican evangelicals from the New England Congregationalists a terror that one might be among the pre-destined damned and a certainty that one’s neighbors of differing religious persuasions most definitely were. Suddenly and once again the Pope was the Antichrist and the flames of hell were already licking the toes of anyone who was not prepared to give himself or herself totally and personally to Jesus in total repentance of sins, real and imagined.
Now the Achilles’ heal of this sort of Evangelicalism is that it is so personal a religion that it does away with any role for the Christian community and the means of grace (such as the Sacraments) which we Catholics (and moderate Protestants) believe Christ has endowed his Church to assist us on our pilgrim journey. It is pure “Jesus and Me” experience. The Church is not a visible and tangible fellowship of believers but a spiritual and invisible association known only to God and comprised of those who are marked for salvation. No wheat and tares growing together in this field, only the righteous. No sinners need apply. (It is interesting how this Calvinist ecclesiology has infected the Katholik Krazies and their desire for a “Church of the Pure” that pushes out the gates of heaven any one who does not conform to their particular moral code.)
Nevertheless Evangelicalism grew strong in late 18th and early 19th century Church of England. It resonated with the English sense of propriety and at the same time gave some release to emotions the English so normally hold in reserve. Since it stressed private—rather than corporate—devotion, this emotionalism was something most often expressed in one’s private prayer rather than in public. It was usually intensely moralistic and quite black and white when it came to sin, especially sin of an alcoholic or sexual nature. As it was linked to the banking and merchant class it didn’t trouble itself with most social sin, save for its abhorrence of slavery. Most in this socio-economic class did not depend on slaves for their economic well-being though some did make their fortunes in the slave trade. (The American situation was quite different, of course, but in the period after 1782 we need to examine the Episcopal Church in the United States separately from the Church of England.)
The Low Church party with its commitment to a Calvinist theology undermined the very nature of “Church.” But the doctrine of double predestination not only made the Sacraments in general somewhat superfluous practices, it abolished the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. It was unnecessary to be “born again” if one was destined for salvation from all eternity and fruitless to be “born again” in baptism if one was damned from all eternity. By the opening decades of the 19th century the Church of England had removed itself from the heritage of the Church of the first millennium. Yes, it had the prayer-book and its liturgy, children were still being baptized and Holy Communion was still being administered. But the prayer-book was no more than a set of bland prayers and ceremonies to bring English order to chaos; baptism was a social convention; and Holy Communion was only for the pious who still took seriously the doctrine of the Atonement. At Oxford, the few and bookish remnants of High Church Anglicanism realized that their Church had gone off the rails and severed its lifeline with classic Christianity. Change was no longer an option.