By Adrian Worsfold
One wonders if The Episcopal Church as a body is wearied by the constant ideological attacks made upon it by the more conservative of Christians, especially those coming out of its ranks. It and its leadership are commonly accused of Unitarianism. Perhaps this comparison ought to be examined.
The Anglo-American strand of Unitarianism is liberal at every level. It does not have checks and balances via structural overlaps in its liberalism, but rather is independent and liberal at each and every level and it all works by persuasion and goodwill (or doesn’t). Thus the model is without creeds and articles, and is congregational and evolutionary. American Unitarianism was always congregational, the English too. The Anglican Church was actually resistant and oppositional to the congregationalists of the East coast of the United States. Although The Episcopal Church has inherited much in the way of American democratic culture, it keeps a qualified episcopal system. It keeps creeds and is somewhat systematic. It has congregations but is not made by congregations.
Now there have always been points of crossing over. King’s Chapel was the first Episcopal Church in New England. Loyalists to Britain were forced out in 1776 and it closed. A year later congregationalists displaced by the British effectively opened it up, sharing with Episcopalians until 1783, when their own chapel was refurbished, and James Freeman was selected to be the minister at Kings Chapel among the Episcopalians, and it was agreed that he would not have to read the Athanasian Creed. He read Joseph Priestley’s A History of the Corruptions of Christianity (1782) and Theophilus Lindsey’s An Historical View of the State of the Unitarian Doctrine and Worship from the Reformation to our own Times (1783) and became Unitarian, and the congregation on hearing some sermons adopted a qualified Unitarian stance. The church nevertheless retains something of an Anglican ethos to this day. Lindsey is important, because he was an Anglican rector in the north of England who resigned his orders when the Feathers Tavern petition against subscription to the Thirty-nine articles failed, and he opened the first named Unitarian Church in 1774, using an Arian liturgy produced by the Anglican Samuel Clarke. The important point often made is that Arianism was more important in the Anglican Church than in English Unitarianism and of course there were Anglican Latitudinarians too, a long word for liberal. After that some Anglicans and some Unitarians co-operated, and there were individuals who crossed over in both directions, and continue to do so to this day. One wonders if the downgrading since Lindsey’s day of the Thirty-nine Articles to “historic formularies” receiving a general assent in the Church of England would have satisfied him.
People forget that while John Henry Newman went on his travels from gothic Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, his brother Francis went in the opposite direction from Anglicanism through Unitarianism. Blanco White went from Roman Catholicism via Anglicanism to Unitarianism. I know today of a Unitarian who is now Roman Catholic, and there is a vicar in Essex who was once a Unitarian minister, and indeed an important person in my own religious travels (now deceased) started off as a Anglo-Catholic ordained in St Paul’s Cathedral and ended up as a humanist-Buddhist and symbols-using Unitarian minister in London.
Of course there are Unitarian Christians who have an ecumenical outlook and who draw on the theology produced by liberal Anglicans. Many an Anglican has read Unitarian Christian writing with sympathy. The oddity is that Unitarian Christianity is conservative (I never got on with it; I went down more progressive routes) whereas Anglican liberalism is what it indicates. The two Churches are quite different in approach and ethos, and it is why Unitarian Universalism how has humanist, neo-Pagan, Eastern and Christian wings, and an identifiable Christianity is a minor element of that Church. The British Unitarian Church is more liberal Christian, but shares the same constituencies as the American Church.
There is of course the central European Unitarian tradition that has and retains a catechism, that is a Unitarian form of Protestant Christianity, and was Socinian in Poland and Unitarian in Transylvania, and with repression spread itself to the Netherlands to affect other communities.
One wonders whether the critics of The Episcopal Church actually make the best comparison with Unitarians when they want to accuse it of liberalism. Why not instead attempt to compare it with Liberal Catholicism?
Now Liberal Catholicism does retain apostolic succession, and it does retain some creeds (it tends to keep the Apostles Creed and quietly drop the Nicene Creed). It is, however, very theologically diverse – indeed in terms of groups with apostolic succession in goes the full distance, from strict Eastern Orthodoxy and ultra-Romanism right through to anarchy. Rather than have any pretence to centralisation, they all pursue the autocephalous understanding of Eastern Orthodoxy whilst recognising the apostolic orders. Personally I think the autocephalous understanding would be a better model for Anglicanism than the intended centralisation of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, who seems all too often to describe the Anglican Communion as an Anglican Church. He wants to make it recognisable to Roman Catholicism as a body, but to do so would be highly innovative and a Covenant to do this would cause enormous institutional strain and almost certain division by rejection. The cost of the autocephalous route, however, would inevitably be more than one Anglicanism in a geographical area – something that has already happened.
Liberal Catholicism is part of what sometimes is called the phenomenon of Episcopi Vagantes. It is actually misleading, because there should be something like 45,000 Liberal Catholics in the world (still tiny) and some eight million independent Catholics.
There are different lines of apostolic succession and they are quite complex. My interest has been more ideological. Roughly speaking there are two strands. The first might be called Liberal Catholic Theosophical. Arnold Harris Mathew was made a bishop by the Old Catholic Church that has deep origins in the Netherlands and then in the rejection of the 1870 decision by the Pope to regard himself and all successors as infallible. Mathew came back to Britain and gathered around him some priests, most of whom became interested in Theosophy. Tolerant at first, he then dismissed them, and also personally tried to reconcile himself with Rome (he had been Roman and Anglican – and even Unitarian for a moment). His relationship with the Anglican leadership was difficult because he reordain very many Anglo-Catholic priests worried about the validity of their orders. It is from this relationship that English Anglicanism has an ideological chip on its shoulder about Episcopi Vagantes (whereas Roman Catholicism seems more relaxed).
Mathew consecrated his successor, who then consecrated one of the Theosophy interested priests, James Ingall Wedgwood (of the pottery family), in 1916, and he consecrated Charles Webster Leadbeater, also in 1916, who was the real deal when it came to pursuing Theosophy and a magical view of the eucharist. He had also been a Buddhist (which also allows a rather magical interpretation in the richer traditions). The current various descendents of Liberal Catholicism regard Theosophy with variable levels of importance, and Leadbeater himself forsaw a time when it would not be important. Liberal Catholicism has a history of splits and has a number of branches.
A second ideological source comes from the Unitarians. For convenience I call it Free Catholicism (which is how it called itself). Joseph Morgan Lloyd Thomas took the liturgical and Victorian gothic Free Christian tradition to a Catholic liturgical logic along with ecumenical friends including the congregationalist W. E. Orchard. This is just a few years after the outbreak of Liberal Catholicism. Free Catholicism did become trinitarian, after a fashion, but promoted creedless sacramentalism. Another strand is from Ulric Vernon Herford, who came from a family of Unitarian ministers. He had ordinary ministries in East Anglia and the west of England, but had mixed with the liturgical side of Unitarianism and indeed partly trained with Anglo-Catholics in Oxford. He then moved his Oxford congregation into a semi-monastic and liturgically richer setting and had a grand world-ecumenical vision, being ordained and consecrated in India along the lines of the Syro-Chaldean (Nestorian) Church and Roman Catholic Church, Syro-Chaldean Rite. He did not change his theology – he continued to be in all effect Unitarian. It seems that he assumed a Unitarianism of sorts in his consecrator and his consecrator Luis Mariano Suares, Mar Basilius, assumed a trinitarianism in Herford.
I would like to think that Free Catholicism adds a rationality to the more magical tradition that is Liberal Catholicism – that would be my own bias I suppose. Free Catholicism did not continue like Liberal Catholicism did, and Unitarianism is biased against it – it regards the founders as unreliable, detached and against the ethos of Unitarianism. I used to think they were missing a trick or three (especially in a more symbolic postmodern age), and it is a principle reason why I moved to the Anglicans for a more liturgical and eucharistic setting, and a faith path or spiritual discipline.
One gets the connection, but I realise that I stretch Anglicanism as far as it can go (and possibly too far). My own religious beginnings were in liberal theological Anglicanism – and I moved to the Unitarians, and from them moved back to the Anglicans. I am one of those who has crossed the borders. I probably live in the borders, a sort of religious Northumberland.
My resistance to Liberal Catholicism is pretty thin, but I am put off by the esoteric and magical. The mainline Christian traditions make a point of distinguishing between the supernatural and the magical. Magic means power invested in the individual, whereas the supernatural is a vertical channel from God and presumably more reliable. However, the whole priestly “ontological difference” and Orders business does come pretty close to magic, and magic can be in the service of people just as kingship can be. My own argument is more about having rationality as an approach: for me mainline Christianity leads to a kind of self-emptying and burial of the supernatural (in the end) and the magical is something else. Incidentally, I was also involved in the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, which, as well as stressing its own multiple apostolic succession (!), made a distinction between what is essential and what is culturally added on. I carry some of that, though I think religion is all cultural. My view of apostolic succession is that it is just a point of identity and continuity: I don’t give it power. My own view of the eucharist is rather more social anthropological too, at root, as to how it ‘works’.
Magic is not compulsory in all Liberal Catholicism, just as Theosophy usually is not, but it gets a friendly press because it offers an explanation for apostolic succession and eucharistic power. Now, if you limit the magic, is there any substantive difference between Liberal Catholicism and some tendencies in Anglicanism? Are they not more similar than liberal Anglicanism and Unitarianism as it has evolved? I simply ask the question. One wonders about the Protestantism in the equation. It could just be that Anglicanism, whilst it has its near neighbours, cannot be compared with anything, and that it is an utterly unique animal. It might regard itself as part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, whatever others may think, but nevertheless it is its own culture as are the other branches of the Pauline derived varieties.
Adrian Worsfold (Pluralist), has a doctorate in sociology and a masters degree in contemporary theology. He lives near Hull, in northeast England and keeps the blog Pluralist Speaks.