Is Anglican Patrimony Patristic?

This comment by Br. John-Bede Pauley to this post is so meaty, it is worth standing alone for more discussion.  But don’t miss the 20 great comments already there.

Br. Pauley writes:

Those who have read my posts and articles on the topic of the Anglican patrimony already know what I’m going to write. In a word: patristic.

I realize this is not an immediately compelling explanation of the essence of the Anglican patrimony since the average Anglican parishioner or former Anglican parishioner, though likely literate, is not necessarily literate in patristic theology. Too, we have to be aware of the usual caveats about reducing anything as complicated as Anglicanism to one word. But if most authorities will dare to make any claim about the classic Prayer Book tradition, it is that this tradition is heavily influenced by the liturgico-theological perspective of the patristic era. (As a reminder that this isn’t my own idea, a list of considerable sources that point out the importance of patristic spirituality/theology in Anglicanism is provided below.)

Much we regard as Anglican might simply be patristic—and monastic since a) monasticism and patristic spirituality expressed the same liturgical spirituality, and b) Benedictine monasticism (including the 12th-century Cistercian reform) was the means by which patristic spirituality thrived in medieval England and did so to a degree encountered nowhere else in the West.
 Morning Prayer and Evensong: This was Cranmer’s attempt to assure the English people retained the patristic/monastic practice of praying some version of the Liturgy of the Hours. And it proved a largely successful attempt. Continental Protestants, on the other hand, tended to dismiss the Office as a work. Continental Catholicism tended to regard the Office as the work of religious, not the laity. So the LOH tended to be compartmentalized in post-Counter-Reformation Catholicism.
 The poetic majesty of the KJV and the BCP. Many of the Church Fathers were literary stylists (their protests to the contrary notwithstanding). Medieval monasticism encouraged poetry, especially in hymnody and sermons, both of which are related to the liturgy. That the translators of the KJV and the author(s) of the BCP wanted their efforts to have literary merit wasn’t necessarily literary showmanship. It was simply what patristic liturgical spirituality expected of both Scripture and the liturgy.
 The choral tradition. I’ve argued elsewhere that many composers in the Anglican choral tradition were simply translating their own lectio divina—the approach to reading Scripture which the patristic era considered normal and which the monastic tradition privileges—into music. A celebrated passage by William Byrd on how he composed liturgical music is a description of lectio. Yes, Byrd was Catholic, but he’s also one of the foundational composers of the Anglican choral heritage.
 Many of the early English reformers, the Caroline Divines, and the thinkers and writers of the Oxford Movement were profoundly influenced by the Church Fathers. Newman’s sermons are essentially patristic.
 Even the paraliturgical festivals (May crownings and Christmas festivities) are embellishments of the liturgical year, which points back to the importance of liturgy in patristic/monastic spirituality. Since these festivals are annual one-offs, they don’t establish themselves as non-liturgical devotions in their own right.
 The pastoral spirituality of Anglicanism, which thrives in small parishes and modest numbers of regular worshipers in cathedrals. (See much of Martin Thornton’s oeuvre.) The early Church was mostly a Church of relatively small congregations, which explains the sense of direct involvement in the liturgy by the laity and the fact that sermons from the patristic era indicate the preachers knew their congregations. (Boniface Ramsey, “The Spirituality of the Early Church,” in Spiritual Traditions for the Contemporary Church, 30.) (From megaparishes that make liturgy feel like grim theatrical productions and the administration of the sacraments like an assembly line, good Lord deliver us!). Needless to say, this pastoral spirituality is on nearly every page of the Rule of St. Benedict.

Here is an important quote from Boniface Ramsey’s summary of patristic spirituality. “[T]he early Christians were a ‘liturgical’ people in the sense that they were formed by and aware of the liturgy in a way that Christians in subsequent ages were not.” (Boniface Ramsey, “The Spirituality of the Early Church,” in Spiritual Traditions for the Contemporary Church, 30). As the sixteenth century set its mighty stamp on Western Christianity—both Catholic and Protestant—for the next several centuries, the Church of England and monasticism were, effectively, the only preservers of an organic, developing spirituality based on the liturgical focus of the patristic era.

If this Anglicanism-is-patristic thesis is true, it means there are some aspects of Anglicanism that might arguably nourish the Catholic faith but that might be better suited to other spiritual perspectives in Catholicism. Cardinal Manning, for example, had no time for Newman’s patristic spirituality. I don’t know whether Manning developed this attitude during his Anglican years or after he became Catholic. He could rightly claim to be fully Catholic without taking a particular lively interest in the Church Fathers, but I would suggest that the Ordinariates might not have been his cup of tea. Similarly, I’ve known a few Anglican converts whose theological perspective is so strongly Thomist that they rightly decided the Anglican Use/Ordinariates option wasn’t for them. I would also have to be honest and state that some of Methodism’s historical expressions of individual enthusiasm in worship are pretty aliturgical and are a far cry from the gravitas of the liturgical piety of the patristic era and of monasticism. Yet similar liturgical expressions do exist in some Catholic parishes.

Monasticism hasn’t always successfully maintained its patristic/monastic bearings. I heard a possibly-apocryphal story of a monastery that was under threat of bombs during a war. The monks moved down to the crypt to pray the office. Sure enough, the bombs came, and the sound of their explosions drew closer. The abbot said, “Brothers, let us pray,” and he and his confreres knelt and prayed the rosary. For Dominican friars, this might or might not be perfectly understandable, given the importance of the non-liturgical piety of the rosary in their charism. But for disciples of St. Benedict, this reaction is to have lost the plot, as the saying goes.

A few years ago, a bishop or cardinal who visited an Ordinariate parish was heard to remark that these Anglican converts like to linger in their liturgy and after their liturgy. Liturgy is too important and too much about the beauty of holiness to be rushed through. “Be still [–still enough to listen–] and know that I am God.”

Sources that mention the importance of the Church Fathers in Anglicanism:
Chadwick, Henry. “Tradition, Fathers and Councils.” In The Study of Anglicanism, Stephen Sykes, John Booty, and Jonathan Knight, eds., rev. ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998), 105.
Haugaard, William. “From the Reformation to the Eighteenth Century.” In The Study of Anglicanism, 24.
McGowan, Andrew. “Anglicanism and the Fathers. In The Oxford Handbook of Anglican Studies, Mark Chapman, Sathianathan Clarke, and Marty Percy, eds. 2016 — accessed February 15, 2017.
Moorman, J. R. H. The Anglican Spiritual Tradition (Springfield, Illinois: Templegate, 1983), 212.
Aidan Nichols. Catholics of the Anglican Patrimony (Leominster, U.K.: Gracewing, 2013), 39.
Ramsey, Michael. The Anglican Spirit (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2004), 7.
Thornton, Martin. English Spirituality, 231–243.


4 thoughts on “Is Anglican Patrimony Patristic?

  1. Thank you for posting my response to Mark C’s comments. And thank you, Marc C, for the reply to my response.

    I already have a criticism of my own ramblings. I referred to an “Anglicanism-is-Patristic thesis.” That statement is dangerously un-nuanced.

    It could possibly stand, however, if it is understood to mean that the influence of patristic spirituality in the classic prayer book tradition has continued to develop. Anglicanism “is patristic” in the sense that this is what a patristic optique looks like if it carries immense weight in English spirituality over centuries and centuries and in spite of a few wrong turns here and there.

    Eastern Orthodoxy in general might be able to make a similar claim. E.g., patristic spirituality, if it takes root in medieval Russia and is allowed to at least survive, if not always thrive, will look something like what we see in the Russian Orthodox tradition.

    What post-Counter-Reformation Catholicism has given us is splendid and wonderful and was arguably necessary, given cultural developments in the West. But its ability to live comfortably with the patristic emphasis on liturgy and with the patristic/monastic approach to exegetics is a problem, in my opinion. I think this is what Pope St. John Paul II meant when he said that Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity need to be brought into fuller unity so that we can breathe with both lungs. The Patristic-influenced Anglican patrimony can helps as well.

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  2. I was impressed by this comment.

    Morning Prayer and Evensong: This was Cranmer’s attempt to assure the English people retained the patristic/monastic practice of praying some version of the Liturgy of the Hours. And it proved a largely successful attempt.

    Many years when I worked in New York I would try to attend Evensong at St Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue. I would leave work a little early and get there by 5PM. The church has a superb music program and choir school. One was never disappointed by its quality or the ability to lift the soul. On occasion the then rector Father Andrew Mead in a brief sermon spoke to the role of morning prayer and evening prayer turning the monastery outward to the people as Cranmer intended. He added that if you did both services every day for a month you read all the psalms and in a year the entire bible.
    In my early life these two services formed an important part of my liturgical experience. Morning Prayer with a strong choir is still deeply embedded in memory. We later attended Washington Cathedral and experienced its choir and these services. I can still chant some of the psalms using the melody in my head.
    I want to thank the author for this observation and the complete fleshing out of the theme.


  3. A definite factor in declining attendance at Episcopalian church services has been the widespread abandonment of Morning Prayer in favor of weekly Holy Communion or making communion virtually the only service at most parishes. For one thing, communion typically takes more time and most people grow impatient when the service runs longer than an hour.


    • The fact that “most people grow impatient when the service runs longer than an hour” is very telling. Liturgy normally should be an experience of eternity, in which time — the duration of the service — does not matter. When visiting my friends in Denver a couple decades ago, we frequently assisted at Archbishop Charles Chaput’s stational (full pontifical) masses at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Those masses typically exceeded an hour and a half, as the archbishop typically preached for at least a half hour — and the cathedral was consistently filled, most notably with a lot of young adults drawn by the substance and spiritual depth of the archbishop’s homilies. If parishioners routinely grow restless when a service lasts more than an hour, it’s a sure indication that something of substance is seriously lacking in those communities.


      Liked by 1 person

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