I’m 19 years old, and I’m an Episcopalian currently in the Diocese of Dallas. I’m writing to you because I’m experiencing a crisis of faith in the Anglican church, and I’d love to get your opinion/help.
I was raised baptist, but confirmed in the Episcopal Church on January 9th, 2012 by Bishop Andrew Waldo in the Diocese of Upper South Carolina. It was an amazing day! I had finally thought I was ‘home’ spiritually…but the recent drift (or rather, the long drift) of the national leadership into lukewarm faith and heresy is very disturbing to me…and it’s causing me to wonder whether or not I should remain an Anglican or ‘jump ship’ for Rome. I love Anglicanism, I really, really do! And I’d love to remain in the fold, but the claims of the Catholic Church are so compelling, I’m hoping you might respond to them…
First and foremost, I have to commend Bradley on his zeal for the truth at such a young age. It is quite a wonderful thing to see.
Second, before digging into the specific questions that Bradley asks me to address, I should say a word about my own history with the Roman Church. I grew up Roman Catholic, attending Mass weekly, although in a liberal environment in which I very rarely encountered the more challenging claims of the Catholic faith. By the time I found my way into the Episcopal Church, I had long been estranged from Roman Catholicism. It was only really after I became an Episcopalian that I learned to appreciate much of the theological education and development I received as a child.
In the last couple months, this site has gained a fair number of Roman Catholic visitors, some of whom comment regularly, and I value that interaction. So let me state up front that I have a great love for the Roman Catholic Church and I owe it a great deal. My intention is not to cast aspersion on Roman Catholics or to tear down their faith. I am grateful for all that I have personally received, both from my Catholic upbringing and from the experience of reading and interacting with Catholics. Moreover, at the current time, I think the Roman Catholic Church has done more to promote adherence to scriptural norms than almost any other Christian body, often taking difficult stances on moral issues in spite of the cultural consequences. I admire this. Nonetheless, I am an Anglican, not simply because I do not accept all the claims of Rome, but because I believe that Anglicanism is fundamentally true in a way that Romanism is not.
Bradley’s first question is this:
1) The Catholic Church claims to be the Church of Christ, and it has 2000 years of history to back this claim up. It has taught a common faith for 2000 years and has spread over all the earth, can Anglicanism claim to be the Church of Christ?
The Anglican Communion makes a much more humble claim than that. We do not claim to be the Church in her entirety, though we claim to be the Church in her fullness, having within us all that the Catholic Church is and always has been. What I mean by that is that we do not deny that other Christians truly are Christians. If you have been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and you hold the essentials of faith found in the Nicene Creed, you are a Christian. And if the body that you are a part of upholds the creeds, the scriptures, the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist, and the historic episcopate, than that body can truly claim to be the Church.
Anglicanism is not a Church, but a way of being the Church. So the real question for someone who has come into the Episcopal Church, or into any of the churches of the Anglican Communion, is whether or not the Church they are in is a true Church, truly part of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ. The short answer to that question is yes, we are, because the two thousand years that Rome claims are not Rome’s alone. We share that two thousand year history. The Church of England, from which all Anglican churches spring, was not born in the sixteenth century Reformation but has existed in England at least since the late sixth century and goes back possibly even as far as the second century. Those who established the Church of England were in communion with those who came before them, the Fathers and the Apostles. But we can do even better than that, because the faith held by Anglicans is the faith of the early and undivided Church. It is the faith found in Holy Scripture. It is the faith lived and died for by martyrs. And yes, it is a faith that can still be found in Anglican churches all around the world, despite our various problems and ways in which we often betray it.
I have written a more detailed evaluation of the catholicity of the Episcopal Church that can be found here.
2) What is the authority of Anglicanism? I feel like there is no real voice of authority in our church…the Bible has become slave to everyone’s interpretation. When we’re in a debate about something, who do we appeal to?
The best answer to this question is the one that was offered by the famous early seventeenth century divine Lancelot Andrewes:
One canon reduced to writing by God himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries, and the series of Fathers in that period – the centuries that is, before Constantine, and two after, determine the boundary of our faith.
This framework is not arbitrary. Rather, it reflects the core conviction of Anglicanism that God’s Word contains all things necessary for salvation and that the Church’s true understanding of God’s Word is assured by appealing both to plain reason and the witness of the early Church. The latter is especially important since the Fathers are much less removed from the culture and time of the Apostles and therefore are less likely to make culturally biased misinterpretations of the faith (though, of course, this is not impossible). Moreover, the earliest Fathers received their teaching from the Apostles themselves. This gives their consensus, which we find most especially expressed in the creeds and ecumenical councils, a special kind of weight.
Rome also claims both the Scripture and the Fathers as authorities, but they add a third layer in the idea of the magisterium or the sacred teaching office of the Church, which resides infallibly in the pope’s teaching on faith and morals and in the Ecumenical Councils, provided that those councils are in communion with the pope, which essentially also brings us back to the papal office. Rome uses a number of arguments to defend their claim from Scripture and Tradition (a couple of which I address here). However, what is often the most seductive argument for the magisterium today is the claim that an infallible interpretive authority is necessary to avoid incoherence. In other words, Roman apologists point to the ways in which various Protestant groups have gone at each other over the centuries, each group reading the same set of Bible verses but coming up with completely different interpretations, and they say, “See, if you don’t have a magisterium to tell you definitively what this all means you end up with chaos! Cats and dogs! Mass hysteria!”
There are a lot of problems with this critique. First of all, it assumes an equivalency between all Protestant groups that simply does not exist. The mere fact that there are Christians who disagree with each other over what the Scriptures mean does not necessitate there being a divinely appointed Scriptural interpreter. Second, from a practical standpoint, this method of running the Church does not seem to work very well at achieving the desired end of unanimity, as the dissent and divisions among Catholics are just as great as they are among Protestants. Third, the claim for a magisterium is on shaky historical grounds and non-existent biblical ones.
But the most important objection to the magisterium hypothesis is that it inevitably leads to a snowball effect wherein the grounding of the faith grows exponentially over time. To take a simple example, in 1854 Pope Pius IX promulgated the papal bull which declared infallibly the doctrine of the immaculate conception, the idea that the Virgin Mary was born without the stain of original sin. The pope did not invent this notion out of whole cloth. The concept developed over the course of several centuries. Nevertheless, by invoking his prerogative to teach infallibly that this doctrine has to be accepted by Catholics, the pope effectively knocked a whole bunch of people out of the Church throughout history. In November of 1854, if you did not believe in the immaculate conception, you were still a good Catholic. In January of 1885, if you did not believe in the immaculate conception you were a heretic.
The Church is a messy place. There is just no avoiding that reality. The Church, much like the world, is made up of sinners. And that means that on this side of the eschaton, we must endure hardships, squabbles, and other sinful acts of division. In the midst of that, we can lose heart. Which is why, when the Roman Church holds out the claim that it can lift you out of the fray, untenable though that claim may be, it is appealing. It sounds like salvation. But ultimately, it leads right back where it started. The Roman Church is filled with the same foibles and divisions that the rest of us are experiencing. That’s not to knock them. It’s just to say, you cannot avoid sin. At some point, you have to come to love the Church the same way that Christ loves her, forgiving her sin and embracing her anyway. Which means that the ultimate answer is Christ Himself, since He’s the only one who can give our hearts rest.
3) Is there proof that the Anglican way of theology/ecclesiology is the Biblical/historical norm?
The answer is embodied in the question. How can we know that the Anglican way is biblical and historical? By looking at Scripture and Tradition, particularly the Fathers. The beauty of our formularies, particularly the Book of Common Prayer, is that they form us in a biblical and patristic worldview. Every individual Christian does not need to re-invent the wheel or read all the documents of the Ecumenical Councils or do a comparative study of the Fathers. But of course, one can do those things, and if it will ease your conscience, I encourage you to do so. I needed my own study of the Scriptures and the Fathers before I was convinced of Anglicanism. I commend you to speak with your priest about how you might do the same.
4) Why do you remain Anglican? What prevents you from crossing the tiber (or another proverbial river)? Do you believe the Episcopal Church has a future in this country?
There is a long answer and a short answer, and since this post is already quite long, I’ll restrict myself to the short answer for now. I am an Anglican because I believe that Anglicanism is the truth. I believe that it preserves, preaches, and teaches the Gospel. I am an Anglican because it is within the fold of Anglicanism that I was given the gift of faith and learned to know and love Jesus Christ as my Lord. I am an Anglican because the path that Anglicanism sets before me routinely kicks my butt and makes me holier than my sinful flesh wants me to be. I am an Anglican because of the great saints of the Anglican tradition who inspire me, from the pre-Reformation English saints like Augustine, Julian, and Anselm, to more modern saints like William Laud, Jeremy Taylor, Richard Hooker, John Henry Hobart, and Michael Ramsey. I am an Anglican because this is where God has placed me, this is where Christ is to be found, and unless and until He calls me elsewhere, I am under His jurisdiction. I am an Anglican because Jesus died for me.
I would like to believe that the Episcopal Church has a future. It is difficult to fathom how, when we ignore rank heresy in our midst while simultaneously attacking the few orthodox leaders who remain. We live under judgment at the moment, under wrath, but that could change. Nineveh repented, after all, and God had mercy upon them. But for those of us who are orthodox Anglicans who remain in the Episcopal Church, our focus cannot be on the institution. It has to be solely on Christ. We need to be about Christ in all that we do. I am an Anglican because I am a Christian. The Episcopal Church may be renewed and grow, or it may destroy itself, but the truth of the Gospel will remain. Christ calls us to carry our cross. It is a burden, but only until we realize that He’s been carrying us all along. I believe that we are called to bear witness to that, even as many of the structures crumble around us. We are called not merely to survive, not merely to persevere, but to thrive even in the midst of desolation, to have joy even in the face of persecution, and to focus ourselves not on the bouncing ball of ecclesial politics but on Christ and His Cross, the world’s one and only, glorious hope.