Baptists on the Canterbury Trail

I have introduced to you recently the blog of William G. Witt, a former Baptist, turned Anglican, like myself, and equally a lay theologian. Our pilgrimages on the’ Canterbury trail’ are quite similar, in spite of the fact that he interacted with Catholicism on his way, while I have dialogued with Orthodoxy on mine.

Witt’s post titled Evangelical or Catholic? gives the author the opportunity to outline his spiritual pilgrimage and to discuss various issues in the process, including the Evangelical vs. the Anglo-Catholic versions of Anglicanism, in response to the question received from one of those who comments on his blog.

I paste below a number of fragments from this post, because they illustrate a spiritual experience that is quite similar to mine and also because they may respond to some of the (implicit or explicit) asked by people reading my blog. Here they are:

  • on Baptists as supposedly the only true Christians

I grew up in a church where it was just assumed that we could jump straight from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans to the late 20th century United States without any stopping points along the way.  To the extent we thought about church history at all, we believed that Baptists had recovered the true gospel that could be found plainly in the Bible; Roman Catholics had messed up Christianity by adding a lot of ritual, works-righteousness, pagan superstition, and an unbiblical hierarchy; the Protestant Reformers had recovered part of the gospel, but had not gone far enough.  They had kept such unbiblical practices as infant baptism, sacraments, and written prayers.  I remember once hearing it explained to me when I was young that the Roman Catholic Church was the “whore of Babylon,” but the Protestant denominations were nothing more than the “daughters of the whore.”  Unlike Roman Catholics, and even other Protestants, we did not mess around with human traditions, whether those of Rome or those of the Protestant Reformation.  We went straight to the source, the Bible.  Although we were Baptists, we simply called ourselves “Christians,” and we tended to think that we were the only ones.

  • on the ambiguous character of the Reformation

Scholars like Oberman read the Reformation as what it was, a reforming movement in the late Medieval Roman Catholic Church.  As such, the Reformers corrected a lot of what they thought were abuses in the late Medieval church, but also uncritically accepted as normative many of the self-understandings of late Medieval Catholicism that were simply aberrations of the culture of the time, for example, its individualism, its penitentialism, and the voluntarist theology of Nominalism.  Also, insofar as both Trent and the Protestant Reformation were reactionary movements, both sides rejected positions held by the other side simply because they were held by the other side.  If the Reformers insisted on sola scriptura, scripture and worship in the language of the people, and justification by faith alone, Trent insisted on Scripture and Tradition as two equal sources of revelation, scripture and worship in Latin, and justification by faith plus works.  If Trent insisted on transubstantiation and eucharistic sacrifice, and a magisterium, the Reformers (at least some of them) rejected any notion of a bodily presence in the sacraments, any notion of eucharistic sacrifice, and embraced congregational or presbyterian polity.  The conclusion was that neither Trent nor the Reformers entirely got it right, and both Trent and the Reformers got some things right that the other side missed.

  • on finding others on the Canterbury trail

Finally, during my time at seminary, almost by chance I discovered something called The Chicago Call, from a conference pulled together by a Wheaton College professor named Robert Webber.  This document and its accompanying book, The Orthodox Evangelicals, enabled a major breakthrough for me.  The Chicago Call was a call for Evangelicals to recover the historic tradition and worship of the pre-Reformation Church.  Webber later went on to publish books like Common Roots, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, and become the advocate of something called “Ancient Future Worship.”  Webber and The Chicago Call were the beginning of something like an Evangelical Ressourcement movement, a Protestant echo of the similar movement among pre-Vatican II Roman Catholics like Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac, who helped Roman Catholics rediscover the patristic roots of Catholicism.  The Chicago Call told me that other Evangelicals were doing something that I thought I had been doing entirely on my own. Shortly afterward, I myself became an “Evangelical on the Canterbury Trail.”

  • on why Witt did not become a Catholic (I will explain one day why I have not become an Orthodox, a question I have been asked countless times)

At the end of my time at Seminary, I did not become a Roman Catholic. I had learned a lot of what it felt like to be Catholic from the inside, and I had given Roman Catholicism a more than sympathetic hearing.  But at the end of the day, I did not become Roman because of my dissatisfaction with what John Henry Newman called “development of doctrine.”  Specifically, the Roman doctrines of papal primacy and infallibility, the marian dogmas, and transubstantiation, were stumbling blocks for me.  My historical study convinced me that these were not part of the teaching of either Scripture or the early church (Newman conceded this), but were later (primarily Medieval) developments.  Unlike Newman, I saw no way to understand these Roman dogmas as legitimate doctrinal developments; rather I was, and I remain, convinced that they are departures from both Scripture and the historic faith of the patristic church.

  • why Witt became an Anglican

I ended up becoming an Episcopalian on theological grounds.  I did not think that Anglicanism was the “one true church,” but I did conclude that Anglicanism came closest to have gotten the Reformation right.  Anglicanism had recovered the fourfold marks of the church that had distinguished the second century Catholic Church from Gnosticism during the crucial time in which the church established its identity: 1) Canon (expressed in Anglicanism as sufficiency and primacy of Scripture); 2) Rule of Faith (expressed in Anglicanism in Creedal worship and embracing of the Nicene Creed and Chalcedon); 3) apostolic succession (episcopacy but not papacy); 4) worship in word and sacrament (liturgical worship expressed in the Book of Common Prayer). At the same time, Anglicanism embraced the genuine insights of the Protestant Reformation: sola scriptura and justification by faith alone.

  • on Anglican diversity

At the same time, Anglicanism is not a movement whose pristine purity is established in, and ends  with, the Reformation.  If Cranmer and Jewel and Hooker are fundamental to Anglican identity, it is the Caroline Divines who establish regular Anglican  practice and give it its definitive form.  If you want to understand Anglican theology, read Cranmer, Jewel, or Hooker. If you want to see what Anglicanism looks like when people live it out, read George Herbert, John Donne, Thomas Traherne or Lancelot Andrewes.  Finally, Anglicanism is a Reforming movement that continued to reform itself.  There is no Anglicanism without Evangelicals like William Wilberforce, John Newton, and Charles Simeon (but also emphatically John and Charles Wesley), but  neither is there Anglicanism without Anglo-Catholics like John Keble and Edward Pusey.  I would also say that neither Evangelicalism nor Anglo-Catholicism are completed as early nineteenth century movements.  They reach their maturity with the embrace of critical orthodoxy in later figures like B. F. Westcott,  F. J. A. Hort, C. F. D. Moule, Anthony Thiselton, and N.T. Wright (Evangelicals), Charles Gore and the Lux Mundi movement, Edwin Hoskyns, Michael Ramsey, E. L. Mascall and Austin Farrer (Anglo-Catholics).

  • on Anglican synergies

Again, because Anglicanism is a reforming movement in the Western Catholic church, it also finds itself in continuity with the pre-Reformation Church: the Celtic Church, the early English Church of Bede the Venerable, the Medieval scholasticism of Anselm, the Medieval spirituality of Julian of Norwich, The Cloud of Unknowing, and Walter Hilton, but also non-English Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Catholicism: Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, the Cappadocians, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas.

  • on Anglican ecumenism

Finally, Anglicanism has been at the forefront of the modern ecumenical movement.  My own theology has been formed as much by figures like Bernard Lonergan, Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, and Hans urs von Balthasar, as it has by Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Wolfhart Pannenberg.  I also have been influenced by earlier ecumenical figures like the Reformed leaders of the Mercersburg Theology, Philip Schaff and John Williamson Nevin, and more contemporary figures like Leslie Newbigin,  T.F. Torrance and George Hunsinger. Anglican bishop Stephen Sykes has written somewhere that Anglicanism has no need to choose between the Reformation and the Catholic tradition. Anglicans can learn from both Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth.

  • on Evangelical Anglicanism and Anglo-Catholicism

…Evangelical Anglicanism and Anglo-Catholicism can also be understood as partisan movements within Anglicanism that embrace the earlier understanding of Reformation historiography I mentioned that views the Reformation as a clean break with Medieval Catholicism, rather than a movement of reform and continuity within Western Catholicism.  Given this historiography, one must choose.  To be Evangelical means that one is not Catholic, and vice versa.  George Hunsinger has recently referred to this approach as “enclave theology.”

Enclave theology of an Evangelical stripe tends to look for a “golden thread” in Anglican history, in which a handful got it right, but most got it wrong.
The Anglo-Catholic version of enclave theology can tend to read the Anglican Reformation as guilty of all the worst sins of Protestantism—private judgment, subjectivism, sectarianism, the sure path to liberal Protestanism ( This would be Newman’s reading.  Fortunately, later Anglo-catholic theologians like Michael Ramsey and E. L. Mascall do not simply dismiss the Reformation as a mistake).
I would suggest that enclave Evangelicalism and enclave Anglo-Catholicism are actually mirror images of one another, both defining themselves in opposition  to the other, both looking for their identities in movements outside Anglicanism–either continental Protestantism or Tridentine Catholicism–and neither being faithful to the historic Anglican Reformation.
Both also end up with truncated theologies.

  • on ‘enclave’ Evangelical Anglicanism

Enclave Evangelicalism often focuses exclusively on justification by faith, which it identifies with conversion.  It looks to Geneva (or perhaps Wittenberg) rather than Canterbury, and finds its sympathies with the Puritans rather than Hooker.  The sacraments are undervalued, and sometimes understood in a Zwinglian manner.  (I have heard Evangelicals express concerns about baptismal regeneration as an Anglo-Catholic reversion to Romanism.  To the contrary, Cranmer, Jewel, and Hooker all clearly teach baptismal regeneration.)  Enclave Evangelicals tend to focus on penal substitutionary atonement to the neglect of other atonement models equally evident in Scripture and tradition, on merely forensic models of justification (reducing soteriology to “imputation”) to the neglect of sanctification, to the neglect of the resurrection, union with the risen Christ, eschatology, ecclesiology, and the Trinity.  (Thus the hostility of enclave Evangelicals to the “new perspective on Paul,” which, while not necessarily right about everything, corrects a lot of these Evangelical oversights.) Enclave Evangelicals will use the Prayer Book, but often do not see the point, and seem often to equate sloppiness in liturgy as a badge of their identity.  Anglican Evangelical piety often owes more to “born-again Christianity,” revivalism, pietism, “church growth movements” (“contemporary worship”), and Pentecostalism, than it does to historic Anglican Prayer Book spirituality. Enclave Evangelical theology also behaves as if Vatican II never happened. It continues to identify Roman Catholicism with Trent, and not to acknowledge the extent to which Roman Catholicism has self-corrected.

  • on ‘enclave’ Anglo-Catholicism

Conversely, enclave Anglo-Catholics tend to be Tridentine in their ethos.  (When I was at Notre Dame, Catholic liturgy students joked that they visited South Bend’s Anglo-Catholic cathedral to see how it was done before Vatican II).  Enclave Anglo-Catholics conflate ecclesiology with polity. Apostolic succession (and valid orders) are the heart of the gospel in the same way that justification by faith is for Evangelicals (thus the horror in response to women’s ordination), with a corresponding clericalism.   Liturgical innovations (like Marian piety or Anglican missals) are introduced into the liturgy in a way that is contrary to historic Anglican theology or practice, and tends to be modeled on post-Reformation Roman practice.    There is also a kind of “preciousness” that tends to infect Anglo-Catholic piety. (One of my former decidedly Anglo-Catholic bishops had a distinctively British accent. He was a native of Baltimore, MD.) Ironically, enclave Catholicism also pretends that Vatican II never happened, insisting on identifying with Catholicism positions that Roman Catholics no longer hold.

  • on ironic Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic agreement

Ironically, where at least some enclave Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics come together is in their mutual opposition to critical biblical scholarship, to liturgical renewal, and to women’s ordination. While they might agree on little else, enclave Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics can join together in their desire to make the 1928 (or 1662) BCP to be exclusively normative, and to reject women clergy.
They also often agree (at least in the USA) in embracing a common “conservative” political position that would not have been recognizable to either the social conscience of Evangelicals like Wilberforce o

  • Witt’s conclusion

If asked to choose between an evangelical and a catholic understanding of the Reformation, I would refuse that choice as a false dilemma.

* * *

I hope that was comprehensive enough. Any questions? I mean, for me, because Dr. Witt certainly does not read my blog.


Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

2 thoughts on “Baptists on the Canterbury Trail”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s