I cannot let Father Dwight Longenecker’s recent piece in the National Catholic Register and currently circulating on social media, entitled ‘English Catholicism is Roman Catholicism’, pass without comment, for it must constitute one of the most unhelpful and irresponsible offerings of the online Catholic Neo-Cons I have yet encountered.
To begin with, one wonders with whom it is that Fr Longenecker is arguing. Like him, I too was once an Anglican, while unlike him, I still live in the UK. And while it is indeed true that some Catholic-minded Anglicans in England speak of being Catholic without being Roman Catholic, this is true of Anglicans everywhere. But I have yet to encounter an Anglican—either in the UK or anywhere else—that believes the Anglican Church was ‘…founded on some pure serene and ancient apostolic church that existed in Britain for 600 years before the arrival of St Augustine…’
In an act of utter disingenuity, incredible naïveté, or academic ineptitude, Fr Longenecker has done what no one who wishes to engage in ecumenical discourse should ever do: he dedicates his pithy essay almost entirely to establishing a straw man that he can then beat down. In this respect, I will concede that some fantasists may well hold that “…Joseph of Arimithea brought Christianity to the British Isles”, but certainly no serious thinkers that I have ever encountered. As to the claim that “A good number of Anglicans [believe]…there was also an ancient link between the Celtic people and the Copts of Egypt”: this may well be the case, but such romantic-historical notions are attributable to almost every conceivable organisation and institution—including the Catholic Church—and in any event, the notions referred to here are not without archaeological foundation. After all, trade with the late antique Near East and North Africa is attested to by archaeological evidence from the beaches of Cornwall and elsewhere along the Bristol Channel.
It is not the place of this response, however, to take issue with every historical and archaeological point mentioned by Fr Longenecker. Suffice it to say that his verdict on much British ecclesiastical history leaves a great deal to be desired. The academic discussions around such points as he raises are too multifaceted to faithfully summarise in a magazine article, even for the academics who work with them regularly; and whatever his amateur interests, I am not aware of any particular expertise on Fr Longenecker’s part in late antique British history. In any case, it is almost certainly true that the first Christians in Britain were Roman Christians, as it is equally true that the idea of a Celtic Christianity as something completely independent of Rome is misguided. But to suggest that there are swathes of Anglicans who have constructed their self-image on the basis of a Celtic fantasy church is downright mischievous.
Anglicans’ concern with Church History may well, at times, have to do with bolstering their sense of connection with the apostolic past, but as often as not, it has to do with engaging with the Patristic witness, and carrying on an historical-theological mantle first borne by Bede. I would expect Fr Longenecker to know this, especially seeing as so many nineteenth- and twentieth-century English language Patristic resources, and other venerable theological texts to the present, emerge from the Anglican world. That is without even mentioning the now-Blessed John Henry Newman, whose scholarly and spiritual activity led him for a significant period of his life to proliferate the idea that the Anglican Church was Catholic. And while there is no escaping the fact he would eventually change his mind apropos that belief, there can also be no escaping the fact that he was certainly not deluded when he held it in the first place. One may believe that Newman was once wrong and then right, but that is an argument to be engaged in, not an occasion for caricature and insult.
I can no longer abide the sort of Catholic triumphalism exemplified by this article. It is often said that the convert is more zealous than the one born into a particular religion, but if one considers the example of a figure like the late editor of First Things, Father Richard John Neuhaus, it is clear that disparaging one’s Protestant or Anglican past is not requisite for becoming Roman (or any other sort of) Catholic. Indeed, Fr Neuhaus’ autobiographical piece entitled ‘How I Became the Catholic I Was’, published in First Things almost twenty years ago, represents one of the most remarkable examples of how a person can grow in grace and end up in communion with Rome, and hardly be called a convert. I would like to steal Fr Neuhaus’ title and say of myself that, when I first stepped into the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church of which I am now a priest, I became the Catholic I had always been. Meanwhile, in the many years since, I am not sure how my children would have been sent to sleep had it not been for the hymns of John Mason Neale, and others such as Wesley, Ken, Keble, Newman, and Watts, to name but a few.
Finally, if the Body of Christ is to thrive in its mission in England or anywhere else on the planet, it must take seriously the evangelical imperative, and get on with it by drawing on the best possible tools. And frankly, the Roman Catholic Church in the English-speaking world can learn an immense amount about being the Church from Anglicanism. Of course, the Roman Catholic reader of this may now laugh, deride the Anglican Church for having descended into a theological morass from which there appears to be nothing left to extract, and ask what it could possibly have to teach them. Yet there is more—much more—to the Anglican tradition than contemporary, and very public, crises. Thomas Cranmer may have been responsible for ‘protestantising’ the Mass, but the liturgical treasury he left behind, especially in the form of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, is hard to quantify. It, and its theological successors such as the English Proposed Book of 1928, the Canadian BCP of 1962, and the American BCP of 1928 are works from which immeasurable spiritual enrichment can be drawn. On the scholarly side, Anglican monk Dom Gregory Dix’s The Shape of the Liturgy, while it may have since been surpassed, represented one of the most important deposits of the twentieth century liturgical movement. The Caroline Divines, the Non-Jurors, the Oxford Fathers: all of these have at least as much to teach us of the Christian life as their specifically Roman Catholic counterparts, and to think otherwise must require a serious scholarly argument, or be a manifestation of pure bigotry. And what of Edward King, Eric Mascall, William Temple, F.D. Maurice, or Michael Ramsey? All saintly in one way or another; all Anglo-Catholics of one sort or another; none deluded in any way or another.
Even when I was an Anglican and signed onto many of the traditionally-oriented causes, I was always a ‘maximalist’. That is, I always believed in doing everything I could with those with whom I had theological disagreements, only abstaining from what I could not. What was true then remains true now: whatever our disagreements, when we believe in the Most Holy Trinity, and the Two Natures of Christ, we are Christians. That makes us brothers and sisters on the deepest level. In no way do I believe in soft ecumenism, but I also don’t believe in ignorance and insularity, and I think that unless Roman Catholics in parts of the English-speaking world become more oriented towards the best of Christianity, and less self-satisfied in their claim to belong to the ‘One, True Church’, and the invalidity of all others, then they deserve the deprivation that comes with missing out on the treasures of their brothers and sisters in Christ.
Father Dwight Longenecker has written a reactionary piece that takes issue with a virtually non-existent argument, while writing sweepingly about ‘Anglicans’ with a view to ridiculing the beliefs of some and denigrating the tradition as a whole. He does so by presenting a facile picture of the history of Christianity in Britain, and asserting an absolute and triumphant picture of the Roman Church. This is neither justified, nor does it give due consideration to the rich spiritual and theological tapestry woven by the great divines who subscribed to the very school Fr Longenecker derides. In so doing, he does no favours either to the ecumenical process, to ecumenical theology, or to the relations it is incumbent on us to foster as we strive to carry the Gospel to all nations as fellow sons and daughters of God, and members of the mystical Body of Christ.
In the end, there is no constructive purpose to Fr Longenecker‘s short essay. Ironically, the purpose he does serve is to point to a number of issues that Roman Catholic Neo-cons need to face up to, including questions of ecumenism, charity, mission, and history. One might also add ‘consistency’, in light of the inspiration Fr Longenecker often takes from C.S. Lewis—probably the last century’s most famous Anglican. Let nothing of such work be mistaken for serious engagement with theology, with history, nor with our mission to the world as Catholics and, above all, as Christians.