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Relating to Romanism

21 November 2014

Paul Avis looks at how High Anglicans stood their ground despite high-profile secessions

The Fantasy of Reunion: Anglicans, Catholics and ecumenism, 1833-1882
Mark D. Chapman
Oxford University Press £60.95
Church Times Bookshop £54.90 (Use code CT318 )

WE TEND to think of the ecumenical movement as a 20th- century phenomenon. But Mark Chapman has given us a fascinating overture to modern ecumenism. It is an enthralling story of bold, brave, and sometimes misguided initiatives, mainly involving Anglicans and Roman Catholics, in the middle quarters of the 19th century, between John Henry Newman's secession to Rome (1845) and the turbulent aftermath of the First Vatican Council (1870-71).

In the first phase, a Romantic vision of the Middle Ages, inspired chiefly by the poetry and novels of Sir Walter Scott, generated fantasies of a restored feudal Europe and a united Western Church. (Why is Scott not mentioned in the book?) The central figures are the architect A. W. N. Pugin and the lord of the manor Ambrose Phillipps de Lisle, both recruits to Roman Catholicism. Their initiative, fanciful and unrealistic though it was, was torpedoed behind the scenes by Henry Edward Manning, a former Anglican and later Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, for whom no epithet was too harsh or hurtful for the Church of England.

In mid-century, the hero is Edward Bouverie Pusey, the leader of the Oxford Movement after Newman's departure. Pusey emerges as the embattled but indefatigable exponent of classical Anglicanism against the innovations of Rome, and with striking affinities to the Anglican Reformers and apologists of the 16th century. Pusey issued a threefold Eirenicon setting out the Anglican platform of the scriptures and the teaching of the "Primitive Church". Scandalised by excessive popular Latin devotions, especially to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Pusey called repeatedly for the Vatican to define what was de fide (neces-sary to be believed for salvation). Do we need to take on a raft of superstitious cults in order to be reconciled to the Roman Catholic Church?

Pusey's method was to pile up evidence from the Early Church, citing Father after Father. He was on a mission to explain, and was inclined to tell Roman Catholics what their Church actually taught. Newman, accusing him of "discharging his olive branch as if from a catapult", retorted that Catholicism was not merely an intellectual matter, but was found in the hearts and lives of simple folk. Catholicism was a complete package, including superstitions and excesses, to be embraced without repining. Pusey's was a theology of the word: textual, historical, logical. Newman's was a theology born of the heart's devotion: history held no ultimate answers, and logic was at the disposal of feeling.

Pusey and his disciple, Alexander Forbes, Bishop of Brechin and the first Tractarian bishop, fought to avert a declaration of papal infallibility. They proposed to send a set of theses, summarising the Anglican position, to Rome. Newman showed them that you do not negotiate with the Vatican. The more you explain, the more there will be available to condemn. The dogma of papal infallibility of 1870 was seen as a catastrophe by Pusey, killing off all hope of rapprochement (John Keble had given up hope after the dogma of the immaculate conception was promulgated in 1854). Pusey and Forbes saw papal infallibility as trumping history, the victory of an Ultramontane ideology that had betrayed the heritage of the Undivided Church.

Vatican I was not the end of Anglican ecumenical hopes, which turned instead to the emerging national Catholic Churches that rejected papal infallibility and universal jurisdiction and later became the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht (1889). At this stage, the main figures are W. E. Gladstone, whose booklet The Vatican Decrees sold 150,000 copies; H. P. Liddon, the protégé and biographer of Pusey; Professor Döllinger of Munich, regarded as the most learned man in Christendom, who could teach not only Roman Catholics but also Eastern Orthodox what their Church believed (he was excommunicated by Rome, but never joined the Old Catholics); and Eduard Herzog, the first bishop of the Swiss "Christian Catholics", who toured England and the United States praising the catholicity of the "Anglo-American Church".

Anglicans and Old Catholics were to have "one altar" and to share in episcopal consecrations; for was not the Church of England both "old" and "Catholic"? The initial fervour of Anglican churchmen subsided when it became clear that the reform movement among episcopal Churches on the Continent was not going to spread like wildfire, and lovers of unity turned their attention to the developing Anglican Communion.

What was at stake in these passionate encounters of proto-ecumenism was the Catholicity of the Church and how that was to be tested and known: was it by the touchstone of scripture, history, and theology, or by an infallible living voice? Keble, Pusey, and Gladstone chose one way, Newman and Manning the other.

There is much to admire and much to learn in Chapman's skilful narrative. The title is arresting, but sounds a trifle cynical. Sometimes it is the Holy Spirit who inspires "sons and daughters to prophesy, old men to see visions, and young men to dream dreams".

The Revd Dr Paul Avis is General Secretary of the Church of England's Council for Christian Unity, an honorary professor in the University of Exeter, and editor of Ecclesiology.


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