Last week, I had the privilege of visiting Nashotah House Seminary for the first time. While there, I was told that there is a coffeehouse on campus that has an old Anglo-Catholic joke worked into its menu. If you want to order a cup of coffee to drink inside the coffeehouse, it is called a Pusey, after the great Oxford Movement Father Edward Bouverie Pusey, but if you want to leave with that same cup of coffee in a to-go cup, it is called a Newman, after that other great Oxford Movement Father John Henry Newman who famously left the Church of England for the Roman Catholic Church in 1845. I snickered when I heard about this, though I also very quickly thought of some of my friends who have made the same journey that Newman made and how they would not care for the joke. It implies that Newman left the Church, when in fact, my friends would argue, what he did was to wake up from the dream of a Church that never was and join the only true Church that has ever existed. The funny thing is though, from a classical Anglican perspective, neither one of these ideas is quite correct. Newman left the Church of England, but not the Church of Christ, because from our perspective, the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church is to be found in both the Roman and Anglican Communions.
The Newman Effect
Ever since Newman’s conversion, Anglican Catholics have been in a state of perpetual embarrassment. We criticize Newman’s motives for leaving (or at least some of us do), but at the same time we worry incessantly that he might have been right. “I saw my face in that mirror and I was a monophysite,” Newman famously wrote in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, giving the reasons for his conversion. Newman came to believe that if there is only one Church, then the Roman Catholic Church is really the only contender. While the Church of England was a mess, the Roman Catholic Church offered the surety of unbroken history and unassailably clear lines of authority. Anglicanism has many treasures to offer, but absolute certainty is not among them.
Of course, if absolute certainty is what you crave, Roman Catholicism is not the only game in town. The exodus of Anglicans to Eastern Orthodoxy in the last half century is well documented and includes many of Orthodoxy’s leading lights in the English speaking world, from Kallistos Ware to Frederica Mathewes-Green and many more. Plenty of Protestant confessions also have their own “one true church” seal of approval, but Rome and the East have always been the places that have attracted the most attention from nervous Anglo-Catholics. It is not hard to see why. All three of our traditions share a common ecclesial structure, a common view of history and the importance of continuity in the Church, a common emphasis on the Sacraments as central to the Christian life, and an awareness of the importance of the Church herself as the locus of salvation that is absent from many (though not all) forms of Protestantism. To put the matter plainly, if you want to be a Catholic with anything approaching authenticity, you really only have three options, and when two of those options claim with absolute certainty to be the Catholic Church in her fulness, staying in the one theoretically Catholic body that cannot make the same claim can feel awfully uncomfortable.
Ignoring the Obvious
Yet the very fact that Anglican Catholics are able to bear witness to the brokenness of the Church may in fact be our greatest asset and our most holy charism. I realize even as I say this that there is a danger here of either seeming like I am trying to make a virtue out of a vice or painting a caricature of Rome and the East, neither of which I wish to do. The brokenness of the Christian Church is not something to be celebrated, but rather something to be lamented. It is a crisis that continues to weaken the witness of Christians around the world and thereby to give the enemy comfort in his quest to keep souls from finding their true rest in Christ. But while Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox join us in that lament, their apologetic claims place certain limitations on their ability to see the scope of the problem. There is a cognitive dissonance that comes with acknowledging that the Church is one even though Christians are massively divided. The solution for most Christians has been to tell a story that erases the dissonance. For Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, that story is that they represent the true Church in its entirety, and that the unfortunate reality of other Christians – “separated brethren” – in no way diminishes the Church’s oneness, tragic though the separation may be. For many Protestants, the answer is an invisible Church that unites all of us who hold true faith even if we are divided by denomination or jurisdiction.
Come on, come on, do the Institution with me
The Anglican understanding of the brokenness of the Church is at the same time both painful and beautiful. Unlike many other Protestants, we have no invisible Church to fall back on. “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” (Article XIX). We believe that the Church is by necessity and design one, and that this oneness cannot be reduced to an abstract idea or a feeling of connection. Many people lay the charge against Catholics of all sorts that we are too institutional. I will not disagree that there are times when Catholics have made our institutions into idols, but strictly speaking, there is no other way for the Church to be than institutional. The Church is an institute, as Calvin himself so famously pointed out. The Church is alive. She has structures. There is meat on the bones. We move away from that reality at our own peril.
Yet, at the same time, unlike other Catholics, Anglicans are able to acknowledge, with a heavy heart, that the Church is broken, that in fact Anglicanism itself would have no need to exist if it were not so. I do not suggest that this is by design. In fact, it is quite by accident of history, though such an accident as has proven to be providential. Anglicanism was meant to be a temporary refuge for the historic Church of England until such time as the Church in Europe was prepared to repair herself. Cranmer and Jewel and Hooker could never have dreamed that a global Communion would arise, or that the missionary efforts of the English Church would bring millions to know Christ. All the same, even as they defended the catholicity of the Church of England and her settlement of doctrine and practice, they recognized with great distress just how deeply the Church has been wounded by division. They also recognized a calling for Anglicans to seek unity, not on a false or platitudinous basis, but on the basis of humility and, if necessary, at the cost of our own continued existence. It is one of the reasons why, though most of the great Anglican figures of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries affirmed that episcopacy was given by God as necessary for the life of the Church as a whole, they never denied that the Protestant churches on the continent were truly churches but rather held out the hope that some day episcopacy would become a gift that the Church of England could give back to them. It is also why the Elizabethan prayer book does not contain the condemnations of the pope as antichrist that can be found in some Protestant confessions, and why Hooker insists that the Roman Church is wrong about justification but that this does not invalidate their existence as a true Church.
Anglicanism of the Gaps
It is not easy to live in the dissonance of a broken Church. But there is a kind of holiness that is imparted through honest suffering. The Anglican Catholic accepts both that the Church is one and visible, and that the Church is currently messy and wrought with divisions. That truth is painful to bear, but it also spurs us to work for the healing of the Church, to rise above mere polemics and truly seek to engage our brothers and sisters in Christ, to learn over and over again to see Jesus. When Newman looked in the mirror, he saw a monophysite staring back at him, and it haunted him. When I look in the mirror, I see a broken sinner who has been covered by the blood of Jesus and made whole in spite of himself. The charism of Anglican Catholicism is to carry the cross of a broken Church, all the while remembering with hope and joy that it is the same cross upon which our freedom was obtained on Calvary. We are to stand in the middle of the breaches and fissures between Christians and allow ourselves to be crucified there with Jesus for the sake of the world.