Comment Opinion & Features

Why Anglo-Catholicism appeals to millennials

The liturgy at St Bartholomew the Great in the City of London

“Twentysomethings are flocking to Anglo-Catholic services” shouted a headline in the Times above an article featuring my church, St Bartholomew the Great, in the City of London. As so often with headlines, the drama of the moment trumps the evidence of the article and accusations of hyperbole haunt the actual good news in the story that follows.

But good news there is, however you define the word “flocking”. With two per cent of those under 25 in Britain calling themselves Anglican, almost any number of Anglo-Catholic millennials looks positive when contrasted with the regular turnout in Church of England churches; even a handful would honestly count as “flocking”.

But over the last year we have seen a notable uptick in the number of millennials (and, indeed, post-millennials, if we’re going to be strict about definitions) both to our High Mass on Sunday mornings and to Evensong on Sunday evenings.

My congregation is not alone. The Times article explored similar trends exemplified by Westcott House, an Anglican seminary, and the Prayer Book Society, which has recently seen a 40 per cent rise in its more youthful membership. What do these young people say draws them to institutions lazily dismissed as liturgical extremes? Beautiful language, symphonious music and an aesthetic experience that transcends normal life.

I would add to this a trend that was impossible to ignore in my previous position (that of deputy director at the Anglican Centre in Rome): by a considerable margin most of Rome’s young seminarians are liturgical traditionalists. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is broadly true across the Anglosphere for the young laity. Latin Masses, east-facing liturgies: these are the order of the day for those rebelling against their peers and parents.

The narrative thus far seems clear: the liturgical revolution of the 1960s has seen a counter-revolution in the 2010s. But that’s only part of the story.

If we’re honest, were we to pick a church-going British millennial at random, the chances are that she (or less likely, he) would be attending a Charismatic church, probably connected to Holy Trinity Brompton. The worship bands, arms raised in prayer, non-Eucharistic services and an absence of almost any link to historic norms of worship might feel like a compelling counter-argument to an excitable headline in the Times, or indeed any of the other green shoots of recovery you or I might hope for. But that’s not necessarily true.

There is, in fact, a shared border here. All three manifestations of Christianity – the Charismatic, traditionalist Catholic and Anglo-Catholic – demand a high quality of music: you can no more enjoy a Palestrina motet or a canticle by Stanford than one of many fine modern worship songs (I’m told) without investing a considerable amount of time, effort and money into the music.

All three use the body physically in worship: whether crossing yourself at the elevation of the Host or following Elizabeth I’s injunction to bow at the Name of Jesus or raising your hands at a profound moment of singing, there is an acknowledgement that worship is physical as well as mental.

Finally, all three take preaching seriously. In none of these three examples of millennial growth are you likely to have the low-grade sermons for which the Church has become notorious. Intelligent people are preaching intellectually credible sermons in an age when the intelligent of the world have rejected Christ and his Church. When the rest of society is telling them “there are no guidelines”, they offer a framework within which young people can build their lives. This is not to say that all three of these strands, and other ways of drawing people to God, are not found elsewhere – they are and I rejoice wherever they are found.

But what is it that joins these particular threads together? All three offer a credible vision of faith that is eminently defensible when friends attack you for believing, and all three offer a vision of glory which is worth getting out of bed on a wet Sunday morning for. The real headline is that it’s worth changing your life for, too.

The Rev Marcus Walker is rector of St Bartholomew the Great in the Church of England’s Diocese of London