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Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Catholic and Apostolic ...


A comment recently on the blog, Cranmer, makes the statement that the Anglican Church is Protestant and not "Catholic." The author of the comment, a Roman Catholic, evidently bases this claim upon the premise that only those who accept Papal claims of being Christ's "Vicar" on earth, can be "catholic." In making this claim he is falling into the trap of assuming that Rome is the only source of truth and catholicism, and overlooking that fact that "catholic" simply means "universal." It also overlooks the fact that any and every "church" that teaches and subscribes to the three "creeds" approved by the various Councils of the Church before Rome attempted to claim absolute authority both spiritual and secular, is "Catholic" in that it follows the universal teaching the creeds contain.

Of course, merely reciting and subscribing to the tenets of the Apostle's Creed, the Nicean Creed and the Athanasian Creed do not a "catholic" make in the sense that the creeds refer to the church as being both "catholic" and "apostolic." It is that last qualification which causes a great deal of misunderstanding and, in Rome's case, a great deal of abuse. 

The term itself means no more than that the church is founded on the teachings received from Christ, through one of those who actually heard Him, encountered Him or walked with Him in His ministry. To be an "Apostle" meant, to the Early Church, that you were one of those who had, at some point, had contact with Christ Himself. The New Testament tells us that these men (and women) appointed others to 'lead' communities, naming them as 'bishops' (episkopoi in Greek) and 'deacons' who filled the role of teachers, care workers, visitors, welcomers and distributers of the elements of communion during worship. Later, as congregations grew larger and more diverse, it became necessary for the bishops (originally one per congregation) to appoint 'presidents of the Eucharist' since they couldn't administer the consecration everywhere in a scattered 'congregation' - and so arose the Office of 'Priest.'

Obviously, since there was a limited 'supply' of 'apostles,' it eventually became necessary for bishops to appoint and 'make' more bishops and for Councils to be led by a 'senior' and usually very respected bishop. This is where Rome claims that only the 'successor' of St Peter has the authority to make a bishop or to call a Council or make determinations on any matter of doctrine or dogma. Often cited as 'proof' of this is a passage from St Mark's gospel in which Christ tells Peter, "You are Peter, the Rock on which I will build my Church." They ignore the fact that in John's Gospel it is clear that this "authority" had a wider intention and extended to all the disciples. In fact, even in Mark's gospel, a careful reading of the whole suggests that "Peter" represents all those who seek to follow Christ, and that view is certainly supported by the manner in which this and similar "authority" passages are presented in the rest of the Gospels and the Letters. 

Rome backs up the passage from Mark by quoting from the Acts of the Apostle's, the section Rome calls the "Synod of Jerusalem." In this, Peter tells the others of his vision that the fledgling 'church' must include Gentiles and must abandon the Laws of Kosher among other things. Rome points to the fact that - in the Vulgate version of this - James immediately launches into a lengthy account of how he will enact Peter's "directions" in Jerusalem.

The fact is there is no evidence that any of the apostles acknowledged any such authority in Peter's successor - and several of them were still very much alive and active when Peter was martyred in Rome. There is no doubt that the other bishops regarded the Roman See as a senior, but there is little evidence that anyone outside the former "Western Roman Empire" viewed him as more than a "first among equals." What is often not mentioned is that at least two of the "Popes" of the 4th and 5th Century were adherents of Arianism and its later manifestation which became the Catharism of the Middle Ages.

So "catholic," in this context, means no more than an adherent to the Creeds agreed by the Early Church as being the core tenets of the True Faith. What then of "Apostolic?"

This is where Rome gets a bit silly. To be "Apostolic" a "church" is "Ordered" according to the Ordinariate of the Early Church. In other words it has Bishops, Priests and Deacons in "ordained" ministry, with the Bishops being consecrated by other bishops who were consecrated by earlier bishops and these consecrations can be traced back to someone originally "consecrated" by an Apostle. Any Apostle. Thus the Church of South India is as "catholic and apostolic" as Rome - and, to the fury of those who think Rome has sole claim on the consecration of bishops - so is the Church of England and all other "Anglican" Churches. So to do all the Orthodox Churches, the Assyrian Catholics, the Old Catholics, the Marianites, Copts and several other Middle Eastern "catholic" churches found in Syria, Iraq, Iran and many more of the countries overrun in the name of Mohammad and his version of Gnostic Arianism from the 10th Century onwards.

The Anglican Church is, among these, rather unique, in that it is both "Protestant and Catholic" as well as "Apostolic." This does create a tension in the church, one that often provides its detractors with what they see as "proof" that it is neither one nor the other. In fact, this very 'weakness' is quite possibly its strength, since to hold together a balance must be struck between the desire to hold to the model of the Early Church and it's "ordered authority" while at the same time nurturing and encouraging a "priesthood of the people" in which the Laity have as great a say as the "princes" of the church. It is a Synodical Church - as was the Early Church - and the clergy do not have a veto over the laity. That too, creates a 'tension' as we have recently seen in the General Synod, yet, again, this is a healthy tension in that it does, in the main, mean that no one faction can seize control and railroad everyone. It also means that all debates, all opinions, and all disagreements are properly and fully aired.

Yes, there will always be dissent and there will always be those who cannot or will not accept the decision of a majority, no matter how large the majority. That too is healthy, even though it is sometimes painful. So, like it or not, the Anglican Churches are both "Catholic and Apostolic" but, to complicate things a little more, they are also "Catholic and Protestant." 

However, that is a sermon for another post.

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