Catholic Anglicanism at its best is evangelistic to its roots and proclaims God’s transforming love to a world that sorely needs that message, a leading Australian Anglican theologian said in Melbourne recently.

The Revd Canon Dr Scott Cowdell, Canon Theologian of the Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn and Research Associate Professor of Theology at Charles Sturt University, told a dinner conversation on “Evangelical Catholicism” at St Peter’s Eastern Hill on 15 August that it was not the mind of Christ for Catholic Anglicanism to define itself by opposing Evangelicalism.

Dr Cowdell said Evangelical Catholicism was not evangelistic if that meant the world needed to be saved from an angry God.

“Rather, our world needs to come to its senses and learn the truth of God’s love for it, and to be transformed by that love,” he said. “Living and celebrating and exploring and proclaiming that vision is what Evangelical Catholicism means for me.

“What I’m suggesting to you is that Evangelical Catholicism is not Anglo-Catholicism to which we reluctantly add some ill-fitting Evangelical techniques for outreach. Rather, the Catholic vision is itself Evangelical, spilling over with the good news of Jesus Christ to transform the world in love, so that mission lies at the heart of Catholic Christianity rightly conceived. It’s not Church plus evangelism and mission but Church as the fountain of evangelism and mission according to its inner logic, rather than these representing merely optional external practices.”

Dr Cowdell was leading a panel discussion attended by about 140 people in St Peter’s Hall after preaching at High Mass for the Feast of the Assumption in the adjacent historic church. Other panellists were Melbourne author and historian Dr Muriel Porter; the Education Missioner for the Anglican Board of Mission – Australia, Mr Brad Chapman; and the Dean of Trinity College Theological School, the Revd Professor Dorothy Lee.

“Bishop Frank Weston (early 20th century Bishop of Zanzibar) reminded one of the great Anglo-Catholic congresses in their heyday that since they had obtained their tabernacles and their full Catholic privileges, they must go out and find Christ in the faces of England’s poor and neglected,” Dr Cowdell said. “Now that we have our rich traditions of Catholic worship, our aesthetics and our romance, we need to serve that vision by honouring the beauty and worth of a threatened creation and a humanity sold increasingly cheap.

“How do we improve our mission as Catholic Anglicans? Recovering the vision glorious by attention to our liturgy and our Gospel preaching is surely important, so that beauty and mystery begin to reveal their deepest truth in the face of Jesus Christ and our people begin to really understand this. We have to be more converted as Catholic Anglicans by the vision that we celebrate. Letting the transfigured Jesus Christ begin to transform our community life in parishes is part of this, so that we become more mature Christians together—welcoming not peevish, bold not risk averse, eager to gather new converts into our parishes to teach and nurture as they take on the mantle of Christ in life, rather than seeing them as threats to a comfortable status quo and to our own accustomed place in the parish pecking order…

“In addition I’d encourage us to rethink our approach to the young people with whom God blesses us. What if instead of a youth devoted to the escapism of multiple short-term dalliances and the ersatz relationships of social media we encouraged them to form Christian community and begin to discover Christ’s mission, to live with other young Christians for a time of meeting Christ both on the mountain and on the plain?... What if we encouraged our young to consider vocation to the sacred ministry, rather than directing them towards more worldly and successful careers? There’s no higher calling in life for a young Sydney Anglican than to go to Moore College and seek ordination. Can we match that in our parishes, or indeed in our families? The same can be said for the religious life, which is so far beyond the imagination of our times that few if any of us would encourage a son or daughter of obvious thoughtfulness and prayerfulness to follow that counter-cultural calling.”

In his sermon for the Assumption, entitled “Our long-lost half-sister”, Dr Cowdell said he wanted to make a perverse attempt at interpreting Marian dogma as a testimony to Evangelical truth because Mary’s Assumption, like her Immaculate Conception, took Christians to the very heart of what the Gospel meant.

“But to begin let me name the strangeness and even awkwardness that Anglicans typically feel about Mary,” he said. “Her feast days were not entirely removed from The Book of Common Prayer by that increasingly convinced Protestant Cranmer, but her cult and personal devotion to Mary are things that few if any Anglicans learn at their mother’s knee. Nevertheless the majority of Christians, both Roman Catholic and Orthodox, know Mary as a personal reality and they talk to her, not just about her—they believe her to be so caught up in the life of Christ and his heavenly Father that where they are she too must surely be.”

Dr Cowdell recalled having an adoption reunion with his natural mother, and subsequently with his natural father and his family, 20 years ago.

“It turned out that I had two half-sisters who I didn’t know about, and to meet them was to learn new things about myself… I was like them; I discovered that I liked them, and that they liked me. I tell you this story because it’s the same for us Anglicans with Mary, our beautiful, fascinating half-sister who many of us didn’t know that we had. So perhaps it’s worth getting to know Mary better, and to make a place for her in our Anglican family story.

“Now, the Evangelical will seek biblical warrant for this suggestion, and rightly, and we can I think provide it. Our lectionary readings tonight are a good start,” he said, citing Revelation 11:19 and 12:1-6 and 10 and 1 Corinthians 15:20-26.

“In our gospel tonight (Luke 1:39-56), Mary serves as a kind of hinge in salvation history,” Dr Cowdell said. “In Advent we focus both on John the Baptist and Mary as the forerunners of Christ, but while John the Baptist is less than the least in the new covenant, and only points with his long finger across the gap between the testaments to Christ, Mary crosses that gap from the Old Covenant to the New—not least in the Magnificat, drawn from the songbook of Israel to take its place of honour in the Church’s songbook. Likewise, Mary’s status as blessed among women is revealed in the Holy Spirit to Elizabeth, who leads the praise of Mary in her generation to which new voices are added in every subsequent generation, including ours tonight.

“All these readings point to being caught up in Christ’s purposes and in his salvation, and in two of them Mary stands centrally. She is integral not only to the mystery of the Church but to that of our salvation itself, not as its agent as the Protestants rightly fear but as a participant leading the way into Christ for the rest of us who follow.

“But if I can declare an Evangelical logic concerning Mary, based on her share in the life of Christ, I think we can also share in an Evangelical experience and an Evangelical joy. (Roman Catholic priest and theologian) James Alison points out that Marian devotion always brings joy and festivity in Catholic circles. Raised as an Anglican Evangelical, James Alison was converted to Catholicism at least in part because in Mary he found what Evangelical claims for assurance of salvation had failed to bring him: a sense of heaven bending to meet us in reassurance…

“This is a salutary reminder to us personally, but also as a Church. The joy and the freedom of the Gospel ought to be something that both Evangelicals and Anglo Catholics radiate, but too often our Church is more about duty than delight, more about dogged perseverance than celebration, more of an ordeal than a blessing, and increasingly more of a managed institution than a spiritual movement—besides which we’re now being subjected to excoriating public analysis by Royal Commissions, so that our many failings have helped make the Church scapegoat-in-chief for today’s legion of detractors. Whereas, for James Alison, Mary’s song of joy in the Magnificat provides a corrective boost to our flagging spirits, reminding us, as he memorably puts it, that ‘whatever may be the immediate appearances, we are in much more of a playground and much less of a war zone than we are inclined to think.

“So friends here is the Evangelical Catholicism that Mary brings us, our beautiful if unfamiliar or even unknown half-sister who is nevertheless like us, and one of us, who simply likes us, and wants us to talk to her—whose love for us and solidarity with us is constantly being expressed before God’s face in heaven. Getting to know my own half sisters, who I never knew, I came to understand myself better and feel better about myself. I suggest that the same can be true for Anglicans as we discover and get to know Mary.”

Dr Porter, in her presentation at the dinner, said operating out of an incarnational theological perspective alone could not work any longer, simply because people were not coming anywhere near the Church to hear its message, and were probably suspicious of it anyway.

She said Anglo-Catholics needed to identify what was the Good News and how they could put it into a “preachable, teachable, communicable theology of salvation – and how and where do we go about it”.

Nineteenth century Anglo-Catholics “went out into the hard places in cities in particular, where more respectable clergy and congregations preferred not to go”.

“We all know the stories of the Anglo-Catholic fathers working in the London slums, and the first Anglican religious sisters in this city working with the prostitutes and destitute people in the slums of inner Melbourne,” Dr Porter said. “They were there, with them, acting out their faith.

“And in the more respectable suburbs, Anglo-Catholics were salt and light as they encountered people in their suburban lives. In particular, we have seen the rites of passage as a place where we can spread the light of the Gospel in ways that fit our incarnational pattern. Marriage, baptism, funerals – they have been important times for us to proclaim the message of the God of love in ways not as confrontational as those of some other Christian traditions.

“But fewer and fewer people are coming to the church for marriage, to have their children baptized, or even to be buried. The big bluestone parishes of the upper middle-class suburbs are still seeing a reasonable number of these events, but even there the numbers are dropping dramatically. So those important opportunities are disappearing very quickly. Only 30 per cent of marriages now across the board involve churches and/or clergy, and that will only diminish further.

“The reality is that we are really now in a post-Christian age in this country. The mainstream media knows this – that’s why they take no notice of us anymore unless it is about sexual abuse. Incidentally, the sexual abuse crisis has caused us – all the churches – enormous damage. After all, the churches have taught a harsh moral code, and yet, look at what has happened. Many people now have absolutely no contact with the Church at all, and given what they see with the sexual abuse crisis, they have some justification in dismissing us as hypocrites. So operating out of an incarnational theological perspective alone cannot work any longer, simply because people are not coming anywhere near us to hear our message, and are probably suspicious of it anyway.”

Dr Porter said in the 2011 Census, 56% of Melbourne respondents said they were Christian but only 11 per cent of Melbourne’s population claimed to be Anglican.

“But very few of those who put ‘C of E’ on the census form ever have anything to do with the church,” she said. “Our average weekly attendance across the city is probably about 20,000. Sixty-six per cent of attending Anglicans are 50 and above, with 33 per cent of those more than 70. That means that lots of people, and particularly younger people, are completely untouched by the Gospel. So we really do have a mission field on our doorstep – a radically different situation to what most of us grew up with. It has all happened quite quickly and taken us by surprise.

“There is a level of mild panic around. Our Evangelical friends want to get more ‘bums on seats’ because they operate primarily out of a theology of rescue. They believe, quite simply, that if people are not ‘saved’ according to a specific formula, then they are destined for hell… Thus they need to get people into the church to be saved and to be discipled. This is a powerful impetus for evangelism, and is the reason I believe why they are so successful – because they have a real imperative to do outreach, and they are quite clear about their message. Simply – you must be saved; come to us and we’ll show you how. Mind you, the caricature of this theology is what has turned many people from the church!

“Now we Anglo-Catholics don’t have that same imperative. Our theology of salvation is more nuanced, more holistic, more universal, less formulaic and prescriptive. But by its very nature, that can make it rather too fuzzy. What exactly is our message? How could we frame it in clear, simple, terms? What do we have to sell? How can we communicate the Gospel message – preaching the coming of the kingdom of God – in ways that make sense, and are attractive, to 21st century secular Melburnians?

“Where do we proclaim our message? Rites of passage are no longer frequent enough to make them our primary place. What of our worship? We Anglo-Catholics set great store by our worship, and we are happy to welcome people as fellow travellers. We cherish belonging ahead of believing. We don’t require that people who come to us become fervent disciples. But we have to admit that our worship is mainly for the cognoscenti. It is hard for seekers to enter. Evangelicals who have become Anglo-Catholics point out that evangelical worship is easy to enter. No prior knowledge is required. How can we overcome the problems our worship presents without damaging the great treasure we have?”

Dr Porter said Anglo-Catholics had to work harder at making worship accessible and at “grafting in” seekers and newcomers with good Catholic introductory programs.

She said she did not live out her baptismal life because she was frightened of an angry God but because she wanted to be at one with the living God.

Mr Chapman said that in leading 16 and 17-year-olds on a pilgrimage to the Philippines, “they found in their brothers and sisters then image of God” and that it had changed their view of God. “They suddenly found that they had put themselves in the middle of a real-life encounter with the living God.”

But he said this “Transfiguration experience” was often one not experienced in their local church. “There is an element of cross-cultural immersion that allows us to be touched.”

Professor Lee said Anglo-Catholics needed to be aware of, and present, the wholeness of the Gospel and recognise that there was much about their Evangelical brothers and sisters that they could affirm.

She said this required a love of Scripture, a more inclusive vision with a concern to evangelise not just individuals but institutions, a prophetic witness and an understanding of the importance of spirituality.


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