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What is Anglo-Catholicism?

Wait…I thought this was an Episcopal Church?
You’re exactly right! The Church of the Atonement is an Episcopal Church. We are a part of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, and we use the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer (1979) and the Episcopal Church’s Hymnal (1982) in our worship. But we are also inheritors of the Anglo-Catholic tradition, which is a branch or identity within the Episcopal Church and indeed within the entire Anglican Communion. 


So where does the Anglo-Catholic tradition come from? 
The term “Anglo-Catholic” was first used in the 19th century to identify a particular group of Anglicans (members of the Church of England) who were interested in the teachings of something called the Oxford Movement. The leaders of this movement, who were all theologians who studied at – you guessed it! – Oxford, believed that the churches of the Anglican Communion, which include Episcopal Churches, were deeply connected to the traditions and practices of the larger Church throughout the centuries. These leaders believed in the importance of the regular offering of the Mass, and their writings emphasized the way that this regular practice of receiving the Body and Blood of Christ sustains and supports a life of radical service to those who are most in need. Later priests and theologians expanded this theology to include the regular use of symbols and ceremony that reflect an understanding of the majesty and transcendence of God. 


But isn’t that just called “high church?”
Sometimes it is, for sure. We at Atonement are indeed “high church,” using incense and ceremony and vestments and art and music in reverent, humble worship. But our Anglo-Catholic identity runs deeper than this. More important than even the beautiful reverence of our worship is the fact that we say Mass every day and pray that this practice will move us from our worship out into care for those in need. Our lives are shaped by the regularity of our worship, whether or not it has a high ceremonial.  To quote the late Rev’d Walter Herbert Stowe in an essay he wrote in 1932, “Christianity is not primarily a philosophy, or an ethical system, or an emotion. True, it contains all these elements, but primarily it is a life.” The same is true for Anglo-Catholicism. It is not primarily a kind of worship style; it is primarily a way of life, dedicated to the worship and service of God.  

So the “Anglo” in Anglo-Catholic…
…reflects our origins in the Church of England, not our ethnic or national identity. Anglo-Catholics come from all areas of the world and happily are all gender identities, ethnicities, ages, and sexual orientations. 


And you’re catholic, but not (Roman) Catholic?
Exactly. The “Catholic” in Anglo-Catholic expresses this sense of connectivity between our Church and the Church in all times and places. While much of our liturgy comes from the same roots as that of the Roman Catholic Church, we are not Roman Catholics.

So you don’t have a pope?
Right. We do have bishops who have been ordained in historic continuity with bishops of ages past (including Roman Catholic bishops), but we are not governed by the doctrine or proclamations of the Roman Catholic Pope or the Holy See. We keep the traditional Holy Orders for ministers in the Church – lay people, Bishops, Priests, and Deacons. Of course, differently from the Roman Catholic Church, those who are ordained in the Episcopal Church are able to marry if they are so called, and are faithful people of all gender identities and sexual orientations.  

But don’t you keep some Holy Days like the Roman Catholics?
Yes, we do, because the pattern of our liturgy and of our sanctoral (holy-time) calendar is inherited from the ancient Church, just like in the Roman Catholic tradition. We, too, keep the feasts of Christmas and Easter, All Saints and All Souls Days, Pentecost, the Epiphany, and the Ascension. We also remember the saints in our daily worship, praying with them and asking them to pray for us. Our saints calendar includes many of the same saints as other Christian traditions, but it also includes some saints that are particularly Anglican – for example, saints of the British reformation such as Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (the first Archbishop in the Church of England and the creator of the first prayer book), or exemplars of the Episcopal faith and tradition such as the Rev’d Absalom Jones (the founder of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Philadelphia and the first African-American to be ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church). 

But you don’t pray to the saints, like they’re God?
Nope. We believe that we are connected to the saints through our Baptism, which makes us all one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church – the Body of Christ in the world and beyond. But we don’t pray to the saints. Instead, we invite their prayers, just as we would any person of great faith when we are in times of trouble. 

Well, you say that, but what about Mary?
Mary, the Mother of God, the ever-blessed, Our Lady, the Virgin One, the God-bearer…we certainly have a special place in our hearts for Mary. Mary is a model of faith for each of us, lovingly challenging us to examine the ways that we ourselves might bear the presence of Christ into the world. We love Mary. We have a community of faithful men at Atonement who have dedicated their lives to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and who pray with her regularly for the well-being of the world. (Interested? Click here to find out more about the Community of the Mother of Jesus.) We also have a special shrine to Mary in our nave, and we pray for her intercession each month using something called “The Angelus,” which includes the prayer, “Hail Mary, full of Grace; blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at our death.”

Wait a minute…isn’t that the rosary prayer?
Why yes, it is! These are the words that are used during the praying of the Holy Rosary, which we do each Saturday at Atonement at 9:30 a.m. We use the rosary to help still our hearts and minds and open us to the presence of God, inviting Mary to pray for us as we seek to draw ourselves closer to her Son and to the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Okay. I’m starting to get it. But what do I do if I don’t have any experience with any of this? Am I going to get lost if I come to Atonement?
Honestly – maybe. If you’ve never been to an Episcopal Church before, or to an Anglo-Catholic parish, there might be moments in worship when you aren’t sure what’s going on. But you know what? That’s just fine. We all started that way, whether our first Anglo-Catholic liturgy was when we were 1 month old or 1000 months old. Our words of wisdom? Enjoy that time. Enjoy the feeling of being swept away by the worship. Enjoy the feeling of not having to “figure out” everything about God right now. You can’t anyway, so just enjoy the mystery, the Grace, and the love. You are most welcome to get lost with us here, any time. 




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