Review, Monsignor R.H. Benson, “Non-Catholic Denominations” Pt II

In chapter II of Part 1 of Non Catholic Denominations, Monsignor Benson deals with the “Catholic” party of the Church of England. Benson commences with the “High Church party,” which had produced many leading bishops of the Church of England, who interpreted its official formulations in a “High Church” manner (13). Hence, a Eucharistic handbook of 1677, which had been approved by Lambeth (the residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury), taught the Real Presence, Penance, and Prayers for the Dead. (This is the sort of doctrine which marks the Catholic Church and the High Church Anglican teachings.) Thus, Benson says, the Oxford Movement of which St John Henry Newman was a co-founder, “did no more than reassert a legitimate interpretation of the Anglican formularies …” which had been lost to sight for a period (14).

The High Church party appealed to the “Primitive Church” as the “touchstone of truth” (14), which has the effect that they believed that Christianity declined as the centuries rolled on. They saw Rome as usurping rights and prerogatives it did not have a right to, and ushering in both a “half-converted paganism,” as in devotion to the saints, and an over-reliance on Greek philosophy leading to doctrines such as Transubstantiation which went further than warranted (15). As Benson points out, because they take the Primitive Church as their guide, they are therefore bound to be hesitant if not unwilling to countenance definitions, such as Transubstantiation, which were not known to that early Church (15-16).

An important aspect of the High Church party is that:

Its members believe resolutely in the essential continuity of the Church of England with the Church in England before the Reformation – they believe … that the changes which took place in the sixteenth century concerned unessential matters and did not vitally affect the Church’s life. … they hold that such matters as were dropped altogether … such as the Primacy of Peter, were innovations upon the original truth as held by the Primitive Church and therefore best removed. (17-18)

Benson makes the astute point that the fact the High Church is indefinite on many matters is both their weakness (because of the lack of clear guidance) and their strength (it is hard to assail a vague idea, and the vagueness allows people who might dissent or leave to remain in communion). An even deeper insight is that they reject the living continuous tradition of the Catholic Church, which is the only way of ascertaining what “Primitive Christianity” was and taught, since it is difficult (due to a lack of materials) to be sure what was taught and done in the first centuries.

One of the advantages of such a book being written by a past Anglican priest is that Benson can authoritatively say that the ceremonial instructions of the Book of Common Prayer are not clear and exhaustive, and even in the case of Eucharistic vestments, have never been followed (19-20).

A point which is often missed, is that the Anglicans of the Oxford revival held, with practical unanimity, that it was a mark of the true Church that it “should be at enmity with the world” (21). This is a matter which even Catholics need to come to terms with. A complicating point is that “Moderate High Churchmen” say that as the Church of England is an Established National Church, it should try to avoid conflict, and to “represent as far as possible the religious instincts of the nation as a whole” (21). This takes us back to the point noted above, of the difficulty of understanding why a religious body should be defined by reference to national boundaries and governed within the State by its political leader. Effectively, this view wrongly conflates political and religious authority. One very obvious consideration is that national boundaries can change very quickly and often: it is inimical to the notion of religious truth that it should even appear to change in such a way. Benson wittily writes of the Moderate High Church:

… it claims continuity with Pre-reformation days when “Church Defence” is in question; it repudiates continuity in matters of unpopular doctrine; its ceremonial is refined, elegant and reverent: but is not significant of anything in particular. It disregards Corpus Christi; it celebrates Harvest Festivals with a wealth of pomp and pumpkins; it does not elevate the Host; but it elevates the almsdish. It is very clerical; but not at all sacerdotal.

Its principles then are impossible of definition. They consist rather of the least common multiple of Catholicism and Protestantism properly so called. Its members confess the Real Presence in words, but not in action; they prefer a hymn to a genuflection ; they defend the Sacrament of Penance, but do not attempt to frequent it; they confess their belief in an altar and a priesthood, but not an altar of sacrifice nor a sacrificing priesthood. (22-23)

Possibly the most penetrating comment is that the Moderate High Churchman’s “tendency is to consider the essence of Christianity to be a spirit and a temper of mind rather than a body of truth or of precepts, still less a kingdom in any intelligible sense” (23). There is an implicit warning here which every Catholic should consider.

The Moderate High Church is quite different, even if in some ways it is quite close the “historic High Church,” which is not Protestant, as that word is usually understood (e.g. it does not believe in rights of individual interpretation of Scripture, but says “The Church to teach and the Bible to prove.”) (25).

Benson’s critique of these positions is that (1) This all assumes that the true Church went underground for about one thousand years, disappearing from the surface of the earth. (2) They are unclear on when the Church lost its purity. (3) Their idea of Revelation is unworkable without an authority to interpret it.

How, then, to meet these people in conversation? For the High Church, Benson says, we might provide them with:

… some glimpse of that continuous unbroken stream of living tradition, that constant claim to, and exercise of, supreme and infallible authority, that holy audacity in settling controversies with the word of power, and in adding, as time and the developments of the world’s thought demand it, new phraseology and new definitions to make explicit the one unchangeable truth delivered to the Saints in short, all that true self-consciousness of power that is found alone in the occupants of Peter’s chair. … It is not so much by arguing out point by point with these men that victory will lie on the Catholic side so much as by directing attention to the living authority to-day that, by a confessedly unbroken succession, reigns and speaks in the Roman Pontiff. … The best hope of meeting them is to acknowledge those virtues, to welcome their orthodoxy on so many vital matters, and to seek to set before them evidently an authority and a Presence that is promised to the Church “all the days” not merely a selection of them until the consummation of the world. (26-27)

Of the Moderate High Church, Benson says that the best one can do is ask them to be clear and specific: “to drive them from words to thoughts, from vocabularies to things” (28). Among twentieth century writers, Monsignor Benson’s prose is matchless.

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