Biblical Catholicism: Smells and Bells


Church of the Holy Cross, Dallas, TX. Used with permission of the Rev. G. Willcox Brown, SSC.

I was baptized as an infant in the spring of 1980 into Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. As it happens, it was the Roman Catholic Church where I was raised and where I first learned to call upon the name of God. My experience of Roman Catholicism was not like that of my father who grew up in the pre Vatican II world of Latin Masses and Sister Mary discipline. My parish growing up was part of an “interfaith center” where Jews, Methodists, Unitarians, and a host of others also met. It was church-in-a-box each week as Mass would be set up and then taken down in the main room. There was no organ. There was no stained glass. There were no kneelers or statues or confessionals. There weren’t even pews. We sat in felt lined chairs, when we were actually on time and didn’t have to stand against the brick wall in the back. Kids showed up in their soccer cleats, fresh from the game, still smelling of grass stains and orange slices. Mass was at 4:30 pm on Saturday afternoons. On Tuesday nights, I would go to CCD class where we learned mostly about my teacher’s trip to Fatima and how he had taken some pictures of what he thought was the Virgin Mary showing herself in the clouds.

By the time I was fourteen, I just wanted to be done. We moved to another parish briefly, just so I could complete my Confirmation, “make my sacrament” as they say, and get the whole Catholic thing over with.

Understand, I say all of this not because I have any ill will towards the parish I grew up in. Nothing could be further from the truth. The pastor was a kind and loving priest. The community itself was surprisingly diverse and vibrant. And I picked up some basic stuff. I knew that the “bread” on the altar–if you could really call something bread that looks that much like styrofoam–was being transformed into the Body of Christ. But I did not know why that mattered. I knew the word Gospel, but I could not have told you what the Gospel is. From what I understood of the politics of the Catholic Church, it certainly wasn’t anything I wanted to be a part of. So, early on in high school, I dropped the Roman Church like a bad penny. I still had connections, of course. I’d go to Mass with my parents on Christmas and Easter. I kept up with friends in the parish youth group and I would even join them on their yearly retreat. But I did not regard myself as a Christian. I had no interest in being a Catholic. I was hungry for God, but Rome would not, or could not, feed me.

Fast forward almost a decade. I’m in seminary in New Haven, having been received into the Episcopal Church towards the end of my time in college. I’m reading the early Church Fathers, which is blowing my mind and making me rethink everything I thought I knew about what it means to be a Christian. I’m also reading the Oxford Fathers and finding in them the language of the early Church applied. I’m having spirited conversations with classmates who have the audacity to call themselves Anglo-Catholic. I’m going to Mass at Christ Church on Broadway. I’m meeting with an Anglican monk for spiritual direction. For the first time, I’m going to Confession with some regularity. For the first time, I smell incense in worship and hear the Gospel chanted. For the first time, I attend the celebrations of the Triduum. I see Jesus right at the center of all of it. He’s standing there, staring me in the face. His crucifixion, His resurrection, all of it just starts to click. He died for me. He died for me.

I was raised Roman Catholic, but it was not until I became an Anglican that I actually became Catholic.

The point of all this is not to bash Rome, for this story could easily have gone the other way, had I been raised in a liturgically stale and theologically impoverished Episcopal parish and then found my way into some great oasis of traditional Roman piety. Rather, the point is that one of the things that a truly Catholic ethos and spirituality gives to the Church is a direct experience of God that is not outside of doctrine but culminates from right doctrine. Teaching is desperately important. One of the most important missing elements for me, as a teenager, was the lack of clear teaching on what the Gospel is and how my life is affected by it. But what Anglican Catholicism has shown me is that right doctrine is not simply a matter of intellectual exercise. It is an experience of the divine, built on the basis of sound teaching but delivered largely in other ways, through sound and taste and touch, through ordinary means turned extraordinary by God’s grace.

Meeting God at the Altar

Next to Cranmer and Hooker, there is perhaps no more widely cited Anglican divine than Lancelot Andrewes. He was a man deeply devoted to prayer and to the Holy Eucharist, a devotion that came out of his understanding that what God has done in Jesus Christ is not only to take away our sin but also to fill us with His holiness. The Incarnation is a deep act of union by which we become divine even as God becomes human. Andrewes put it this way in a Christmas sermon from 1605:

Now “the bread which we break, is it not the partaking of the body, of the flesh, of Jesus Christ?” It is surely, and by it and by nothing more are we made partakers of this blessed union. A little before He said, “Because the children were partakers of flesh and blood, He also would take part with them”–may not we say the same? Because He hath so done, taken ours of us, we also ensuing His steps will participate with Him and with His flesh which He hath taken of us.  It is most kindly to take part with Him in that which He took part in with us, and that, to no other end, but that He might make the receiving of it by us a means whereby He might “dwell in us, and we in Him.” He taking our flesh, and we receiving His Spirit; by His flesh which He took of us receiving His Spirit which He imparteth to us; that, as He by ours became consors humanae naturae, so we by His might become consortes Divinae naturae, “partakers of the Divine nature.”

Andrewes posits here a kind of theosis, salvation by means of our incorporation into God and His indwelling in us, and  he sees the Eucharist as the chief means by which we receive that gift. When we receive Christ’s Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist, we are united with Christ in a bond that Andrewes says is stronger than that between blood relatives or even between a husband and wife.

Andrewes is not inventing anything new here. He is quoting from the eucharistic canon in the Book of Common Prayer, asking the Father that we might “be made one body with [Christ] that he may dwell in us, and we in him.” He is also showing his great reliance upon the Fathers, like Saint Athanasius who famously said, “God became man that man might become God.” And, of course, it is well established in Scripture that Christ’s work is to make us “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:3-4).

This understanding had a deep impact not only on Andrewes’ devotional life but also on his approach to ceremonial concerns. In his private chapel, Andrewes maintained the use of copes, incense, a silver ciborium, and candles on the altar. Andrewes understood that there is a direct connection between how we worship and what worship does to us. And he was not alone in recognizing this. Many of the great Anglican voices of the seventeenth century perceived this connection. In his treatise, The Reverence Due to the Altar, Jeremy Taylor argues that the internal worship of the spirit must be coupled with external actions to be genuine because the body and the spirit are not separate but one. This is especially true during the Holy Eucharist because “God is there specially to be worshipped, where he is most present.”

Anglicanism has glorious worship that invokes all the senses right at its center. But in many ways, it was not until the Anglo-Catholic movement that this understanding, built into the DNA of Anglicanism, was unlocked and nurtured.

Ritual Rediscovered

It is repeated often enough now to be a truism that there is a great difference between the ritualists of the second wave of nineteenth century Anglo-Catholicism and the original Oxford Movement which was much more concerned with the recovery of doctrine than ceremony. Some historians have attempted to show that the line dividing the ritualists and their predecessors is not as solid as we might think. Nonetheless, even if we accept a strong division between the Oxford Movement and the ritualists, there is no reason to assume that ritualism is anything other than a natural outgrowth of what the Oxford Fathers did, building upon the Anglican divines who came before them. Many of the ritualists were eccentrics, to be sure, and not everything that they did was good. There was a fetishizing of the middle ages that took place, as well as in some cases a developing tendency to hold Rome up as the pinnacle of what it means to be Catholic rather than to follow the classical Anglican practice of following every doctrine back to its patristic roots. The ritualists were often far less educated than their Oxford peers had been. Some of them showed a surprising level of ignorance to history. Yet, despite all of that, what they got right, intuitively, in their bones, is that the way we approach the sacred mysteries incarnates in us the faith that saves us. As Charles Chapman Grafton put it, “What the devout had learned of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was bound to show itself in outward worship.”

To say that the Anglican Church of the nineteenth century had become stale in its worship is a massive understatement. It is breath taking to realize the kinds of things that Anglo-Catholics had to fight for, things that are so taken for granted now that they are found in even the lowest of low church settings. Priests were arrested for placing a fair linen and candles on the altar, or indeed for even calling it an altar at all. The idea of a vested choir and a procession from the back of the church was seen as pure popery. Riots broke out in parish churches if the priest wore a stole or preached in his surplice. John Mason Neale, founder of the Sisters of Saint Margaret, was chased by an angry mob at the funeral of one of the sisters and ended up having to scale a wall in his vestments to find safety. The Church that had been built on the theology of men like Andrewes and Taylor had become hostile to even the smallest glimmer of ceremonial. Reform was needed.

His Best and Our Best


Procession with the statue of the Blessed Virgin, Anglican National Pilgrimage at Walsingham, 2003. Photo by Gerry Lynch, used via Wikimedia Commons.

All of this may strike some people as a bit of arcane aesthetic snobbery. Does it really matter if the vestments and the candles and the gestures are just so? Isn’t Christ just as present if the Sacrament is celebrated in the middle of the woods on a camping trip as He is in the finest cathedral with smells and bells? Certainly, He is. But these things matter. They matter because, as Taylor showed, our bodies and our spirits are one. If we refuse to allow our bodies to experience what we are receiving in our spirits, the question has to be raised as to whether anything internal is really happening at all. Furthermore, ancient ceremonial and ritual give a sense of authenticity to worship and they teach us that worship is serious business in which the real God, the living Lord, comes into our presence and gives Himself to us. The Catholic principle is not that we need to have all the right accoutrements and do all the right things or else Jesus will not show up. But it is  that we give our very best to God, wherever we happen to be worshipping, because He does, always and everywhere, give His very best to us.

It was in the Anglo-Catholic tradition that I encountered for the first time the full richness of sacramental grace, not because the Roman Catholic Church I grew up in did not have it, but because in my case they had buried it under a mountain of lesser things, hiding from sight the pearl of great price. If we truly believe that Christ is present on our altars and in the Word we preach, we ought to express it with the fullness of what faithful tradition has to offer.

Posted in Biblical Catholicism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Biblical Catholicism: The New Old High Churchmen

South_of_the_Border_sign_25_-_Everything_old_is_new_againIn Anglican circles today, the term “High Church” has become so thoroughly associated with Anglo-Catholicism that the two are assumed to be synonymous. Even in other Christian bodies, the phrases “High Church” and “Low Church” have come to be associated with the level of ritual at operation in the liturgy. This reality says a great deal, both about the ways in which Anglo-Catholicism succeeded and the ways in which earlier forms of High Churchmanship failed.

Holy High History, Batman

The terms “High Church” and “Low Church” were first used in England around the time of the “Glorious Revolution” in the 1680s, but they do not really come into more common use until the early part of the eighteenth century during the reign of Queen Anne. At that time, the terms were equal parts political and religious. The post Reformation Church of England, though on paper settled in doctrine, has never been settled in practice. There have always been those who have felt that the Reformation either went too far or did not go far enough. It is this tension which led to the English Civil War. But by the eighteenth century, those who wanted a more radical reform of the Church were tired of fighting from the inside. Now they simply wanted to be able to create their own churches. But given the ways in which Church and state are intertwined in England, this was easier said than done. As the role of Parliament in running the country became greater, a two party system emerged. Tories favored the Church of England and fought to maintain her rights and privileges as the sole legitimate ecclesial body in the realm. Whigs fought to give dissenters a voice and an equal place at the table. To be “High Church” was to be Tory. To be “Low Church” was to be Whig.

Eighteenth century High Churchmen held such strong political convictions for reasons that were both theological and personal. They were the inheritors of the wealth of theological riches that were produced by Anglicans in the previous century. Everyone from Jeremy Taylor all the way back to Lancelot Andrewes and even Richard Hooker could in some sense be seen as the forerunners to what became the High Church party. What distinguished High Churchmen, even before they had adopted the name, was a belief in not only the legitimacy of the Church of England but its divinely appointed place as the Catholic Church for the English people. As such, High Churchmen strongly upheld the principles of the Elizabethan Settlement. They were dedicated supporters of the prayer book, episcopacy, the monarchy, baptismal regeneration, and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Nevertheless, they were not by any stretch “Romanizers,” though this was the regular accusation made against them by Puritans and other dissenters. One of Jeremy Taylor’s more interesting pieces of writing is his widely circulated “Copy of a Letter Written to a Gentlewoman Newly Seduced to the Church of Rome” in which he celebrates the Church of England as the only truly “Catholick” body in England. High Churchmen were happy to own the Reformation, even if they sometimes drew sharp distinctions between the Reformed Church of England and the Reformed Churches on the continent. And, despite a few colorful exceptions like George Bull, the majority held to the doctrine of justification by faith alone, though they had a far higher view of disciplines like fasting than did most solifidians.

The High Church movement continued to exist throughout the eighteenth century and even produced a couple of notable theologians like Joseph Butler and William Law, but as the political winds shifted, the party slowly became a shadow of its former self. Some resurgence occurred towards the end of the century, largely in reaction against the growing new Evangelical party and the great threat of “enthusiasm,” but the fire of the seventeenth century was never recaptured. By the time the Oxford Movement was underway, most of the High Churchmen who were left were of the “High and Dry” sort, maintaining their position largely as a way to continue their own lives of privilege. Their theology was window dressing for an almost knee-jerk toryism. High Churchmanship was dying under the weight of its own inertia.


Early Anglo-Catholics had a love/hate relationship with the old guard High Churchmen. On the one hand, they detested their lack of zeal. John Henry Newman and Hurrell Froude famously used to refer to them as “Zs.” On the other hand, Anglo-Catholics realized that they needed the support and partnership of High Churchmen if their movement was going to go anywhere. For all their faults, High Churchmen still controlled certain newspapers and had the money and prestige to create livings for clergy and to defend them in the event of prosecution. Besides, part of the Anglo-Catholic movement’s claim to legitimacy was the idea that they were simply recovering certain lost aspects of an earlier kind of High Churchmanship. Therefore, early Anglo-Catholics were often willing to hold their noses and do what it took to maintain good relationships with the “Zs,” though this became less and less true in the movement’s later generations.

But the older High Churchmen were sometimes even less fond of their Anglo-Catholic brethren. The generation of High Churchmen who lived in the 1830s and 1840s were still fighting the battles they had inherited with “enthusiasm” and therefore had little patience for what often seemed to them to be just an enthusiasm of a different kind. Many of the old High Churchmen detested ritualism and found practices like the lighting of candles on the altar and the wearing of eucharistic vestments to be every bit as questionable as the Evangelicals did. Nevertheless, they were clever enough to realize that their movement was dying and that it would not survive if there was not an influx of youthful idealism. Plus, as the Evangelical movement continued to gain momentum despite the best efforts of High Churchmen to stop it, they came to believe that any alliance which helped to keep the Evangelical threat at bay was a good one. They realized, however tentatively, that they needed the Anglo-Catholics every bit as much as the Anglo-Catholics needed them.

High Church Hybrid

Fast forward a generation and a distinct new class of High Churchmen can be seen emerging. By the 1870s, the old guard High Churchmen were all but gone. Anglo-Catholics still existed, of course, and there were many who were far more radical and less compromising than their Oxford heroes had been. But somewhere in the midst of this muddle, a new kind of High Churchmanship was rising from the ashes. The sociologist John Shelton Reed describes it this way in his book Glorious Battle:

These moderate High Churchmen–or simply “Anglicans,” as they sometimes called themselves–had been affected by the Church revival and by the early teachings of the Tractarians, but they represented an old tradition in the Church of England, and they knew it. They took their stand squarely on the Prayer Book and the seventeenth century Anglican divines, and in so doing revived an English tradition that had been largely dormant for a century and a half. (First edition, page 111)

These folks saw in their particular brand of Anglo-Catholicism the glory of an earlier time in the Church of England and they set about trying to reclaim it. A new kind of Anglican distinctiveness was rising to the surface again after a long submersion. Unlike in previous generations, these new High Churchmen were unafraid to say simply and plainly that what they believed, taught, and lived was nothing less than Anglicanism itself. Classical High Churchmanship is Anglicanism, according to these folks, precisely because classical High Churchmanship returns again and again to the primitive Church to ascertain its direction. Would that Prayer Book believing Anglicans today would be so bold in their proclamations.

Late nineteenth century High Churchmen never could have imagined what was to come, either in terms of further excesses in the Anglo-Catholic movement or in terms of the efforts at cooperation and peaceful coexistence that exist today between Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals (however fraught with tension those efforts may be below the surface). But they believed that it was possible to accept many of the premises upon which Anglo-Catholicism rested without losing the Reformation. In fact, they saw how Anglo-Catholic teaching and practice, when properly cast through the lens of the earlier classic High Churchmanship of the seventeenth century, not only did not contradict the formularies but actually vindicated them.

Don’t Call it a Comeback

In the the twentieth century, classic High Churchmanship was all but submerged. As ritualism and liberalism began to intertwine, the earlier form of Anglicanism so dearly championed by the seventeenth century divines once again fell out of favor. It is only in the last two decades that this has started to change. A surge of interest in classical Anglicanism has begun to take place, particularly in North America. While the classical Anglican movement is still very much “fringe,” there is a growing sense that Anglicanism, if it is to be anything, it must find its moorings in a different time than now. In classical Anglican circles, it has become fashionable to point out the ways in which Anglo-Catholicism and Evangelicalism have both distorted or ignored certain aspects of our formularies. I have participated in such criticism myself. In our era, it is a somewhat regrettable but necessary task.

Nevertheless, classical Anglican High Churchmen ought not forget that it was Anglo-Catholicism that made the revival of the theology of the divines possible. First and second generation Anglo-Catholics combed through the writings of the seventeenth century and republished many writers whose work had long since fallen out of print, usually without altering the opinions of those divines even when they ran vehemently contrary to their own. Anglo-Catholicism gave classical Anglican High Churchmanship a new framework and a new approach. Even ritualism can be said to be a gift to the revival of classical High Churchmanship in so much as it communicates and accentuates many classical Anglican doctrines that have become obscure. There would likely be no classical Anglicanism today if there had not been Anglo-Catholicism in the nineteenth century. For that alone, we owe the Tractarians a great debt of gratitude.

Photo by Sébastien Maltais, via Wikimedia Commons page here.

Posted in Biblical Catholicism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 46 Comments

Theology, Life, and Death

An interview I did with the Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner back in September while we were both in Dallas at The Cranmer Institute. This was a great privilege for me because Dr. Radner’s work has been very meaningful to me and it is a big part of why I continue to minister in The Episcopal Church. He talks about his own conversion to Christ, the meaning of the word Anglican, and why theology matters to the average person.

To see more of Dr. Radner’s work, check out The Anglican Communion Institute.

Posted in Videos | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

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.

Posted in Biblical Catholicism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 41 Comments

Biblical Catholicism: Rethinking the Anglo-Catholic Movement

IMG_0735When I was in seminary, one of my professors, a staunch British Calvinist, made the off-hand remark one day that Anglo-Catholicism could not be defended from an historical perspective. The point seemed so obvious to him that he did not feel the need to explore the matter any further, so I cannot be absolutely certain of his meaning, but if I were to guess, I would imagine that he meant that the understanding of the Church of England that was articulated by the Oxford Movement and those who came after is entirely incongruent with the Anglican Reformation and the Church of England’s history between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. I have found that this is a common assumption amongst modern Anglo-Calvinists. They argue that the Reformed nature of the Anglican formularies precludes Catholic theology, despite the fact that it was the Calvinist party which originally found many of those same formularies odious when they were first introduced. Moreover, they accuse Catholic Anglicans of a kind of special pleading when it comes to interpreting the formularies, arguing that Catholics pick and choose, twisting the meaning of words to fit their previously held theological commitments, as if this is not exactly what Calvinist Anglicans today do as well.

Back to Basics

The Catholic revival started out, much like the Evangelical movement in Anglicanism, as a reform movement that sought to bring Anglicans back to their roots. Anglo-Catholicism did not simply fall out of the sky. It was preceded by more than two centuries of classical High Church thinkers and writers who planted the seeds for it, from Hooker to Laud to the Non-Jurors to Cosin to Joseph Butler and John Jebb. In America, Samuel Seabury and John Henry Hobart laid much of the ground work. None of those figures would have described themselves in the same terms that the Oxford Fathers used, but they set a trajectory which early Anglo-Catholics believed they were following. Many of the great lights of the Anglo-Catholic movement revered their High Church predecessors. Pusey can hardly write five sentences without quoting from one of them. This is not to deny that they did a good bit of picking and choosing, as we all do. But, right or wrong, the Oxford Fathers and the century of figures who came after them believed that they were the true inheritors of what the Anglican Reformation was meant to achieve. Far from being innovators, they saw their essential task as one of continuity.

Newman’s Ghost

So why do we not think of them that way? The answer, I think, is largely to be found in the shadow that John Henry Newman continues to cast over the Church. It has been more than a century and a half since Newman’s defection to the Church of Rome, but the effects continue to be felt. Newman’s was by no means the only voice of the Oxford Movement, but he was among the most talented and brilliant of the Oxford Fathers and his voice was the strongest and loudest. His creeping doubts, which eventually led to his conversion, were unwittingly sewn into the DNA of the Anglo-Catholic movement, not unlike the way that Luther’s personal story became the focal point for the development of Lutheranism. Every Catholic Anglican since his departure has had to wrestle with the Newman question. If a man as convinced as Newman had such doubts, why should I be any different? If he realized he was in the wrong place, and he wrote half the tracts defending my position, perhaps I am not standing on as firm a foundation as I thought.

The siren song of Rome, and in more modern times Eastern Orthodoxy, has been a constant burden for the movement. The desire among many Anglicans to prove our catholicity has motivated a kind of constant looking over our shoulder to see what Rome is doing and then imitating it. The development of what some have come to label “Anglo-Papalism” is a symptom of this. Anglo-Papalism is everything that nineteenth century Evangelicals feared and accused early Anglo-Catholics of being, a movement that has completely abandoned the Reformation and the Anglican formularies in favor of Romanism. It is this wing of the Anglo-Catholic movement, at least in Britain, that has been slowly making its way into the Roman Church’s new “Personal Ordinariates” where they are “entering full communion with the [Roman] Catholic Church while maintaining distinctive elements of their theological, spiritual, and liturgical patrimony.” One has to wonder exactly what these Anglican distinctives are, given that many of the priests entering into the Ordinariates have spent their whole ministries celebrating out of the Roman Missal and trying to get as far away from anything distinctly Anglican as possible.

Thoroughly Catholic, Thoroughly Non-Roman

This is what the movement has become in some places, and it has given rise to a caricature that is sometimes applied to all Anglican Catholics, but this is not what the Catholic movement was meant to be, nor is it what it has to be today. The writing of men like Keble and Pusey, John Mason Neale, Richard Meux Benson, and the American Charles Chapman Grafton point in a very different direction. Rather than looking wistfully towards Rome, these were men who were eager to see Anglicanism recover her own first principles and lay claim to the true catholicity that the Elizabethan Settlement sought to recover. Far from trying to emulate Rome, Anglo-Catholics sought to recover patristic Catholicism. Their model as not the nineteenth century Roman Church but the Church revealed in the writings of the early Church Fathers. In some cases, this led them to write things about Roman Catholicism that are far more vitriolic than anything that ever came from a Puritan’s pen. But their primary task, as they saw it, was not the criticism of Rome or of anybody else, but the building up of the Anglican Church through a recovery of Catholic life. They founded monasteries and schools, took positions leading churches in the poorest of slums, and went about the business of re-centering the life of the Church back upon the mystery of the Incarnation and the miracle of the Lord’s real and true presence in our worship in the gift of His most precious Body and Blood.

In this new series on Biblical Catholicism, I hope to share with you all some of my re-discovering of the great Anglo-Catholic saints of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the ways in which they appealed to the centuries of Anglican High Churchmen who came before them to make their case. But my goal is not simply to revive and reclaim a patch of history. What I think these folks have to offer us is something much more vital. They were, in many cases, pioneers, carrying with them a spirit of adventure as well as a deep dedication to the principles they held. They were willing to be ostracized, to be inhibited, to lose their callings and their status, sometimes even to be thrown in prison, all for the sake of helping people to experience union with the living Lord Jesus. They were willing to risk it all for the sake of uncovering the pearl of great price and offering it anew to the world. This is the same spirit that I believe we need to find again in the Church today, not just in the Anglican Communion but throughout the Holy Catholic Church. We need a break from the incessant church politics and the handwringing over our losses to the culture. Truth, beauty, worship, holiness – these are the things that truly matter and that can truly invigorate us. These are the things that a truly biblical, truly Anglican Catholicism can give us.

Photo of Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in Germantown, Pennsylvania, taken by Fr. Jonathan. Feel free to use, but a credit that leads back to this site is much appreciated.

Posted in Biblical Catholicism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

Ask an Anglican: The Book of Mormon

417px-Mormon-bookDavid writes:

My family believes in the book of mormon and is very disappointed and, sometimes, furious with me for believing only in the holy bible. It has lead me into religious confusion because it looks and sounds just like the Bible but the Christian church seems to have universally rejected it on the grounds of nit picks and certain contradictions – – as opposed to having large, indisputable proof that it is false doctrine. How do Anglicans see the “gospel restoration” the book of mormon claims to be and how did the church come to reject it? My family has seriously driven me nuts over of this book. They don’t want me to only believe in the Bible.

The relationship between orthodox Christians and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) is rocky and complex for a variety of reasons, not all of them theological. There was certainly a history of Mormons being ill treated by Christians, which is part of what led to the Mormon movement west in the nineteenth century. But today Mormons and orthodox Christians usually are able to get along, to live together in the same communities, and even to work together for the betterment of society. I consider that a blessing. Most of the Mormons I have known in my life have been very decent, loving people who cared deeply for their families and friends.

Nevertheless, what David has asked here is a theological question, a question about what is true. And because it is a very serious, straight forward question, it deserves an equally serious and straight forward answer. David wants to know why Anglicans, along with other orthodox Christians, accept the authority and legitimacy of the Bible while rejecting the authority and legitimacy of the Book of Mormon. The answer is that the Bible is true and the Book of Mormon is not.

History is a Mystery

The historical problems with the Book of Mormon are myriad. For starters, it does not appear on the scene until 1830. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, claimed that it was a record from a much earlier time, approximately 2200 BC to 421 AD, that had been previously lost but was revealed to him on golden plates by the angel Moroni (who in and of himself presents a theological problem, but we will get to that in a minute). That is all well and good. Legitimate ancient texts are occasionally rediscovered. All we would need to do to verify Smith’s claim is to take a look at the original documents and do a standard historical, anthropological investigation. Except, we cannot do that because the plates mysteriously disappeared. Several people swore that Smith had shown them the plates, although they were all friends, family, and financial backers of Smith (and their stories do not always line up with one another). Bottom line, while we have lots of very ancient manuscripts of the Bible that allow us to verify them as ancient documents, we have no such way of verifying the Book of Mormon.

The same historical problems exist within the narrative of the book as well. The Book of Mormon makes a variety of claims about things that supposedly happened in the ancient world, especially in the Americas. The Bible makes many historical claims as well. Archeologists have verified some of the Bible’s claims while as yet being unable to verify others. But there is not a single shred of archeological evidence for any of the Book of Mormon’s claims.

The Once and Future Church

So, at best, the historical reliability of the Book of Mormon is questionable, requiring us to place a great deal of faith in the personal testimony of Joseph Smith if we want to believe it is true. But what is much more problematic for orthodox Christians than the historical inconsistencies in the Book of Mormon is the way in which the Book of Mormon, and Mormon beliefs in general, contradict the teachings of Holy Scripture and of the ancient Catholic Church.

As David mentioned, Mormonism is a “restorationist” faith. What this means is that Mormons believe that some time shortly after the founding of the Christian Church, there was a great apostasy in which true Christianity was tossed aside in favor of a lie and the true Christian Church was replaced by an impostor Church. The founding of the LDS Church in the nineteenth century was God’s way of restoring the true Church on earth after a long absence. This means that for almost two millennia, all the people who thought they were really Christians were wrong. They were following a false Church with false teachings. Only those who have received the Mormon revelation have received the fullness of Christian truth. There were a number of restorationist groups that emerged in nineteenth century America, but Mormonism is the most prominent and enduring.

Sometimes Mormons get upset that so many Christians are unwilling to accept their movement as a legitimate expression of the Christian faith, but the reality is that to accept the Mormon story is by definition to say that anything and everything else is a lie.

In many ways, the Anglican principle is the direct opposite of the Mormon principle. While Mormons start from the presumption that Christian history is useless between the end of the apostolic age and the nineteenth century, Anglicans begin from the presumption that the early Church held a clear and cogent understanding of the faith as it had been handed down by the apostles. Rather than declaring everything prior to be apostasy, the Reformation English Church sought to safeguard the legacy it had received and to pass it on to future generations. Early Mormons sought to restore the Church by accepting a new revelation which contradicted what had come before. Anglicans sought to reform the Church by going back to what they had already received in the Holy Scriptures and the writings of the Fathers.

Angel Hair Impostor

How does Mormonism contradict historical and scriptural Christian teaching? Many, many ways. A simple example can be found even in the story of Mormonism’s founding. The plates that Joseph Smith supposedly found were revealed to him by the angel Moroni whom Mormons believe was the last prophet to have written in the plates before their disappearance more than a thousand years before. Upon Moroni’s death, he became an angel. Many people today would not blink at this since there is a widely held misconception that angels are what we become when we die, but the Bible teaches that angels are spiritual beings created by God prior to the fall. Angels do not have bodies, unlike human beings. We will never become angels, and they will never become human. Rather, the choirs of angels and the choirs of human saints join together in worshipping God.

However, Mormonism’s teaching on angels is hardly the most consequential way in which its teaching departs from historic and biblical Christianity. Mormons do not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity. Mormons also have a completely different way of understanding salvation that is largely built on personal moral triumph. In fact, Mormonism teaches that human beings have the potential to become gods themselves (though there is some dispute as to exactly how this claim is to be interpreted). The bottom line is that while Mormons use a lot of the same language as Christians to describe their beliefs, what they believe in is not Christianity. The God of Mormonism is not the God of the Bible.

Tough Love

Again, none of this is to cast aspersion on Mormons as people. Mormons are often pillars of the community, and most of the Mormons I have known have been far better people than I am. I understand completely why Mormons find it frustrating that so many Christians are unwilling to call Mormonism a Christian faith. But the fact remains, if we are to treat each other with respect and love, part of that love requires speaking uncomfortable truths. Paul says, “Even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8). Mormons have been given a false gospel by a false angel. The only antidote to that is the true gospel that comes in the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. Archbishop Runcie once famously called Christianity “one beggar showing another beggar where to find bread.” In this case, it is also one beggar telling another that the bread they think they have is actually poisonous.

Of course, in a situation like David describes, where there is a lot of pressure coming from family, all of this can be tough. Sometimes the only thing that you can say, once everything is out in the open, is just, “You have your beliefs and I have mine, but I love you, even if I don’t agree with you.”

Posted in Ask an Anglican | Tagged , , , , | 23 Comments

Apocrypha is Apocry-fun!

Why do some Bibles only have 66 books while others have over 70? What are these funny “extra” books of the Bible sometimes called “apocrypha” and what does Anglicanism teach about them? Find out the answers to these questions and more in the latest episode of the Conciliar Anglican video podcast.

Posted in Ask an Anglican, Videos | Tagged , , , , , , | 19 Comments

Evolving Words and the Word of God

words-1Among the many podcasts I listen to is the Slate program Lexicon Valley which is kind of a pop exploration of all things language related, think Radio Lab but with words instead of science. A recent episode discussed the way in which words evolve and the impulse that many of us have to criticize new and novel uses of language. One of the show’s hosts, Bob Garfield, mentioned his great loathing for the way that many people today use the word “literally” when they mean “figuratively” (e.g., “when people misuse language, my head literally explodes”). This is also one of my pet peeves, but as the program progressed, I was stunned to learn that this shift in the way that “literally” is used goes back at least as far as 1903!

Words Change

There are a million words like “literally” that have shifted in meaning over the centuries, to the point that they now mean almost the opposite of what they once meant. A great example from our Anglican formularies is found in Article X, which says in part, “We have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us…” To the modern reader, it sounds like the article is telling us that we cannot do good works unless Jesus stops us from doing good works, which makes no sense. In fact, “prevent” originally meant to come before or to precede, so that the article’s meaning is that we cannot do good works unless we have been previously enabled to do them by God’s grace.

Regardless of what you think about biological evolution, it is one hundred percent certain that language evolves. Language is not like math. It is not static and tidy, nor is it predictable. Words change over time, as do the ways in which we use them. What seems utterly wrong in one generation might be completely fine in another. Language is an art more than it is a science. And in many ways, it is like a living organism. It adapts to its surroundings. It grows. It makes it own rules, then breaks them, then makes another set and starts the process all over again.

The Way We Read Matters

Given this evolution of language, what are we to make of the words that God has given us in Scripture? Surely, this poses a challenge to the kind of sola scriptura teaching that insists upon a “plain reading” without the influence of exterior factors. In this much, postmodernism, for all its foibles, is absolutely correct. There is no such thing as a reading of a text that is unaffected by a thousand exterior factors. If you take a Bible off by yourself and simply try to live by it, assuming even that you could somehow have the original text, in the original language, with no alterations, you would still not achieve a “plain reading” because there is no way for you to get out of your own head and receive the meaning of the words objectively. Everyone reads a text slightly differently, based on their own experiences and influences, as the comment thread on this post will no doubt reveal about how you all receive even what I am writing right now.

Richard Hooker was no postmodernist, but he understood this principle. In articulating the Anglican position on Scripture as opposed to the Puritan position, he says in Book I of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity:

In like sort, albeit scripture do profess to contain in it all things which are necessary unto salvation; yet the meaning cannot be simply of all things that are necessary, but all things that are necessary in some certain kind or form; as all things that necessary, and either could not at all, or could not easily be known by the light of natural discourse; all things which are necessary to be known that we may be saved, but known with pre supposal of knowledge concerning certain principals whereof it receiveth us already persuaded, and then instructeth us in all the residue that are necesary.

Of course, in this statement alone we see the principle of language’s evolution at work, since Hooker uses many words here differently than we would use them today (and that’s after I cleaned up the spelling). But Hooker’s point in regards to Scripture is that we have to come to it with a certain amount of knowledge already intact if we are going to get anything out of it. He will go on to use the example of a person learning to read so that he may read what the Bible says. A person needs to be taught to read in order to read the Bible, which means that a person needs to have this skill in order to receive the gifts of salvation which the Bible has to offer, but the Bible cannot teach us to read. That has to come from somewhere else.

The Church as Living Interpreter

Hooker is by no means trying to undermine the authority of Scripture. Rather, he is trying to help us see just what this authority is and how it should function in the life of the Church. Hooker’s work describes what many other Anglican divines also tried to articulate, the necessity of applying reason and tradition to Scripture in order to properly understand it, something which Hooker believed could only be done effectively in the life of the Church, not off on one’s own. This is why the things that the Church of England fought to preserve through the Reformation–things like the historic episcopate and the practice of liturgical worship–are so important as to be considered essential to the the Church’s well being. The radical notion of Puritanism that still infects much of Protestantism today was that the Christian Church could be rebooted from scratch in every generation through an objective reading of God’s Word. The Puritans rightly believed that the Gospel does not change, but they mistook the words of the Bible themselves for the actual thing, rather than understanding those words as sign posts pointing towards the grace of God. Ironically, this is exactly what many Protestants both then and now accuse Catholic Christians of in our approach to the Sacraments. In point of fact, as Luther argued and Hooker echoed, both the administration of the Sacraments and the preaching of the Scriptures are places where God’s eternal Word transforms ordinary things into channels of His grace.

As Article XX reminds us, the Church is the “keeper of holy writ.” This means not only preserving the text but also passing on the rule of faith which allows the text to be properly understood. Part of Anglicanism’s vocation has been to be a witness for the Scripture’s proper place in the life of the Church. The Church does not exist over Scripture, as if Scripture is nothing but a collection of our thoughts about God, but neither should the Church attempt to empty herself of all other wisdom and receive only Scripture because attempting to do that leads inevitably to radical and grotesque departures from the Gospel. Rather, the Church must patiently apply the tools at her disposal, learning about the culture that produced the texts of Scripture and the evolution of language that has happened since, always coming back to the rule of faith that has been applied throughout the centuries to biblical interpretation, the rule that grounds everything that we receive in the good news of Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection.

Tongue Twisters

This kind of interpretation can be a slippery business, as we have seen in contemporary Anglicanism’s near collapse. It is easy to misstep in one direction or the other, either falling into the trap of postmodern liberalism and suggesting that there is no real meaning to the text besides what we give it, or falling into the trap of reacting against such nonsense by developing a neo-puritanism that pretends to give us the Bible alone and unadulterated, all the while piling on its own set of cultural baggage behind the scenes. Both of these are heresies. The Bible can be properly interpreted by the faithful Church, but only if the Church does not receive the Scripture in a vacuum, as if nothing has happened since the apostolic era. Rather, the Scriptures must be set within a stream of teaching that has continued unabated since the apostolic era, a teaching that spread around the globe, adapting to new cultures not by accommodating their idiosyncrasies but by speaking their language. The Word never changes, but words do. This is why Jesus established a Church and not a library. A library’s job is to preserve words as museum pieces. The Church’s job is to use them for the healing of the world by the cure of souls.

The Play is the Thing

This means for Christians that we are not to try to live under the authority of the naked Bible, as if the book could jump up and start telling us what to do, but instead to live under the authority of the biblically centered Church. A play comes to life when a director, actors, and others all do their part to bring about a faithful rendition of a script. Far too many Christians seem to think that the play can go on with the script alone.

I remember the first time I read Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night when I was in the tenth grade. I was a nerdy kid who liked reading, but Shakespeare still did not make any sense to me. The cultural and linguistic distance between the Bard and mid-nineties me was just too much to bridge through my simple reading. But when we watched a recording of a production of Twelfth Night in class, suddenly the whole thing made sense. In that performance, what Shakespeare was trying to communicate came through by means of the faithful witness of the company. The Scriptures can be so much more than mere words, but not on their own. They need the Church’s faithful witness to bring them to life.

Posted in General Posts | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

The Living Church Lives!

In this episode, Fr. Jonathan talks with Dr. Christopher Wells, the Editor of The Living Church, about how the magazine continues to tackle big ideas and speak to both the Church and the culture.

Posted in Videos | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Ask an Anglican: Why Enter (or Remain in) the Episcopal Church (USA)?

William writes:

Might you have some encouraging words for someone who is recently converted to Anglicanism / Episcopalianism—who does not want to join ACNA, AMiA, or, for example, the Reformed Episcopal Church—who wants to enter TEC but is frightened because of its current, tragic state?

This is an incredibly distressing time to enter TEC. If I don’t get some encouragement soon, I just may pass altogether. I could merely hold my beliefs but worship elsewhere.

Christ came to save sinners (see Mark 2:17 and 1 Tim. 1:15).

Christ came to save sinners (see Mark 2:17 and 1 Tim. 1:15).

I rarely respond to questions by beginning with my own personal experience. My reason for this is simple: theology should consist of deduction from first principles—and autobiography is not and cannot be a first principle. I don’t wish to deny the importance of subjective hopes, fears, desires, etc. In truth, these have a very important place in human life and thus in Christian life. Most importantly, Christ came not to save the principles of logic, but to save sinners in all their messy, tangled subjectivity. But in Christ, God interrupts our subjectivity—and although our experience of this interruption is intensely personal, it far too big and far too important to be confined to the narrow borders of our own subjective experiences. God interrupts me, but the grace in question extends far beyond the boundaries of my own life.

Two points should therefore be made. First, our life in Christ is a life oriented toward and by the divine Logos, which orders all things (see John 1:1 – 18, where the Greek ‘Logos’ is translated as ‘Word’). In Christ, our subjectivity is called and enabled to look beyond itself. Second, theology is for the wider community of the Church. If we have a question concerning the Christian life-in-community—if we are concerned with being in and remaining part of the Church—we must ultimately turn to those catholic truths—those catholic first principles—which have been shared by all Christians, in all times and in all places. In what follows, I begin with my own story. I then turn, however, to wider, shared points of Christian belief and practice. (Readers should note my assumption that William, like myself, holds to the orthodox nature of the Creeds, the effectual nature of the Sacraments, the inspired nature of the Scriptures, and the normative nature of the historic threefold ministry.)

A Very Brief Spiritual Autobiography

I was not raised Episcopalian, but come from a non-denominational, charismatic background. When I was 16, my parents began attending a Reformed church, and I left that decisively not long after turning 21. I spent a little over a year attending a ‘continuing’ Anglican parish of the EMC (Episcopal Missionary Church), where I grew to have both an appreciation of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and a sense that it was somewhat outdated and in need of revision. I later moved on from that parish and drifted for some months between various liturgical churches, but shortly before I finished my undergraduate degrees, I was invited by a friend to visit the Episcopal student center, affectionately known as ‘Chapel House’. I did so, and when I first walked through the doors of the chapel I felt like I was home for the first time in my life. It is an experience which I had never had before and which I have never had since. It is an experience that profoundly shaped me; I do not exaggerate when I write that it is an experience and a memory that I still carry and feel in my bones.

St. Arthur Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury (1961 - 74). His books should be read by all serious Anglicans.

St. Arthur Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury (1961 – 74). His books should be read by all serious Anglicans.

I was confirmed about a year and a half later—on May 22, 2005, to be exact (my confirmation certificate hangs on the wall of my room)—after reading a good bit of Rowan Williams, Michael Ramsey, William Reed Huntington, Lancelot Andrewes and the Greek Fathers. Andrewes was the most moving of these authors; Ramsey, more than anyone else, gave me a sense of the Anglican ethos. His closing words in From Gore to Temple: An Era in Anglican Theology made a tremendous impact on me shortly after my confirmation: ‘the theological coherence which a Gore or a Temple exhibited came, not from a quest for tidiness, but from a vigorous wrestling with truth for truth’s own sake’ (p. 170). These words move me even now. And yet, as intellectually compelling as I find such a view, at the end of the day my movement into Anglicanism was an event of the heart, which was then followed and confirmed by my head. Put somewhat differently, my move into the Episcopal Church and the wider Anglican Communion was not just the result of study, but the result of an unexpected, charismatic experience. My conversion to the Anglican way was the joint action of both Parakletos and Logos; the former inspired unexpectedly, and the latter enjoined communicable discourse on the matter. (One without the other, or one set against the other, lacks the fullness of orthodoxy.)

Why be Anglican/Episcopalian—and, why be Christian?

Does one convert to a church because of its current state or because of the integrity found in the depths of its tradition? As the above shows, my own conversion was not inspired by the current state of Anglicanism! Without question, now is a distressing time to enter the Episcopal Church (USA), and I recognize that not all readers can appeal to a charismatic experience or the deep movements of the heart. But at the same time, as noted above, I sought to test my experience by turning to the study of church history and theology. In studying the roots, I found not just traces but effectual signs of life. I converted because of these; I embraced these, I learned from these, and I sought and seek to live faithfully according to these. Grounding these are the universal theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity—and charity is nothing if not patient and longsuffering, rejoicing in the truth. Ultimately, love fails to fail because it never fails (see 1 Cor. 13). If I may be so bold: if one’s current frustrations cause one to lose sight of the simple fact that the greatest of Christian virtues is charity, then one’s problems with church membership are located less in a particular church than in oneself.

None of this is to deny the binding nature of Christian duty. Sadly, it may be difficult to observe one’s Christian duties in a particular church. Some churches, whether ‘left’ or ‘right’, are genuinely destructive of one’s wellbeing—for example, they may undermine one’s marriage, or inhibit one’s ability to be a faithful Christian parent, or even be abusive in any number of ways. If this is the case, then yes, by all means leave that church and go elsewhere! Other churches call ministers who are not fit for their position because they do not adhere to the duties of the Christian ministry. Perhaps their sermons are heterodox, or perhaps they lack Christian character, or perhaps they are impious and/or irreverent toward the sacraments. If this is the case, I fully sympathize with the desire to go elsewhere. In truth, it is important for churches to be reminded that they cannot do whatever they wish; bad decisions can and should have negative consequences, and there is nothing remotely Christian about allowing oneself to be bullied into ‘unity’ by a negligent church hierarchy.

However, we must be careful; it is tempting to say that you should seek a church where you can be fed (note the passive voice of this statement)—but this borders on two falsehoods. The first error is the heresy of Donatism and Puritanism: the assumption that the means of grace are invalidated by erring clergy and/or erring laity. On the contrary, Christian faith—both the orthodox faith that I believe (fides quae), and the personal faith by which I believe (fides qua)—is stronger than the errors of anyone in any given time or place. No less importantly, the gifts of God remain pure and undefiled gifts even if misused by laity (which Puritanism cannot accept), or by a particular church and/or its particular ministers (which Donatism cannot accept).

The second error is that of making one’s own subjective experience the measure of objective truth. I suspect that this is the real problem today, not Donatism and Puritanism. People too often think that the answer to their discomfort is to find a place where they feel fed right where they are, but this is false. Insofar as you pray in church (any church), you are fed; insofar as you sing hymns in church (any church), you are fed; insofar as you profess the Creed in church (any church), you are fed; insofar as you hear the Scriptures in church (any church), you are fed; insofar as you participate in the Eucharist in church (any church), you are fed (and this literally!).

The bulk of the Christian life is lived outside of church, and thus the bulk of Christian discipline and Christian maturity must be pursued and attained outside of church. However, church membership and the Christian life are identical in this: neither is about us; both are about faithfulness to the promises given and the way of life enunciated in Word and Sacrament. Such faithfulness may make us uncomfortable at times, even in our own church, but discomfort and struggle are part of becoming a mature human, not to mention a mature Christian (and I fail to see how you can attain the latter if you neglect the former). When it comes to both motivation and action, the weight of my pleasures should always be outweighed by the weight of my duties. Maturity recognizes this and lives accordingly, while immaturity does not.

Discomfort and struggle are not, in and of themselves, a free pass to go off in search of more comfortable surroundings. One is certainly not free to leave a church because it is supposedly ‘dead’; this excuse is usually used by people who do not wish to accept their duty to be Christian toward other Christians within the Church. Rather, they simply want to be fed (and again, note the passive voice of this statement). Sometimes it is our job to feed others (now note the active voice of this statement), and it is always our job to crucify our own egos and judgments through service and the love of our neighbors. A church with just one member is a living church; a church is not dead until it ceases to exist—and until that happens, we are all bound to our Christian duty, which calls us to be the ‘living stones’ (1 Pet. 2:5) which help enliven and sustain all that happen within the four walls of a church.

Discipline your own appetites and then you will see the rest clearly. And thus we are left with two catholic truths. On the one hand, we are bound by our Christian duty. If a given church fundamentally undermines our ability to be faithful to our Christian duty, then we must leave and go elsewhere. This is not a mere hypothetical; this can and does happen, and no guilt should haunt those who, in obedience to the dictates of faith, hope, and love, must leave one church for another. On the other hand, we are bound by orthodoxy and must repudiate any Donatist or Puritan heresy which claims that the good gifts of God might be fundamentally vitiated by human sin or error. If you leave a church, leave in love to the best of your ability. If the direction of the will is not toward charity in such a situation, flee from resentment and keep from slander, insult, and the like when you discuss your former church. Wherever you are, be faithful by recognizing the objective goods in the objective gifts of prayer, hymnody, creed, and Word and Sacrament.

Posted in Ask an Anglican | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 24 Comments