Sunday, April 30, 2006

Were we just wrong and was Rome just right?

There is a remarkable blind spot of many conservative Roman Catholics in their anti-Anglican polemic that overlooks the fact that a number of the changes made at or after the Reformation in Anglican Churches were eventually also made by the RCC, though sometimes centuries later at or after Vatican II. I do not complain about these reforms, far from it. I rejoice that Rome caught up to Anglicans and others in:

  1. giving vernacular liturgies (how many forget that even the Epistle and Gospel were once read in Latin!);
  2. allowing the laity access to the Chalice;
  3. accepting religious and political liberty of conscience as genuine rights;
  4. making the Ordinal's representation of the priestly ministry less sacerdotal and more evangelical and pastoral in emphasis;
  5. supporting Ecumenism and shared prayer between Christians in different Communions;
  6. accepting that unity will require reform of the Papacy and some de-centralisation;
  7. condemning torture (rather than commanding it!) to extract confessions of heresy and wholly abandoning any justification of the Church using or directing violence to fight erroneous ideas;
  8. making the intermediate state not about God ensuring he get his "pound of flesh" from Christians in a chamber of horrors (yes, that is what the most common medieval RC concept of Purgatory was, with even Aquinas teaching that Purgatory was not about changing the internal state of the soul) but about progress in sanctification (as the Anglican Dean Richard Field taught way back in the early seventeenth century, with various Anglican teachers, bishops and Scottish Episcopalian Catechisms following suit, and as the present Pope has taught while a Cardinal -- see also the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1472 -- last two sentences);
  9. finally giving proper weight in popular teaching (and not just in the "fine print" and obscure but careful qualifications of theologians) to the doctrines of sola gratia and the insufficiency of works, and how the word "merit" is used in an analogous rather than "strict" sense (CCC, 2007, 2011 quotation);
  10. re-appraising the once normal Western representation of the Eastern Orthodox Church as simply schismatic and heretical (again, compare 17th C. Anglicans like Field and Blessed W. Laud on this and the modern Balamand Statement);
  11. admitting ecclesial "reception" has a role in discerning a truly authoritative Ecumenical Council (see ARCIC documents on Authority);
  12. teaching that the three major Orders are Bishop, Priest and Deacon, not Priest (including bishops), Deacon and Sub-Deacon;
  13. discouraging non-communicating attendance at Mass;
  14. and simplifying ceremonial, cutting back on secondary devotions used at the expense of primary ones and encouraging lay piety to focus more on Christ and the reading of Scripture.

Now, my point here is not to rant about old “Papist” abuses or to pretend that Anglican Churches got all these things right from the start either. They didn't, though in each case above they preceded the RCC. I don't claim the RCC erred at a dogmatic level. I don't believe they did go that far, which is why they could improve things later. But, then, neither did Anglican Churches (despite their own long list of failings, ambiguities and outright heresies in particular teachers) definitively deny true ecumenical dogmas or make erroneous doctrinal statements at a binding or dogmatic level: until, that is, the ordination of women, when certain of them introduced an innovation which effectively became binding by infiltrating the Ordinal and forcing those who remained in full communion with the affected churches to accept sacraments of, at best, doubtful validity. Hence our existence as Continuing Anglicans.

Even more to the point, I cannot accept that Rome was quite simply in the right and we were quite simply in the wrong when they excommunicated Elizabeth I and the C of E, so that they were and are the Catholic Church and we are outside it. Taking this Roman perspective would entail accepting the same clear-cut asymmetry in the East-West separation, since the Papal claims of jurisdiction were fundamental to both splits. But when I consider a list such as that above, I cannot perceive as realistic such a rendition of the story. It is not tenable that they are the Church and we are not when we "separated brethren" were imitated to some degree in so many important areas by them, but after such a long delay. Thus, for example, to leave my Church for the Pope's would be implicitly a judgement about the past as well as the present, since his claim on my absolute allegiance is based on a claim about history, identity and the exclusive limitation of indefectibility to within the boundaries of the RCC.

A more balanced narrative might be this: The East-West schism, even if not complete, left the West in the weaker position ecclesiologically, theologically and devotionally, since the initiation of the schism was due to unjust assertion of power and unreasonable perceptions of superiority by Rome. This made the Reformation inevitable. However, the Reformers were as isolated and separated from the East and as bound by merely Western thinking as the RCC, and so could not solve the West's problems. Without the Catholic solution of E-W re-integration, the Protestants fell back on private judgement and denial of any sort of Church infallibility, since the only pre-existing institutional Church they were dealing with seemed so manifestly fallible.

The English Reformation, on the other hand, had at least a formal adhesion to the consensus patrum and even to the ongoing reality of an authoritative consensus Ecclesiae. (There is evidence, addressed in the recent book Anglicans and Orthodox: Unity and Subversion by Judith Pinnington, that Elizabeth I also deliberately picked a number of bishops who looked to the Fathers more than contemporary Protestant theologians.) It took about half a century for this formal adhesion to overcome an initial over-reaction to Roman excesses and successfully inspire better affirmation of Holy Tradition in specific areas of difficulty. At the very same time as this was happening (17th C.) Anglicans were starting to look more at and to the East, which was inevitable if they were to be consistent. (The process had begun in the 16th Century in a small and halting way during the Henrician period when the C of E looked at the question of Papal Supremacy and during the Elizabethan period an appeal to the example of the East was also made in Jewel’s apologetics.) This "facing East", so to speak, never ceased in Anglican Catholicism and really heated up in the early Twentieth Century. After which catastrophe struck as the "cancer" of comprehensiveness which was the unwritten law of Anglicanism finally ate its way to the heart.

A RC could respond to the argument above by giving his own list of areas where Anglican Catholics have come back to them, where we have been playing catch-up, particularly in the areas of the Eucharist and the Communion of Saints. But my point is not that Rome was wrong and we were right. The East was right (though not faultless, as they would admit). We, on the other hand, were right in general principles and dogma and ecclesiological “Orientation” (pun intended) but often wrong on some specifics at the level of popular teaching, belief and practice. Roman Catholicism was also often wrong at this latter level in opposing ways and possibly also without error at the level of dogma (of which it had much more), but lacking the Eastward “Orientation” that would enable it to correct its faults as quickly as Anglicans could correct theirs. Yet, in the end the RCC’s corrections, though belated, took better hold than “Anglo-Catholic” or “High Church” efforts in most Anglican Churches due to both Roman centralism and Anglican comprehensiveness and ambiguity. (Unfortunately, along with the corrections came unnecessary and dangerous changes and movements. If people were once to biblically name the anti-evangelical tendency of Roman Catholicism, they may have talked about Pharisaism. These days they would more likely see Sadduceeism. There appears to have been a move at the popular level from legalism and over-encrustation with merely human tradition or superstition towards minimalism and unbelief.)

But at the Affirmation of St Louis Anglican Catholics more explicitly than ever before asserted the authority of Holy Tradition, including the Seven Great Ecumenical Councils, affirmed the Seven Sacraments, and thus dumped the very ambiguity which Bp Kallistos Ware and others in the Eastern Orthodox Church had said was the main barrier between them and us. My own Church has followed this up with another official declaration against Comprehensiveness, the "Athens Statement". No dogma separates us from the East. What separates us (outwardly if not inwardly) is that the East no longer trusts Anglicans and that Churches such as mine are too small for them to have much interest in as ecumenical partners in dialogue. In other words, it appears easier and more beneficial for them to look on us as just a pool of potential recruits for absorption, for the time being at least. But I have not given up hope. Not even of reconciliation with mutual dignity between us and Rome, and the East and Rome.

Another objection might be to this whole way of looking at things. I freely admit that this kind of analysis -- who influenced or imitated whom, who modified their position outside the area of dogma sensu stricto -- cannot provide a proof of who is and isn’t orthodox or catholic. I am investigating here what might be called the circumstantial evidence. On its own it isn’t sufficient, but that’s why I have written other articles on this weblog dealing with these issues from different perspectives. May truth and love reign supreme.


Unionsbuerger said...


James the Thickheaded said...

The Athens Statement. Is that available on line?

Fr Matthew Kirby said...

Don't think so. I have an e-copy somewhere on my hard disk though.

Fr. John said...

This is a very good start at a dialog of what John Paul II called "A postive ecumenism."

Too bad that the RCC as well as the EOC see the ACC and the APCK as targets of opportunity for absorption.

I am not sure what we can do to change that perception except to grow.