The Measure of Successful Ministry

6a00e552e3404e883301543322c1f7970cModern American life is built upon the twin pillars of productivity and consumption. We are all consumers and producers. In our role as consumers, we make decisions all day long about what we want to consume, and how much, and in what color or size or quantity. In our role as producers, we try our best to produce things that others will want to consume. This applies not only to economics and the workplace, but to every aspect of our lives. We have become consumers of education and therefore we evaluate our teachers based on the kinds of grades and test results that the children are producing. We are consumers of news, and thus the news industry has emerged in which journalists are evaluated not only on journalistic grounds but on the salability of the news they report. Absolutely everything we do in our society is evaluated on the basis of how broadly and consistently it is consumed.

The Church Growth Carnival

It should be no surprise then that American Christians look at ministry the same way. The church growth movement exemplifies this at its most grotesque, wherein absolutely everything about a congregation’s life is weighed against the number of people being served and the number of dollars in the bank. The absurdity of this is well documented: Churches that sell lattes in the lobby, extremely popular self-help preachers who barely ever mention Jesus and never mention the cross, worship services that are built to look like popular entertainment, and a revolving door where people exit these churches almost as fast as they join them. It takes only a passing knowledge of the Scriptures to see why this purpose driven, Gospel starved sideshow is inconsistent with the Church’s calling to worship God and set sinners free through the proclamation of His grace.

The Almighty ASA

But even if we reject the Church Growth movement model, parishes and pastors still yearn for some way of evaluating the success of their ministries. Study after study has shown that the Church is in decline across the board. In the Episcopal Church, that decline is more of a free fall. So priests and lay leaders who are out in the trenches, focused on their individual parishes and pushing hard for them not only to survive but to thrive, are hungry for some measuring stick for determining success, some way of knowing if their parishes are on track to survive into the next generation or if all they are doing is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Rectors in particular are sensitive to this. As a full time rector myself, I can attest to that fact. Pastoring is incredibly hard work. A whole lot of energy goes in, and yet it is often very hard to tell whether what you are doing is making any difference at all.

At one time, the number of members a church had was an instructive figure for measuring success, but in the Episcopal Church today, many rectors have turned to the Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) as the mark of greatest interest. ASA, it is argued, measures not only how many people are officially a part of your church, but how many are engaging with your church on a regular basis, receiving what it has to offer. In other words, ASA is a measure of consumption. Every Sunday, we rectors work with the other worship leaders in our parish to produce something called the Holy Eucharist. ASA tells us how many people, on a regular basis, are consuming what we produce. If ASA is up, we must be doing a good job as rectors since people are responding. If ASA is down, we must not be doing much of anything, or perhaps we are doing the wrong things and need to change course.

Many priests who follow this particular bouncing ball would argue that it is nothing like the excesses of the Church Growth movement. They are not trying to tailor make a church to fit people’s whims, but merely trying to ascertain what state the parish is in. It is true that ASA tells a story, which is why it is something worthwhile to track, but the problem is that the story is not immediately apparent in the raw numbers. A parish with a spike upward or downward in ASA has had some sort of change, but there is no evidence in the raw numbers that the change has anything to do with the rector. It could be that the demographics have changed in the neighborhood, or that there have been a large number of deaths or births, or that an affair has been discovered or covered up, or that a new church has opened up across the street, or that the local little league has changed its game schedule, or a hundred thousand other things. The ASA only points to the existence of a story. It doesn’t tell it.

Selling Salvation

But the bigger, deeper problem is that when we become obsessed with ASA, we commodify and thereby drain the lifeblood out of our proclamation of the Kingdom of God. Living and dying by the ASA is simply another form of the unending hamster wheel of production and consumption that has become a substitute for the Gospel in the modern American story. Priests who fall into this trap start to think of themselves as producers of religious goods rather than as heralds of the Kingdom. Sooner or later, this translates into thinking of our mission as one of keeping the consumers happy so that they will continue to consume, rather than as one of proclaiming the truth to a world mortally wounded by its love of lies. If we are not careful, we begin to think not only that ASA determines our success, but that we actually deserve the credit for what God is doing in our parishes. If the ASA is up, we rejoice because we are so very good at what we do. If the ASA is down, we lament and try to find other factors to blame for our obvious failure. What we never seem willing to do is to allow God to be the one in charge of whether our parishes grow or shrink. Good or bad, up or down, it has to be us, not Him.

The Biblical Model for Success

Does this mean that there can be no measuring stick? No way at all to judge our success or failure? A very clear model exists, but it is not one that is likely to satisfy our consumerist impulses. The roadmap to successful ministry is laid out by Paul in the pastoral epistles. He gives Timothy and Titus clear instructions on how they are to find, ordain, and train up elders (IE, presbyters, priests). And the measure of success for these priests has precious little to do with anything that can be produced or consumed:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season;reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:1-5)

This is Paul’s constant concern for pastors. When Paul says “be an evangelist,” he doesn’t mean go door to door handing out tracts. He means that if you are a priest who has been entrusted with a parish (or for that matter a bishop who has been entrusted with a diocese), your job is to share the Good News, the evangelium, with the people under your pastoral care. You are to constantly, persistently speak the truth that has been entrusted to you, regardless of the consequences:

Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you. You are aware that all who are in Asia turned away from me, among whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes. (2 Timothy 1:13-15)

If you are truly preaching God’s Word, God may choose to use your ministry to build up the Church and bring many souls to salvation in your midst. But He may also choose to use your ministry as an instrument by which to shame the wicked, force out the false prophets, and cause the institutions of the Church to collapse around your head. Either one is a holy calling if it comes from God. Your concern as a pastor is not with which outcome God chooses to bring out of your faithful preaching of the Word. Your concern is only faithfulness to what has been handed down to you. This certainly requires you to consider how your words and actions may affect the ability of the faithful to hear the truth. Paul repeatedly commends priests and bishops to cultivate godliness in themselves and to avoid controversies that have no bearing on the Gospel. But when it comes to the pastor’s mission, the mark of success is to hold firm upon “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” (Titus 1:9).

Success cannot be measured in terms of outcomes. It can only be measured in terms of faithfulness. For that kind of measurement to work, priests and bishops must come together, under the Scriptures, and give honest leading to one another as to how faithful they are being. Lay people in leadership who wish to understand what is happening in their parishes ought to do the same. This requires a profound commitment to moving beyond the confines of our individual settings and embracing the unity of the whole Church. We can no longer afford to be comfortable with trying to prop up our own congregations or dioceses while ignoring what is happening to the people of God around us. Our task is faithfulness. Our evaluation of our ministries ought to be a discernment process in which we seek to learn how God might be using our faithfulness for the sake of the Kingdom. It is brutally honest and it requires a complete shedding of ego on the part of clergy, but it really is the only way forward. We need to stop pretending that a consumerist model can fix a spiritual problem. Faithfulness may not be sexy, but it is the only thing that can deliver us from our addiction to outcomes.

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Ask an Anglican: Baptismal Regeneration

St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral in Memphis, Tennessee

St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Memphis, Tennessee

Kevin writes:

As I understand you, we receive saving faith at our baptism when we are regenerated by God’s grace. This all fits together nicely in the case of infant baptism, but could you clarify what Anglicanism teaches about adult converts? How is it that they come to receive the sacrament of Baptism? I understand that the Holy Spirit would have to call them, but is their response to this calling considered “faith”? If not, what is it? If it is faith, how is it that their faith comes at baptism?

This is a great question because it gives us the opportunity to sort out some common confusion surrounding the topic of the doctrine of Baptismal regeneration. Though the prayer book is filled with references to our being regenerated by our baptism, by the early nineteenth century many Anglicans had abandoned the doctrine of baptismal regeneration in large measure due to misunderstanding. The Scriptures speak repeatedly of our being regenerated in our baptism. In Titus 3:5, for instance, Paul says that God “saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit.” But what does that mean? Does it imply that we are saved through Baptism even if we never come to faith? Just what is the relationship between Baptism and faith? All of these things become intertwined and terribly difficult to sort out if we do not first figure out what it means to be “regenerated.”

Rescue Me

If we imagine God’s gracious action towards us in Christ to be like that of a person in a helicopter seeking to pull a drowning man out of the water, the drowning man has only two options, one active and one passive. He can choose not to trust that the person saving him has his best interests in mind. This will cause him to flail around, fighting off his rescuer, which will ultimately result in his drowning. Or he can trust that his rescuer really does intend to rescue him, in which case he will relax and allow the rescuer to do his job unimpeded. Faith represents the second of these options. Faith is not so much an action as it is a disposition. Having faith means no longer fighting God off. But there is a problem inherent in this scenario: How do we know our rescuer? Sin enslaves us. On our own, our hearts are incapable of making the choice to have faith in Christ because sin has dulled our senses. It has made us incapable of recognizing either the goodness of God or the evil of death that has us trapped. To you and I as drowning sinners, the one who reaches out a hand to rescue us appears to be some kind of monster. Would you take the hand of a monster or bat it away? Suppose that you do not even fully believe that you are drowning. Why accept the hand of someone who will rescue you when you are perfectly self sufficient and in need of no rescue at all?

New Birth

In John 3, Jesus confuses Nicodemus, who has come to Him under the cover of night, by telling him that he must be born again (or born from above, as the Greek word can mean either). Nicodemus mistakenly takes Jesus literally, as if what Jesus is telling him is that he has to crawl back into his mother’s womb and come out a second time. But Jesus ignores this absurdity and restates his premise, saying that “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). The early Church universally understood this to be a reference to Holy Baptism. It is in the waters of Baptism that we are born again because it is in the waters of Baptism that the Holy Spirit is given to us to unite us with Christ. Baptism is God’s action of reaching out to us, grabbing hold of us, and drawing us into Himself. Regeneration is God’s action, within our Baptism, by which He opens our hearts and unstops our ears that we might be made one with Him. It enables us to have faith because it is the bond which makes the fullness of faith possible. To be regenerated is not to be given faith per se, but to be given the possibility of actually being capable of having faith. Baptism is not something that just happens in a single moment. Baptism is something that is sealed in a single moment, but that then works upon us throughout our lives to change our hearts, to renew our faith, and to make us holy. Our sins are drowned daily in our baptism and we are daily raised to new life.

Some Things are Better Together

So what does that mean for the person who comes to faith prior to coming to the font? Perhaps the best analogy for all of this is that of love and marriage. There are many different ways that a man and a woman might come together and decide to be wed. In modern western culture, men and women date before getting married, coming to know one another, and usually coming to a genuine affection for one another beforehand. In other societies and cultures, this has not always been the case. Sometimes marriages are arranged for socio-economic reasons. Nevertheless, many people in these marriages also come to love each other over time. Even in marriages that are borne out of love, most people who have been married for more than five minutes will tell you that the love they had when they got married is not the same as the love they have once they have been married for awhile. So what caused what? Does love cause marriage or does marriage cause love? The answer is yes to both. We get married because we fall in love and we love because we are married. The same is true of the relationship between Baptism and faith. We get baptized because we have come to faith and we come to faith because we have been baptized.

The Holy Spirit works upon people in different ways. Some people first come to know Jesus through the example of a friend or a relative, or through the words of a preacher or an evangelist, or through encountering liturgy. For the person who was baptized as an infant, these other things act as a catalyst for the gift that has already been given. It deepens the relationship that has already been forged in Baptism. For the person who has not yet been baptized, these other things stir up a desire to be baptized and thereby to enter into that kind of closeness in relationship with God. Baptism gives us faith in the same way that marriage gives us love. Our mistake with both faith and love is to assume that either one of those precious gifts can only be given to us in a single infusion, as if we go from complete doubt to complete faith or from complete indifference to complete love in the span of a moment. When two people fall in love and get married, the vows they make on their wedding day establish a bond that allows their love to grow and to be made stronger, better, more like the perfect and holy love of God. When we come to faith and then come to the font, the grace we receive there will continuously regenerate our hearts, so that each day, as Christ drowns our sins anew, we will be able to trust in Him anew, and that trust will become deeper over time.

Further Reading

There are some great passages on Baptism that help to further illuminate all of this in the work of Jeremy Taylor, but for a more modern classical Anglican perspective, I recommend reading Bishop Ray Sutton’s book, Signed, Sealed, and Delivered. Bishop Sutton is a bishop in the Reformed Episcopal Church. While some of what he says about the REC’s “Declaration of Principles” is problematic, the majority of what is in this book is very good. The connections he draws are helpful for anyone who wants to sort out the biblical material on this question while keeping an eye on the classical Anglican doctrine expressed in our formularies.

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Blessed Lent

As we enter into Lent once again, I am continuing the practice I began last year of limiting my use of the internet throughout the season. Therefore, there will be no new posts from me until after Easter. But many good things are on the horizon. There are more posts coming in the Biblical Catholicism series, including a post on the 39 Articles in Anglo-Catholicism and one on reading the Scriptures through Catholic eyes. There are also more Ask an Anglican posts on their way, answering questions on baptismal regeneration, the nature of blessing, veneration of the cross, and many more topics. Plus some all new videos are in the works, including an interview with the well known Anglican ethicist Dr. Philip Turner and an exploration, by request, of what I would do if I were Presiding Bishop.

All of that should be fun. I am looking forward to it. But in the mean time, I’m looking forward to a blessed Lent. I pray that this season will be one filled with grace for all of you and that your devotions during this time may draw you ever more into the heart of Jesus. May God bless you and keep you.

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The Anglican Digest

These interviews were conducted at the annual board meeting of Hillspeak, the organization that puts out the Anglican Digest, back in October, 2013. It is a great privilege for me to be a part of the Board. It is also a great privilege to know both Fr. Bryan Owen and Bishop Ed Salmon. They are great disciples of Jesus and servants of the Church. Fr. Bryan is the Rector of Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and he blogs at Creedal Christian. Bishop Salmon is the retired Bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina and currently serves as Dean of Nashotah House Seminary.

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Ask an Anglican: What’s in a Name?

Romeo_JulietThat’s what Juliet asked in Shakespeare’s famous love story gone wrong. And in our own love story gone wrong, the modern Church, it is a question that gets asked fairly often as well. Thus, Matty writes:

With all the different denominations out there that claim to be Anglican, who are considered truly Anglican? I am a member of the Episcopal Church. Am I an Anglican?

The Way, way Back

In the earliest days of the Church, followers of Jesus did not call themselves Christians. They were known instead as followers of “the Way.” When the Church spread to Antioch, the people there began to call followers of Jesus “Christians” and the name stuck (Acts 11:26). It is easy to see why the earliest disciples found this to be an edifying title. It is simple, straight forward, and Christ is right at the head of it.

It did not take long though for divisions to creep into the Church and for people to begin to preach a gospel other than what the apostles had received. The term Catholic is one of the oldest and earliest names used by orthodox Christians to differentiate themselves from those in schismatic bodies. Many people have been taught that Catholic means universal. That is not an inappropriate translation, but it does not quite do the word justice. It comes from the Greek words κατά which means about and όλος which means whole. Catholic means that which is of the whole. A Catholic Christian is someone who believes the whole doctrine of the apostles, the whole deposit of faith as it has been handed down, without addition or subtraction. For a very long time, this moniker was sufficient. There were Catholics, who were the authentic inheritors of the historic Christian faith, and then there was everybody else.

Schism, Schism, and More Schism

But then came the Chalcedonian Schism, and then the Great Schism, and finally the Protestant Reformation. In each of these developments, groups of Christians became more divided from one another and therefore felt the need for even more precise terminology to define who they were. There were suddenly people called Roman Catholics who believed they were the only true Catholics because they maintained communion with Rome. There were also Orthodox Catholics, who believed they had the right doctrine and practice, unlike the silly Latins who continued to live under the rule of the pope. Within the Orthodox emerged the titles Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox to distinguish between those who accept the Council of Chalcedon and those who do not (despite the fact that in many ways both groups are saying the same thing with different words, which only underlines the irony that eastern and oriental are synonyms). And of course, there emerged the idea of Protestants, those who protest against the abuses of the Church of Rome, which led to Evangelical Protestants, Reformed Protestants, Calvinist Protestants, Presbyterian Protestants, Lutheran Protestants, and all the other labels under the sun.

Reformed and Catholic

In England, where the Reformation took on a distinctly different character, those who held to what we might call today classical Anglicanism only used two terms besides Christian to identify themselves, Reformed and Catholic. By Reformed, they meant that they were part of a church that was self-critical and that sought to be free from novel teachings and practices by appealing to the teachings and practices of Holy Scripture and the early Church. By Catholic, they meant just what the earliest Christians who called themselves Catholic meant, that they believed in the whole apostolic doctrine of faith and that they were linked organically with the apostles themselves through the Church’s apostolic order. They juxtaposed being Reformed Catholics and being part of the Church of England to being Roman Catholics and being part of the Church of Rome.


By the late eighteenth century, those who came together to form what would become The Episcopal Church found that just two words were not enough. The official name of the newly independent American church was the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. That name was chosen carefully and each word in the name was important. Early American Episcopalians wanted to embrace continuity of both doctrine and practice with the Church of England, but in America there was not going to be an established church. Episcopalians would stand on equal footing with those of all other churches. We needed a way to differentiate ourselves. Episcopal meant having bishops. Protestant meant not Roman Catholic. In the United States of America, as opposed to of the United States of America, announced our independence from the mother Church back in England and also let people know that we had no intentions of asserting ourselves as the official church of the land. Episcopalian became the short way of saying all of that, but for the founders of the American church all those words were precious.

Anglican Etymology

Anglican is the most recent and the most narrow term of all. Though it was first used in the 1630s, it did not become a commonplace until the late nineteenth century. Strictly speaking, it refers only to one who is a member of the English Church – Angl coming from Anglo-Saxon. The rise of its popular usage corresponded with the spread of English colonialism and the development of Anglican churches in other parts of the world, originally still under the authority of Canterbury and the crown. As time went on and the colonial churches received first autonomy and then independence, the name Anglican became a way of marking both the heritage and doctrine of these new churches as well as the continuing relationship of full communion between these churches and the See of Canterbury. It was this ongoing connection which gave birth to the Anglican Communion as a global ecclesial fellowship. Even in America, many Episcopalians became eager to refer to themselves as Anglicans, not because they were particularly enamored with being English as the name suggests, but because they wanted to emphasize that the Episcopal Church is not simply another Christian sect. We are part of a body with deep roots that are not only historical but tangible in the here and now. The Archbishop of Canterbury continues to be our spiritual father. When we call ourselves Anglican, we are saying that we are every bit as much the descendants of Saint Augustine’s mission in 597 as is the current occupant of his throne in Canterbury Cathedral.

Will the Really Real Anglicans Please Stand Up?

Years ago, I joked with a friend that when I started my own official Anglican church, it would be called “The Orthodox Anglican Communion” (which, as it turns out, is a thing that actually exists – Who knew?). His reply was that he was going to start a counter church called “The Real Orthodox Anglican Communion.” This led me to threaten founding “The Really Real Orthodox Anglican Communion.” And on and on it goes.

A century ago, that joke would have been impossible to make. The idea that there would be so many different bodies claiming to be the true inheritors of Anglican identity would have been ludicrous. Outside of the Reformed Episcopal Church, which was not a body particularly interested in Anglican distinctiveness at the time, there were as yet no great break-offs. The Anglican Communion was the only game in town. And it was a good game to be a part of. There was a great sense of optimism about the Communion’s future. Nobody had invented the Anglican Communion. It came into being by accident. But people were starting to see that accident as providential. Anglicanism had a foot in both the Catholic and Protestant worlds, with a unity that many other Protestant traditions lacked.

Today, the idea of Anglican unity is almost seen as a contradiction in terms. In America, there are almost more Anglican bodies than there are Anglicans. One can hardly keep up with the ever expanding list. On the global level, the drawing of battle lines between groups of provinces within the Anglican Communion has been continuous for more than a decade. What happened to get us here? Some blame the rise of liberalism, particularly within the Episcopal Church in America, but that is an overly simple explanation, and one that is far to easy to use to flatter one’s self for placing yet another stake in the ecclesial sand. Look at me, I’m not like those people. I’m a real Anglican. It says so right here on my website.

Not that those of us in the Episcopal Church, or in any of the western provinces of the Communion, have any right to boast. We are living under judgment today, as our numbers continue to plummet and our theological acumen continues to shrink. Anyone who thinks this is not the case is either willfully blind to what is happening or living under a giant rock.

Matty’s question deserves a straight forward answer, but it won’t get one. Who is considered the real Anglicans? Well, that depends on who you ask. Is the Episcopal Church Anglican? Sure. But what does that mean? Ask ten people and you will get ten different answers. And in the absence of genuine conciliarity, there is no one to adjudicate between them.

People sometimes mistake my love of the Anglicanism of the seventeenth century and my fidelity to the formularies as a desire to recreate the past. Nothing could be farther from the case. We do not study history so as to be captured by it, but so that we come to understand that we live in the middle of a story that is far larger than our small context would dictate. I have no wish to live in the seventeenth century, but I cannot abide the historical amnesia about our own roots that has taken hold so fiercely in the contemporary Anglican world. In the end, it matters very little what we call ourselves – Christian, Catholic,  Episcopalian, Anglican – these are all just words. What Juliet says holds true, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose  by any other name would smell as sweet.” What makes the rose what it is has little to do with the linguistic symbol we assign to it. And what makes us who we are is the union we have with Jesus Christ through His Church. He is the only Word that matters.

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Ask an Anglican: An Evangelical, a Baptist, and a Charismatic Walk Into a Bar…

charismatic-cartoon-2Two semi related questions from Jesse. Here’s the first:

What do you mean when you say that evangelicals and charismatics have brought Baptist ideas into Anglicanism?  In terms of the general tone of the movements at times I can see what you mean, and certainly the laity in some of these congregations are confused.  But overall I have found that evangelicals have come to Anglicanism because they are seeking precisely to move AWAY from Baptist-like Christianity to a faith rooted in the ancient Church, and if anything are criticized by the Anglo-Calvinists as being Anglo-Catholics in disguise…

As I have said before, I think there is value in both the Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical movements when they are embraced as renewal movements within Anglicanism rather than as attempts to supplant Anglicanism. The problem with some contemporary strands of Anglo-Catholicism and Evangelicalism is that they take a couple of aspects of the Anglican synthesis and blow them up out of proportion to the exclusion of all others. In the case of Evangelicalism, the sufficiency of the cross for our salvation and the need for personal conversion, both of which are important parts of historic Anglicanism, become the crucible through which all else is filtered. If those are the only essentials, then all else is negotiable. Early Evangelicals like John Wesley and Charles Simeon celebrated the Book of Common Prayer and insisted on strict adherence to the liturgy. Today, that is no longer the case.  In many Church of England Evangelical parishes, for instance, one would hardly be able to tell that the service was Anglican at all. There is virtually no difference between the C of E service and the Baptist service down the street.

The American context is a bit more mixed liturgically. Anglicans here, of whatever stripe, tend to at least observe some form of prayer book liturgy, even if it is highly supplemented by the hallmarks of contemporary mega-church worship. But American Evangelicalism in general is saturated with Baptist theology, and that cannot help but have some affect on Evangelical Anglicans in America.

If an American church calls itself “non-denominational,” nine times out of ten what that means is Baptist. Altar calls and appeals to personal conversion replace the sacraments as the means of grace. Baptism is a symbol of one’s personal conversion, nothing more, and it is only appropriate for adults. Classical Anglicanism thoroughly rejects these Baptist theses, but the more Evangelical an Anglican congregation is, the more likely it is for these ideas to be lurking in the background, communicated through music, through bad catechesis, or through a kind of preaching in which all the emphasis is placed on making a decision for Jesus. In that schema, the sacraments become a kind of emotive expression in the same way that Christian rock music, so often called “worship music” in the Evangelical world these days, is meant to elicit a feeling of salvation, rather than to actually communicate salvation through the preaching of the Word.

None of this is to disagree with the point Jesse raises that there are many young Evangelicals who are coming into Anglicanism precisely because they are trying to escape that kind of shallowness while continuing to want to hold onto what is best about Evangelicalism, its emphasis on the Gospel. The problem is not so much new converts coming in as it is a particular kind of old guard that was formed in the a-historical Anglicanism that we have been swimming in for the last century. I have known some very serious Evangelical Anglican clergy who deeply embrace the sacraments, the historic episcopate, the liturgy, and the need to baptize infants as well as adults for the sake of their salvation. But I have also known Evangelical Anglican clergy who deny all of that, who refuse to even utter the word “priest” to describe their ministry, and who have far less regard for the prayer book than many of the Liberals they vociferously denounce. As young Evangelicals continue to find a home in Anglican churches, the question will be which form of Evangelicalism will become dominant.

This is not meant to denigrate Evangelicals. There is certainly room for an Evangelical emphasis within Anglicanism, just as there is room for a Catholic emphasis, but an Anglicanism that is going to mean anything has to be true to the whole of its theological roots, not just the parts we like. Classical Anglicanism is many things, but Baptist is not one of them.

Jesse’s second question:

Could you elaborate on how you see the charismatic movement?  Coming from my background, I tend to have an “open-but-cautious” approach to the movement, but I have been a bit confused since becoming Anglican since opinions vary so widely.  Do you simply see it as the next Montanism, just an intrusion into Anglicanism, or do you think that it is indeed quite possible to be charismatic and faithfully Anglican?

I think “open-but-cautious” is a rather good way to put it. Or perhaps, if I am being honest, “skeptical-but-open” would be better. Charismaticism, or Pentecostalism as it is more often called today (I know that some people see a difference, but effectively they are the same), is a very young movement, really only going back to the start of the twentieth century, so it cannot be said to have historical ties with any Christian tradition that comes from the Reformation or earlier. Nevertheless, the movement has spread like wild fire and there are now Charismatic Christians in just about every church body imaginable. It is a movement characterized by a deep love for and need to experience the Holy Spirit. This comes out in various forms, including praying in tongues, faith healing, words of knowledge, etc.

There is good and bad here, from a classical Anglican perspective. Let’s talk about the good first. Charismaticism embraces a lived spirituality and a lived experience of God. Though some Charismatics would be surprised to hear it defined this way, Charistmaticism is a kind of mysticism, an embrace of the idea that God can be known and experienced directly in a way that is not always easily unraveled by our intellects but that is nevertheless real. God promises to be with us and to send His Holy Spirit upon us. Charismatics actually believe that God is going to show up when He says He will. That is no small thing. Many people go to church expecting to learn something about God, but not everyone expects to actually encounter God. For Charistmatics, that expectation is alive and well. This seems to me to be quite compatible with the teaching of the objective nature of God’s presence in the preaching of the Word and in the Sacraments.

That said, the danger that some Reformed folks see in the Charismatic movement is a real one. In its exuberance for experiencing God, the movement runs the risk of becoming unmoored from the places where God has promised that He will actually be. In some Pentecostal circles, this has led to the development of a theology of “name it and claim it” in which God becomes a cosmic Santa Claus prepared to dole out earthly prizes. In other places, core doctrines of the Christian faith, such as the Trinity, are denied. While many Charismatics say that speaking in tongues is a gift, some go further and suggest that if you have not spoken in tongues you are not a real Christian. Healing ministries become so central and so cultish that anyone who does not get better is shunned for not praying hard enough. All of this comes out of an unspoken bias towards emotional satisfying “experiences” of God and away from locating God objectively in the plain words of Scripture and the mundane practices of Baptism and Holy Communion.

Now, to be fair, a lot of this sort of thing happens in Charismatic churches that are off on their own and unaffiliated with any sort of larger body. Nevertheless, I have been in Anglican and Episcopal churches with a charismatic bend where lighter forms of this stuff have been present. The idea of “words of knowledge,” for instance, can be particularly problematic because it can encourage a kind of reliance on emotion in juxtaposition to reliance upon the Scriptures for guidance. I once sat through a two and a half hour Mass in an Episcopal church with a strong charismatic contingent where more than half the service was taken up with a lay person at the front of the room announcing various ailments that God was supposedly telling him that people had. “When I name yours, come up for prayer,” said the man. He had no more credibility in saying this, as far as I could tell, than does the man on the street corner wearing a sign announcing that he is the second coming, but people were lapping it up. It became obvious very quickly that this was what they came for, not for the preaching of the Gospel or to receive the Holy Eucharist, all of which formed a surprisingly small part of what was supposed to be a prayer book sacramental service. When allowed unchecked like this, it is easy for such things to grow out of proportion.

All of that said, I think we are still a long way off from seeing what final form Charismaticism will take. Perhaps if wedded with historical Christian faith and practice it will develop into a great gift for the Church. It is difficult to say. What is certain is that the tradition we have been given lays out for us a firm foundation upon which we can come to know and be known by Christ. While there may be many things that can enhance and build upon that foundation, anything that takes that foundation away from us needs to be cast aside.

Cartoon at the top from Dave Walker’s Cartoon Church, used in accordance with the fair use rules set out here.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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