What is Anglo-catholicism?

A short explanation

by Gianluigi Gugliermetto, Ph.D.

In the 1830s, some English churchmen connected to the University of Oxford called for a deep transformation of the mindset of the Church of England. It was a call that created quite a sensation and, in the space of less than a century, transformed Anglicanism for ever. Their passion convinced one by one many clergymen and lay people alike that the truth of the Christian religion resided not just in the Bible, but in the wealth of the doctrines and the sacraments preserved and celebrated for centuries, i.e. in the catholicity of the church. The High Church party already existed within Anglicanism; it was the direct heir of the liturgical reforms introduced by Archbishop Laud before the English Civil War in the 1630s, and through its constant reference to both Apostolic and Patristic times had already affirmed the true catholicity of the ecclesia anglicana. But the young men who started the Oxford Movement (as it came to be called) intended to infuse vitality into a church whose religious practice they saw as worn out by routine and whose clergy they perceived as made up of civil servants more faithful to the English crown than to God and God's church. Their passion, very much akin to that of the Romantic movement, brought them to dig into themes until then unwelcome within Anglicanism, such as asceticism and the monastic life, and aligned them to the medieval revival in architecture and the arts typical of their time. While the men of the Oxford Movement retained a central role for the Bible, they believed that the Reformation had made at least two major mistakes. The first mistake consisted in the Reformers' choice to put aside most traditions not contained in the Bible and yet historically transmitted generation after generation. The second mistake of the Reformers was their decision to dismiss the symbolic layers of the Bible itself which, instead, come very much alive in the writings of the fathers of the church. Those involved in the Oxford Movement were even interested in reinstating in some form the initiatory process that the early Church considered essential for becoming a Christian. In fact, they conceived Christian life as a process and a progress, looking with disdain at those evangelical preachers who were promising "instant salvation". They were certainly convinced that Christ redeemed the world once and for all, but they also insisted that such redemption becomes a reality in people's lives one step at a time.

The main instrument for the spreading of the ideas of the Oxford Movement was the publication of the "Tracts for the Times", which culminated with Tract 90, written by John Henry Newman in 1841. The Tracts for the Times explored the freedom of the church from political control, and the revival of the integrity of the ancient doctrines as well as ascetic or liturgical customs, generally making clear that the catholicity invoked by the Oxford Movement was not to be equated with agreement with all the doctrines taught by the Roman Catholic Church. Tract 90, however, attempted a thoroughly catholic interpretation of the "39 Articles of Religion", the basic doctrinal document of the Anglican Reformation, an interpretation which appeared to many to be contrary to the letter of the text itself, and was considered disparaging by several leaders of the established Church. The publication of the Tracts was halted by the ecclesiastical authorities in 1843. At this point, the Oxford movement appeared as good as dead, especially after Newman defected to Roman Catholicism in 1845, seemingly confirming that the movement itself was nothing else than another papist ploy to take over England. However, after the shock derived from Newman's conversion, the movement survived and flourished under the leadership of Edward Bouverie Pusey, professor of biblical Hebrew at Oxford, whose simplicity of life and devotion to the cause was impressive to many. Pusey was among the very first clergymen in the Church of England to support the creation of religious orders for women, something that had not been seen within Anglicanism since the dissolution of the monasteries ordered by Henry VIII in 1539. Pusey used his personal wealth to build new churches, especially in the new neighborhoods of London, with the intent of serving the working class. He was very critical of the working conditions in the English factories. One of his famous sentences, which sadly still rings very true today, was: "Remember that your clothes are drenched with the tears of the poor!"

From the Oxford Movement stemmed "ritualism", which swept Anglicanism in the last decades of the 19th century, reaching its heyday in the 1920s. Despite having retained the essential structure of the catholic ritual, as well as the threefold order of clergy (deacons, priests, bishops), the Anglican liturgy before the impact of the ritualists was very sparse, visually speaking, and certain portions of the historical traditional liturgy of the church had been abbreviated or cut off since the Reformation. In many parishes not even the lighting of candles was allowed, except for the purpose of shedding light, in order to avoid the suspicion of "papism". Parish priests would invariably vest only with a surplice and a black tippet over their cassock (no colors allowed). Incense was virtually unknown. In most churches, the Eucharist was celebrated about four times a year, while the regular Sunday service was Morning Prayer with a sermon. This state of affairs was challenged and ultimately overthrown by those clergy who, having being inflamed by the Tracts written a generation earlier by the men of the Oxford Movement, intended to restore to the religious services of the Church of England the beauty and the reverence that was present before the Reformation.

A major contribution in this direction was offered by John Mason Neale and those associated with him (sometimes called the Cambridge Movement) through his magazine The Ecclesiologist, which started its publications in 1841. In this magazine, as well as in many other publications, notably the book The Symbolism of Churches and Church Ornaments (1843), co-authored by J. M. Neale and Benjamin Webb, the focus was on aesthetics and architecture. The so-called Gothic churches (roughly 12th c. to 14th c.) and the liturgies that were once celebrated in such ornate environments came to be seen as an ideal to bring back to life. From details in tapestries for decorating the altars to the shapes of chalices and less usual liturgical objects, and from the order of processions to the minutiae of liturgical traditions, nothing was so trifling as not to be of interest, as shown by the copious Anglican scholarship which flowed from the works of Neale and his associates. Their interest was aesthetic, but not in isolation from theology. On the contrary, they shared with the Oxford Movement a profound curiosity for the theological history of the Western as well as the Eastern Church, not feeling obligated like many Roman Catholics to keep alive the centuries-old contrast between the patriarchate of Rome and the patriarchate of Constantinople.

The combination of influences from the Oxford Movement and the Cambridge Movement, together with the practical work in parishes of the ritualist clergy, brought about , not without difficulties, the Anglo-Catholic Revival within Anglicanism. In the 1850s and 1860, the Eucharistic piety of the ritualists brought them to advocate that High Mass be celebrated in as many parishes as possible on Sunday morning, followed by the veneration of the consecrated Host in the afternoon. In many cases, they started to celebrate a simpler Mass on every day of the week. Copes, until then seldom used in parishes, and then chasubles, dalmatics, tunicles, stoles, and maniples, all virtually unknown in the Church of England for more than 400 years, suddenly reappeared, together with genuflections before "the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar," turning toward the east at the proclamation of the Creed, the mixing of water with wine, and the copious use of incense. These and other innovations sometimes fired up those parishioners who has been raised to be anti-Catholic, like their parents and grandparents for many generations, but the novelties were appealing to intellectuals and to people inclined to symbolic rather then merely verbal communication. Bishop Edward King (1829-1910), who first revived the use of the miter, was prosecuted in court for this very reason, together with many other clergy accused of using incense, of bowing or genuflecting, and other similar "offenses." Some priests were even condemned to serve time in prison. The archbishop of Canterbury Archibald Tait is infamous in Anglican history for having supported such repression of the ritualist movement in the 1870s and 1880s. A survey done in 1906, after the repression had virtually ended, showed that more than one third of the English parishes were completely ritualistic in their liturgy. And the Anglo-catholic priests (as they started to be called) were out to take over more and more of them.

The clergy associated with the Ritualistic Movement were also known for their compassion for the poor and sometimes for their socialist leanings. The Christian Socialist Movement, which started with the Christian Manifesto of F. D. Maurice in 1848, was by no means coextensive with Anglo-Catholicism, with some Christian Socialists such as Charles Kingsley being in direct opposition to all Anglo-Catholic practices in the name of "muscular Christianity." Besides, a tinge of conservatism was certainly present at that time in Anglo-Catholic theology. In the mid- to late 19th century, however, the Anglo-Catholics were far from representing the establishment of the Church of England, and some became just as adventurous in social terms as they were in their liturgical archaeology. Stewart Headlam, a Church of England priest ordained in 1869 and a convinced socialist, said famously that the Eucharistic bread symbolizes the satisfaction of the fundamental human material needs, and the Eucharistic wine symbolizes the joy and the celebration of friendship, that is, the satisfaction of the fundamental human emotional needs. Vida Scudder, an American scholar of medieval mysticism who become a professor at Wellesley College in 1892, supported the Order of the Holy Cross, helped organize women workers' leagues, and defended the strikes of textile workers with Marxist arguments. For both Headlam and Scudder, sacramentalism and mysticism are central, and so is socialism. Frank Weston, the bishop of Zanzibar, delivered a famous address to the Second Anglo-Catholic congress of 1923 in which he urged: "Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet. For Weston, the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament of the altar was blasphemy if it was not coupled with service to Christ in the person of the poor.

It was the year 1889, however, that marked a profound transformation of the Anglo-Catholic mentality. In that year, Charles Gore, the Anglo-catholic theologian who would become the bishop of Oxford, edited a volume called Lux Mundi through which the principles of modern German (or liberal) theology were finally successfully introduced within Anglicanism. In this collective work, a very progressive outlook on the relationship of science and religion, as well as on social matters, is coupled with a profound sacramental piety and a profound reverence for the mystery of God and the Christian religion. The work of Charles Gore and his associates accomplished much that was previously considered impossible as the beginnings of the Oxford Movement, some fifty years earlier, were predicated on what could be seen as a pretty conservative (if not outright reactionary) theological orientation, suspicious as it was of the Enlightenment. From Lux Mundi onward, however, the Anglican High Church and its rituals became associate with science-friendly thinking and an historical-critical outlook on the biblical sources.

Regarding the Episcopal Church it can be said that, in the long run, the influence of the Ritualist Movement became so pervasive that it is very rare to find a parish, even of "Low Church" persuasion, which does not celebrate the Eucharist as the main Sunday service with the priest wearing a chasuble. In distinction from this general practice, those parishes who call themselves Anglo-Catholic offer a ritual that is considerably more ornate and traditional and is almost always "more catholic" than that of Roman Catholic parishes in the same neighborhood, although they are generally much more progressive in terms of sexual morality and politics. Today, however, the Episcopal parishes who call themselves Anglo-Catholic often do so more in reference to their historical roots than as a reflection of a lively theological engagement on the matters that occupied their forebears. In some cases, doctrinal precision is maintained, with reference to the Oxford Movement, while the living theological environment that produced such passion for orthodoxy is not there anymore. In other cases, it is the openness to the contemporary world of Lux Mundi coupled with its sacramental focus that keeps giving life to the parish.

Some Anglo-catholic parishes, such as Christ Church, Ontario, have been going through a further renewal by absorbing, through their Anglican perspective, some of the liturgical reforms engendered by the Second Vatican Council in the late 1960s. These parishes give much importance to their own liturgical creativity, rooted in the study of the tradition. Some other Anglo-Catholic parishes, instead, are careful in using only and exclusively the words of the Book of Common Prayer, without variations, while being pretty liberal in their addition of gestures and movements, following the practice of the ritualists priests of the mid-19th century. In many cases, the coupling of High Church liturgy with a concern for the poor and social justice is still alive and productive.

What is the future of Anglo-Catholicism? Can it still be a force in the contemporary religious panorama or are its impact and legacy soon going to be absorbed into a new landscape? While the answer is not yet apparent, there are examples of the continued vitality of such a tradition. The Society of Sacramental Socialists founded in England in 2005, for instance, maintains that "God is by nature fundamentally engaged with the world and on the side of poor and oppressed people" and grounds such assertion on the fact that "Holy Mass establishes the equality of all people."

The history of the engagement of Christ Church, Ontario, California, with the Anglo-Catholic Revival can be found here.


Paul Avis, Anglicanism and the Christian Church: Theological Resources in Historical Perspective, T&T Clark, 2002.

Raymond Chapman (ed.), Firmly I Believe: An Oxford Movement Reader, Canterbury Press 2006.

S. D. de Hart, The Influence of John Mason Neale and the Theology of Symbolism, accessed Nov. 2018:


John Shelton Reed, Glorious Battle: The Cultural Politics of Victorian Anglo-Catholicism, Vanderbilt University Press, 1996.