“There’s a quaint Anglican concept of the universal Church known as the ‘branch theory,'” says Damian Thompson at the start of a post he made earlier this year for his blog at The Telegraph. Thompson went on to say that the possibility of the Church of England ordaining women as bishops is killing any shred of a future hope for the reunion of Anglicans with the Eastern Orthodox Church. “Cue creaking of timber as the branch theory falls apart.”
Of course, many people have pronounced the death of the branch theory before, almost since the moment of its first articulation in the nineteenth century. In large measure, they have misunderstood what the theory actually asserts. Most people today understand the branch theory exactly the way Thompson expresses it in his article. They believe that what the theory teaches is that the Catholic Church is comprised of three different communions, the Roman, the Anglican, and the Eastern Orthodox, each having its own idiosyncrasies and each being separated by accident of history but, nevertheless, each having all that is essential to be considered the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church founded by Our Lord. Having expressed the theory this way, critics then proceed to call it hogwash for a variety of reasons. First, the two largest and arguably oldest of these three communions do not accept it. Both the Roman and Eastern communions understand themselves to be the Catholic Church in her entirety, having no need even of each other, let alone Anglicans. Second, the theory is novel even among Anglicans since no one dreamed it up prior to the nineteenth century. Third, the Protestant churches that do not possess the apostolic succession are arbitrarily excluded from this formula and thereby denied the respect they deserve as equal churches. Fourth, the differences between these so-called three branches of the Catholic Church are not merely cosmetic but include serious and irreconcilable doctrinal differences. The first three of these objections are simply straw men, much like the common articulation of the theory itself. The fourth objection poses a more serious challenge, but it is one that presents itself not only for Anglicans but for all Christians serious about seeking unity between separated believers.
The Branch Theory’s Roots
Credit for the first articulation of the branch theory is usually awarded to William Palmer’s 1838 book, A Treatise on the Church of Christ. It is a large and ambitious book that relies heavily, as so much early Anglo-Catholic writing did, on the Fathers and the seventeenth century Anglican divines. Palmer works from some fairly basic biblical tenets: that there is one Church of Christ, that there are local churches within the one universal Church, that the Church is visible and historical, and that its unity is to be found both in the visible communion of local churches and in the shared faith of local churches. He derives these principles not only from Scripture but also from Article XIX’s assertion that “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.” Leaning heavily on William Laud and James Ussher, Palmer attempts to show that the Church of England is a legitimate local expression of the Catholic Church because of her historic faith and practice. In the process, Palmer legitimates the Roman Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches as also being Catholic, despite the fact that he believes they suffer from certain errors. Palmer is even surprisingly generous to Lutheran and Reformed bodies. He is ultimately unwilling to call these bodies churches in the proper sense because of their lack of episcopacy (and thereby, in his mind, their lack of legitimate sacraments), but he recognizes that it was never the intention of Luther or Calvin to be separated from the Catholic Church. He sees neither man as a heretic or a schismatic, but rather as great men whose aim was to reform and purify the Church. In fact, Palmer quotes from Calvin quite extensively. The loss of episcopacy in Lutheran and Calvinist churches Palmer views mainly as the Divines did, as an accident of history which the Church of England might generously correct.
The point for Palmer and for many of the early Anglo-Catholics was not to create some kind of false unity between Christians who are so obviously and so scandalously divided, but to take a realistic look at the divided nature of the Church and to ask, What does this mean? Edward Bouverie Pusey put the matter this way in a letter to John Henry Newman in 1870, well after the latter had become Roman Catholic:
I have written twice to [Bishop] De Buck about the proposed condemnation of the ‘branch theory,’ as people call it, explaining to him that the only principle really involved in it was that there could be suspension of intercommunion without such schism as should separate either side from the Church of Christ. This any one must admit in the case of Anti-Popes, St. Cyprian, the Churches of Asia Minor, St. Meletius…
What Palmer spreads over almost 600 pages, Pusey renders in just a few lines. The issue is not whether Rome, the East, and Anglicans have some secret bond of true catholicity that only the Anglicans seem to be aware of. Rather, it is that what makes a church truly Christian and truly Catholic is not automatically lost even when churches choose to separate from each other. Palmer even makes the point that errors in doctrine, so long as they do not constitute out and out heresy, are not enough to remove a local church from the Catholic whole. “All errors,” he says, “even in matters of faith, are not heretical.”
The Scandal of Schism
Sooner or later, all Christians must grapple with the fact that not all who follow Jesus as Lord are united as He commanded. The scandal of our separation from one another is grave and sinful, no less because it is one of the main things that keep people from coming to know Jesus. As a pastor, I cannot tell you the number of times I have heard people say, “If Christians can’t figure out what they believe amongst themselves, why should I listen to them?” The divisions we live with are terrible, and it is only by God’s grace that despite them people are still brought into the light of God’s truth and love. We who are Christians today did not create these divisions, but we have to live with them. So the question that poses itself to us is, what are we to do with them? How are we to respond?
Several possible options exist. The first is to do what Rome and the Eastern churches have done, to declare that their particular churches are, in fact, the whole Church and that anyone not in communion with them is outside of the Church. On the other extreme is the generic Protestant option, so often employed today under the label “non-denominational,” of suggesting that there is no real division at all, that what matters is solely correct faith and not visible communion, and that the true Church is therefore invisible, not corresponding at all with existing bodies. What Anglican ecclesiology says is that both of these options are inadequate. What we require is a much more dynamic understanding of the Church, one that accounts for the irregularity of the era we live in.
Catholic Ecclesiology in a Divided Christian Landscape
In his Learned Discourse on Justification, Richard Hooker affirms the doctrine that we are saved by Christ alone through faith alone, the doctrine that Martin Luther said was the one which the Church rises or falls on, and he excoriates Rome for teaching a counter message. Nevertheless, when it comes to understanding what the Church is, Hooker took a different tack:
How far Romish heresies may prevail over God’s elect, how many God hath kept from falling into them, how many have been converted from them, is not the question now in hand; for if heaven had not received any one of that coat for these thousand years it may still be true that the doctrine which at this day they do profess doth not directly deny the foundation and so prove them to be no Christian Church…
Quoting from various Reformed sources, Hooker goes on to say that denying the title of church to Rome would be like denying the title of man to a sick man. The existence of error weakens a church but does not turn it into something else entirely any more than having a bad cold might weaken a man but does not kill him. Of course, a disease left untreated can eventually kill, but Hooker sets the bar very high. So long as Rome continues to preach that Jesus is Lord, accept and obey the Scriptures, and celebrate proper Sacraments, she cannot be left for dead.
What are the marks of the Church? What is absolutely necessary and essential for a local church to be the Catholic Church? The answer that early Anglo-Catholics offered was eventually codified in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, but it has its roots in Hooker: Scripture, Sacraments, Creeds, and Episcopacy. The marks of the Church pertain not solely to faith or to visible communion but to both. These things are not all that there is, but without any one of them the rest fall, just as without the brain the heart ceases to pump. If there is even a breath left, there is a responsibility to render aid, to try to connect, to celebrate life and encourage new birth, even if the odds are slim. In our own day, when the Church is battered and torn in so many ways, we do well to remember that schism is a sin on par with the sin of the priest and the Pharisee who left a man beaten on the side of the road for a Samaritan to find.
The Church is Salvation
Questions about the Church sometimes strike Protestants as arcane and uninteresting. Why spend so much time focused on institutions? Why not get on with following Jesus? But for Catholics, of whatever stripe, the question of the Church is always central because the Church is the only place where Jesus is to be found. In a very real sense, the Church is Jesus, because it is by the Holy Spirit that the Church becomes His Body and His Bride, one flesh united with Him. To be outside of the Church is to be outside of Him, which is why, as Saint Cyprian says, outside of the Catholic Church there is no salvation. The gift that Anglicanism has been given, in the midst of Christian brokenness, is the opportunity to name that brokenness for what it is, a sin, and to call us, ever so gently, to start to climb out.
“I am the vine,” says Jesus, “you are the branches” (John 15:5). Even if we are separated from each other, if we are united with Him that separation will not abide. Therefore, the key to true catholicity is not to be looking at what Rome or the East or anybody else is doing, but to look at the crucified and Risen Jesus and to ask ourselves whether or not our church looks like Him. And then, and only then, will we be able to open our eyes and truly see our brothers and sisters in Christ.