I am thankful for friends who raise difficult questions, because it forces me to answer them. Then again, it is difficult. It is difficult precisely because, while I would like to simply agree with what Chinglican has said in defense of Anglicanism, the matter lies too close to the heart of the issue. If what he says is true, there would not be that much point in becoming Catholic – I would be Catholic already as an Anglican. And so, while I want to answer as irenically as possible, my response might be shocking and kind of offensive because the matter is too pressing a question to be dealt with sensitively. So I request the forgiveness of those I offend.
Basically, Chinglican argues that there are two churches in the Anglican church, the political and the literary. The political is not really very justifiable. But the literary has been there time and time again to raise the thorny theologies that imperialism would suppress. In many ways, this read on Anglican history seems about right, which is probably why I became an English major. Early on, I realized that some of the most profound theological things happening in the English milieux were works of literature. Literature, for Chinglican, plays for the Anglican church the function the pope is supposed to play for the Catholic church – to call kings to account.
I will not get into the history of this, as such would be tedious and could be reckoned in many and various ways. I could imagine an interpretation that sees literature as theological protest, as well as an interpretation that sees literature as a political flunky. But the one thing I would point out is that the capacity of literature to fulfill its critical function is directly dependent on its connection to real theology. Donne could be what he was because he was so deeply indebted to pre-Tridentine Catholicism. And the political split did not immediately destroy all theology. It did not take away the wealth of things that had gone before.
But I can’t help wondering how sustainable this might be. I would certainly agree that, in the Early Modern period, literature is a form of theological protest and critique, seen particularly in someone like Milton. But by the Victorian period or so, I’m not so sure. The Blakean romantics have run off with sola emotion, and the Enlightenment types have run off with reason (see Pope’s Essay on Man). Literature gets appropriated by various movements and finds itself left without a theology, and all we have left is poor Mr. Collins of Pride and Prejudice to defend us from the monarch. What I am getting at is that, if English literature has in the Early Modern period the protesting character Chinglican sees in it, this has significantly cooled by the time the Victorians come around with their state-embedded church. There are of course exceptions to this. But if Chinglican can truncate history, so can I. What I am getting at is that English literature can protest just to the degree that it has in its cultural memory a kind of faith that can protest against the state, the kind of faith seen in Thomas More and (dare I say) Guy Fawkes? But amnesia sets in, and the church is integrated nicely with the state.
And I suppose this is my difficulty. I imagine I would find it much easier to be an Anglican (actually, the term Anglican is anachronistic here) in the Early Modern period – that is, if I didn’t lose my head for some reason or other. But now, the church is so far removed from that root that I imagine to actually be the kind of Anglican that wants union with Rome – that weeps proportionate tears and longs for the radix, the root – would be emotionally devastating. I am all for mourning. But the level of mourning required here would kill me and make me unable to function. Put another way, it seems to me that far too many Anglicans claim to want unity, but in fact are quite happy going about their merry lives without a pope. And this leads me to the question of orientalism.
Because in a very real way, I think the thing that annoys me about many Anglo-Catholics is that they are Anglicans discovering a Saidean orient in the Catholic church. I have a friend working on the French as the “other” to English “normalcy” – the other both exotic and dangerous – and I kind of think that a similar thing occurs with Catholicism. It is the deeply dangerous thing we all have to fear – reading some of the English indictments of Catholicism are a little like reading some of the modern indictments of terrorism (though again, there was a Guy Fawkes, who seems to have been both). But the Catholic church is also fascinating in all its gaudy dangerousness. Shakespeare’s attractive “Catholic” fool Feste is counter-posed to the “Puritan” Malvolio. It is no surprise that Oscar Wilde, when he becomes increasingly interested in faith near the end of his life, is interested to Catholicism. Like good Englishmen, we are attracted with Charles Ryder of Brideshead to the many exotic sins of Catholicism. The Catholic church is the foreign woman that both threatens and mesmerizes England.
But I will go one further: we are all, whenever we encounter anyone or anything, orientalists, that is, original sinners. We all of us will always initially encounter the other like this. The real question is what we do with this encounter. Do we keep the exotic as a pet, to pleasure us and remind us of our own superiority by turns? Or do we in fact engage – try to get past this impression and encounter the other on terms other than our own? Because this for me is the real question. Am I appreciating Catholic theology as an ornament or pet of my own individuality, or am I in fact in the state of knowing what it means to be fully Catholic, that is submitting to the Magesterium? Many Anglo-Catholics critique the highly individualistic appropriation of Scripture in Evangelical circles, but isn’t Anglo-Catholicism just the flip-side of the coin, an individualistic interpretation of Christian tradition ultimately unguided and undisciplined by the authority of the Church?
I realize that what I am saying here will anger many, but I can’t help feeling this way. If I am going to preach Catholicism, I want to know the pain of being Catholic, rather than preach something that I can leave at the door when I go home at night. Because I am not content manipulating a Catholic orient. No, I want the Catholic church.