The greatest Benedictine achievement (from this point of view) is the final consolidation of the threefold Rule [Regula] of prayer which is absolutely fundamental to all Catholic spirituality: the common Office (opus Dei) supporting private prayer (orationes peculiares) both of which are allied to, and consummated by, the Mass. To call this the greatest Benedictine achievement is not to exaggerate. . . . Here is the basic Rule of the Church which, varying in detail, is common to East and West, monastic and secular, to all the individual schools without exception, and which forms the over-all structure of the Book of Common Prayer. Amongst all the tests of Catholicity or orthodoxy, it is curious that this infallible and living test, is so seldom applied. We write and argue endlessly about the apostolic tradition, about episcopacy, sacramentalism, creeds, doctrine, the Bible—all very important things—yet we fail to see that no group of Christians is true to orthodoxy if it fails to live by this Rule of trinity-in-unity: Mass-Office-devotion.”
(Martin Thornton, English Spirituality, Chap. 6)
It is safe to regard Anglican patrimony as one of several Catholic traditions because its life is thoroughly liturgical and profoundly corresponds to the New Testament, and hence Catholic, paradigm of corporate life described in Acts 2:42. There are other reasons, as well. Yet because Anglican liturgical life encompasses and enacts the relationships between Scripture, Tradition, and Reason—and hence to our corporate experience of Christ Crucified and Resurrected—nothing of the faith once for all delivered to the saints is left out. The nature of this relationship is grasped through devotional and imaginative encounter with the liturgical traditions of the Anglican Church that grow out of historic English Christianity, of which Anglicanism is the contemporary expression.
These traditions are two-fold: on one hand, there are the official liturgies involving the Sacraments and set-prayer, exemplified by the Mass and Divine Office; and on the other hand, there are the devotional liturgies, which are more spontaneous and informal—everything from the holy rosary to biblical meditation to serving the hungry, needy, poor and sick, and even every day living, what Karl Rahner usefully called the “mass of life.” This second category is called “liturgy” not because they are set in rubrics but because they are part of the unfolding, cosmic liturgy which is the Revelation of the Sacred Humanity of Jesus Christ amid our time and space conditions.
These two kinds of liturgy, seen as an integrated whole that cultivates habitual recollection of the presence of Christ, foster intermingling of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason as food for the organism of the holy Church, the Mystical Body of Christ. This intermingling within a broad framework of the threefold Regula, or the “Catholic Rule of prayer” of Mass–Office–Devotion, forms the core of English spirituality, as England’s particular inheritance from the apostolic age into the early Celtic church, then particularly through the ascetical insights of Augustine, Benedict, Anselm, Aquinas, Hilton, Norwich, the Caroline Divines, Jeremy Taylor, John Wesley, and others, all folded into the Book of Common Prayer, which arranges Scripture and historic theology into liturgy informed by reasoned reflection upon Christian tradition in its totality as well as particular English emergence that seeds the entire Anglican Communion. The threefold Regula is the real “three-legged stool” of Anglicanism.
Owing to its adherence to threefold Regula (and hence to Acts 2:42 as the Catholic paradigm and test for orthodoxy), Anglicanism, when it owns its identity, is self-evidently Catholic. “Nothing separates us from the Catholic Church”, wrote Fr John Macquarrie. Geoffrey Francis Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury (1945-1961) is more specific: “We have no doctrine of our own. We only possess the Catholic doctrine of the Catholic Church, enshrined in the Catholic Creeds, and those creeds we hold without addition or diminution.” What is our own is the way we live out Catholic doctrine—that is to say, our particular form of Regula which is the Prayer Book, and the corresponding theological and social perspectives that emerge from Prayer Book life.
All Catholic traditions are one, ontologically, through Christ and baptism into his Body. Existentially (which is to say mainly politically), churches today are separated and not in full communion. This fact cannot be denied in the case of Anglicanism. Yet it cannot be the basis for asserting that because of Henry VIII’s reign, Anglicanism is no longer Catholic. The 1534 Act of Supremacy which ended legal and existential Papal authority in England specifically stated that nothing in that act shall be construed as in any way altering or diminishing the full Catholic doctrine, faith, and practice of the Church in England. This was captured nearly two centuries later by Anglican Bishop Thomas Ken (d. 1711): “I die in the holy catholic and apostolic faith, professed by the whole church before the disunion of east and west. More particularly, I die in the communion of the Church of England as it stands distinguished from all papal and puritan innovations, and as it adheres to the doctrine of the cross.”
Even the renowned Reformation theologian, Richard Hooker, believed Anglicanism to be “Catholic, in that she believed herself to continue in all essentials the Church of the early centuries; Reformed, in that she also thought it an obligation to rid herself of some of the doctrinal and practical innovations that had come along in the Middle Ages,” wrote Macquarrie. Through the turmoil of the 16th and 17th centuries, and the break with Rome, Anglicanism committed to the Book of Common Prayer as its expression of its Benedictine sensibility and heritage updated and ordered for a Gutenberg age.
Seen in this way, Anglicanism means one Catholic tradition among many. It continues to be enlivened by ferment of historic English Christianity because of the Prayer Book. The “English school of Catholic spirituality”—shorthand for the ascetical and pastoral tradition of Augustine through the Caroline Divines, and others subsequently—is properly seen as one of two dozen or more schools within Roman, Eastern, Old Catholic, and Oriental traditions of the Church Catholic. And the basic test for membership, again, is adherence to the threefold Regula. This is how the argument for Anglican catholicity should play out, yet rarely does.
I mentioned above that Regula is how we live out doctrine. In fact it is how doctrine is truly confessed. This points to the oft-misunderstood concept of lex orandi, lex credendi. How we pray determines our true belief (rather than what we merely say or think we believe). Regula radically enacts the realization of doctrine through not only verbal assent (which does not require Regula) but actions and behavior. The Catholic, primarily patristic and ecumenical, magisterium is professed through the liturgical and recollective life demanded and fed by adherence to the Book of Common Prayer, seen as ascetical system. For Anglicans, bad liturgy, quite literally, can be heretical. The medium is the message, is the true meaning of lex orandi, lex credendi.
Belief enshrined in worship animates and enacts our common, Catholic faith. We confess our doctrine every Sunday and every holy day of Obligation. That recognition is at the heart of Anglicanism. The primary purpose of the Church is to lead the “choir of all created beings in the worship of God,” wrote C.B. Moss. Absent the safeguards possessed, for example, by the Roman Catholic church—their Papal magisterium—Anglicans must ensure that our liturgy conforms to Catholic orthodoxy, because if it does not, then our claim to catholicity is impaired ot even lost. Liturgy matters.
The centrality of Regula within the history of the development of the English peoples and the “English temperament,” has led to a set of devotional characteristics, or corporate attrait, that are unique to Anglicanism. This attrait includes what Martin Thornton called a “speculative/affective synthesis.” This means a balanced harmony between thinking and feeling, intellect and emotion, dogma and love. This Anglicanism can genuinely claim to have contributed to the universal church. Sometimes the balance in Anglican devotion has also been called “via media.” Yet this has been misunderstood to be watered down compromise. “Via media,” rather, has nothing whatever to do with compromise; “it has everything to do with spiritual sanity,” wrote Thornton. It means “a pure and primitive catholicism,” wrote Macquarrie.
What more can be said about Anglican attrait? An important aspect is that “there is a deep family relationship between priest and layman, monk and secular; a distrust of clericalism and authoritarianism is the result of a long pastoral heritage,” wrote Thornton. This is summed up by the word “Common” in our Prayer Book: being Catholic means we must all pray in basically the same way. When we don’t, we risk losing catholicity. Disunity in prayer violates the nature of the Prayer Book and violates the New Testament paradigm. Anglican unity going forward will consolidate into an irreducible minimum: recognition by the Archbishop of Canterbury, visible witness to shared theological inheritance, and robustly ascetical use of the Book of Common Prayer. It is time for Anglicans, led by the Church of England, to reclaim the actual Book of Common Prayer, and not some liturgical supplement.
This is why Anglicanism is primarily a parochial phenomenon and its fullest, Catholic expression best seen at the parish level. For 99.9% of ordinary Anglicans, the encounter with the holy Church of Christ is through the local parish. And at the parish, Christians encounter Eucharistic liturgy as their primary touch-point. Eucharistic liturgy both features Scripture (lectionary readings) and derives from Scripture its very words and underlying pattern. Further private reflection upon Scripture, such as meditation upon the Gospel narrative, flows from liturgy, both Mass and Divine Office — every day is for praise, for unceasing prayer. Our Book of Common Prayer is grounded upon the Holy Scripture, agreeable to the order of the earliest Church, designed to be unifying and for the edification of the faithful. These are important attributes of the sane and pure primitive Catholicism of the English school.
To sum up: Anglicanism, while possessing plenty of theological uniqueness and nuance, has no particular doctrines of its own; its doctrine is that of the historic Catholic Church enshrined in the classic creeds and liturgy. Its theological heritage, its tradition of doctrine applied, is Anglicanism’s attrait, and it is rooted in Augustine and Benedict and finds contemporary expression in the Book of Common Prayer, which as threefold Regula articulates the official liturgies that find normative expression as the corporate prayer of Anglican parish families, praying in a unity of the Church between laity and clergy, bishop and people, all knit together in the One Body of Christ. The relationship between Scripture, Reason, and Tradition in Anglicanism therefore can be understood best within the perspective of liturgical theology (as subset of ascetical theology). As a spirituality that presumes a life-long journey through life’s deepest questions, Catholic Anglicanism, simply put, is all in the doing. To ensure our catholicity going forward, Anglicans must focus on the threefold Regula, the three-legged stool of Catholic identity: we must teach about it, preach about it, and most of all, live it so that we continue to be formed in the Apostolic pattern of Pentecost as captured in Acts 2.
Further reading from Akenside Press:
“What is the Catholic Doctrine of the Church?” (4-pg PDF).