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Ecclesiology – the stumbling block

5 August 2009

Over the past few years outsiders have watched with varying degrees of bewilderment or boredom as the Anglican Communion has apparently been tearing itself apart. As far as the secular media have been concerned, it’s all about sex. The rhetoric of the participants in the debates is strong on words like “scripture” and “inclusion” but perhaps the most useful assessment from an outsider comes from a Roman Catholic monk — hat tip to Ad Orientem: A Roman Catholic monk writes about the Episcopalians.

The Roman Catholic monk describes himself as a former Episcopalian, and a former Anglo-Catholic. He writes about the recent convention of The Episcopal Church (TEC) at Anaheim, and I find myself agreeing with just about everything he says. And the core of the disputes is not sex, or scripture, but ecclesiology. Unfortunately his blog does not allow comments, so my recommendation is to read the whole thing and then come back and comment here. My own comments on it may be found below.

SUB TUUM: Bully for the General Convention:

Resolutions were reaffirmed or approved that allow sharing of the Eucharist with Methodists and Presbyterians. When full communion was reached with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America 12 years ago, it was with the understanding that, over time, the Lutherans would adopt apostolic succession through the presence of Episcopal bishops at its consecrations and irregularities in orders would be overlooked in the meantime. This is never likely to be the case with these two bodies. In effect, the Episcopal Church, its load lightened by the departure of the last large blocks of Anglo-Catholics, is free to adopt a sacramental theology consummate with the theology of its own Articles of Religion and the theological orientation of a majority of its current members. The bonds of charity—and I mean this genuinely—prevented rapid moves in these directions when there were larger, vocal numbers of traditionalists. Today this is no longer the case. A Catholic (and I here mean capital “C” as in Roman Catholic) understanding of the sacramental priesthood has been set aside in favor of a contemporary ecumenist’s understanding of the nature of church order built on a familiarly Anglican interpretation of a patristic frame. Seemingly archaic and divisive theological nuances—fights of centuries long past—need no longer trump what is seen to be the larger good of Christian unity.

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post, Notes from underground: Emerging church and Orthodoxy revisited, comparing Orthodox and Protestant ecclesiology. Without repeating all that, perhaps I should say something about Orthodox and Anglican ecclesiology. As SUB TUUM notes, Anglican ecclesiology is changing and perhaps keeps on changing.

For various reasons the Tractarian movement in the Anglican Church in the 19th century led to a new emphasis on the concept of “apostolic succession” in ecclesiology, and perhaps an over emphasis. Before then, “High Church” in the Church of England referred to someone who had a “high” view of the church and its role in English society, as part of the Establishment. The Church must be linked to the State because it was the religious expression of the English nation. The Tractarians also had a “high” view of the church, but of the church as separate from, and sometimes opposed to the state. They said that the church derived its authority not from the state or the monarch, but from Christ himself, and they used the apostolic succession of bishops to show that the church existed before the English state and monarchy. They objected to interference by the state in what they regarded as church affairs. That’s an oversimplification, but the point is that it led the Tractarians, and later the Anglo-Catholics, to put a greater emphasis on apostolic succession.

As SUB TUUM notes, that emphasis has been growing weaker, and in the case of The Episcopal Church it has all but vanished. Many of those who thought it important have left to join the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, and so the voice of those within Anglicanism who think it important have grown fewer and fainter as time goes by.

SUB TUUM implies that the emphasis on apostolic succession was just a temporary obstacle to Anglican progress, to what it is becoming now, with TEC leading the way. And I am inclined to agree. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches never recognised the apostolic succession in the Anglican Church anyway, though there was a time, in the 1920s heyday of Anglo-Catholicism, when some of the Orthodox Churches were willing to consider it, but they had been misled by over-enthusiastic descriptions by Anglo-Catholic spokesmen into believing that their views represented those of the whole Anglican Communion, which they did not.

Another, and slightly different ecclesiological issue is raised in What’s a Church of Christ Boy To Do? — The Gourd Reborn. The Church of Christ is a Protestant denomination that believed it was possible to reestablish first-century Christianity by using Scripture as a blueprint, read through the lenses of 18th-century Enlightentment thinking. Such theology is sometimes called “restorationist” as they claimed to “restore” an ecclesiology that they believed had been lost. (Hat-tip to Notes from a Common-place Book: What’s a Church of Christ boy to do?).

One of the interesting points of this ecclesiology is brought up by one of the commenters on the post, who uses the analogy of the United States constitution. He appears to believe, quite seriously, that if you took the constitution of the United States and applied it to another group of people somewhere else, you would have a replica of the United States. In the same way, if you take the Bible, and apply it to a Christian community in the fashion envisaged by the Church of Christ, you will have the New Testament Church.

From the point of view of Orthodox ecclesiology, the problem with this is that it was not the New Testament that produced the church, but the Church that produced the New Testament. The Bible was never a blueprint on which the church was built, any more than the US Constitution was a blueprint on which the USA was built. History, and the traditions of people were part of what goes to make up the USA. The US Contitution applied to another group of people would not produce anything like the USA, because the US Constitution was formed in specific historical circumstances, with specific people facing specific problems.

The “blueprint” ecclesiology may lead to some similar practices and beliefs, but they are interpreted in different ways, even when approached rationalistically.

One of the biggest obstacles to Christians of different traditions understanding each other is differeing ecclesiologies. Even, or perhaps especially, when they are found in the same historical community, as among Anglicans.In almost every case, ecclesiology remains one of the biggest stumbling blocks to Christian understanding.

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