Home

Church shopping is a tiresome affair, wandering the landscape of denominations in search of a self-possessed, attractively marketed brand of Christianity. I stumbled upon the Episcopal Church, I imagine like many of you, after many such wanderings. And one of the first questions that I reckoned with in preparation for Confirmation was whether or not the Episcopal Church was, in fact, a denomination. Are Episcopalians an autonomous tribe of Christians, bound together in the fellowship of uniquely Episcopalian beliefs and ways of being? Or are we something else? For the next four weeks I want to explore the question of  Episcopal identity and do so primarily with reference to history.     —Fr. Peter

Contents
Ecclesia Anglicana and the Ancient Roots of the Episcopal Church
On the Missionary Endeavors of Saints Gregory the Great and Augustine of Canterbury
Ecclesia Anglicana and the Synod of Whitby
On Ecclesia Anglicana and the Act of Supremacy
Ecclesia Anglicana, Edward VI, and the Influx of Protestant Ideals in England
On the Episcopal Church, Historical Methodology, and the Limits of Understanding
To Be or Not to Be (a Christian Denomination)

Part I: Ecclesia Anglicana and the Ancient Roots of the Episcopal Church

We begin the series of reflections with consideration of the ancient origins of Christianity in England—ecclesia Anglicana. Ecclesia Anglicana is that portion of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church that flourished in England for over thirteen-hundred years before the events of the Reformation created what we now call Anglicanism—a reality that cannot be understood without understanding its ancient spiritual and cultural heritage.

Christianity owes its arrival in England to the expansion of the Roman Empire into Britannia under Julius Caesar in 55 BCE and the witness of those nameless missionaries who crossed the rutted byways of Europe into the very northern reaches of the known world.

bede

A page from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People

England’s first church historian, the Venerable Bede, writing in The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, tells of how in 156 CE, during the reign of Roman Emperor Marcus Antoninus, the British king Lucius dispatched word to Pope Eleutherus in Rome requesting catechetical instruction in the Christian faith. “This pious request was quickly granted,” Bede writes, “and the Britons received the Faith and held it peacefully in all its purity and fullness until the time of the Emperor Diocletian.”

Diocletian is known to Christian memory with something other than affection for the Great Persecution he waged against Christians throughout the Roman Empire in 303. While the brunt of violence occurred in the East in Jerusalem and Antioch, where Christians were more populous, Britain did not escape persecution.

Bede tells the story of a pagan named Alban, who gave sanctuary to a Christian priest fleeing the persecution. Eventually, the unfeigned faith and holiness of the priest won Alban’s heart to Christ. When Roman soldiers uncovered the priest’s whereabouts and sought to put him in fetters, Alban offered himself instead, switching clothes with the priest, who eluded authorities by cover of night. The local magistrate detained Alban and ordered him flogged and beheaded for refusing to recant the Christian faith.

Miraculous signs attended Alban’s martyrdom. Bede tells, for instance, of how Alban, while being led to execution, came upon an immense river; unable to cross, he prayed to heaven and the river at once dried up, allowing the large cohort to pass through its midst without hazard. Once on the other bank, Alban began to climb the hillside to the place of killing and, growing thirsty, again prayed to heaven. At once a spring bubbled up at Alban’s feet. The astonished executioner refused to kill the saint and converted to Christianity.

Within only a decade of the death of Diocletian, Emperor Constantine I arrested all persecution against Christians. The Edict of Milan in 313 decriminalized Christianity, and, by then, the Church in Britain was already sufficiently organized. Delegates from Britain attended the Council of Arles in 314—the famous precursor to the Council of Nicaea (325) that formally condemned the heresy of Donatism and resolved what to do with apostates from the faith during Diocletian’s reign (284–304).

All of this is meant to show, however preliminarily, that the roots of Christianity in England are incredibly ancient, and that that spiritual and cultural heritage is the very generative soil out of which the Episcopal Church grew. To be sure, the separation of the Church of England from the rest of Western Christendom in the 16th century inevitably introduced an element of schism into even the best of Anglican thought. Be that as it may, the Episcopal Church locates its identity not in any autonomous expression of Christian faith but rather in the ancient and universal faith of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

Part II: On the Missionary Endeavors of Saints Gregory the Great and Augustine of Canterbury

Last week we began to reflect together on the history and identity of the Episcopal Church and the question of whether or not Episcopalians are professed members of a denomination. We marked, however preliminarily, the significant and indelible kinship of the Episcopal Church with the ancient spiritual and cultural heritage of Christianity in England.

We remarked how the Church in England —ecclesia Anglicana — thrived for over 1300 years before the tumultuous events of the 16th-century Reformation created what we now know as Anglicanism. Thus Episcopalians are those Christians whose identity gestures beyond the self-selected, self-sufficient boundaries of any denomination to the fullness of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Episcopalians share in the universal faith that remains an intrinsic feature of the life of the Church and is itself the continuation of Christ’s earthly ministry.

This week we take another concerted peek at the ancient roots of the Church in England to help us appreciate even more fully the generative soil from which the Episcopal Church eventually sprang. We consider briefly the first recorded large-scale mission from Rome to convert the Anglo-Saxons propagated by Pope St. Gregory the Great (540–604), who served as Pope from September 590 to his death in 604.

RNS-CROZIER-ENGLAND

The ancient carved ivory–headed crozier of Pope St. Gregory the Great

In January of this year the Vatican loaned Gregory the Great’s ancient carved ivory headed crozier (i.e., the hooked shepherd’s staff carried by a bishop as a symbol of pastoral office) to the British Government, who displayed it, alongside the ancient relics of the murdered Archbishop Thomas Becket, at Canterbury Cathedral. The journey of the crozier to England conveyed huge symbolic value for Anglican Christians the world over.

It is important to understand the religious landscape of England before and at the time of Gregory’s ascension to the Holy See and Seat of St. Peter. The invasions of Anglo-Saxons earlier in the 4th century forced Roman Christians living in England either to abandon Christianity in favor of the paganism of their invaders or to flee westward into Wales.

Tradition has it that prior to his ascension, Gregory the Great encountered slave boys from Britannia being sold at market in Rome around 586. Moved by their plight, Gregory purchased the boys and then baptized and educated them in order that they might eventually return to England as missionaries.

Gregory’s heart for the English people steadily grew until, as the Venerable Bede writes, “he put in hand his long-cherished project.” Gregory thus secured the aid of numerous monarchs, including Queen Bertha, a Frankish Christian and the wife of King Ethelbert of Kent, who at the time was a pagan.

gregory-sends-augustine

Pope Gregory sending St. Augustine to England to convert the people to Christianity (from a mid-11th-century German missal)

In 596, Gregory the Great enlisted Augustine, a young monk of same order and monastery where Gregory had served before becoming Pope, to lead the mission to England. Augustine and his missionary companions, traversing Gaul and fearing popular accounts of the savagery of the English people, summoned courage in the exhortation of their spiritual father, Pope Gregory: “The greater the labor, the greater will be your eternal reward.”

Augustine and his party landed on the Isle of Thanet, off the coast of Kent, in early 597. King Ethelbert dispatched greetings and requested an audience with the foreigners, which they held out of doors for fear of the monks placing a spell upon the King. The monks chanted a litany and preached. Ethelbert, according to Bede, informed Augustine that he was unable to “abandon the age-old beliefs that I have held along with the whole English nation,” yet permitted the monks to take up residence on the mainland.

It was not long before Ethelbert converted to Christianity. Augustine became a bishop in the fall of 597, and, during Christmas of that year, he and his fellow missionaries baptized some 10,000 converts.

Christianity in England took root in Kent and moved onward to York, where Pope Gregory sent Augustine to consecrate additional Bishops. Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury and eventually consecrated the Bishops of London and Rochester in 604. Augustine died in 604 and his remains were laid to rest outside the Abbey of Saints Peter and Paul (now known as St. Augustine’s Abbey).

A vital facet of Augustine’s episcopacy was how he and Pope Gregory negotiated local religious customs in England. When Augustine wrote to Gregory, petitioning what was to be done about religious customs that varied widely from place to place, Gregory exhorted Augustine simply to select whatever customs were “devout, religious, and right” and to “let the minds of the English people grow accustomed” to them. While it would take centuries more to unify the church in England, Augustine’s and Gregory’s gift to us was the beginning of a change in the culture of Britain and a huge step forward in the development of the English church.

Part III: Ecclesia Anglicana and the Synod of Whitby

For several weeks now we have pondered together the identity of the Episcopal Church and returned, specifically, to the quandary of whether or not Episcopalians are members of a denomination. Episcopalians, we’ve noted, share an indelible kinship with the ancient spiritual and cultural heritage of Christianity in England. By virtue of that kinship, Episcopalians partake fully of ecclesia Anglicana, that is, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith that flourished in the British Isles for 1300 years before the 16th-century Reformation fractured European Christianity and created what we now know as Anglicanism.

We sketched the history of Christianity in England with reference to the first English martyr, St. Alban, and the 6th-century Roman Mission to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons by Pope St. Gregory the Great and his emissary St. Augustine of Canterbury.

synod_whitby

Synod of Whitby Mural by Juliet MacMichael, St. Hilda’s Priory, Sneaton Castle, Whitby, Yorkshire, England

This week we look to yet another transitional moment in the history of Christianity in England, the Synod of Whitby (664), an event that disentangled the conflicted relationship that arose in Britain between the so-called Roman and Celtic Churches.

During a long era of isolation and persecution that forced Celtic Christians to the remote corners of the British Isles, the Celtic Church developed in relative independence and thus diverged considerably from the Roman Church both in matters of ceremony and ritual and in overall organizational structure. Ultimately, Rome considered the existence of the Celtic Church, a sizeable community that exhibited remarkable missionary zeal, a threat to its authority.

Conflict between Roman and Celtic Christians in Britain centered on the problem of fixing the date of Easter. How exactly were ecclesiastical authorities to map the ancient festival whose origins were in the Jewish (lunar) calendar onto the Roman (solar) calendar? Authorities fixed the date either by astronomical observation or mathematical calculations, which produced tables, depending on their accuracy, that yielded cycles of 8, 1, 19, and 84 years. It was the latter, 84-year cycle that the Celtic Church brought back to Britain from the Council of Arles (314). However, the Roman Church would eventually adopt a new, more accurate system of calculation based on a 19-year cycle. Pope Leo the Great (440–461) issued an edict informing clerics all over the empire of the new cycle — however, that edict never reached Britain.

The use of different cycles to fix the date of Easter presented an obstacle to the tranquil governance of the realms of King Oswiu of Northumbria, who as a good Celtic Christian, observed Easter according to the Celtic 84-year cycle. His wife, Eanflæd, was the daughter of the King of Kent, and so followed the Kentish (Roman) cycle of 19 years. About the ensuing confusion, the Venerable Bede wrote, “It is said that the confusion in those days was such that Easter was sometimes kept twice in one year, so that when the King had finished Lent as was keeping Easter […] the Queen and her attendants were still fasting and keeping Palm Sunday.”

Eventually King Oswiu of Northumbria called a synod to resolve the confusion and summoned Roman and Celtic authorities to the double monastery of Streanoeshalch, on the Bay of the Beacon, known today as Whitby.

saint-wildred

St. Wilfrid

King Oswiu presided over the Synod, and Colman, Bishop of Northumbria, spoke for the Celtic Church. Queen Eanflæd commissioned her chaplain Romanus to speak on behalf of the Roman Church. The principal interlocutor, however, was Agilbert, Bishop of Dorchester, whose English, as a Frank, was everything but intelligible. Therefore, he asked Wilfrid, the Abbot of Ripon, to serve as his voice. The son of a prominent Northumbrian family, Wilfred had once impressed Queen Eanflæd as a boy at court. The Queen became the boy’s patron and sent him to study at Lindisfarne, Canterbury, Gaul, and Rome.

Wilfrid, according to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, addressed King Oswiu, speaking of Celtic Christians: “…Although your Fathers were holy men, do you imagine that they, a few men in a corner of a remote island, are to be preferred before the universal Church of Christ throughout the world?”

Wilfred dispelled the popular belief that the Lord Jesus Christ had once appeared to Columba, the renowned Celtic missionary, and repeated the words once delivered to St. Peter, that is, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”

“Is this true?” Oswiu asked Bishop Colman. “Did Jesus never say similar words to Columba?”

Bishop Colman admitted as much.

King Oswiu thus declared, “Then, I tell you, Peter is the guardian of the gates of heaven, and I shall not contradict him. I shall obey his commands in everything to the best of my knowledge and ability; otherwise, when I come to the gates of heaven, there may be no one to open them, because he who holds the keys has turned away.”

We learned several things from the Synod of Whitby. The Synod remains a significant turning point in the history of Christianity in England insofar as the debates produced a decisive affirmation of the primacy of the universal Church and situated Christianity in the British Isles within it. In other words, Christianity in the British Isles was not a novel invention of the British people, but rather a phenomenon whose fullest truth was to be found in the universal faith that was itself the continuation of Christ’s earthly ministry. The Church in England—ecclesia Anglicana—made a conscious step away from spiritual and theological insularity towards an acknowledgement of the intimate interconnection of the Church in England with the universal, catholic Church.

whitby-abbey

sunset-at-whitby-abbey

Part IV: On Ecclesia Anglicana and the Act of Supremacy

The first three reflections on the identity of the Episcopal Church made, in their respective ways, basically the same assessment several times over.

By virtue of its ancient heritage, the Episcopal Church shares an indelible connection to the Church in England and thus with the mystery of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. The Episcopal Church, then, is less of a denomination than a localized expression of ecclesia Anglicana, the universal Christian faith that long preceded any precise articulation of Anglicanism and the Anglican Communion.

Christianity crossed the European continent and arrived in Britain by the 2nd century CE. Nearly 400 years later Pope St. Gregory the Great (540–604), the bishop of Rome, commissioned the young abbot, Augustine, officially to Christianize the Anglo-Saxons. Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, catechized and baptized King Ethelbert of Kent. Within a century Christianity in Britain diverged into two principal traditions distinguished by liturgical observances: the Celtic (or, more precisely, Ionan) and Roman traditions. Celtic tradition was that of the Irish cenobites living in community on the isle of Iona. In the kingdom of Northumbria, where King Oswiu reigned, these two traditions coexisted for a time.

At the contentious Synod of Whitby (664), prelates in the British Isles gathered and moved decisively to align Christianity in their lands with Roman tradition rather than the Celtic traditions of Iona. Christianity in the British Isles was not to be regarded as the novel invention of the British, but instead a phenomenon whose deepest truth was itself part and parcel of the very outworking of catholicity, that unity of faith and hope and charity that is intrinsic to the life of the Church.

This week I want to wrestle with that turning point in the history of ecclesia Anglicana that, up until now, has loomed on the horizon of each of our reflections. I want to consider the 16th-century English Reformation and, more crucially, the parliamentary Act of Supremacy of 1534.

The English Reformation is a story that most Episcopalians associate, at least initially, with the tragic unravelling of King Henry VIII’s annulled marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Across the pond, as it were, Martin Luther’s criticisms of papal abuses—the often exaggerated account of him defiantly nailing the “Ninety-five Theses of Disputation” to the Wittenberg church doors, profoundly affected the Church in England. In 1521, a young King Henry penned and published a tractate against Luther’s theology of the sacraments. The pope repaid the gesture bestowing on Henry the designation “Defender of the Faith.”

The Church in England suffered a fair amount of anxiety around its own future. The sins of immorality and excess afflicted the Church at every level, and many in the Church in England echoed Luther’s call for reform. Thomas Cranmer and Hugh Latimer were among the small cohort of Cambridge scholars, known as “Little Germany,” who gathered regularly at the White Horse Tavern to discuss Luther’s ideas. All of this and the decline of feudalism, the rise of nationalism, the rise of the common law, and the invention of the printing press and increased circulation of the Bible, fostered a religious landscape in England that was well-inclined for Reform.

henry-viii-charactureHowever repugnant a boil on the nose of Anglican history, King Henry VIII justifiably feared for the stability of his dynasty should he fail to produce a male heir. The single male child that Henry did have was of illegitimate birth, and Henry’s wife of many years, Catherine of Aragon, was already in her early 40s and had only one surviving child, a daughter named Mary.

Henry thus argued for the annulment of his marriage to Catherine on the grounds that she had once been his brother’s widow and was thus unable legally to be his wife, a stilted reference to the holiness code of the book of Leviticus. The pope denied Henry’s petition to save face with Catherine’s nephew, Charles V, the powerful empower of Spain upon whose support the papacy relied to maintain its own solvency. Aware of the anxieties and growing anti-clericalism in England, Henry pined to marry Anne Boleyn. Thomas Cranmer, recently appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon invalid, permitting the King to wed Anne, already 6 months pregnant by him, in 1533.

Pope Clement VII immediately excommunicated Henry VIII and Thomas Cranmer, citing their disavowal of papal infallibility, which only served to instigate further dissent in England from Rome. Parliament passed a series of acts constraining the authority of clergy and consolidating Henry’s supreme authority over them. The Act of Supremacy of 1534 declared Henry “the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England,” making England, politically speaking, a national church with a monarch at the helm.

henry-viii-head-of-church

Title page from the Great Bible, which Henry VIII authorized to be the first English Bible for public use in 1539

Henry was by no means a thoroughgoing Protestant. He envisioned the Church in England unencumbered by papal oversight yet also squarely situated within the universal, catholic faith. The Act of Supremacy of 1534 thus effectively severed ties with the political and institutional hierarchy of Rome while affirming the theology or ritual of the Church in Rome. Henry issued the Act of Six Articles in 1539, in which he enumerated six points of mediaeval doctrine and practice that Protestants had begun to assail, and imposed severe punishments on all who rejected them. The first article, for instance, articulated the doctrine of transubstantiation and also sentenced those that rejected the doctrine to be burned alive.

The irony of Henry’s religiosity is that he also violently suppressed catholic tradition in England. He closed monasteries and confiscated their vast wealth, monies, and vast land holdings, which he placed both into the royal treasury to fund military campaigns against France and into the pockets of nobles in exchange for loyalty to the crown.

By the time of his death in 1547, Henry had successfully married and put away four other wives after Anne Boleyn, whom he had beheaded on accusations of treason, adultery, incest, and plotting to kill the king. At his death, Henry provided for masses to be said for the welfare of his eternal soul. Edward VI, son of Henry and Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, briefly reigned after his father did much to redirect the Church in England toward Protestant ideals.

the-six-wives-of-henry-viii

The Act of Supremacy broke England from Rome’s political and institutional life and began a long and tumultuous sorting out of how exactly the English people had become heirs of both the Reformation and the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith. Henry’s contemptuous self-regard in the matters of wealth and power paved the way for a Church in England that sought a via media, or “middle way,” between the extreme poles of strict obedience to papal authority and aggressive dissent.

Ecclesia Anglicana, Edward VI, and the Influx of Protestant Ideals in England

Last week we identified briefly the first of two distinct phases that characterize the 16th-century reformation of the Church in England. The first phase, marked more by the outworking of political expediency than any earnest vision for ecclesiastical reform, saw King Henry VIII divorce Catherine of Aragon and the parliamentary Act of Supremacy in 1534, which, among other things, declared Henry “the Supreme Head of the Church of England.” Although there existed in England a nearly universal desire to amend corruptions in the church, the content of religious ceremonial in England remained almost unaltered.

The second phase revolved around the pressing uncertainty of how thoroughgoing reform in England needed to be. At one extreme were English Catholics who sought, at the very least, toleration of their faith and, more ideally, a complete restoration of England to the fold of Rome. At the other extreme were English Puritans and various radical, or Anabaptist, reformers who rejected any perceived accretion of popish superstitions in the Church in England. They sought religious freedoms for themselves and, finally, to subject the English monarchy and parliament to the oversight and authority of religious leaders.

This latter, markedly longer phase of reform followed immediately upon the death of Henry VIII and the accession of Henry’s only son, Edward VI, and lasted until the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

portrait_of_edward_vi_of_england

Edward VI

Henry’s son, Edward, took the crown on 20 February 1547 at the ripe age of 9, having received from various caretakers and tutors a Protestant upbringing. Henry disdained this religious instruction but feared even more the possibility that Edward, under the sway of more conservative, English Catholics, might relinquish royal supremacy. English Protestants jumped at the opportunity to steer the course of Christianity in England towards programmatic reform, reflecting the influence of continental reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Martin Bucer, and others. By the middle of the 16th century, the scope of reform across the European continent had expanded considerably with aid of local magistrates and governors, who endeavored, like many reformers, to secure autonomy from Rome. Fewer and fewer people believed that reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics was possible.

The English Reformation surged onward and during the reign of Edward VI assumed an overtly political dimension. Edward was still a boy, so reformers urged parliament for action, whose membership was itself growing more sympathetic to reform. For instance, following the death of Henry VIII, Sir William Paget (Edward’s uncle) gained ascendancy at court, forcibly assumed the title Lord Protector, and in that role, quickly abolished the Act of Six Articles, formally titled “An Act Abolishing Diversity in Opinions,” which Henry VIII had passed to reinforce existing heresy laws and reassert catholic tradition as the basis of faith for the Church in England.

The first monumental steps toward reform in England came in 1547 with the Edwardian Injunctions and the Sacrament Act of the same year, both measures to introduce Protestant doctrine and practice into England and Wales. The Act of Uniformity of 1549 then established the first Book of Common Prayer as the sole legal form of worship in England. As one might expect, the Prayer Book became a source of profound conflict as its contents indelibly shaped the life and identity of the Church of England. For instance, was the Prayer Book to speak of the Lord’s Supper in terms of the real presence of Christ in the simple creatures of wine and bread, or in terms of a purely memorialist exercise without any other signification? This and a score of similar issues surfaced once Henry was no longer present to suppress dissent. With Edward still a young boy, England appeared up for grabs, so to speak. By 1550, traditional religious processions and pilgrimages were banned, priests were permitted to marry, and priests were subsequently required to assume the title “ministers in the English Church.”

merbecke_title_pgThe Act of Uniformity of 1549 incited a host of grievances among the general populace. Two rebellions occurred in England in that same year, one in Cornwall and one in Norfolk, both of which demonstrated how intimately intertwined social and religious issues were in England at the time. The Cornish rebellion, or Prayer Book Rebellion, hinged on a complaint that both the new English Bible and the Prayer Book, published on Whitsunday 1549, need also be translated into the Cornish vernacular. The Norfolk rebellion, or Kett’s Rebellion, reflected a much broader movement hinging on the enclosure of public lands by landlords for their own use. The controversial fight again the practice of enclosure, once championed in the German Peasants’ War (1524–25) and again entangled in religious polemic, resulted in the rebels demanding the abolition of all private ownership of property.

The 1552 revision of the Prayer Book reflected even stronger Protestant leanings. Catholic practices were further excised. Thus, in the celebration of the Eucharist, the words “Mass” and “altar” were no longer sanctioned; the Eucharistic prayer was split into two halves so that the individual elements of bread and wine were administered each in turn following the respective words of institution (i.e., “Take, eat, this is my body … take, eat, this is my blood.”). Whereas the Elevation of the Host had been forbidden in 1549, now all manual acts were censored. Likewise, the words at the administration of the Lord’s Supper, which in the 1549 Prayer Book described the consecrated bread and wine as “The body of our Lorde Jesus Christe…” and “The blood of our Lorde Jesus Christe…,” were replaced with the words “Take, eat, in remembrance that Christ died for thee….” The Peace was removed altogether. Vestments, like the stole, chasuble, and cope, were forbidden, removing any semblance of the notion of sacrifice.

The transition toward a strengthened, more explicitly Protestant England continued throughout Edward’s reign. Edward himself did little more than lend the authority of the crown and support to reform initiatives of others.

The Prayer Book of 1552 remained in use for only the shortest spell, as Edward VI died in the summer of 1553. The throne passed to the next eligible claimant, Mary I, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Mary, a fervent Catholic, was to restore union with Rome and reestablished the use of altars, procession, and the like. She sentenced Archbishop Cranmer to be burned at the stake for his prominent role in the English Reformation.

cranmer-burning

Archbishop Cranmer

On the Episcopal Church, Historical Methodology, and the Limits of Understanding

Prior to the Christmas holidays, we set out together to explore the identity of the Episcopal Church. This Thursday at Morning Prayer in the Baptistery, we read an excerpt from the prophet Isaiah that put me in mind to take a slight step back from our weekly historical sketches to consider, in a circuitous way, the important matter of historical methodology — how we go about reliably assessing the complexity and nuances of the past.

The passage from Isaiah is familiar enough:

I am the Lord, and there is no other,
besides me there is no God;
I gird you, though you do not know me,
that men may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is none besides me;
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness,
I make weal and create woe,
I am the Lord, who do all these things.
“Shower, O heavens, from above,
and let the skies rain down righteousness;
let the earth open, that salvation may sprout forth,
and let it cause righteousness to spring up also;
I the Lord have created it.” (45: 5–8 RSV)

I love Isaiah because he does what prophets do best. He arrests the attention of the audience to account for what they so easily and often forget. He calls readers to repent of the sin of pride and to acknowledge the contingency of their lives. All things live and move and have their being in God, who is over all and through all and in all. Isaiah reiterates the point with that striking image of an earthen vessel contending with its maker:

“Woe to him who strives with his Maker,
an earthen vessel with the potter!
Does the clay say to him who fashions it, ‘What are you making?’
or ‘Your work has no handles’? […]
I made the earth,
and created man upon it;
it was my hands that stretched out the heavens,
and I commanded all their host. (45: 9, 12 RSV)

Our first honest realization of the world upon entering it is that we are very members incorporate in the natural order — we do not stand apart or above or over against but with and alongside all created things. The relative power of human agency is finally subordinate to that even more determinative freedom of God who alone can take the monotony of time and transform it into meaningful histories, interweaving our lives and allotting the boundaries of our habitations so that we might grope after God and find God. The only perfect vantage point, then, from which to regard the inner coherence of events in time, is the divine vantage of the one who stretched out the heavens and commands all their host. Theology is thus the process of thinking God’s thoughts after God.

Human experience and perspective, to the contrary, is inherently kaleidoscopic. Together with all of creation — from the lily of the valley to the slow drum of tectonic shift and migration — our souls and bodies must refract the light and life of God that shines through every particle. We must live with the gift of relative freedom, down here below the rarified air of self-consciously complete knowledge of the world. We are creatures of bias who make meaning always in relationship and encounter.

At this juncture, the reader might ask how any of this pertains to Episcopal identity and the present consideration of historical methodology.

Put simply, identity and historical methodology are both inherently conversational. We sift the sands of time, so to speak, and discern our place in the world by means of charitable dialogue.

The several historical sketches that we’ve drawn (i.e., on St. Alban, Pope St. Gregory the Great and St. Augustine of Canterbury, Henry VIII and Edward VI, among others) only indirectly reference the Episcopal Church, as it stands in relationship and continuity to the vast living history of the universal faith of the Apostles as it developed and came to flourish in the British Isles. And we might well ask how a handful of historical sketches can faithfully interpret the complexity and nuances of the past without resorting to fundamentalist generalizations?

I’m acutely aware, though, of the penchant to mistake presuppositions for immutable fact and to pick and choose historical referents that only reinforce one’s point. (The disciplines of biblical studies and theology call this an exercise in “proof texting.”) Fundamentalism is that fear-full attempt to conjure certainty and to monopolize and mandate one’s perspective.

Thus far our historical sketches have made the same point several times over, namely, that the Episcopal Church is something other than a far-flung denomination circumscribed by pet doctrines. We set out together with the implicit assertion that Episcopalians take their stand in the stream of history alongside those who have found favor in God’s sight and whose Christian faith is that of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

Yet does this assertion, that the Episcopal Church remains something other than a denomination, sidestep a deeper truth about ourselves and the Church, namely, that Episcopalians, like people of every institution, are of a piece? How do we value the particularities of history and identity without resorting to discrimination? Which historical conversation partners might give us pause to question the convictions we hold dear?

Next week I want to extend this look at historical methodology to what we mean by the word “denomination” and the creedal notion of the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.”

To Be or Not to Be (a Christian Denomination): On Catholicity, Sectarianism, and the Religion of Incarnation

We took a slight step back last week from our usual exploration of the history and identity of the Episcopal Church to reflect on the broader matter of historical methodology — how we go about assessing the complexity and nuances of the past without resorting to fundamentalist diminutions. We suggested that charitable dialogue remains the immediate means of discerning and articulating our place in the world. We are inherently conversational creatures who make meaning always in relationship and encounter. We share by grace in a greater natural and spiritual unity insofar as we are made in the image of God, and the divine image does not differ from one individual to another: in all it is the same indivisible likeness.

This notion of divine unity and human unity is the foundation of Christian monotheism and gets at the heart of our consideration this week of the language we use to talk about the Church. So far in our historical sketches we have distinguished the living faith of the “one holy catholic and apostolic Church,” that familiar affirmation of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, from the faith of any given Christian denomination. However, what facets of meaning do the designations “denomination” and “one holy catholic and apostolic Church” convey?

Let us weigh this query in light of another shameless plug for the discipline at St. Philip’s In The Hills of gathering in the Baptistery every Monday through Thursday for Morning Prayer.

I fell in love with the Episcopal Church in seminary through regular attendance at Morning Prayer and encountering the beautiful compendium of gathering prayers, or collects, that form the backbone, so to speak, of parts: (1) the Address (a divine invocation), (2) the Acknowledgement (a foundation of doctrine upon which the prayer is made), (3) the Petition (the actual supplication concerning basic needs), (4) the Aspiration (the good result that may issue if the petition is granted), and (5) the Pleading (i.e., “…through Jesus Christ our Lord,” or some other variation).

A favorite collect of mine appears near the end of the office of Morning Prayer, as the People offer petitions for the mission of the Church (see if you can readily identify the five parts of the collect):
“Lord Jesus Christ, who didst stretch out thine arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of thy saving embrace: So clothe us in thy Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know thee to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of thy Name. Amen.” (A Collect for Mission, BCP p.58)

I love the so-called Acknowledgment of this collect (i.e., “…who didst stretch out thine arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of thy saving embrace…”) insofar it directs the interior gaze of the soul toward the crux of God’s redeeming work and the corresponding identity and mission of the Church.
Building on the point made last week, that we live and move and have our being in God, we might say further that the same mysterious participation in God that causes the soul to exist at one and the same time effects the spiritual unity of every living thing. There is one city of God, and we are all citizens.

The original sin of the first Adam was the sin of separation and individualization, in the depreciatory sense of the word. The seventh-century Greek monk and theologian Maximus the Confessor framed the consequences of sin in light of the shattering of the one human spirit into a thousand pieces, such that humanity, “which ought to constitute a harmonious whole, in which ‘mine’ and ‘thine’ would be no contradiction, is turned into a multitude of individuals, as numerous as the sands of the seashore, all of whom show violently discordant inclinations.”

Salvation is not an individual offer made to each one of us. Christ the Redeemer is himself the salvation of the whole, who incorporates into himself all of the discordant and scattered. The mission of the Church is singular. The Church reveals to humanity that pristine unity that they have lost and restores and completes it. God is continually at work in the world to the end that all should come together into unity.

The catholic (unified) nature of the Episcopal Church and Anglicanism is not about right doctrine alone but about right relationship between humanity and God. That right relationship is modeled within the Church and between the Church and society — and modeled on the right relationship between us and God and between the persons of the Trinity. The Church’s primary part in this relationship is first and foremost the adoration of God who loves us. Out of that adoration for our Creator flows an adoration for that which He loves — our fellow men and women. This is the gift of the whole of our Sacramental life — that we may be one in One.

Springing forth from God’s own generosity is the welcome to holy living that is Baptism. Out of God’s own self-offering comes the Feast of the Eucharist. From God’s own forgiveness comes the work of Reconciliation. Out of God’s own love comes the commitment of Marriage. With God’s gift of reason comes our response to God’s welcome in Confirmation. From God’s own call to holy community and service comes Ordination. Remembering God’s own promise of eternal life comes Healing and Last Rites.

Before the shape of our doctrine came a command to take and eat as the first Eucharists were offered in Remembrance before the books of the Bible were chosen and the Nicene Creed was written. In that Feast is offered the form, function, and hope of the call to be one, holy, and catholic as we come together making ourselves a gift, offering our gifts, and receiving the gift of Christ’s own Self. This exchange of giving is the essence of the Church throughout time and across denominations and barriers. The Church, catholic and united in its essence and evangelical in its hopeful witness to Good News, existing before humanity even realized it, offers the hope of ever-partaking in the grace-filled more that is God who meets us always in our petition, aspiration, and pleading.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s