Renouncing the quest for the Holy Grail

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(Through Labor Day, the Daily Episcopalian will be the every-other-daily Episcopalian.)

By George Clifford

Now is the time to bury the ancient shibboleth of Anglican – Roman Catholic unity permanently.

Reunification with the Church of Rome offers much to the Anglican Communion that is admittedly very attractive:

• Anglicanism traces its historical roots back to Jesus through the Roman Church;

• Unmatched global reach and influence;

• Liturgical forms and ecclesiastical traditions similar to Anglicanism.

Most importantly, scripture and theology exhort us to unity within the body of Christ. The Anglican Communion could take no greater step towards achieving that unity than reunification with Rome, whether reunification took the form of reincorporating Anglican Churches into the Roman Catholic Church or a form similar to the Episcopal-Evangelical Lutheran concordat on intercommunion and sharing of ministries.

However, the Church of Rome, confident that its leader, the successor to Peter, holds the keys to the kingdom, steadfastly insists that unity is possible only on its terms. That insistence has stalled reunification with the Orthodox Churches for centuries. I find many of Rome’s terms unacceptable and strongly suspect that a majority of Anglicans do as well. Six of the most objectionable aspects of any possible reunification include:

• Acknowledging papal primacy and authority, sharply departing from the historic Anglican policy of collective authority, e.g., the Archbishop of Canterbury is first among equals in gatherings of Anglican bishops or primates;

• Honoring papal infallibility, extending even to doctrines not explicitly rooted in Scripture, e.g., the Immaculate Conception and bodily assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

• Excluding Christians not in communion with Rome from receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion, implicitly conferring upon those Christians a second-class status within the body of Christ;

• Complying with the extensive corpus of Roman canon law, often substituting law for grace, e.g., in requiring annulment of a marriage before remarriage instead of emphasizing concern for healing and readiness for remarriage;

• Insisting on doctrinal and theological conformity instead of Anglican ambiguity, e.g., solving what Anglicans have left as the sure but mysterious working of grace in the Eucharist by mandating belief in transubstantiation;

• Substituting definitive ethical positions on a wide variety of issues, ranging from abortion to suicide, for the Anglican practice of an individual to follow his or her own conscience.

What would happen on other, important issues is unclear. For example, some rites within the Church of Rome, in contrast to the Roman rite, permit married priests (ecclesiastical discipline rather than theology gives the Roman Catholic Church its clerical celibacy). Would Anglicans have their own rite? Would a similar permission to marry extend to Anglican priests? Would Rome allow married Anglican bishops?

Recent, heavy-handed efforts by the Roman Catholic Church to influence the Church of England and the Anglican Communion emphasize the problems that reunification poses. In response to the Church of England’s 2008 General Synod voting to move forward with the ordination of women bishops, Rome communicated that this step would interpose an obstacle to reunification. Gender does not determine one’s identity as a child of God. Women deacons, priests, and bishops have given wonderful gifts and ministries to those Anglican provinces that ordain women. Rome’s informal communiqué suggests that Rome envisions the possibility of reunification with Anglicans by excluding provinces that ordain women or insisting that those women renounce the practice.

I, and probably most in the Episcopal Church, cannot imagine renouncing women clergy. Sentiment in the House of Bishops at the 2006 General Convention was that the Holy Spirit had clearly acted in the election of Bishop Jefferts Schori as Presiding Bishop. Have we in the Episcopal Church lived in apostasy since her installation? Do women bishops ordain inauthentic clergy? Do women priests administer invalid sacraments? We can only answer those questions with a resounding NO.

Before and during the 2008 Lambeth Conference, Roman Catholic leaders pointedly noted that any steps towards further acceptance of homosexual relationships or sex within the Anglican Communion would severely jeopardize ecumenical talks with Rome. That public message represents uninvited interference in the Anglican Communion’s internal affairs and an attempt to stifle healthy debate about the morality of human sexuality. The Episcopal Church required eighteen hundred years to affirm that slavery and Christianity are inherently incompatible. Similarly, the Episcopal Church required almost two thousands years to recognize the incompatibility of misogyny with Christianity. Part of the difficulty in our reaching both conclusions is the Bible’s conflicted witness, e.g., a prima facie reading of Scripture grants parents permission to sell a daughter into slavery and instructs us that only men should speak in church. Sadly, correctly discerning the mind of Christ often entails much controversy, conflict, and time. Stifling that discernment process – regardless of one’s views about the morality of homosexual sex and relationships – does nothing to clarify the mind of Christ.

When convenient, the Church of Rome ignores the reality that the papacy has repeatedly asserted that Anglican holy orders are invalid. No greater obstacle to reunification can exist. The rest of us need to recognize that Roman talk of Anglican actions creating additional barriers to reunification means nothing as long as Rome denies the validity of Anglican orders. I, for one, am neither willing to deny my priesthood nor to exchange my freedom of thought, the ministry of ordained women, and Anglican distinctives in order to become a Roman Catholic. Carefully considered, the “holy grail” of reunification with Rome, something that will happen only on Rome’s terms, is a cup of hemlock. Any Anglican who wishes to become part of the Roman Catholic Church can do so today by averring belief in Roman Catholic doctrine and receiving the sacrament of confirmation from a Roman bishop. To those who feel God calling them to make their faith journey in the Church of Rome, I offer my heartfelt best wishes and blessing. Anglicanism is not, and does not claim to be, the only or even the right Church for everyone; the Roman Catholic Church is a valued and historic member of the Church universal.

However, burying the shibboleth of reunification of Rome will give remaining Anglicans the unfettered freedom to live out our identity as Anglican Christians. The Anglican Communion has much to offer the Church of Rome, including our emphases on inclusivity, pastoral care, and praying together without having to believe together. Compromising our distinctive identity as part of the body of Christ to achieve reunification or recognition by the Church of Rome as an authentic branch of the Body of Christ is too high a price to pay.

The Rev. George Clifford, a retired priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years.

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3 Responses to "Renouncing the quest for the Holy Grail"
  1. Thanks, George, for this very good piece. As an old Anglo-Catholic I remember when we were very sanguine about reunion with Rome, and for a while we really thought it might happen within our lifetimes. Alas. But as you point out very well, and as I said on my blog a few weeks ago (http://wsjm-curmudgeon.blogspot.com/2008/07/anglo-catholics-and-women-bishops-5.html), the major obstacles to the reunion of Western Christendom are not on our side of the river.

    Bill

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  2. Here Clifford and I agree: corporate reunion ain't gonna happen. Anglo-Catholicism’s only future is outside Anglicanism in the Catholic churches towards which it was always orientated. Most of his criticism is nothing to do with the origin and scope of the papacy and rejects the Eastern churches just as much and for the same reason. The real issue is ecclesiological: does one believe in an infallible church divinely instituted as Rome and the Eastern communions believe, and ACism’s godfathers the Tractarians believed, or in Protestant private judgement, not really a church but a collection of individuals, what Clifford describes as his freedom as an Episcopalian? (ACism was about doctrine first and not as opinions to be tolerated; dressing up in church came second.) All of the theological controversial issues from the modern ones on sex and the sexes to the classic ‘Reformation’ ones are only symptoms of this big divide. Much of Anglican culture is worth saving in the Catholic world and Rome is not being hypocritical saying so. As for the Episcopal Church, Anglicanism, liberal Protestantism and Protestantism in general, as Clifford says to the Romeward, heartfelt best wishes. The door’s always open: officially Catholics are willing to talk to teach the truth about the faith including that God made man founded and still speaks through (our holy mother) the church.

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  3. [My response to this outstanding essay is here]

    Anglo-Catholicism’s only future is outside Anglicanism in the Catholic churches towards which it was always orientated.

    Nonsense, John. I've been an Anglo-Catholic since I first heard of the concept 25 years ago (when I was around 18, and first embracing my faith as an adult), and I've NEVER been more at home in TEC.

    Both Episcopalians (among other Anglicans) and Romans can claim "Our door is open": only in TEC, you walk in on your feet, bowing ONLY to God, and not to any fallible (in all things) human being!

    JC Fisher

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