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Selected Writings
by charles chapman grafton
edited by clinton collister 
nashotah house press, 277 pages, $13.99

Upon the Catholicization of the Anglican Church hangs the destiny of Christendom,” wrote the American monk and Episcopalian bishop Charles Chapman Grafton at the end of the nineteenth century. Grafton believed that if the Anglican Church emphasized its sacramental life and restored older, pre-schismatic Catholic practices and traditions, this could lead to inter-communion among Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox, Old Catholics (those Catholics who split with Rome after the First Vatican Council), and eventually Roman Catholics. This sentiment may provoke bitter laughter from those who have weathered the many Anglican departures from the apostolic tradition over the past few decades, but it was earnestly held by the scions of the Oxford Movement to which Grafton belonged.

The role that Anglicanism could play in reuniting Christendom was central to Grafton’s life work, and to his Selected Writings, an anthology recently published by Nashotah House Press as the first in its Classics of American Anglicanism series. The volume is a timely collection of passages from Grafton’s sermons, letters, and addresses, which benefit from editor Clinton Collister's sparse but salient editorial comments. Born in Boston in 1830, Grafton read law at Harvard, but under Tractarian influences offered himself for Holy Orders. At the end of the Civil War, he went to Oxford to pursue the religious life, and consequently helped to found the Society of St. John the Evangelist there. After working for some years in one of the great Anglo-Catholic slum parishes of London, Grafton returned to his home diocese of Maryland in 1872. 

Consecrated bishop of Fond du Lac in 1889, he continued to push for the re-Catholicization of his own Protestant Episcopal Church. This he did both internally, advocating firmly for the sacramental life of the Church and founding a new religious sisterhood, and externally, building relationships with newly arrived hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox and Polish Old Catholic churches. Reunion with the Orthodox and Old Catholics, Grafton hoped, would force Rome to renegotiate, and open the possibility of “the reunion of Christendom,” the cause “dearest to the heart of Christ.” His work earned him the disdain of many Episcopalian contemporaries, whose reactions sadly frustrated his efforts toward the reunion he desired: namely, mutual recognition of one another’s orders; acceptance of legitimate variations in liturgy and discipline, including the question of whether priests or bishops might be married; and recognition of the pope as primus inter pares without admitting universal jurisdiction or infallibility.

The Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) meeting held this April in Rwanda makes Grafton’s hopes less fantastical than they were only a few months ago. Estimated to represent 85 percent of Anglicans worldwide, which is to say some seventy-five million Christians, the mostly evangelical bishops of GAFCON have announced that they no longer have confidence in the archbishop of Canterbury to preserve orthodox biblical teaching. The precipitating event was the Church of England’s February decision to allow clergy to offer services of blessing to same-sex couples. Some may think this means GAFCON is a single-issue movement, but the case in point is merely the last chapter of a long saga. The majority of Anglican bishops are from the affluent global North, but represent a small and shrinking minority of Anglicans. Whereas the bishops of the global South, despite being fewer in number, represent the overwhelming majority. The bishops of the South see where the sexual revolution has led the North, do not relish its fruits, and are aggrieved that the Anglican Communion has privileged the wealthy minority and ignored their people’s concerns.

The publication of Grafton’s Selected Writings is apposite to these developments. Anglicans have historically looked to England for doctrinal succor, so reprints and internet archives of sundry Oxonians proliferate, but comparatively little attention has been paid to their American contemporaries. Yet with Canterbury playing ventriloquist’s dummy to the establishment, it is Americans, Africans, and East Asians of the old colonies who are leading the renewal of global Anglicanism. Like them, Grafton was not content merely to echo his contemporaries in England. He saw the establishment of the Church there as “bondage to the world’s power,” the subjection of “spiritual rights” to “state control.” And he saw in his own pluralistic American context an opportunity for a reunion of Christendom “through the union of the Anglican and Eastern Churches.” 

Anglo-Catholics of Grafton’s time tended toward Rome and often treated the Orthodox with disdain, but Grafton’s sympathy with Rome was definitively chilled in 1896 by the papal encyclical Apostolicae Curae, which condemned Anglican Holy Orders as invalid. Judging their clergy by their fruits, Anglicans simply could not doubt that they were truly ordained. So “when the pope decided against what Anglicans knew, with a divine certainty, to be true, they knew with the same certainty that he was not infallible.” Grafton goes so far as to set up “papalism” against Catholicism, arguing that the latter properly construed refers to the common faith of the pre-schismatic Church. Reunion, for him, would therefore necessitate dropping the Filioque and demoting any doctrines not consented to by ecumenical councils to permissible opinions rather than binding truths.

Modern Anglicans, faced by the problems in their own communion, may be more circumspect than Grafton about the errors of papalism. Despite a brief period in the 1930s when Orthodox churches acknowledged Anglican orders, more recently full inter-communion seemed likelier with Rome. The ordination of women has halted Anglican-Roman Catholic negotiations, for now; but if Anglo-Catholics have a place in GAFCON, they could bring Grafton’s dream of reunion with the Old Catholics and Orthodox closer to fruition. GAFCON has essentially exorcised latitudinarians from the Anglican picture, leaving them to fade away in their Canterbury ghetto. It is undoubtedly an evangelical-dominated movement. Nonetheless, that leaves a significant Anglo-Catholic minority, particularly in the U.S. and Africa. That minority could be all that is needed to graft the majority of Anglicans firmly onto the apostolic vine. The Union of Scranton founded by the Polish Old Catholic hierarchy that Grafton once courted is already moving toward reunion with some Anglo-Catholic jurisdictions, and the Anglican Church of North America, which split off from the U.S. Episcopal Church in 2009 to join GAFCON, could become a bridge between the Old Catholic movement and the worldwide Anglican majority. This could help GAFCON to decide whether it is just evangelical, or both evangelical and Catholic. If it opts for the latter course, then Grafton’s thesis may not yet be a dead letter.

The quintessentially American optimism of Grafton’s voice, free from the colonial suppositions and eurocentric inclinations that can beset the English church, should encourage traditional Anglo-Catholics in the U.S. and beyond to heed his call for reunion. We have before us the potential for a revivified Western Church, no longer dominated by Europeans and compromised by their political expediencies, but with episcope shared equitably among the churches of the world. The publisher of Grafton's Selected Writings, Nashotah House, is a seminary that already bridges the shrinking Anglo-Catholic remnant in the Episcopal Church and the bold new Anglican Church in North America. As ACNA cements its role in GAFCON, this publication could herald a further step in Nashotah’s mission of unity. One therefore hopes that this will be only the first of many volumes in the Classics of American Anglicanism series—and that classics of African or Asian Anglicanism might soon follow.

The Reverend Dr. Thomas Plant is chaplain of St. Paul’s (Rikkyo) University, Tokyo. 

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Image by Ralf Steinberger licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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