This is an excellent article by Canon John D. Heidt of Dallas Ft. Worth, on the Transfiguration blog (see also our link to the entire blog on the right). Modern Episcopal Liberalism or an All-Embracing Catholicism
This is an excellent article by Canon John D. Heidt of Dallas Ft. Worth, on the Transfiguration blog (see also our link to the entire blog on the right).
Modern Episcopal Liberalism or an All-Embracing Catholicism
Canon John H. Heidt, D.Phil.
On a mid-winter Monday in 1645 the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, ascended the scaffold at Tyburn to be executed for treason by the Puritan ascendency on trumped up charges of being a crypto Roman Catholic. Instead he was actually persecuted for being a staunch defender of the Catholicity of his own Church of England. "There is," he once commented to King Charles I, "no greater absurdity stirring this day in Christendom than that the reformation of an old corrupted Church must be taken for the building of a new. She professes the ancient Catholic faith, and yet the Romanist condemns here of novelty in her doctrine; she practices Church government as it hath been in use in all ages and all places where the Church of Christ hath taken any rooting, both in and ever since the Apostles times, and yet the Separatist condemns her for Antichristianism in her discipline. The plain truth is, she is between two factions, as between two millstones, and unless your Majesty look to it she will be ground to powder." 1
As he prepared to lay his head upon the block he said aloud to the jeering crowd that his beloved Church of England "is like an oak cleft to shivers with wedges made out of its own body; and at every cleft, profaneness and irreligion is entering in, while... men that introduce profaneness are cloaked over with the name, religonis imaginarie - of imaginary religion! For we have lost the substance, and dwell too much in opinion."
In Rome an English baronet, learning of the execution, told a certain Abbot there that he presumed the Romans would be saddened by his death, to which the Abbot replied that they had more cause to rejoice: "that the greatest enemy of the Church of Rome in England was cut off, and the greatest champion of the Church of England silenced."
Laud argued that: "the Catholic Church of Christ is neither Rome nor a conventicle [a Non-Conformist or Puritan assembly]. Out of that there is no salvation, I easily confess it. But out of Rome there is, and out of a conventicle too; salvation is not shut up into such a narrow conclave."
Laud was what a later generation would call a Liberal Catholic, and what today we might call an all-embracing Catholic. His was a Catholicism not constricted by limitations imposed by embattled ecclesiastical parties but dogmatically rooted in a church formed by scripture and ancient tradition. "Out of that," he declared," there is no salvation." Laud believed that the Anglican Church was a province of the visible historic church founded by Jesus Christ, free of Puritan restrictions and Roman accretions. He would have agreed with Charles Gore when he wrote some centuries latter: "Broadly, there is no question of what the Church of England has stood for since the Reformation. It has stood for what can best be described as a liberal or scriptural Catholicism."2 Here was a claim that our present Presiding Bishop has turned on its head by declaring that we must not put God in a small box. Though Laud's insistence that salvation is not shut up into such a narrow conclave has ever been the claim of Liberal Catholics, for them it has meant that a truly all-embracing Catholicism liberates God to transform a world that has allowed itself to be boxed in by the confining barriers of secular dogmas. By adopting those dogmas we put God in a box, not by upholding the ancient Catholic Faith.
Today however, like the Archbishop himself and the church of his day, contemporary Liberal Catholics are again in danger of being ground to powder by two great millstones, now Revisionist and Evangelical where once they were Roman and Non-Conformist. The ancient internecine warfare has become a militant conflict between contradictory beliefs as to the very nature of Christianity itself.
The two sides in the present conflict are not as different from those in the time of Laud as they might seem. In the seventeenth century the Puritan accused the Romanist of being a revisionist, diluting the scriptural message by compromising the historic Faith to satisfy the pagan instincts of fallen humanity, while the Romanist, standing on the other side of the great divide, accused the Puritan of being a fundamentalist, using scripture to overthrow the very tradition needed for its authentic interpretation. Across the ever widening chasm running through the midst of Western Christendom, revisionist and fundamentalist have, for the last four hundred years, continued to throw ecclesiastical brickbats at one another until the world, growing weary of it all, has decided to turn its back on the church altogether and become purely secular.
In Laud's day Ecclesia Anglicana hoped to bridge the chasm by adopting a via media which at its best was comprehensiveness seeking to embrace the riches of both scripture and tradition and at its worst a mere compromise between irreconcilable ecclesiastical camps. But now, living in a world gone secular, historic Anglicanism, like the nation from which it sprung, has lost its nerve. The early quest for a true comprehensiveness is almost entirely abandoned and with it the church's Catholic identity. Like the rest of the Christian West, Anglicanism has itself been reduced to a power struggle between irreconcilable opposites: "like an oak cleft to shivers with wedges made out of its own body; and at every cleft, profaneness and irreligion is entering in....For we have lost the substance, and dwell too much in opinion."
Comprehensiveness is simply an Anglo-Saxon word for catholicity, and with its demise among Anglicans, the traditional Liberal Catholic loses his identity as well. As the war between fundamentalist and revisionist increases in intensity, either he retreats from the field into insignificance and obscurity or feels compelled to take sides in a battle not of his own making, joining the revisionist camp as an Affirming Catholic, or marching forward in faith allied with fundamentalist Evangelicals whose only trustworthy weapon is sola scriptura.
If historic Anglicanism is to survive, a way will have to be found to recover an authentic catholicity which is liberal without turning us into libertines, magnanimous without encouraging us to desert our principles. The former Presiding Bishop's idea of pluriformity did not do the trick; that is only a neologism for an unacceptable compromise. Our only hope is to rediscover the authentic meaning of catholicity and then learn how to deal with its opposite. We too often forget that the opposite of catholicity is heresy, not Protestantism or Evangelicalism, and that the problem with the heretic is that he uses his partial understanding of truth to deny the rest of the truth. He is not completely wrong; he is just never sufficiently right. The authentic Liberal Catholic on the other hand submits himself to the whole truth including those aspects of the truth he does not yet comprehend. The only thing he negates are negations; he only denies denials. If he opposes homosexual behavior, it is only because he believes it is not sexual enough. If he cannot accept women functioning as priests, this is because he finds that the ordaining of women as priests denies something good about the nature of women and about the priesthood of Christ. Our task is not to live out some compromise between incompatible heresies, but to embrace whatever partial truth we find, no matter where we find it, and to place that truth within the wholeness of faith taught by the church through the centuries under the guidance of that Holy Spirit who continually leads us into all truth.
Those who would still call themselves "Anglo-Catholics" need to remember that a Catholic party within the church is a contradiction in terms. We are not Anglicans who happen to be Catholic, but Catholics who can still find within the Anglican Communion of churches, no matter what some of their official bodies may proclaim, that fullness of the faith given us in the Revelation of Jesus Christ and passed on by the apostles - a faith fully contained in scripture, adequately interpreted through the ancient tradition of the church, and capable of being proclaimed by the faithful in their particular vocations and ministries. Such an Anglo-Catholicism, once it is proclaimed, can again contribute to the wholeness of Christendom and help win back the soul of a secular world.
As B.I. Bell, that somewhat gloomy prophet of the 1930s and 40s, once wrote in The Living Church:
"Having bought up the Church as a sort of plaything, they [secular Episcopalians] are now tired of their toy; and the public at large, having learned by experience how rarely is any spiritual challenge to be met within [our] church, leaves our pews unoccupied and our preachers unheard. We have our reward… And Anglo-Catholics have not mattered very much either - chiefly, I think, because...they have gotten so used to looking after their private practice as to have lost interest in the public health of the communion. If so, both they and the communion must share the blame."
And then he adds: "There are many more priests, and even bishops, ready in an emergency to stand with the Catholics, than all men understand. Of course, most of these are only semi-Catholic; but they are on their way, and they do respond to vital and clear challenge if those who make the challenge are humorous, kindly, and really Catholic."
1. All Laud's quotations are from: The Works of the Most Reverend Father in God, William Laud, D.D., James Bless, ed. (Oxford, 1850-1860) See especially vols. II & IV.
2. (The Basis of Anglican Fellowship in Faith and Organization , Oxford 1914, p. 4)