This is the first part of a paper delivered at the conference “Anglo-Catholicism: Uncovering Roots,” Church of the Advent, Boston, November 15-16.

Anglican Catholicism and the reformation of ecclesial order

I. Introduction and Definitions

I must confess that I am not sure I understand the meaning of the principal term of this mini-conference’s title about which we are invited to speak: Anglo-Catholicism. The Humean empiricist, visiting any number of parishes, chaplaincies, or dioceses that self-designate under the moniker Anglo-Catholic, would find it difficult to discover any real coherent center that binds them all together. From the Diocese of Forth Worth to the Society of St. John the Evangelist, from Christ Church New Haven or the Diocese of Albany to Pusey House, Oxford, and not excluding the so-called Biretta Belt of the Northern Midwest, of which our institutional neighbor, Nashotah House, might be said to be the pompom — the untutored pilgrim making her way through such a wondrous and varied landscape would depart with many field notes and even more questions. A minori ad maius, the difficulty of defining the adjective Anglo-Catholic raises the question of whether or how we might meaningfully speak of a reified Anglo-Catholicism. Given such complexities, I should like to make a brief note here about how I will be using these terms.

There are two principal ways of speaking of Anglo-Catholicism. The first is to speak of Anglo-Catholicism as a matter of “taste.” One might associate this stream, at its best, with a kind of ascetical and aesthetical piety, and at its worst with a kind of fussy and spikey second-wave ritualism of the sort lampooned by Anthony Trollope, G.K. Chesterton, and Evelyn Waugh. The second principal way to speak about Anglo-Catholicism is not as a matter of taste, but as a matter of truth. It is in this latter sense that I mean it. Because of the definitional tension, I prefer to speak instead of Anglican Catholicism, as I have in my title, to indicate both a rootedness in Anglo-Catholic theology and piety as well as an openness to new ecumenical, evangelical, and Pentecostal gifts now evident throughout the Church catholic.


II. A 20th-century Typology

It is well known that the preservation of apostolic succession, as expressed to a large degree by the maintenance of the historic episcopate, is one of the principal arguments marshaled by Anglicanism (as well as by Swedish Lutheranism) in defense of its possession of a catholic identity. And yet, as the persistent extremes of Anglo-puritanism and Anglo-papalism manifest, the episcopacy remains an irritant as well as a catholic rallying point within the Church’s divided life. This paper explores both the past and future prospects of the episcopacy (and its discontents) as conceived by Anglican Catholic theologians, in an attempt to better understand this traditional hallmark of the Church’s universal life. In consists of three broad movements. First, I will offer a twofold typology of Anglican Catholic cases for the episcopacy in the 20th century: the Ignatian-Cyprianic view, represented by Michael Ramsey, and the Augustinian view, represented by Oliver O’Donovan. As a means of gaining some historical perspective on these two options, I will turn to one of the less studied “roots” of Anglican Catholic tradition: Francis à Sancta Clara, a 17th-century convert to Roman Catholicism who, as a Franciscan monk, wrote an ecumenical defense of the English episcopate against the Puritans, Erastians, and Jesuits alike, in friendly dialogue with the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. In a third section, I will return to the present and make a constructive proposal about how these theological and historical observations might catalyze a development (I won’t say reform) of the episcopate in the American Episcopal Church.

Michael Ramsey’s Cyprianic Defense of Bishops in The Gospel and the Catholic Church

First things first. Supposing you and I had both been educated in Episcopal seminaries sometime in the second half of the 20th century and we were playing a game of “theological association.” If I said historic episcopate, the first term to pop into your head would likely be Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. If you had had a good patristics teacher in seminary, as I did, you might also remember something about the development of a “mono-episcopate” in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch and the “birth of Catholic episcopal order” in second-century Asia Minor. If, as an Anglican, you also had an inexplicable preferential option for triplets, such as the Trinity or three-legged stools, you might also associate the historic episcopate with a book by Michael Ramsey written before he was an archbishop called The Gospel and the Catholic Church.[1]

In the central chapter of his seminal work, “The Gospel and the Episcopacy,” Ramsey asks the question that many today still consider to be at the heart of the issue: “Does the developed structure of the Episcopacy fulfil the same place in the Church and express the same truth as did the Apostles’ office in Samaria and in Corinth and throughout the Apostolic Church?”[2] Although some might wish to quibble with the “primitivist” framing of Ramsey’s question, at least from an apologetic standpoint — particularly when defending the place of bishops to various Neo-puritan groups — the question of continuity looms large. As evidence of this, one need only survey Alistair Stewart’s recent monograph, The Original Bishops: Office and Order in the First Christian Communities, which presents a not wholly convincing takedown of the “consensus” narrative about the development of the three-fold ministry championed by Ramsey.[3] Stewart’s book indicates that Ramsey’s question was and remains on the money for many.

One finds in Ramsey’s chapter much that is commendable, including his hallmark case for the synergy of Gospel and Patristic ecclesiology: in Ramsey’s words, “the structure is now more definite, it is specially related to the Eucharist … but the structure still expresses the Gospel.”[4] Ramsey’s case rests upon his championing of Ignatius of Antioch’s myriad metaphors of the Church as a temple or well-tuned lyre, all undergirded by Ignatius’ watchword: “do nothing without the bishop!”[5]

What is surprising in Ramsey’s treatment is not this foregrounding of Ignatius’s letters, but his treatment of two other Latin fathers: Cyprian and Augustine. Here, I recognize, I am dangerously close to committing the sin of “exposing my father’s nakedness.” Indeed, it would be unfair of me to criticize Ramsey for not knowing the blossoming of neo-Augustinian Catholic thought of the last few decades, nor to take into account further developments in his own ecclesiology. Still, insofar as we are speaking as a family here, I think it is critical to take a look at the old photo album for the sake of honesty and in the hope of moving forward together in a spirit in which Ramsey himself would approve.

Ramsey’s unexpected narrative surfaces in a later chapter of The Gospel and the Catholic Church titled “The Church of the Fathers.” Here, it is Cyprian who emerges as the hero of the Western ecclesiological tradition. Writes Ramsey,

In S. Cyprian the place of the Episcopate as an organ of unity, unfolded first in St. Ignatius and S. Irenaeus, finds full and systematic exposition. The Church’s unity is unbreakable; its oneness is of the charity of God, and only in this oneness can the charity of God be known and lived. Hence the separation from the Church means separation from God.”[6]

Augustine, to the contrary, although taking up the mantle of Cyprian in the Donatist controversy, emerges in Ramsey’s narrative as the fall guy who opens the door to a dangerous liberalism that fails to defend the principle extra ecclesiam nulla salus. Again, quoting Ramsey,

In his longing for peace S. Augustine abandoned the rigid and Cyprianic view that baptism and orders are invalid outside the Church. … He urged the laxer view, and the laxer view prevailed. But if this new view was ‘broader,’ it contained the seeds of much perversity in later history. For while the Cyprianic view makes orders utterly dependent upon the Church and validity a part of the Church’s single life in grace, the Augustinian view leaves room for thinking of orders as valid apart from the church’s corporate life and for the idea of succession by orders as a single and isolated channel of grace. S. Augustine has ‘broadened’ Church theory; but he has opened the way for a line of thought which glories in the name of Catholic but which severs the doctrine of orders from the doctrine of the Body of Christ.[7]

Despite his evident respect for Augustine, Ramsey brings him up on the charge of “liberalizing,” recognizing orders and thereby legitimate succession “outside the church”; this makes room, according to Ramsey, for an overly juridical understanding of apostolic succession. One may detect here Ramsey’s critique of both the High and Broad Church movements, severed as they are from his preferred Cyprianic model and his Evangelical-Lutheran emphasis on the Gospel. Space does not permit me to engage in a historical critique of Ramsey’s work as a scholar of Augustine.[8] Suffice it to say that while the liberalizing charge might be fair in a certain sense, it remains unclear that this was, even from a traditionalist point of view, a bad thing. Nor does it entirely ring true that Cyprian rather than Augustine is the true possessor of the Gospel spirit.

Oliver O’Donovan and the New-Augustinian Defense of Bishops

As a proof of this, I would like to adduce a second 20th-century voice for whom Augustine is the principal conduit of the continuity of the gospel and church order: Oliver O’Donovan. O’Donovan, who has held teaching positions at the Wycliffe Halls of both Oxford and Toronto, would perhaps be amused to find himself featured in a conference on Anglo-Catholicism. He is, on the other hand, someone who has written in his monumental work of Christian politics, The Desire of the Nations, as passionate an evangelical defense of the goods of Catholic Christendom — including at least hinting at the centrality of bishops in Anglican order — as could be hoped for. If Ramsey is an Anglo-Catholic, he is also as Newman was, a one-time evangelical. And here, given our interest in Anglican rather than Anglo-Catholic Roots, O’Donovan has considerable gifts to offer.

Although The Desire of the Nations is primarily a book about Christian politics and the kingdom of God, O’Donovan finds it necessary to write a chapter on “The Church” in order to differentiate the ecclesial order from that of the kingdom and to address questions of church and state that are required for any citizen of a country with an established state religion. His argument about the church — although situated in a wider matrix of political theology — can be summarized by way of three central theses that he poses:

1. We assert first the true character of the church as a political society. This term is used (of course) analogously. … But it is not used metaphorically as, for example, one may use it of societies that have political features to them but are essentially constituted to discharge a special function in society . … It is ruled and authorized by the ascended Christ alone and supremely; it therefore has its own authority; and it is not answerable to any other authority that may attempt to subsume it.[9]

In this first thesis, O’Donovan argues against any Erastian arrangement, in which the church has its source of authority and its internal order from the state. One might find here insinuated (though not quite explicitly) a defense of bishops (see below), under the scepter of Christ the King, as possessing a real political power. O’Donovan goes on to qualify this statement in a second thesis:

2. In the second place, however, we assert that the political character of the church, its essential nature as a governed society, is hidden, to be discerned by faith as the ascended Christ who governs it is to be discerned by faith. Experienced from within, the church is a community of obedience and freedom, a society under the law of Christ, heedful of his commands and direction and enjoying the freedom from all other lordships that he has won for it. Looked at from the outside, it presents the appearance of a functional religious organism rather than a political one.[10]

What O’Donovan gives with the one hand, he appears to rescind with the other. Christ is the sole political authority in the church and no other order is visible. Does this mean that there is no place for a Peter or Apostolic office under the scepter of Christ? Surely, moreover, a threefold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons, if visible from the inside, would also be recognizable from the outside?

O’Donovan goes on to clarify this paradox in a third thesis:

3. How then may we describe [1.] the church’s political character as [2.] a community ruled by Christ? One formal principle must be respected: we are to speak distinctly of the church’s catholicity, on the one hand, and of its order, on the other.[11]

Here, O’Donovan lays out the twin arches of his ecclesiological edifice. Perhaps counterintuitively (to the Cyprianic catholic), the church’s “catholicity” is governed by its freedom in the Holy Spirit. The church’s “order,” by contrast, flows from the kingly order she receives from the risen and ascended Jesus. In this Trinitarian structure, O’Donovan holds together in delicate balance the Anglican need to articulate a source of apostolic succession (by way of the ministry of Jesus) and the Catholic need to be open to the promptings of the Spirit. As O’Donovan further explains:

The catholic identity of the church derives from the progress of the Spirit’s own mission. It is therefore always larger than its ordered structures, taking its shape from the new ground that the spirit is possessing.[12]

This starting point, however, does not authorize us to conclude that order is a matter of indifference. Here, the tradition of Geneva upheld an important element of catholic tradition in resistance to the spiritualising of the church in earlier Anglican and Lutheran reforms ….. A certain structuring of the church’s life is given with that life. Many local and temporal adaptations of church order are conceivable, and many have been practiced. Yet we expect some abiding signs, some marks of identification which will stamp a formal identity on the community and confirm, in instituted practices, that we may look for a ‘catholic shape’ within it. Catholicism and order are related as substance and form.[13]

In this stunning tour de force of a paragraph, O’Donovan gives, and then takes away, and then gives again the traditional marks of ecclesial ministerial order, particularly the order of bishops. On the one hand, he appears to admit the possibility of “many local and temporal adaptations” which sounds far too comprehensive to require bishops. But he then suggests a definitive “catholic shape” must be found in all of these local adaptations. With such an imperative, one might be able to embrace a variety of local patterns of ministerial orders within the church’s catholicity, while also admitting that some conform more closely to the “ideal form” of order that flows from the monarchical authority of Christ.

The critical question, to use O’Donovan’s philosophical terminology, is whether the church’s single Catholic substance can in fact be “formed” by a series of distinct local “orders” at the same time. Would such a multiplicity of forms, even if judged by a single preferred archetype, disfigure the substance of the Catholic Church? Or might we find, beneath the imperfect Aristotelian analogy offered by O’Donovan, a critical safeguard against the perennial practical attractions of Donatism?

As a matter of ecumenical fact, a description like O’Donovan’s — of the Church as of single substance with multiple forms — is required to embrace even the catholicity of the Roman and Orthodox communions in a single church, with their differing understandings of diaconal, episcopal, metropolitan, and primatial order. As Anglicanism has sought in the last century to recognize the catholicity of each of these communions, it seems impossible to not to admit some degree of deformation of the Church’s substance; she is not yet the radiant bride that she shall be.

Although O’Donovan refuses to construct a full “theology of orders” in this chapter, reserving that task for another time, we rightly sense here the development of an ecclesiology that would support a fourfold ministry of primatial bishop, presbyter-bishop, deacon, and lay charism.[14] We may see, moreover, a certain wisdom of Anglican Catholicism leading with its Augustinian rather than its Cyprianic edge. O’Donovan reveals that Augustine’s laxity, if that is really a fair word for it, is not the laxity of a liberal broad churchman, but a bid for catholic comprehensiveness driven not by ethical indifference or cultural pluralism, but by ecumenical and missiological experience and imperative. In fact, it is the mission of the Spirit, above all, which reveals the priority of the Church’s substance over her order and which ensures that the absence of a finished seal does not indicate the absence of the wax. So long as the Spirit continues to advance with his invisible vanguard against the forces of Satan in illa quae ultra sunt (“into the regions beyond”), the Church’s order will always be playing a game of catch-up, as Christ, the Lord and King welcomes home within his gates the captives liberated by the Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life.

This paper concludes on Tuesday.


[1] The following study is limited to Michael Ramsey’s ecclesiology in The Gospel and the Catholic Church and does not take into account later developments in his ecclesiological thought. I am grateful to Christopher Beeley for suggesting to me that Ramsey’s position changed in the course of his archepiscopate, including his 1966 meeting with Pope Paul VI. Such a diachronic analysis of Ramsey’s thought falls outside the scope of the current paper.

[2] Arthur Michael Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Longmans, 1956 [1936]), p. 77.

[3] Alistair C. Stewart, The Original Bishops: Office and Order in the First Christian Communities (Baker Academic, 2014). See the telling judgment on Stewart’s historiographical method in the review by Judith Lieu in The Review of Biblical Literature (Aug. 2015): “Although Stewart closes by affirming his own role as a historian, hesitant but nonetheless willing to draw ‘theological’ conclusions, it is difficult to avoid the sense that such aversions are rooted in presuppositions that would have merited more examination.”

[4] Gospel and the Catholic Church, p. 80.

[5] Gospel and the Catholic Church, p. 80.

[6] Gospel and the Catholic Church, p. 149. [Emphasis added.]

[7] Gospel and the Catholic Church, p. 154.

[8] See James Kang Hoon Lee, Augustine and the Mystery of the Church (Fortress, 2017).

[9] Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations (Cambridge University Press 1996), p. 159.

[10] Desire of the Nations, p. 166.

[11] Desire of the Nations, p. 169. [Numbers added.]

[12] Desire of the Nations, p. 169.

[13] Desire of the Nations, pp. 171–72. [Emphasis added.]

[14] O’Donovan, Desire of the Nations, 174.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Michael Cover is associate professor of theology at Marquette University. A graduate of Harvard, Yale, and the University of Notre Dame, he was ordained a priest in the Diocese of Dallas in 2010, and has served in multiple parishes in Indiana and Wisconsin.

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