Monday, April 11, 2011

A tale of two eras

For the last few years I have made it clear that Anglicans cannot use the words "Catholic" and "Protestant" to mean two opposite and irreconcilable positions, or even to mean mutually exclusive  positions. For us a good Protestant (in the Anglican sense) has to be a good Catholic, and vice versa. I was raised knowing that this set us apart from other western Christians, to whom "Catholic" meant Roman, and to whom "Protestant" meant anything but. Our Prayer Book title page said "Protestant Episcopal Church," and the creeds called the larger Church to which we belonged "Catholic." To us there was no contradiction.

What I find in my experience is that schools exist within the larger umbrella of "Anglicanism" who have completely lost sight of this basic Anglican position. They allow outsiders to define all the terms. So it is that we see a new school of people who call themselves "Reformed" or "Evangelical" who think they can dispense with the substance of sacramental validity and still be Anglican. We will call them "School X." They think they can remove the Apostolic Succession of Bishops from our beliefs and history, and still be true to the English Reformers. They demonstrate by their arguments a very serious vacuum in their knowledge of what those English Reformers actually practiced and taught, picking and choosing the parts they like.

What also I find is a new school that call themselves "Anglo-Catholic," and yet agree wholeheartedly with the people in "School X" about what the English Reformers practiced and taught (unlike the real Anglo-Catholics of the Oxford Movement). We will call them "School Y." The members of this school demonstrate the same vacuum of knowledge as the other school. They can quote only enough Cranmer, Jewell or Hooker (etc.) to misrepresent what such men believed and wrote. In the end, both schools present an argument against remaining Anglican at all, and play into the hands of those who want to take our people away either to Geneva or Rome.

I have addressed the question of Anglican Identity in a paper I wrote two years ago for a conference of the Fellowship of Concerned Churchmen, in which I said: "The English Church established a carefully maintained balance between Rome, Calvinism, Lutheranism, and Zwinglianism, criticizing and rejecting various ideas in each of these systems. This in turn kept the Anglicans in a state of at least some amount of opposition to everybody all the time. Each of these camps saw the Church of England as accepting error by adopting or maintaining some of the ideas and practices of Rome, or some of those belonging to Calvin, or some of those belonging to Luther, but never to the satisfaction of loyalists in any of those parties."

 I have been asked recently, by Dr. Tighe (in comments on another thread), "why has so much attention to [the Thirty-Nine Articles] been given on this blog? Ought you not, rather, to be expounding and propounding the wholesome doctrine set forth in the King's Book of 1543?" I would like to give a longer answer than I did in that comment thread. 

The King's Book has never been an Anglican Formulary, it is not in the Book of Common Prayer, and it presents no problems or questions to the average person in any of our churches. The Thirty-Nine Articles, on the other hand, are in plain view of everybody, appear to command the loyalty of everybody (or, if only perceived, the doctrine in them does so in fact), and suffer constant mishandling from both Schools, X and Y. As a result, they have the potential to be highly instructive or highly dangerous. This is why Fr. Wells and I have undertaken the task of explaining their meaning, and why we plan to finish the project over the next several months. We can thus use them to present the sound doctrine intended, and at the same remove danger caused by misunderstanding.

In the hands of the new "Schoolmen" they are dangerous. The fellows in "School X" twist the Articles to mean all kinds of nonsense that any good student of history ought to dismiss, if only because it cannot be reconciled to actual Canon Law and church practice in the history of the Church of England, particularly the relevant period of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The fellows in "School Y" twist the Articles to mean the exact same things, and therefore wring their hands, hang their heads in shame, and eventually flee to Rome or forever threaten to do so. Both schools need to go back to a proper school.

What really separates English Reformation theology and the Oxford Movement is simply time. It is not a matter of disagreement. Time created its own emergencies, needing doctrinal clarification. Let us look at the real problems of these two widely separated eras.

By the sixteenth century, the average European and English Christian had inherited a largely corrupted religion. They had no knowledge of Scripture because it was not translated for them. They could not even understand the Mass that most of them attended. Their perception of Christianity was based on a series of false doctrines. Their understanding of salvation was all about getting "time off" from the fairytale land called Purgatory (which has never been a doctrine of the Universal Church), based on the merits of gods called "saints" who had earned those merits by supererogation. Thus God owed man a balance, and sinners could apply the saintly merits to their balance when granted by ecclesiastical authority in the form of "indulgences." 

Also, every time a Mass was offered, a certain amount of expiation was weighed against the sins of the world. The sacrament of Holy Communion was unnecessary and mostly unavailable; but one could gaze upon it when it was elevated, and thus receive all the grace that was possible anyway. And, besides, they had the priest to consume it for them. And, what did he consume? Not bread and wine, but a transubstantiated "mystery" (not the genuine mystery that is consistent with the nature of a sacrament) that no longer had honest substance, but only an appearance, the substance taken away to become, in the literal and most carnal sense, the Body and Blood of Christ.

Now, the people in "School Y" refuse to accept the recorded facts of history. That the average illiterate person had no better understanding of Christianity than what I have described above is simply the only conclusion we may draw from the overwhelming evidence. Do we blame these doctrinal errors on Rome? The problem is, even though much of this constituted a corrupted notion of what Rome taught, the needs of the people for true doctrine were largely neglected. The people in "School X" however, can at least acknowledge the facts concerning how bad the situation was. The problem with them is, as it was with their forefathers, they confuse substance with shadow. They condemn as "popish" the sacramental practices inherited from the ancient Church because they cannot distinguish between valid Tradition and man-made traditions. The Puritans made this mistake in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, and so it was that Richard Hooker took pen in hand to correct them.

When one considers the needs of the sixteenth century, the fact that Anglicans used the words "oblation," "priest" or "sacrifice" only when it was necessary, begins to make sense. That they felt the need to stress, for example, that "The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them," has everything to do with the times they had lived through. The immediate need of the sixteenth century dictated that they use with caution commonly misunderstood language.

Meanwhile, even the most abbreviated version of Holy Communion placed the service in the context of "a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world." The need to emphasize that this was offered once by Christ, and for all, and that His offering cannot be repeated nor does it need to be, was perfectly in keeping with the Catholic Tradition (for those who know it). The Eucharistic Sacrifice (or as it can be translated with equal accuracy, "our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving") was thus retained in practice and doctrine without the danger of turning it into the double plural "sacrifices of masses" as separate expiations. The sacrificial nature of the Eucharist was stated as the mysterious and supernatural context of the service.

The need of that era dictated that they use the language of sacrifice, including the word "priest," carefully and sparingly. They retained the doctrine and practice of the ancient Church without creating confusion that would throw the people back into the darkness from which they had only recently emerged.

By the middle of the nineteenth century another need had arisen. The Church of England, and also the Episcopal Church in America, and other "Anglican" churches (as some were calling them), needed a restoration of respect for the sacraments in general. They needed to be reminded that the Tradition of the Universal Church was necessary to everything Anglican. They needed to be freed from constraints of Puritanism that had been allowed to creep in and take the dignity out of worship for Almighty God. Those who genuinely know the mind of the English Reformers well understand why even Newman (when he was still able to speak for the others as an Anglican) affirmed in Tract 90 that the Anglo-Catholics held firmly to the Book of Common Prayer and to the Thirty-Nine Articles. The tragedy with Newman was that, even having written a sound and powerful argument in that tract, he lacked the conviction that his fellows retained all their lives long. He could not even drive home the force of his work. His conversion to Rome was not at all consistent with Anglo-Catholicism, but was, rather, to the consternation of Dr. Pussey and the others. They all finished their lives as Anglicans.

In their time, it became necessary to use the words of sacrifice, including "priest," much more often and less sparingly. For, the times had changed and the needs were different. Some of them even endured prosecution and jailing, just as their forefathers in the sixteenth century endured the stake and fire. 

The strength of Anglicanism today is that we have the restoration of Evangelical truth in our foundation, and we have the fullness of Catholic faith, worship and sacramental practice. We did not obtain this great inheritance by excluding any portion of the Faith of the Universal Church, but by possessing it all. One need of our era is to correct the mis-perceptions of Schools X and Y, and refuse to be pressured into losing part of our wealth by taking unnecessary losses through false choices.


Anonymous said...

You really need to read Eamon Duffy to acquire a more nuanced view of pre-Reformation piety and religiosity in the UK.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

It would be a mistake to assume I haven't read Duffy's books. However, nothing beats primary source material. Another balancing factor to remember is that only the higher classes and well endowed could read and write. Those who could, had an advantage over the common man. Duffy's selection of historical material leans heavily to one side, and almost ignores other realities of the era.

Canon Tallis said...

Father, another brilliant and balanced exposition of what real prayer book Anglicanism is about. The prayer book tradition requires us to daily affirm a belief in the Catholic Church but, of course, not in the Roman Church which has tried to appropriate the title of "Catholic" for itself alone.

Evangelicals and low churchmen (so called) forget that the root of the word 'Protestant' means "to testify for" meaning, as it did to the refomers, the "Apostles' doctrine" as found in Holy Scripture as interpreted by (in the words of the Canon of 1571) "the earliest bishops and Catholic fathers."

Personally I agree with the view of Martin Thornton that the writings of the great English mystics as well as the author of The Vision of Piers the Plowman require a liturgy in a language understood of the people. After all this was precisely what Rome did in the third century when it translated its liturgy into Latin from Greek. They simply failed to keep up with their own initial right example.

Our task in the Continuum, inside and outside the Chambers succession, is to embrace the fullness of the Anglican tradition which extends behind the English reformation to the ideals of the earliest Church as expressed by Bishop Andrewes canon. Given our economic and other circumstances that is not an easy task, but it is made much easier by what you and the other major writers of this blog are doing for us all.

Anonymous said...

A great essay Fr Hart. Thank you.