Biblical Catholicism: The Branch Theory

Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey and Pope Paul VI meeting in 1966.

Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey and Pope Paul VI meeting in 1966.

“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.

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Your average traditional crunchy Christ follower with a penchant for pop culture, politics, and puns.
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41 Responses to Biblical Catholicism: The Branch Theory

  1. Robert F says:

    “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.”

    Many Protestants would argue that Rome does not “obey the Scriptures,” and has added five so-called Sacraments that have no more Scriptural warrant than Mormon proxy baptism.

    • Pete says:

      The inverse is also true: catholics (Roman or otherwise) can argue that Protestants do not obey the Scriptures (most obviously in their understanding of the Sacraments) and have refused to accord all the Sacraments their proper practice and honor. I’m not saying this is true, just that saying “protestants would disagree” is the point, why so many Anglicans/ Episcopalians think of themselves as catholic and protestant, not shying away from calling out where the reformation went too far and threw the baby out with the bath water, or not far enough and preserved unholy practices.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      You’re correct, of course, that many Protestants then and now would argue thusly. But I was merely summarizing Hooker’s argument. If you disagree, your beef is with him.

    • Maronite Catholic says:

      So have Eastern Orthodox , who also have 7 Holy Sacraments- like Catholics. Fr. Jonathan, Quit saying “Roman” Catholics; it’s an offensive Protestant innovation. We’re simply Catholics: we have the Roman Rite & the Eastern Rites in communion with Rome (like Maronite Catholics, Melkite Catholics, etc.). It’s Anglicans (“Anglo” Whities) who have bastardized the Sacraments with so-called Women “bishops” & “priests” & acceptance of abortion & divorce & accepting Homosex marriage/unions. BOTH Catholics & Eastern Orthodox have Holy Matrimony as a Holy Sacrament (Anglicans do not), so both reject Homosex (Anglo whities don’t). Jesus was a Jew not an Anglo; He spoke Aramaic Syriac (the language of Maronite Catholics) not “Anglo” English. Fr. Jonathan to be orthodox you must accept all Church teachings in all 3 realms: Liturgy, Morality & Caritas. It’s a 3-legged stool: you seem to focus on only one, & fail at doing so, I might add. Peace. Shalom!

  2. Brilliantly done! Where did you find the quote from Pusey? This line of thinking needs to be developed into a major ‘school’ of ecclesiology – it seems largely neglected these days (perhaps, like most of the classical Anglican tradition?).

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      It’s in a letter he wrote to Newman in 1870. The link above will take you to a much longer work which reproduces the letter in its entirety. If you go there and do a word search, you should be able to find it.

  3. Josh says:

    “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.”

    So what does this mean for our brothers and sisters of more ‘radical reformation’ churches? Those who are not just outside the Catholic Church, but actively preach against it as unbiblical and heretical. I realize this paragraph is not the overall point of the article, but it is the next question if we are to follow the history of the Church down to some of its outworkings we see today.

    Many thanks Fr J!

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      That’s a great question, Josh. And it’s a difficult one to answer. There is a certain sense in which at least some of those people have a tangible connection to the Catholic Church, by virtue of their Baptism, even if they would strenuously object to it being characterized that way. I think the best construction we can put on it is to say that Jesus is the ultimate cause, the ultimate source, the ultimate hope, and that the salvation of all is dependent solely on Him. Therefore, I have hope for my anabaptist, baptist, and pentecostal brothers and sisters because I know that they worship the same Lord that I do. But does the rejection of the Church cause them harm? Categorically, I think we have to say yes and to admit that such rejection can be not just a stumbling block but also a millstone.

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  7. Anastasios says:

    I don’t think it’s entirely correct to say that all Easterners reject the branch theory. Since 1955 at least there has been an unofficial acceptance among Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christians that both groups actually have the same Christology, they just word it differently (with the former group using Chalcedonian language, the latter Cyrillian). This means that while the two groups “appear” to be separated, they are in fact one church. Although full communion has yet to be fully restored, it likely will be within the next 100 years or so once someone gets around to assembling another ecumenical council. Restoration of communion will likely come by way of annulling (rather than reversing) the anathemas against Dioscorus et al. that were issued by Chalcedon, Constantinople II & III and Nicea II. This would tie the two branches together again without compromising the doctrine of conciliar infallibility (which all Orthodox hold to very strongly).

    Could it then be said that Orthodox Christians (at least, the ones who accept the view outlined above, not the fringe elements who reject it), accept a “two-branch” theory of the Church, similar to the Anglican three-branch theory?

    Most Orthodox would not go so far as to include Anglicans or Rome as branches (since a gigantic doctrinal gap exists between them and the Orthodox). Anglicanism is such a doctrinally diverse group that the Orthodox would probably say it can’t be truly considered a single communion. However there are some segments within Anglicanism that could be considered “Anglo-Orthodox” (I. e., the ones with mid-to-high churchmanship, that accept pre-Reformation views of things like sacraments, icons and the communion of saints, but not the specifically Roman ones like purgatory, papal infallibility, indulgences or the immaculate conception). There are even Western Rite Orthodox parishes that are liturgically indistinguishable from Anglicans, although there aren’t any Western Rite bishops yet.

    The Orthodox would have a hard time with embracing ALL of Anglicanism as an branch of the Church, because many Anglicans adhere to Calvinism for instance (which the Orthodox Church rejected in 1672), and there are “Anglo-Papalists” who accept papal infallibility (!); the Orthodox would consider these people heterodox and thus outside the Church. However, I don’t see why one couldn’t be Orthodox and accept at least the “Anglo-Orthodox” churches as a branch that “appears to be separated, but is actually one with us”. Of course, the Orthodox would also see such an apparent separation as a non-ideal situation, one that should be remedied A.S.A.P. by restoration of visible communion.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Interesting thoughts, Anastasios. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard it described that way. I guess what will play out in the years ahead is a questioning as to whether the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox really do share a common faith, but also whether that is enough to restore union. I think a lot of folks on both sides of that divide would say that there is a common faith between them, but when communions have been separated for so very long, old rivalries and things quite apart from doctrine have a way of getting in the way. Even the differences between Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy, though they exist and are important, seem to me to be blown up to much greater proportions precisely because of the bad blood that has accumulated over these long years.

      I understand about the difficulty that comes with trying to have ecumenical conversations with Anglicans, particularly in our current state of crisis. Nonetheless, I think it helps to return to the formularies and the divines and ask what these things mean and then to test those who appropriate the name “Anglican” against such claims. And for Anglican Communion churches, the resolutions of Lambeth Conferences also bear consideration. The problem for Anglicans is not that we are mixed up about what we believe. It is that we have a massive disconnect between what we believe and what we actually do.

      • Rob Scot says:

        “The problem for Anglicans is not that we are mixed up about what we believe. It is that we have a massive disconnect between what we believe and what we actually do.”

        Boy, that hits the nail on the head. Fr. Jonathan, thanks for this series; I’m enjoying it and looking forward to future posts.

      • slink says:

        “The problem for Anglicans is not that we are mixed up about what we believe. It is that we have a massive disconnect between what we believe and what we actually do.” Wow. Did lightning strike you after typed this out? Some Anglicans are all for women’s ordination as both priest and bishop, some only allow women as priests, and some are against it altogether. Some Anglicans are more Calvinist than the Presbyterians, some are Anglo-Catholic, some are Anglo-Papist, are there are all different sorts of Anglicans somewhere in the middle. Some Anglicans hold to only 2 sacraments, some set baptism and communion up as the main 2 and allow for the other 5, and some hold that all 7 are necessary. I could go on.

        I would argue that there is no disconnect between what is done and what is believed. There never is; in this church or any other. The disconnect is between what Anglicans are supposed to believe and what they actually do believe. It is between what is supposed to be taught and what is actually taught.

      • Fr. Jonathan says:

        I don’t think we’re making opposite points. You’re right that modern Anglicans believe all sorts of different things and accordingly act in all sorts of different ways. My contention would be that the acting has created the believing. Lex orandi, lex credendi. Of course, in all fairness, that formula works both ways, and the liturgical revision itself came through a group that had formed beliefs in other ways. Nonetheless, as we have let go of the practices that instill the formation of our faith, our faith has changed and deviated from what was handed down to us.

  8. FWIW, I have addressed this very issue at length, including the examples cited by Pusey and Anastasios, here: http://anglicancontinuum.blogspot.com.au/2006/01/catholic-ecumenism-and-elephant-in.html. There is overwhelming evidence that in actual practice (rather than polemically-charged theory) both the RCC and EOC have not always treated outward breaks in communion as absolute proof one side was “in”, the other “out”, whether in the ancient or mediaeval context. To put it another way, the “Dogma of Absolutely Manifest Unity”, the DOAMU for short, is a myth. The DOAMU is “handy” when triumphalists are dismissing Anglo-Catholics or Ecumenical optimists, but implicitly if unconsciously abandoned in other contexts.

    Where I might disagree with some of our commenters and Fr Jonathan is in the tacit acceptance that the differences between the RCC, EOC and Anglican Catholics are irreconcilable. Anybody interested in why I believe they are reconcilable without “renunciations”, can find out in Section C here: http://anglicancontinuum.blogspot.com.au/2008/09/index-of-fr-kirbys-apologetics.html

  9. Bob B says:

    I think that one of the main issues stopping a full union of the church (at least with Roman Catholics) is the progression of theology. If we were to limit our understanding of shared faith to the historic creeds, then the Anglicans, Orthodox and Catholics would all be able to commune. It is the insistence of belief in these extra doctrines that form the barrier… and the more time goes on, the higher the wall gets. Now in order to be in you must also accept Papal infallibility, and that Mary lived a perfect life (immaculate conception).

    To think that ones belief about Mary’s immaculateness is preventing unity in the church is shameful. The dogma is unknowable anyway (as an empirical fact) – why must it be added to the deposit of the faith?

    The Anglican church is somewhat unique in this regard. It recognizes that there are Calvinists and Papists within the kingdom, and we ought not break communion over those things poorly understood by even the best of us. Throwing people out of the church for these petty doctrinal errors isn’t the Christian way. The Anglican church has room for veneration – or not – in either case it isn’t worth tossing people out of the church over.

  10. Will Bishop says:

    Thanks for this post. Before reading it, I too did not really understand the branch theory and would have rejected it based on the third argument you mentioned.

    I tend to think about this in terms of episcopal sees…despite their schism from each other, the Pope is the legitimate holder of the See of Rome, the Patriarch of the See of Constantinople, the Archbishop of Canterbury of the See of Canterbury, etc. In an ideal world with a unified church, these episcopal sees would be parts of independent national churches yet in communion with each other, in the same way that the Porvoo Communion places the Anglican Churches of England and Ireland in communion with the Lutheran Churches of Norway, Sweden, etc. I believe the Orthodox Church sees it this way too: the Pope, as legitimate Bishop of Rome, would become “first among equals” if he were to re-enter communion with Constantinople. Therefore as much as the doctrine of the Anglican Church is (in my opinion) superior to that of the Roman Catholic Church, it would make no sense to go into Italy and try to create a separate Anglican See of Rome. That would undermine the goal of creating a unified network of national churches.

    But for those of us living in the New World, where no episcopal sees were established before the Reformation, the question is much more complicated as there is no obvious way to determine whether the Orthodox, Catholic, or Anglican bishop ought to hold sway over a given geographic area. Added to this is the fact that the United States was founded by Puritan immigrants and has a tradition of non-episcopal Protestant religious pluralism, which, as much as one might believe apostolic succession a necessity, I think has been a good thing for the development of the nation’s religious and political thought. As a person just now developing an interest in Christianity, it would feel crazy to exclude from the definition of the Church the non-episcopal Protestant denominations which have grounded the lifelong, devout faith of some of my friends.

    So perhaps I believe in the branch theory now, less as a statement of what is than what ought to be. That is the vision expressed eloquently in Article 34 (“It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one…Every particular or national Church hath authority…): a network of national churches, all in communion, all governed by bishops who recognize each other’s authority and whose episcopal sees do not geographically overlap. The Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican Churches, as well as those Lutheran Churches of the Porvoo Communion, are the only bodies in the world today that come close to satisfying that vision, and in that sense the branch theory is true.

    That’s mostly rambling, so someone should let me know if anything I’ve said is blatantly wrong.

  11. Anastasios says:

    Will,

    Before reading this article (and your and Fr. Jonathan’s comments), I found myself leaning towards Orthodoxy….you guys have convinced me to try giving classical Anglicanism a second look.

    The fact that Americans aren’t used to having apostolic succession is definitely a problem. How do we solve it? Some (like the Presbyterians, etc.) aren’t going to accept it no matter. However, the vast majority of “rank-and file” American Protestants are going to be far more persuadable.

    What I’d like to see, in the long run, is an American national church that, like America, is part “melting pot” and part salad bowl. It’d be made up of 50 (or more) different archdioceses each with its own distinct “local color”. Who among them should get primacy of honor is an open question; maybe it’d be best to decide it the Coptic way (i. e., randomly).

    The American church could have its own prayer book which combines the best aspects of the BCP as well as all of the other historic liturgies (Orthodox, Roman, and the various Oriental and Assyrian ones). “Localized” versions of it, with some variation, would be allowed (e. g., Minnesota’s church might have a more Swedish Lutheran vibe to it, while Alaska’s will be modeled on Russian Orthodoxy, and California’s would probably resemble Spanish/Mexican Catholicism, etc. The black church tradition is another possible influence. Hawaii would have Asian influences (remember Alopen?) as well as native Hawaiian ones). I’d like the Native Americans to get in on the action too; they should have their own autocephalous churches, and the liturgy could help keep their own languages alive.

    How would we even go about making such a monumental vision a reality?

    • Michael Frost says:

      Anastasios, When you write, “What I’d like to see, in the long run, is an American national church that, like America, is part “melting pot” and part salad bowl”, you’re entering the land of hypotheticals from the far, far future, well after we here today are all long dead and gone. Yes, we pray Come, Holy Ghost. But we have to live in the hear and now. Not dreamland. All any of us can do is pray and then worship with a specific faith group in our accessible area. No group is filled with perfecct Christians. And each is filled with sinners and has its own problems and issues.

      For the more immediate future I do pray that… Continuing Anglicans will strive to clean up their jurisdictional messes by working for real, working corporate (re)union. That the Orthodox will do the same. That the PNCC will work to join a larger corporate body (whether CA or Orthodox). That Roman Catholics will end their internal civil war involving liberals vs. conservatives (if only those cafeteria-style RCs who disagree with their own dogma would just leave and join…the Episcopal Church). These 4 areas alone, involving just the USA, might take much of the rest of this century! :)

      • Fr. Jonathan says:

        You know, at one time I was a liberal Roman Catholic who joined the Episcopal Church. Be careful what you wish for. ;-)

      • Michael Frost says:

        Fr. Jonathan, Yes, thank God that the Holy Ghost is still able to enlighten lost souls in ECUSA. Though I think there are so few actual or potential faithful left there. Seemed like there were so many more in the 1980s and 1990s. Some went CA or REC, others Constantinople (incl. our Western Rite), and others Rome (now w/Ordinariates). But after priestesses, a dumbed-down BCP & Hymnal, bishopesses, and the acceptance of homosexual lifestyles, marriages, and clergy…is it trying even God’s patience to bring light to utter darkness? :)

  12. Will Bishop says:

    Michael, I have been to Morning Prayer at an Episcopal Church parish in a liberal Ivy League city which has a female assistant rector and allows communion without baptism, and heard the rector deliver a sermon on defending Christianity from the “rising tide of atheism”. The Episcopal Church is full of faithful people. Yes, it has made some questionable moves in trying to adapt to social trends. But the Episcopal Church’s preoccupation with transient political-moral debates pales in comparison to that of “conservative” denominations such as Continuing Anglicans, Southern Baptists, breakaway Lutherans, etc., who are more than happy to sacrifice the unity of the Church on an altar of sexual purity.

    • Michael Frost says:

      Will, The realization of physical unity of the Church can only come thru the grace of the Holy Ghost and the faithfulness of God’s people to His Word and His Church. Any “church” that accepts evil and calls it good or holy or loving is an apostate entity where the gates of Hell are prevailing. Upholding God’s Word in areas like the evils of abortion, adultery, euthanasia, fornication, homosexuality, as well as dogma tied to the ordination of men and their proper roles as deacons, priests, and bishops goes straight to the heart of the real unity of the Church. Truth cannot unite with lie nor Beauty with ugliness nor Goodness with evil.

      And in a mystical way, one God realizes, faithful believing confessing Christians are “united”. We are united in our faith in the Trinity, the Incarnation, the death, resurrection, and Ascension of our Lord, the gifts of the Holy Ghost to us in Word and Sacrament, etc. So even though I’m EO (WR) I havve no trouble worshipping with my fellow CAs (or PNCC, LCMS, etc) for I know we share faith in our Triune God, our Savior Jesus, and His Church.

      • Will Bishop says:

        I appreciate the sentiment, and certainly didn’t mean to exclude anyone from the definition of Christianity. I was merely pointing out that that Continuing Anglicans and other such groups place a high priority on those “evils” which correspond directly to 21st-century political issues, and especially those related to sex. I’ve never heard of anyone breaking with the Episcopal Church because they ordained a bishop who was too greedy, too wrathful, or too proud. But ordain a gay bishop and suddenly you’ve got 50 splinter sects on your hands.

        Ross Douthat, whom no one would accuse of being a liberal, has written that evangelical churches and conservative Catholicism risk becoming viewed as “interchangeable vehicles for the identity politics of Red America”. You do sometimes have to wonder which came first, the chicken or the egg.

      • Michael Frost says:

        Will, The Donatist schism and its outcome determined the error of thinking that clergy must be perfect in order for Word or Sacrament to permeate the life of the laity. We have always known that our deacons, priests, and bishops are sinful men! They, like us, are in need of repentence and we all throw ourselves on the mercy of Christ, our Lord and Savior. The critical issue is when a group purporting to be a part of the Church starts willfully, deliberately, and with malice of forethought to ordain men living public lives of disrepute. (And we talk only of men as WO is by definition a dogmatic error!) Have their been homosexual EO, RC, CA, PNCC, historic Swedish Lutheran, etc. bishops? I’m pretty sure at least a few slipped thru the cracks, but they did so as secret sinners pretending and deceiving others. A few years back an Orthodox bishop in the USA got a bit drunk at a casino. He started hitting on a woman at a slot machine near him. After his arrest…he was deposed and given a chance to find repentence as a monk. :)

      • Michael Frost says:

        Will, If that EO jurisdiction hadn’t taken the appropriate quick action as they did, I’m sure there would’ve been all sorts of ecclesiastical issues bubbling up from their own clergy and laity as well as other jurisdictions. Part of being the Church is both knowing what the right thing to do is as well as doing the right thing when it is necessary. (While I was a bit heartened to know my fellow EO liked a bit of drinking, a spot of gaming, and the ladies, that wasn’t the problem. I mean, if he was my single neighbor, I’d have a beer with him and watch some football while we bar-b-qued. But he’d taken vows and had an obligation to live according to them.)

  13. I’m delighted to have stumbled upon this site through the miraculous workings of YouTube. A friend on Facebook had shared a link to a performance of “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, which made me wonder (again) whether that hymn might hold some kind of record for being sung to the greatest number of tunes, and while searching, I happened to notice a video in the suggestions list titled “Postmodern Episcopal Meltdown,” and thought, “Oh, no, more of that rubbish!” My drift away from the Church began approximately 25 years ago, and I now describe myself as an “Angnostic,” in that I am culturally Anglican, but theologically, I just don’t know anymore. But something–God only knows what–led me to click on the link, and I soon was having the novel experience of finding myself in total agreement with a pony-tailed priest–something that I would have bet all that I own could never have happened. The video led me here, and although I’ve only read this one post by Fr. Jonathan, and therefore probably should not be so quick to jump in and start commenting, what the heck, I’ve been flamed before, why not?

    I’ve always been intrigued by the branch theory, and Fr. Jonathan’s opening comments tantalizingly led me to think that perhaps he intended to systematically refute Damian Thompson’s assertions regarding the effect consecration of female bishops would have on ecumenism. It seemed to begin well enough, but along the way I found myself more at odds with the direction the ponytail seemed to be pointing.

    For me, something about the whole “Christian unity” issue has never quite rung true. Such a huge amount of time and energy has been expended on “healing” the alleged rifts that rent Christianity asunder! What are these terrible things? The date on which to celebrate Easter? Whether the Eucharist is flesh and blood, or unleavened bread and wine, or Merita and grape juice? The gender and sexual orientation of priests, and who is supposed to pat them on the head when they are ordained? Slowly, inexorably, subconsciously, without them even being aware that it is happening, Christians are coming to the realization that all of this is just plain silly nonsense.

    First of all, it is impossible to “sever” the Body of Christ. I suppose theoretically it could be done by majority vote within the Holy Trinity, but certainly no earthly being has the power to do it, and that includes Martin Luther, John Calvin, King Henry VIII, and the Bishops of Rome. Saint Paul covered this conclusively in the 8th Chapter of his Epistle to the Romans. And the debate should have ended, for all practical purposes, at the First Council of Nicea. And why did it not? Because we humans just will not–can not–abide by what Jesus said at Matthew 7:3-5, and Luke 6:41-42, which, essentially, says that we all should mind our own business.

    Who cares if Roman Catholics want a little cannibalism with their Mass? Or that Methodists prefer Welch’s grape juice over wine? Or that the Greeks want to have their egg hunts on a different date? Or that some clergy can’t produce a pedigree leading back to an apostle? Arguing over such things reduces Christianity to the level of a kennel club arguing about the bloodline of dog breeds. As Bill Murray so eloquently said in the movie “Meatballs”: IT JUST DOESN’T MATTER! [http://youtu.be/e9mf3Bypyk8]

    Due to the unique cultural influences that shaped it, Anglicanism became an almost perfect model for what modern Christianity should be. That is, up until around 1960 or so. Prior to that time, Anglicans, more so than most other Christians, maintained a sense of British reserve and equanimity which allowed us to conquer even the most daunting challenges with a simple, “How quaint that you should think that. Now, may I get you some more tea?” We followed Jesus’ command to mind our own business–both within the Church and without–and everything got along just fine. Anglicans could coexist with anyone, anywhere in the world. If they didn’t bother us, we didn’t bother them. And the same was true within our parishes and dioceses. What if half the clergy were homosexuals, and the other half notorious fornicators? Who cares, as long as they are discreet about it? The same applied to the person sitting next to me in the pew! Or playing the organ, or singing in the choir. It was only when we stopped minding our own business, and instead started straining at gnats while at the same time swallowing camels, that troubles began.

    Equanimity is the true and only Anglican orthodoxy. The Middle Way. Moderation in all things. Live and let live. Mind your own business. That is what we’ve lost sight of, and that is what must be regained, if we are to avoid extinction.

    Now, could I get you some more tea? Or, perhaps a glass of sherry?

    • Michael Frost says:

      MJY, Not exactly sure how to take your primary point that so many issues “just don’t matter”. As you know, the Apostles, Paul, the Early Church, and the Patristic Church took the content of their faith most seriously. They identified and rejected heterodoxy whenever it reared its hellish head. The Anglican Church is a product of that earlier discernment. Thus it accepts the Apostles and Nicean Creeds. It has a canon of Scripture. It follows Christendom’s Christology. Practices infant baptism. Uses the words of institution in its Eucharistic canon. Etc.

      I think the Lutherans, esp. Melanchthon, were right in this area and the Anglicans essentially followed suit for the most part. There is Christian liberty in non-essentials, but not all things are adiaphora. Otherwise, to accept your point, would mean allowing Unitarians, Saballieans, Nestorians, and more, who reject the Faith, to worship within the Church.

      So my thought reading your piece is: “What does matter?” The Trinity? Incarnation? Virgin birth? Death, resurrection, and Ascencion of Christ? Justification? Baptism? The Eucharist? Episcopacy?

      Even for Anglicans, things do matter. And they have over time. Guess that is why… the 39 Articles came to exist? Laud was executed? The Non-juors came to be? Wesleyans were excluded? The controversies over the Tractarians? Issues and arguments over the BCP? And more…

      • Josh says:

        Humbly put without sacrificing the importance of the issues. Well said Michael.

      • Michael Frost says:

        For clarity… I should’ve said Archbishop Laud was martyred. He was executed for his Anglican faith, one that was significantly different than the republican presybyterians who executed him and wanted to replace the 39 Articles with their Westminster Confession of Faith and obliterate the BCP. They had to murder Laud before they could commit regicide.

    • Michael Frost says:

      MJY, When you write–”What if half the clergy were homosexuals, and the other half notorious fornicators? Who cares, as long as they are discreet about it? The same applied to the person sitting next to me in the pew! Or playing the organ, or singing in the choir.”–you’re setting up both a straw man as well as obscuring some important issues. First, review the Donatist heresy. The efficacy of the sacraments is not determined by the holiness, or lack thereof, of the priest. Case closed here about 1600 years ago. Second, as for the appropriate qualifications for ordaining clergy and allowing them to remain as practicing clergy… Start by reading Titus. See Titus 5-16. Includes “the husband of one wife…not open to the charge of debauchery…a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” (ESV) Case closed. And in his many writings Paul makes clear that engaging in homosexual acts is not appropirate Christian behavior, but sin. The good pastor preaches and teaches this and works to help his fellow Christian overcome that particular sin. Case closed.

      • Michael Frost says:

        MJY, As regards human sexuality, historical, confessing, believing Christendom fully accepts the goodness, beauty, and truth of heterosexual marital sexuality. The Church has always called all adulterers, fornicators, homosexuals, those consumed by lust, and polygamists to repentence. Each of them (all of us) is a child of God in need of the Gospel and sacraments!

      • James says:

        M. Frost, well said. You are an excellent apologist for the historic catholic faith. Although I noted earlier that you are Western Rite Orthodox, might I ask if you were ever Lutheran? Not trying to pry but just curious based on your writing content.

        Fr. Jonathan,
        I stumbled across your blog site about a year ago as I was researching a Continuing Anglican church near my home. I have thoroughly enjoyed your site. Although I can’t quite understand how you remain in the Episcopal Church, I wish you well. Thanks so much for your thoughtful blog site.

      • Michael Frost says:

        James, No I’ve never been Lutheran. I do have some interest in and knowledge of Lutheranism. When I was overseas in the Air Force I did worship with the base Lutherans, led by a wonderful conservative ELCA chaplain pastor. I loved the music and singing! My former long-time Orthodox priest, now retired, was a Lutheran pastor before becoming an Episcopal priest. (He has three pensions!) My daughter is engaged to marry a Lutheran next year. Shebecame engaged in 2012 and once I found out I started a crash course on Lutheran studies. Sad to say, but I’d likely make a poor Lutheran. I’m entirely infected with Philippist ideas and find Luther’s lack of systematic thinking means he pretty much stands for whatever one wants to pick out of his corpus. See the Finnish school of Luther studies that stresses his purported ideas on deification/theosis. I’ve found Master Philip, in his mature thinking of the 1550s, to be quite orthodox. I esp. love his very accessible Loci Communes (1555 German). One can see Melanchthon’s influence on Arminius and Wesley. He was the last of the peaceful magisterial Reformers who worked tirelessly for unity within the Reformation and also with the RCC. (And since her fiancee was formerly Reformed I’ve also had to do a crash study of the Reformed Church. I find much to appreciate in Bucer and Bullinger.)

  14. Fr. Jonathan, this post is excellent. As a baby Anglican in the TAC (confirmed just last year after growing up in the PCA) I was excited to stumble across something on Anglo-Catholicism — keep it up, you have a wonderful blog.

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