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Anglican Catholicism & Orthodoxy Compared

Comparative Roman Catholic Anglo Catholic Evangelicalism

Introduction / Revelation and Authority / The Faith / The Sacraments / Ecclesiology

Traditional Anglo Catholic Modernist Anglo Catholic
Anglo-Catholic Then (A) Anglo-Catholic Now? (B)

Introduction - Which Anglo Catholicism?

The Anglo Catholic tradition has changed radically since the days of the 19th Century Oxford Movement, a time when the Church of England rediscovered and enhanced its catholic inheritance from before the Reformation, suitably adapted to fit acceptable norms of Anglican believing and living.  Although the externals have often been simplified and the sex of the celebrant is different it would be wrong to conclude that the only interest in Orthodoxy today comes from those Catholic Anglicans who would rather stand in picture (A) than in picture (B).  That has simply not been Orthodoxy's experience, at least in Britain.  So, we need to assess the similarities and differences between Orthodoxy and Anglo-Catholicism in its common features represented by both Forward in Faith and Affirming Catholicism.

Revelation and Authority

[This is the longest section on this page, simply because it deals with an aspect that provides most challenge in Anglo-Orthodox dialogue].

Anglo Catholicism in its several manifestations since the Reformation has always been prepared to receive some idea of the Tradition of the Church with Scripture as an authority in Church life.  The Caroline Divines, the Non-Jurors (who enquired after Orthodoxy) and the Tractarians all encouraged patristic and medieval studies in order to renew the catholic leaven of Anglican Church life.  Of course, this was usually filtered through a western rather than eastern catholic frame of reference.  Aspects of second millennium Christian thought were often simply taken as consistent with the unbroken Tradition of the Church in east and west whereas in fact from an Orthodox point of view, some of these were not consistent.  (We shall consider some of these doctrinal matters in the next section). 

When it comes to authority in the Church, Anglicanism often quotes Richard Hooker's famous "three-legged stool" of Scripture, Tradition and Reason, yet the only reference in Hooker to justify that formula is to be found here:-

“What Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeth.  That which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must in congruity of reason over-rule all other inferior judgments whatsoever” (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book V, 8:2; Folger Edition 2:39,8-14). 

However we should note that Hooker refers to the "voice of the Church" which is not quite the same thing as Tradition in the Orthodox sense, (refer back here to this site's unit: Scripture and Tradition).  Moreover Hooker understood reason in the classical sense of practical wisdom, that is participatory knowledge not merely theoretical or logical reasoning as many understand that today.  In that understanding he is closer to Orthodoxy than many who claim the insights of reason today.

As to Scripture he seems to propose biblical sufficiency for salvation which has always been a cornerstone of Anglicanism, (cf. Article 6 of the 39 Articles).  Orthodoxy resists the idea that 'Scripture alone' is the source of authoritative teaching in the Church on the grounds that the Tradition of the Church preceded the formation of the biblical canon and in organic terms included the pre-written oral form of the scriptures.    Hooker can be read in such a way as to accommodate the Orthodox understanding of Tradition, but not necessarily. 

Anglican practice is a little clearer and might help us to understand Hooker's seminal influence on early Anglicanism.  In practical terms the Bible is sufficient for salvation but in matters of Church life but that which is not excluded by Scripture is permissible.  This provides the context for Anglicanism's early adherence to the historic three-fold ministry of bishop, priest and deacon against the Puritans who were exclusive as to the express mandate of Scripture and politically indisposed to the 17th century Anglican synthesis of the Crown and Mitre.  However, it is unlikely that the Orthodox view of Tradition including Scripture as its normative but not exclusive core, even in matters pertaining to salvation, has ever been the mainstream Anglican position, even within Anglo-Catholicism. 

We should not forget that the western Catholic tradition generally has seen Tradition and Scripture as two parallel sources of authority within the Church, not Tradition as organically incorporating Scripture.  Hooker, therefore, was "more" Orthodox on reason and less Orthodox on the relationship between Tradition and Scripture.  However, it has always been a welcome feature of Anglo Catholicism from an Orthodox point of view that the Church Fathers are taken seriously when theologising.  Andrewes, Keble, Pusey and Neale did so much to bring the eastern Christian tradition back to the west in their day and this legacy, thankfully, continues. 

We might observe in passing that in the Tractarian high days of the Orthophile theologians there were two tendencies; one represented by the former Calvinist Newman for whom assurance of salvation took on new dress, Rome, and the other a more patristic eastern tendency embraced by Pusey and others who stayed in the Church of England when Newman and his colleagues left.  To some extent, one can see similar patterns and developments within the Anglo Catholic fold today.  It seems to this author that there are more "children of Pusey"  in the Affirming Catholicism movement and more "children of Newman" in the Forward in Faith movement, which, if true would prove to be a quite remarkable ironic twist of history for this sympathetic Orthodox observer!

In terms of a commonly received standard on authority within the wider Anglican Communion the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886/8 proved to be an important text for its time, albeit not an Anglo-Catholic document either in provenance or acceptance.  Orthodoxy once would have seen this as an Anglican "bottom line" position which, together with the old Prayer Book family of liturgies at one time played a significant historical role in Anglican self understanding and unity.  Arguably, however, it has not survived in tact in any practical sense since the 1976 decision of ECUSA (the American Anglican branch) to ordain women.  Since then provincial autonomy has diversified Anglicanism into such areas as the ordination of women bishops and practising gay and lesbian persons, well beyond the threshold of acceptance for significant sections of the global Communion.  (I merely state this a fact, I resist making any judgement!). 

Although Orthodoxy has a similar ecclesiastical polity in also being a federation of autonomous and dependent churches the bonds of unity in the faith seem to be much stronger in that individual churches would never dream of stepping out of the consensus that binds the whole in one communion.  Orthodoxy's decision making process is conciliar and there seems to be a stronger sense of acting together than is often seen in contemporary Anglicanism.  Orthodoxy has its internal conflicts and fall outs of course but these tend to focus on matters of jurisdiction and national identity, not faith and sacramental life.  Interestingly it has often been Catholic Anglicans who have initiated contested issues within the Communion.  Many Orthodox find this difficult to understand in the context of Anglo Orthodox relations which were once very close, especially in the 1930's when many Anglo Catholics led the way.  Perhaps the Orthodox need to appreciate the true diversity that exists within Anglo Catholicism and its prophetic character in relation to more Protestant elements within the Church even if the fruits are not always to its liking.

Precisely in its diversity, the Anglo-Catholic tradition has often taken up positions much closer to Orthodoxy or Rome endorsing at various times the Seven Ecumenical Councils and Papal primacy with or without Papal supremacy.  This behaviour is a subset of the wider problem concerning ecumenical dialogue with Anglicanism as a whole.  As Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism have so often discovered, the most difficult issues have been presented by the inability of Anglicanism to speak with one voice.  Indeed many Anglicans prize this feature as the most significant and valuable aspect of Anglican believing and living.  So we are brought back to the original question ... "Which Anglo Catholicism?"  There is only one possible ecumenical response to this unanswerable question.  The Orthodox try to relate to all elements and welcome the good in each.

The Faith

Anglicanism generally and Anglo-Catholicism even more shares with Rome many aspects of faith that distance it from the Christian East, and the Orthodoxy would submit, from its own western Orthodox inheritance prior to the Great Schism (or in England more realistically prior to the Norman Conquest just twelve years later).  The most well known but least understood of these doctrinal issues is the "filioque" clause of the Nicene Creed.  This seemingly small matter actually touches upon some very important matters of Christian faith and life; for example, the Person and work of the Holy Spirit, God as Trinity.  On the human side, Anglo-Catholicism generally shares the west's Augustinian position on "original sin" and the "atonement."  Orthodoxy has a very positive and different anthropology, largely influenced by St. Irenaeus as representing the Christian east generally in matters of salvation.  St. Irenaeus characterises the disobedience of our First Parents as a failure to rise rather than a fall from the heights.  The eastern fathers present salvation as a restored possibility of rising through the destruction of death and its corrupting influence.  The end term of this rising has no equivalent in the west - deification.

On the other hand it is certainly true that there have been movements towards the Orthodox Church's teaching on these matters from the middle of the twentieth century onwards and these developments have influenced Anglo-Catholicism as well so in some senses the doctrinal gap is narrowing. 

In other matters, Anglo-Catholicism shares much common ground with Orthodoxy and it will not surprise the reader to discover that these include sacramental theology, the communion of saints, growth in holiness and an incarnational inclusive approach to mission.  Only one of these will be dealt with here, the sacraments.

Postscript: Orthodox Biblical Studies

Orthodox biblical scholarship reflects the aforementioned patristic understanding of Tradition and in particular embraces the traditional multiple hermeneutic of historical, typological and allegorical analysis.  Creative biblical interpretation proceeds in this generation as any other.  Perhaps there are two noteworthy biblical theologians working now in English speaking world amongst many others who would be also be recognised as "top rank" by their peers in Orthodoxy and the other churches, Fathers Paul Tarazi and Theodore Stylianopoulos.  Their work is worth exploring and would certainly be well received in Anglo Catholic circles.  This site (The Orthodox Centre for the Advancement of Biblical Studies) may also be of interest as it represents the pulling together of the best Orthodox biblical scholarship in America.

The Sacraments

Orthodoxy refers to the Sacraments as the Holy Mysteries.  Although the Orthodox often list seven in common with Roman Catholicism the list is not exhaustive, as, arguably Monastic Profession and the Theophany Great Blessing of the waters are sacramental in character if not formally listed in the seven.  Most Anglo Catholics would be very happy to endorse the seven which constitutes common ground of course both with both Orthodoxy and Rome. 

The distinction Anglican formularies make concerning the Dominical sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist presents no obstacle to agreement unless a sacrament could not be such unless expressly instituted by our Lord himself.  From an Orthodox point of view this distinction is unnecessary at best or misleading at worst for both Baptism and the Eucharist have Jewish antecedents that were NOT instituted by Christ himself but without which, arguably, there would be no sacramental aspect in the first place.  It is unlikely that any Anglo Catholics would demur from this analysis.

As regards the sacraments themselves there are differences of emphasis between Orthodoxy and Anglo Catholicism but it would be difficult to see these as significant or problematic.  Of course, there are some Orthodox traditions that would regard the use of Unleavened Bread in the Eucharist or the absence of total immersion in Baptism as completely unacceptable.  However, nothing really crucial is at stake here in this author's opinion; indeed as to baptism the Serbs usually do not now fully immerse yet no Orthodox church questions the validity of their baptisms. 

Other emphases in an Orthodox understanding of the Eucharist concern the role of the Holy Spirit (the Epilklesis) in co-consecrating the Gifts with the Word (the Institution Narrative), and Eucharistic participation seen as an ascent to the Kingdom.  Unlike certain neo-Thomist traditions in Anglo Catholicism that would see the Presence of Christ in the Gifts in the classic Aristotelian format of transubstantiation, Orthodoxy mostly feels happier with affirming the truth and guarding the mystery, in common perhaps with most Anglicans, not just Anglo Catholics. 

In the practice of confession Orthodoxy prefers to see this as divine therapy and the priest as a facilitator of a reconciling encounter with God.  There is a less juridical approach than common in the west although to be fair the west has moved in an Orthodox direction on this one at least since the Second Vatican Council. 

All in all one might conclude that there is a reasonable congruence between an Orthodox and an Anglo Catholic understanding of the Sacraments.  Divergences grow, however, as we extend sacramental theology to the doctrine of the Church (ecclesiology).


The most common ecclesiology met in Anglo Catholic circles (and shared by many others of a more "middle-of-the-road" disposition until fairly recently was the celebrated "Branch Theory", first formally articulated by William Palmer, an Oxford theologian of the 19th century but arguably an aspect of Hooker's ecclesiology as well.  The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines the Branch Theory thus:-

"…the theory that, though the Church may have fallen into schism within itself and its several provinces or groups of provinces be out of communion with each other, each may yet be a branch of the one Church of Christ, provided that it continues to hold the faith of the original undivided Church and to maintain the Apostolic Succession of its bishops. Such, it is contended by many Anglican theologians, is the condition of the Church at the present time, there being now three main branches, the Roman, the Eastern, and the Anglican Communions…"  (O.C.D.C.)

The Fathers of the Oxford Movement did not have much time for the Branch Theory but it soon gained in popularity and apart from Pusey-ite eastern tendency and the Newman-ite Roman tendency, Anglo Catholicism adopted it when it lost the confidence to maintain that the Church of England was in fundamental respects identical to the Church in England before the Reformation.  This consensus held but much of its vigour has now ebbed away since the ordination of women, certainly amongst those who continue to dissent from this development but less so amongst Affirming Catholics.

From an Orthodox point of view (and Roman Catholic for that matter) the Branch Theory is something peculiar to Anglicanism.  Neither Church recognises it as an orthodox catholic ecclesiology.  Anglo Catholics have always insisted that Anglicanism has no order, no sacraments, no faith apart from that of the Undivided Church of the First Millennium.  The Branch Theory was based on that assumption.  Does it mean, therefore, that in resisting the Branch Theory, Orthodoxy does not regard Anglicanism as a "true church?"  The strict answer is "not necessarily from the claim of the Theory alone; we look to the substantive content of faith and order upon which this Anglican ecclesiology rests."  It is a church making claim claim to orthodox catholic Christianity certainly but there are some things of which it is better not to speak but to leave to God's judgement ... and this is one of those things.  A common Orthodox one-liner summarises our position fairly:  "we know where the Church is but not where she is not."

The trouble of course is that any church requires a degree of confidence to function.  < This IS a priest.  This IS a sacrament.  This IS the Faith. >  The lack of communion between the Orthodox Church and the Anglican Church reflects the fact that we do not as yet have agreement on substantive matters of faith and order, therefore our sacramental practice in the Orthodox Church has to reflect that.  We, therefore, chrismate (but not baptise generally unless there is some defect) Anglican converts and we ordain those to be Orthodox priests even if they were ordained before as Anglican priests. 

These practices, as I have explained, do not call into question God's graceful blessing of Christians and their ministries outside the Orthodox Church but rather establish those callings and ministries as confidently ORTHODOX now.  It is possible of course to find Orthodox rigorists (mercifully a minority) who take a hardline Cyprianic ecclesiological stance on those standing outside the Church, (the Orthodox Church); but these are not, nor have they ever been in the mainstream of Orthodox opinion on this matter; or so this writer thinks and believes.

To return more explicitly to ecclesiology, Orthodox teaching is much the same in one respect as that of Roman Catholicism, (but not in other respects not relevant here).  Both churches teach that the fullness of Christian faith and life subsists respectively in those Churches in communion with the see of Rome (Catholicism) or, on the other hand, in the mutual communion of the canonical Orthodox churches (Orthodoxy).  This ecclesiology is not compatible with the Branch Theory but it is compatible with those traditions in Anglo Catholicism that respect our view on the matter without being disloyal to their own (Anglican) church.

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