One of the distinctive features of late Anglicanism was the parties that arose out of the eighteenth century Evangelical revival and the nineteenth century Catholic revival. At times locked in partisan conflict, they nonetheless testified to Anglicanism’s debt to the past.
Evangelicals looked to the sixteenth century Reformation, while Catholics looked to the traditions of the ancient and medieval church. The way in which this was done was often one-sided. Evangelicals jumped over the fifteen centuries between the apostles and Martin Luther (though acknowledging Augustine and Wycliffe), while Catholics tended to jump straight from the 1530s (when Henry VIII broke with the papacy and dissolved the monasteries) to the 1830s (when John Keble’s Assize sermon launched the catholic revival in the Church of England).
Narrow, partisan, and shallow as these opposed accounts could be, they nonetheless did acknowledge the definitive claim of the Christian tradition and the Bible on the present and future. For a long time, therefore, for all their deficiencies, Anglican evangelicals and catholics had an important role in anchoring Anglicanism against the tides of late modern secularism with its liberal approach to scripture. It is significant that, at least in their inception, both revivals appealed to the historic Prayer Book (although unfortunately as these movements developed, for reasons connected with a too lenient view of liberal theology, they tended to abandon that original attachment).
The continuing importance of these movements is to be measured by their ability to counter the “cuckoo in the nest” of late modern Anglicanism, the theological liberalism which expresses the outlook of contemporary culture, of the autonomous, self-expressive individual — a culture in which all things are measured by their apparent relevance to subjective experience, rather than historical or biblical norms. In late modern theological liberalism, nothing is permitted to challenge the sovereignty of the self.
The only liberation which modern liberalism cannot offer, however, is transcendence, the liberation from the prison of the self, the liberation to a good higher and greater than me. As a result of its assertion of the sovereignty of the self, this theological liberalism has been the primary solvent of Anglican community. The tyrannical liberal majority, indifferent to the Church’s constitutional and historic commitments, has now appealed to the civil courts in order to protect (in an act of extreme irony), a community which by its ‘protective’ actions it is, at the same time, destroying.
In the face of this dissolution, the need for a catholic and evangelical voice in the church today is greater than ever. The strength of this voice will depend on the ability of catholics and evangelicals to root themselves more fully in the whole of theological history, ancient, medieval, and reformed. That means eschewing partisan advantage, the disparagement of each other’s tradition, the transmission of one-sided and polemical mythologies. It means learning to attend respectfully to reformed and catholic voices, seeking a greater unity that is not based on the lowest common denominator or the disparagement of doctrine. Above all, I believe, it will mean rediscovering the historic Prayer Book as the true charter of Anglican community in which both parties can live with charity, humility, and a measure of self-restraint. In recent decades, Anglican catholics and evangelicals have formed various strategic alliances: a deeper, if incomplete unity, is there to be sought.