St John’s is an Anglo-Catholic Church. How so?
Rose Macaulay, in her unforgettably wise and witty novel The Towers of Trebizond (1956), symbolised the Church of England as a camel. If not actually designed by a committee (though it may sometimes seem so), the Church inherits its DNA from both its Catholic and its Protestant roots, sometimes in conflict, always in creative tension, with one or the other in the temporary ascendant. But all rivers run to the same sea:
‘In my Father’s house are many mansions.’
Origins of Anglo-Catholicism
Following the energetic regeneration of the church and its fabric after the Restoration in 1660, its doctrine and practice largely lapsed into supine, well-funded, and wonderfully corrupt somnolence. Awakened first by the personal salvationalism of John Wesley (1703-91) and his followers (subsequently to be re-born as the independent Methodist Church), it was again awakened by John Keble (1792-1866) with his shattering denunciation of National Apostasy in his 1833 Oxford Assize Sermon. The famous Tracts for the Times followed, arousing bitter doctrinal controversy between Protestant and Catholic wings of the Church.
The call was taken up by John Henry Newman (1801-90), later Cardinal Newman, and by Edward Pusey (1800-82), all of Oriel College Oxford, and by many others. Thus the terms Oxford Movement and Tractarianism, both known in developed form as Anglo-Catholicism, and as such essentially a reaction against the prevailing dry Protestantism of the Church, and a return to the sacramental doctrine, life, and liturgy of the pre-Reformation Catholic Church.
Early Anglo-Catholicism in Britain
Despite huge opposition, the re-awakened understanding of its Catholic inheritance regenerated the Church from within, especially through the missionary and sacrificial zeal of numerous Anglo-Catholic priests in the appalling slums of c19th and early c20th Britain: all greatly assisted by the attractions of a less verbal and more exotic Catholic form of liturgy and life, an elevated understanding of priesthood, the re-ordering of the sanctuary, the role of acolytes, music and chant, lights, vestments, sanctuary bells and incense.
Richer parishes, of which this was one, were drawn into the drama of ritual and devotional observances, and into a new symbolically expressed spirituality. In its full tide, flow and ebb, between 1850 and 1950, Anglo-Catholicism by quiet osmosis gradually transformed much of the doctrine, liturgy and practice of the Church of England, indeed of the Anglican Communion as a whole. Though a real and understandable need has drawn and still draws some towards the certainties of Rome, for others, as for Rose Macaulay, Anglo-Catholicism remains at that liminal and luminous undefined cusp between perception, symbol and presence whence all Creation flows.
Anglo-Catholicism at St John the Baptist Holland Road
As indeed the Crucifix, in this church so prominent, the symbol (lit. ‘the throwing together’) of Time and Eternity, the meeting of Body and Soul, a re-Incarnation, reveals the human Being as s/he really Is. For this is exactly what this Church, as a crystallisation of perception in stone, was designed to do, and for many still does. May it do so for all who enter it. Laus Deo.