Catholic is usually taken to mean 'universal', though literally it means 'according to the whole'. The high-church revival was concerned to restate the universal standards of the Church in matters of Faith and Order. This was found by reference to the Church in history and in other contemporary catholic churches. Those in this tradition find Reformation a difficult concept. If you believe the Church to be founded in history by Jesus Christ it can scarcely be re-formed. It can be renewed or restored. Continuity is of the essence of the catholic church. Reformation depends upon a spiritual concept of the Church to the exclusion of the physical concept. This is not to say that catholic Anglicans distance themselves from the events or consequences of the Reformation period. In many ways they were a necessary renewal and restoration of earlier practice. This can be clearly seen by a historical reference to the Counter-Reformation in the Roman Catholic Church and to the Second Vatican Council.
Anglicanism has always officially sought to be faithful to catholic principles in every area of its life, justifying each and every change by reference to the early church. Catholic Anglicans have been particularly assiduous in this process. Additionally they have been concerned that the Church is one by Christ's express command, intended to be one by his high priestly prayer before the Crucifixion, and it is divided only by our sin. Unity is not desirable, it is necessary. The modern ecumenical movement had most of its initial promptings from members of this tradition.
The catholic tradition has always existed in Anglicanism and though it came to fruition with the tractarians it was as an extension of the high-church tradition. It has always claimed that its views were in accord with the Anglican self-understanding found in the Prayer Book and the Ordinal. Sometimes unconsciously and sometimes self-consciously it has sought to bring Anglican practice and liturgical life into conformity with the universal tradition. The restoration of the Holy Week rites and the similarity between the Eucharist in the ASB and the modern Roman Mass are a direct consequence of this. Religious orders were founded and churches reordered not to ape Rome but because it was felt we had lost great treasures which were part of our common heritage.
The catholic church subsists both in the universal and in the local dimension - the diocese. At the Reformation there was much made of the national Church. This concept is very difficult to relate theologically to any concept of catholicism. Traditionally the local found recognition in the universal and vice-versa. Baptism for example is universally recognised by all mainstream Christians.
On the matter of ministry the Church of England has found itself in a difficult position. Its Orders have not been recognised by Roman Catholics or most Orthodox Christians. This has caused us to overemphasise the concept of validity. From our point of view our Orders are both equal and interchangeable. Validity has distorted our theological perspective so that we seem more concerned with it than with matters of Authority or Faith.
One of the most common misconceptions about Catholic Anglicanism is that it is about a particular liturgical taste. It is about a deep- seated conviction about the nature and authority of the Church.
The present crisis in the Church of England is particularly painful for us. A church which claims catholicity must act catholicly. We have always justified our position by comparison with the universal, particularly in history. As a church we have no concept of the development of doctrine. Anglicanism's traditional complaint against the Roman Catholic Church has always been that they have unilaterally developed doctrine.
Now on an issue that is an important one for Anglican self-understanding the Church of England is seeking to act in a way contrary to the common tradition. It is doing this in spite of protests and warnings of the ecumenical consequences from the leaders of both the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Like them mainstream Catholic Anglicans are convinced that no local church has authority to unilaterally change the Orders of the Church. It is as preposterous as changing the creed or deleting a book from the Bible. It is both local and sectarian and weakens our hold on the universal tradition. It will be less tenable to assert the essential catholicism of Anglicanism.
Unlike the Lutherans we have no agreed statements of faith. Nor have we a common liturgical structure any more. We have co-existed because we have a common history, a common life, a common ministry and an agreed legal structure. This is now being challenged. It is hardly surprising that those who value the catholic traditions of the Church of England should at this time be feeling extremely insecure, looking around for a solution to their unhappy position. Catholicism is corporate and it is not possible to be a catholic in isolation. Some are looking to our own bishops to find a solution. Others are looking to Rome.
The ordination of women to the priesthood cannot be justified by reference to the whole church, either in history or in the contemporary world. Those who support it hope it will be seen to be a catholic development but certainly have no grounds for claiming it is catholic. The legislation before Parliament recognises that it will not even be accepted by all in our own church. It will not even be 'catholic' within our own church] Rather the bishops, every diocese and every parish will be divided. Our bishops are talking of the two integrities which will now co-exist. How can they? One thinks the other unjust on a basic issue of human freedom. The minority are convinced the majority have acted contrary to the God-given catholic nature of the Church.
This is important for all Anglicans as our church has always contained three distinct trends, the catholic, the evangelical and the liberal. This is the first time since 1662 that one group has prosecuted an issue which will have the direct consequence of disinheriting another group and making their position intellectually untenable. Whatever happens, the Church of England will never be the same again.