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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What I believe about the Church--a muddled manifesto

A year or two ago, on my friend Chris Armstrong's blog (Grateful to the Dead), I got in an argument about whether there was such a thing as "mere Anglicanism." As a result, I started writing what I called "An Anglican Manifesto," laying out what I believe as an Anglican. A very disgruntled one, but as a Methodist theologian once said to my wife when she described me that way, "Is there any other kind?"

The problem was, though, that what I was writing didn't seem very Anglican. Well, that was the point in a way--that I don't think there is a coherent "Anglicanism." Still, this isn't so much of an "Anglican manifesto" as a "Catholic manifesto by an Anglican"--a statement of what I understand historic Christianity to believe about the Church, and the problems that poses for Anglicanism.

I've held this in the "drafts" section of my blog for a long while for various reasons. But here it goes:

1. There is one, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, to which all baptized Christians belong, but in which we all participate imperfectly due to our sins and errors.

2. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed in the form common to Eastern and Western Christians (that is, without the Filioque), is the basic doctrinal statement of the Church. Those Christians who do not subscribe to this Creed may fairly be described as heretics.

3. The Seven Ecumenical Councils, and generally the doctrines and practices commonly accepted during the first millennium of Christian history (which coincides with the doctrines and practices agreed on by the Christian bodies commonly known as the "Catholic Church" and the "Orthodox Church"), flesh out the implications of the faith defined in the Creed and are rightfully binding on all Christians. This body of faith and practice can justifiably be called "the Catholic Faith." To reject such doctrines and practices, or to adopt others fundamentally incompatible with them, is to reject historic Christianity and to render one's participation in the Church more imperfect than it would otherwise be. I will refer to such Christians as "unorthodox," to distinguish them from non-Trinitarian heretics. (What I'm calling "unorthodoxy" is traditionally considered heresy, but there are degrees of heresy, which I'm indicating by using two different words.) Ambiguity about this point--which is the case within Anglicanism, with some holding the position I've just described and others rejecting it--makes a particular church's claim to the title "Catholic" highly dubious at best, even in the absence of other factors.

4. Since the Reformation broke with the consensus of the Church as defined above, it was an unorthodox movement. Churches who base their identity on the Reformation are to some degree cutting themselves off from historic, orthodox Christianity, and ought to repent.That doesn't mean that all the doctrines and practices of the Reformation were wrong by any means, or that the Reformation was not provoked by serious disorders within the Catholic Church of the sixteenth century. It means that the Reformation is to be judged by Catholic teaching as defined in the previous point, and not the other way round.

5. Although, as stated in point 1, all baptized Christians belong to the Catholic Church, the term "Catholic Church" or "the Church" is most properly used for that body of Christians which has preserved the Catholic Faith--that is to say, which has not rejected some part of it or adopted formally a doctrine or practice incompatible with it. Even within the Catholic Church as so defined, there will be much sin and error. Outside it, there are many holy Christians with much to contribute to the Church. (That's without getting into the question of non-Christians!) Nonetheless, there is a clear, qualitative difference between the Catholic Church in the strict sense and those Christian churches which have rejected some part of the historic Faith.

6. The consensus of the Christian tradition (as defined in point 3) holds that the Catholic Church can subsist only in one body of Christians. In principle, any division among Christians involves the sin of schism, and there is always one group of Christians not formally guilty of schism (even though many members of that group may have done much to provoke the schism, being sinful like everybody else). The only justifiable reason for separating from another group of Christians is heresy/unorthodoxy. If some part of the Church no longer teaches the historic Catholic Faith, then the rest of the Church needs to discipline the erring members. In the present state of the Church, that means that either the Roman Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church must be the body in which the Catholic Church (as defined in point 1) most fully subsists. Obviously there are a lot of problems with this conclusion:

a. Most obviously, there are good arguments pointing toward both possibilities (technically, there's also the "Oriental Orthodox" and the "Church of the East," but let's keep things relatively simple). So the poor ecclesiological inquirer is left in limbo, unless one just closes one's eyes and takes a leap, or finds a "smoking gun" to point in one direction or the other. For me, the importance of unity and communion, and the concrete evidence pointing toward the importance of communion with Rome, make the "Catholic Church" the most likely candidate for being, well, the Catholic Church. But on the other hand, the Orthodox seem on the whole to be far more, well, orthodox, preserving a theological method that is recognizably that of the Fathers, and free from the legalistic over-definition that plagues the Roman Communion.

b. Whichever of the two "candidates" one is inclined to choose, one is faced with the fact that "the Catholic Church subsisting fully in this communion" is a lot more abstract than one might like, to put it mildly. (Note: I'm using RC terminology throughout--the term "subsists" comes out of Vatican II--but the Orthodox, as far as I can see, use different language to say similar things, except for their ultra-traditionalist wing, which is admittedly much stronger than its RC counterpart.) Roman Catholics like to talk about "the fullness of the Faith." But it's pretty obvious to anyone not completely eaten away by triumphalism that there are plenty of legitimate expressions of the Faith not found in the Roman Communion, and that it would be pretty hard to introduce under present circumstances. While the Orthodox, in my opinion, have a much more compelling core set of beliefs and practices, they also have much less room for diversity (ironically), insisting that the Tradition hangs together in all its details. So the same problem arises--as my advisor put it, one can't be Orthodox and sing Charles Wesley (well, maybe a few "Western Rite" parishes do--I'm not sure). And whatever the fullness of the Faith may be, I'm pretty sure it includes Charles Wesley.

c. Similarly, on the negative side of the equation, while both the RCC and the EOs can make a case for infallibility (stronger for the Orthodox, but not completely unbelievable for the Roman Communion either, if properly nuanced), it's pretty obvious that both Communions, as historic institutions, have messed up royally on a number of occasions. And it's pretty clear to me that these failings aren't just the result of generic human sinfulness, but of attitudes and patterns of behavior characteristic of the traditions in question. The Orthodox do seem to have a particular propensity toward cultural idolatry, identifying the Faith with cultural traditions and giving far too much weight to civil authorities in Church matters. And the Roman Communion does seem to have a propensity toward "putting on the Ring," using the weapons of worldly power in its own right and putting the interests of the Church as an institution above the claims of the Gospel. Are either of these failings really compatible with being the Catholic Church in sense 1? Not just part of the Catholic Church, but the Catholic Church in a way that excludes and supersedes the claim of other Christian communities?

If Anglicanism has any place at all, it is the space that exists between the competing claims of Rome and the East. Anglicans have no business arguing for a "mere Anglicanism" or staking out even a modest claim to Catholicity. Rather, we witness through our very existence to the brokenness of the Church. We ought to devote our energies not to defending our own claims but to admitting our own historic idolatry and witnessing humbly to the grace of God that exists even in what Ephraim Radner has memorably called "the ruins of the Church."

This is why I find Anglo-Catholicism to be a fundamentally mistaken project. Anglo-Catholics claim to be Catholic, and traditionally condemn Protestantism in terms that would make a modern Pope blush with embarrassment. But when it comes to addressing the errors of the Reformation, Anglicans need to admit that we have met the enemy and he is us. The same is true when addressing the juridical obsessions of Western Christianity (the Episcopal Church's present attempt to function as a religious equivalent of modern American democracy is no improvement over the Roman "tyranny" we are so quick to criticize) or the cultural captivity of the Orthodox (the Episcopal Church is largely a club of Anglophile snobs).

Our only "advantage" over other Christians is that we do not have to claim an advantage. We can admit to being orphaned Catholics, rootless Orthodox, petrified evangelicals. Instead of being the folks who have it right, we should claim to be the folks who know that we have it wrong. And even that does not give us an advantage. It's nothing to be proud of. In our brokenness and our disunion we bear witness to the crucified Jesus. But let's not kid ourselves. We could be in union with Rome or in full continuity with the historic riches of Orthodoxy and still be plenty broken. Precisely because our brokenness is what we share most fully with other Christians, we should not turn our admission of brokenness into a further excuse for separation.

This is my Anglican manifesto, which is neither very Anglican nor much of a manifesto. But it's where I am.


JonHuffman said...

Tis interesting. I'm interested in your views on the possibility of Church Re-unification. I don't know the Catholic doctrine, and I do know that many Protestants and Orthodox would not accept the worship STYLE and TRADITIONS of Roman Catholicism, and neither will Roman Catholicism accept any other style or tradition, but might it be possible to arrive at a unified, core doctrine? The Nicene Creed perhaps? And if such a unified core doctrine could be developed, could the different branches, even Anglicans, be persuaded to say together "There is only one way to heaven, and only one God that rules there, but there are many ways of worshiping Him?"

To me, just that much, a statement of doctrinal unity that ignores the petty details of minor interpretation, would bring us much closer to the Catholic Church as Christ intended than we are today, even if we all stay in our own church buildings, worshiping with our own cultural and historical traditions. What do you think pains the Lord more deeply, schism? or incorrect doctrine?

But then, I shouldn't really talk. I don't do well accepting mysteries, so I reject strict Trinitarianism in favor of Modalism. I've never seen any particular reason God couldn't be a single being playing three roles (which, as an actor, I can readily understand), rather than three beings who are also one being, (which is, to me, illogical and needlessly complicated). So, I suppose I am one of your non-Trinitarian heretics. ;)

I like discussion and I like theology. I've a few ideas on the nature of God, and the problem of justifying the ways of God to man. If you've an interest in being a sounding board, I'd be glad of an expert opinion.

Jonathan M. Huffman

Contarini said...

Jon, sorry for not responding to this sooner. In orthodox Trinitarian doctrine the claim that "God is love" has an eternal meaning--God is an eternal fellowship of love, into which we are invited. Any non-Trinitarian form of Christianity weakens this affirmation and radically impoverishes what it means for God to invite us into fellowship with Him. Biblically, the classic text for arguing against modalism is the story of Jesus in Gethsemane. Is he just talking to himself?