Ecclesiological Relativism

by Alvin Kimel


When Dominus Iesus was released in 2000 by the Vatican, there was quite an ecumenical uproar. Though intended primarily to address the question of interfaith dialogue and evangelization, it also commented on the relationship of non-Catholic Christian communities to the Catholic Church. Anglicans especially were shocked, simply shocked, to discover that Catholics still and really do believe, despite all of the sherry we have poured down their throats during the past thirty ecumenical years, that “the Church of Christ … continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church.” It is just shocking that Catholics haven’t come around to our point of view. Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, was quick to reassure the brethren that Anglicans have no doubts about their own ecclesial identity: “Of course, the Church of England, and the world-wide Anglican Communion, does not for one moment accept that its orders of ministry and Eucharist are deficient in any way. It believes itself to be a part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church of Christ, in whose name it serves and bears witness, here and round the world.” We see here once again the Anglican assertion of the branch theory of the Church.

There was one church, however, that was not shocked by Dominus Iesus–the Orthodox! Only a week after Dominus Iesus the Russian Orthodox Church released her own document of ecumenism, Basic Principles of the Attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church Toward the Other Christian Confessions, whose position on church unity is just as hardline as the Catholics–with one difference, of course. The Orthodox are convinced that they, not the Catholics, are the true Church of Christ. “Basic Principles” even goes so far as to explicitly refer to our sacred “branch theory” and judge it unacceptable.

How do we negotiate the differences between Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants on this question? Pontificator’s First Law comes to our rescue, at least partially. Since both Orthodoxy and Catholicism agree that the Church is visibly one, and since both agree that denominational and branch theories of the Church are unacceptable, we must, according to the Law, reject such theories. Here Pontificator’s First Law is also ably supported by the Vincentian Canon. All the Church Fathers, East and West, agreed on the principle so clearly enunciated by St Cyprian: Salus extra ecclesiam non est, “Outside the Church there is no salvation.” The Church is visibly one and she goes by the name “Catholic.” Denominations, branches, and schismatic sects were rejected as non-Church. If one would be saved, one must belong to this Catholic Church. If there is catholic truth as determined by St Vincent’s rule, surely this is one such truth.

The patristic principle of salvation in the visible Church is almost impossible for twenty-first century Protestants to understand, much less affirm. No Episcopalian, Presbyterian, or Methodist would ever say that salvation is mediated exclusively through a particular denomination. The Church is here understood as the invisible, worldwide community of believers. We think of salvation principally in terms of a one-on-one spiritual relationship with Jesus. We recognize that the community of believers plays a hand in the establishment and nurturing of this relationship–believers do after all share the gospel with us and Bible study with fellow believers is a good thing–but we reject the profession that our salvation in any real, visible, sacramental way hinges on our participation in Church. Salvation is through Christ alone, not through the Church. We urge believers to “attend the church of your choice,” but we do not see Church as absolutely necessary.

I do not intend in this article to exegete the meaning of the catholic ecclesial principle. I simply wish to note it. If Anglicanism is truly guided by the patristic interpretation of Scripture, as Bishop Andrewes long ago claimed, then we must advance the ecclesial principle with the same meaning and intent as the Church Fathers. But in fact we do not and never have. Anglicans do not claim to be the Catholic Church in an exclusive salvific sense. We are a part of the catholic Church; we are not the catholic Church. On this point Anglicans have long enjoyed consensus.

It may be that my claim needs to be historically nuanced, and I welcome such nuance from our readers. If I recall correctly, for example, some of the 17th century Divines asserted that the Church of England was the Catholic Church in England; but I suspect that this claim intends an Erastian, not a salvific purpose. And once the Church of England began to spread itself beyond its borders, the claim of catholicity lost all meaning. As Stephen Sykes notes, Anglicans cannot and do not claim that their bishops are the true centers of unity in the Church because Anglicans cannot and do not profess that they are the Church in an exclusive sense: “Since the Anglican church has never claimed that in it alone is there to be found the fulness of the church, it follows that the theological interpretation of its episcopate is necessarily the interpretation of a partial and broken symbol of the continuity of faith.”

“Is there salvation outside the Episcopal Church?” the Episcopal Bishop of New York was once long ago asked. He pondered a moment and then replied, “Yes … but no gentleman would avail himself of it.”

Pontificator’s Fourth Law would thus seem to logically follow: “A church that does not understand itself as the Church, outside of which there is no salvation, is not the Church but a denomination or sect.”

16 November 2004


“The simple question then for Private Judgment to exercise itself upon is,” writes John Henry Newman, “what and where is the Church?”

If Luther’s quest was to find the gracious God, then Newman’s quest was to find the true Church to which Christ’s promise of grace and indefectibility applies. This is a quest that Anglicans rarely think about anymore. We are very generous in our ecumenical identification of the Church of Jesus Christ. Our attitude might be described as “If you don’t question our ecclesial status, we won’t question yours.”

Perhaps we should simply dispense with the question altogether. Back in early November on this blog, Ephraim Radner suggested that the question belongs to a past age of Catholic/Protestant polemics:

While it may well be internally consistent to claim that everyone else is a “denomination” except oneself … and one or two others (a rather odd semantic distinction within the realm of more common speech); and while it may well be internally consistent to call oneself the “true church” in the face of everyone else (except perhaps one or two others), I consider it a delusion. And most delusions have a wonderful internal consistency about them. The arguments that have been going on recently over the need for authoritative adjudications regarding revelation and teaching and so on are ones that have been pursued since the 16th and 17th centuries in this quite particular vein without much constructive escape from the final fidesitic straw to be grasped.

But can the ecclesial question be so easily dismissed? The two apostolic communions, Catholicism and Orthodoxy, both exclusively claim to be the one Church of Jesus Christ and thus by their very existence incessantly pose the ecclesial question to us. We can refuse the question, but such refusal is itself an answer. Are both Catholicism and Orthodoxy wrong? Are they both deluded? Was St Augustine deluded when he refused to acknowledge the Donatists as Church? Was St Cyril of Jerusalem deluded when he properly named the Church Catholic, in contrast to other bodies that also claimed to be Christian?

The identification of the authentic Church was a matter of life and eternal salvation for the Church Fathers. “Whoever is separated from the Church and is joined to an adulteress,” declares St Cyprian, “is separated from the promises of the Church, nor will he that forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is an alien, a worldling, and an enemy. He cannot have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother.” And again: “There is no salvation outside the Church.” Neither the Protestant understanding of the invisible Church nor the Anglican understanding of the unity of the fractured Church is to be found in the Fathers. The Church is visibly one, and this unity is embodied in baptism, eucharist, and the eucharistic communion of bishops. Precisely because the Church is the divine society ordained by the risen Christ, precisely because of the profound identification between the risen Christ and his mystical body, salvation can only be found in that rightly ordered community of grace to which the promises of Christ rightly apply. The Church Fathers had a lot of experience with schismatic and heretical sects, and they did not hesitate to declare these sects outside the communion of the Church catholic and thus outside the promises of Christ.

99% of Episcopalians have never given a moment’s thought to the ecclesial question. Despite the worldwide promulgation of Pontificator’s Fourth Law, we unquestioningly assume the truth of the Protestant paradigm of the broken Church. With so many different Christian denominations in our country and throughout the world, how can any group, we ask, rightly claim to be the true Church ordained by Christ? We reflexively reject such claims as arrogant presumption. If we are of a more popular Protestant bent, we adopt some notion of the invisible Church divorced from the empirical realities of the Church. If we are of a more catholic bent, we speak of the Church as now existing in disunity. Thoughtful Anglicans, I think, would overwhelmingly affirm the following words of Christopher Seitz: “The church of Jesus Christ is, since the Reformation most famously, a divided reality, seeking to see unity beyond those divisions, which seeing and which living is a gift of God the Holy Spirit himself.” Yet no Church Father would have expressed himself in this manner, and certainly both Catholicism and Orthodoxy would reject this formulation of ecclesial disunity.

But please note the similarity of our rejection of the ecclesial claim to the worldly rejection of Jesus Christ as the one Lord and Savior of the world. Just as we find in-credible, in light of so many existing denominations, the claim of any single group to be the true Church to the exclusion of others, so many people today, both inside and outside the Church, find the Christian claims about Jesus equally in-credible. How dare Christians assert his unique and final authority. Does not the existence of so many religions demonstrate that there are many paths to God? The pluralistic worldview that now dominates our culture decisively rejects the assertion of any historical particular as possessing universal salvific significance. This in itself should encourage orthodox Anglicans to critically reexamine their ecclesiological presuppositions. They may well discover that disbelief has been incorporated into the ground floor of the Anglican system.

Is it not possible, indeed likely, that the Protestant rejection of the ecclesial question is self-serving ideology generated by schism and heresy? Do we dare stake our souls, and the souls of our children and grandchildren, on the churches of the Reformation?

We Episcopalians find ourselves in the midst of a theological and ecclesiological crisis. This crisis rightly forces us–or at least should rightly force us–to ask the question of Newman: What is the Church? Are we in the Church? Where is the true Church of Jesus Christ to be found? This is not a matter of idle curiosity. If the Church Fathers are correct, it is a matter of our eternal salvation. We have a solemn duty before God to seek the truth of his Church. We should not bank on our invincible ignorance before the Divine Judge.

3 January 2005


Whenever the question of the “true Church” is raised, one immediately hears the peremptory word in reply, always spoken with great emphasis and certainty: “God doesn’t care whether we are Episcopalians, Baptists, Catholics, Lutherans, or whatever!” In one form or another, this is the default belief of the overwhelming majority of modern American Protestant Christians, and perhaps even many ecumenical Catholics, too. We are ecclesiological relativists.

My question is: How in the world do we know this to be true? The easy and uncritical acceptance of denominationalism is a fairly late phenomenon in the history of the Church. It certainly cannot be proven from Scripture, and the early Fathers certainly believed it mattered which Church one belonged to. Just ask St Augustine about the Donatists.

Ecclesiological relativism is the logical consequence of the popular anti-sacramental, neo-gnostic understanding of justification by faith that now appears to be dominant in American Christianity. It depends, in other words, on a heresy. According to this popular heresy, we are justified by our internal acts of assent and trust in Jesus, apart from the mediation of the Church. Of course, somebody at some point had to speak the gospel to us or at least put a Bible into our hands; but what we believe is that our justification before God occurs when we perform a subjective, internal act of mind and heart. Once this internal state of justification is achieved, we do not need any other external ministry for our salvation. I do not need the Church. I do not need the sacraments. I do not need bishops and priests. Fellowship with fellow believers is of course encouraged, as is continued Bible study; but neither are absolutely mandated, as long as we continue to trust in Christ for our salvation. As a result of this anti-sacramental understanding of justification, the true Church becomes the invisible society of all true believers. Given the deep neo-Gnostic underpinnings of American society, it’s easy to see why ecclesiological relativism is so popular among Americans. American religion has infiltrated the Church and corrupted it from the inside.

I wonder how many Episcopalians still remember the words of the old Prayer Book Catechism: “How many Sacraments hath Christ ordained in his Church?” Answer: “Two only, as generally necessary to salvation; that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.” (I am told that in this context the word generally means universally.)

Here is a very different understanding of justification and Church. Two sacramental acts are specifically said to be necessary to salvation! Why these two? Because these are the two sacramental acts that constitute the visible Church. To be joined to the visible Church is to be joined with the risen Christ. To be in the Church is to be reborn by water and Spirit. To live in the Church is to feed on the Body and Blood of the Savior. To be a member of the Church is to live in a society that is sacramentally and hierarchically ordered, under the command of God and the vivifying work of the Holy Spirit. Baptism and Eucharist are necessary for salvation because the Church is necessary for salvation, and this Church is as visible and tangible and historical and real as the two sacraments that create and sustain it. Extra ecclesia nulla salus. We must relearn what this patristic dictum means. And when we do we will understand why the claim that God doesn’t care which “church” we belong to is nonsense and heresy.

Whatever Luther’s intentions may have been, his theory of justification by faith unleashed a heretical anti-sacramentalism that has undermined the sacramental life of the Church and distorted our understanding of our salvation in Christ Jesus. As a result, a heretical ecclesiological relativism has triumphed in American Christianity. Perhaps in the 16th century it was necessary to declare “We are justified by faith”; but today it is now necessary to declare with equal fervor and urgency “We are justified by the Church!”

7 January 2005


Over the past months I have noticed that the Pontifications that speak to the Catholic and Orthodox claims to be the Church of Jesus Christ are the posts that generate the most comments. This past week I have cited passages from J. V. L. Casserley, E. L. Mascall and Louis Bouyer on the essential role of bishops, ordered in the Apostolic succession, to the reality of the Church and to the validity of her eucharistic liturgy. Several commentators disagreed especially with Fr Bouyer’s claim that a Eucharist celebrated by an invalidly ordained minister is not only not “the Eucharist as Christ instituted it, but–and this is the cardinal point–it is not that self-same Eucharist which he performed.” Consequently, all other Eucharists are empty of reality, empty because they are “not Christ’s own Eucharist.”

These are hard words for Protestants to hear, especially for all of us who love deeply the Supper of the Lord. I remember the initial offense I felt when I was first introduced to this teaching of invalidity by the Anglo-Catholic priest who catechized me in the Episcopal Church. Having been raised a nominal Methodist, it rankled a bit to hear that all Eucharists outside the three branches of the Catholic Church were “invalid.” My priest explained that this judgment was not a declaration that God does not and cannot bless Protestant Lord’s Suppers. God is not limited to the ordinary means of grace. We simply do not and cannot know, because of the defectiveness of Protestant ordinations, whether our Lord’s eucharistic promises are fulfilled in these Suppers. Of course, as he went on to say, most Protestant bodies do not teach that the bread and wine actually become the Body and Blood of Christ, so the issue is moot for them. Yet still the notion of invalidity rankled.

Yet should it rankle? As soon at the Church Fathers began to reflect on the nature of the Church, particularly in reference to schismatic and heretical communities, they had no problem declaring that sacraments outside the Church’s canonical boundaries were either no sacraments at all (St Cyprian) or at least unfruitful (St Augustine). Even as early as the early second century we find St Ignatius of Antioch writing the following in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans:

You must all follow the lead of the bishop, as Jesus Christ followed that of the Father; follow the presbytery as you would the Apostles; reverence the deacons as you would God’s commandment. Let no one do anything touching the Church, apart from the bishop. Let that celebration of the Eucharist be considered valid which is held under the bishop or anyone to whom he has committed it. Where the bishop appears, there let the people be, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not permitted without authorization from the bishop either to baptize or to hold an agape; but whatever he approves is also pleasing to God. Thus everything you do will be proof against danger and valid.

It would be inappropriate to read back into Ignatius an understanding of sacramental efficacy and validity that was only developed later, yet here we do see the genesis of a conviction that would become universal in the Church: The Holy Eucharist is intrinsically related to the bishop and the unity of the Church. Once this apprehension was joined to the assertion of historic episcopal succession, already asserted in St Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians (late first century), it was logically inevitable that the Church would come to insist upon the canonical and sacramental necessity of validly ordained ministers for a true enactment of Eucharist.

The question of validity is unavoidable. What must we do to make a true sacrament? What must we do to fulfill the mandate of our Lord? If we ask this question about Holy Baptism, we end up with a minimum of two requirements: washing with water and invocation of the Holy Trinity. The Western Church (I do not know the position of Orthodoxy here) also eventually determined that a lay person could administer the sacrament validly, though such baptisms were to be restricted to emergency situations.

Similarly, what must we do to make a true Eucharist? Here the Church stipulates the use of wheaten bread and wine of the grape, offered to God in thanksgiving for his work of salvation in Christ Jesus, with recitation of the dominical promises and invocation of the Holy Spirit. Some leeway is acknowledged at a couple of points (the East accepts the validity of the Latin rite, even though, until recently, it has not included an explicit Epiclesis; the Catholic Church accepts the validity of the Anaphora of Addai and Mari, even though it omits the Words of Institution); but the general conditions of validity are clear. Catholic traditions (Western, Orthodox, Oriental) have also insisted upon one other condition for validity: The Eucharistic Prayer must be offered by a bishop or priest validly ordained in the apostolic succession. Period. No exceptions. In the absence of a validly ordained bishop or priest, the celebrated eucharist is not the one Eucharist of Christ. The subjective intentions, desires, prayers, and personal holiness of the congregants are here irrelevant.

Protestant Christians immediately respond, prove it from Scripture! And rigorous honesty requires the catholic to acknowledge that clear, unambiguous proof is not available from Scripture; but he is unruffled. The catholic does not expect or demand Scripture to function in this way. The faith of the Church is prior to the New Testament and cannot be reduced to the letter of the text (see my blog series on Scripture and Tradition). The Church knows the saving will of her Lord. She teaches the truth and appeals to Scripture to vindicate this truth.

Yet as the various replies to the Bouyer and Mascall citations reveal, Anglicans and Protestants still find the catholic insistence upon valid orders as necessary for valid Eucharist offensive. But why is it any more offensive than the insistence that a valid baptism requires washing with water in the name of the Trinity or that Holy Unction requires anointing with oil? Every sacrament depends upon an institution, either dominical or apostolic, that instructs the Church what to do to effect the sacramental event. If we do not fulfill the sacramental mandate, the sacrament simply does not happen. Why should that trouble us so? After all, these are Christ’s sacraments, not ours. As Robert Jenson explains:

A sacramental promise is about some act commanded to be performed by us. If the command is not obeyed, e.g., if no washing is performed to initiate, there is no sacrament at all and the gospel in this particular form is not communicated–just as, if the preacher disobeys the command to preach and does not open his mouth or discourses about the Buddha, there is no sermon at all, and this form of the gospel does not happen. (Visible Words, p. 10)

I suspect that what is really behind our objections and disquiet is a form of ecclesiological relativism. We are free-church denominationalists at heart. We want the freedom to change the structures of the Church at will. We are the community of faith; this is our church. We should have the freedom to adapt our corporate life to best fit our needs and fulfill our mission. But the Church catholic has always insisted that some structures of the Church’s life are given by Christ and are therefore inviolable. The three-fold ministry of bishop, priest, and deacon is one such structure. The essential relationship between bishop and Eucharist is another.

As long as we see the Church as our Church, we will of course find ourselves espousing one form or another of ecclesiological relativism and we will experience claims of divine institution as oppressive, arbitrary, and unfair. How dare the Orthodox Church tell the Methodists that they are outside the “known” Church! How dare the Catholics tell Anglicans that their ministerial orders are invalid! How dare Anglo-Catholics tell Presbyterians that their Lord’s Supper is not the Supper as instituted by the Lord! No matter how polite or indirect our speech, our hearers will always be offended, just as we ourselves are offended when others speak to us in absolute terms. We live in a relativistic culture. Is it any surprise that it has infiltrated our hearts? But let’s remember that non-Christians feel the same way when we tell them that Jesus is the one and only Savior. Surely offense does not determine truth.

Joseph Ratzinger has accurately diagnosed our current ecclesiological crisis:

For a Catholic, the Church is indeed composed of men who organize her external visage. But behind this, the fundamental structures are willed by God himself, and therefore they are inviolable. Behind the human exterior stands the mystery of a more than human reality, in which reformers, sociologists, organizers have no authority whatsoever. If the Church, instead, is viewed as a human construction, the product of our own effots, even the contents of the faith end up assuming an arbitrary character: the faith, in fact, no longer has an authentic, guaranteed instrument through which to express itself. Thus, without a view of the mystery of the Church that is also supernatural and not only sociological, christology itself loses its reference to the divine in favor of a purely human project: the Gospel becomes the Jesus-project, the social-liberation project or other merely historical, immanent projects that can still seem religious in appearance, but which are atheistic in substance.

It must not be forgotten that the Latin expression [communio sanctorum] does not mean only the union of the members of the Church, living or dead. Communio sanctorum means also to have “holy things” in common, that is to say, the grace of the sacraments that pours forth from the dead and resurrected Christ. It is precisely this mysterious yet real bond, this union in Life, that is also the reason why the Church is not our Church, which we could dispose of as we please. She is, rather, his Church. All that which is only our Church is not Church in the deep sense; it belongs to her human–hence secondary, transitory–aspect.

Here lies the origin of the decline of the authentic concept of “obedience.” According to some it would no longer even be a Christian virtue but a heritage of an authoritarian, dogmatic past, hence one to be overcome. If the Church, in fact, is our Church, if we alone are the Church, if her structures are not willed by Christ, then it is no longer possible to conceive of the existence of a hierarchy as a service to the baptized established by the Lord himself. It is a rejection of the concept of an authority willed by God, an authority therefore that has its legitimation in God and not–as happens in political structures–in the consensus of the majority of the members of an organization. But the Church of Christ is not a party, not an association, not a club. Her deep and permanent structure is not democratic but sacramental, consequently hierarchical. For the hierarchy based on the apostolic succession is the indispensable condition to arrive at the strength, the reality of the sacrament. Here authority is not based on the majority of votes; it is based on the authority of Christ himself, which he willed to pass on to men who were to be his representatives until his definitive return. (The Ratzinger Report [1985], pp. 46, 48-49)

What I especially appreciate about Cardinal Ratzinger’s analysis is his discernment that ecclesiological relativism and doctrinal relativism are tied together. To attack the divinely-instituted sacramental and political structures of the Church necessarily impacts the Church’s grasp of apostolic doctrine. Faith and polity mutually interpenetrate and shape each other; they are indivisible. The Church, in its divinely ordered life and ministry, is the incarnation of the gospel in history.

5 February 2005


Your mission, Canon Heidt, if you decide to accept it, is to invent a new ecclesiology with which all Anglicans will be happy and which will provide intellectual justification for Anglo-Catholics to continue in the Anglican Communion at all costs. Should you fail, Bishop Iker will disavow all knowledge of your existence, and the Archbishop of Canterbury will appoint yet one more commission to further study the matter. The Anglican Communion will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck, John.

John Heidt is a systematic theologian at the Anglican School of Theology in Dallas and canon theologian of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth. He is also the author of A Faith for Skeptics. I have read some of his short articles on the net and have been impressed by his thoughtfulness; but I fear that he has taken a serious misstep in his latest article on ecclesiology, A Model to Recover.

Canon Heidt begins his article by rightly noting that the popular branch theory of the Church, which has been so popular among Anglo-Catholics for a hundred and fifty years, is seriously flawed.

The image of the Church as a river with its various branches is too pat, too simple to fit the facts. Neither the Eastern Orthodox nor Roman Catholics have ever accepted it. The theory takes no account of schismatics who still have the succession, or of heretical teaching on the part of medieval popes or recent bishops. It fails to take our divisions seriously; and is most unkind toward our ecumenical partners.

Canon Heidt is correct that both Catholicism and Orthodoxy reject the Anglo-Catholic branch theory of the Church. They both see it (1) as lacking support in the patristic and medieval tradition (which it clearly does), and (2) as violating the fundamental sacramental oneness of the Church established in Baptism, Eucharist, Scripture, Creed, Ecumenical Councils, and catholic polity. While both Catholicism and Orthodoxy entertain the possibility of ecclesial elements outside their canonical boundaries, they both affirm the Church as one visible communion of eucharistic communities led by validly ordained bishops in the apostolic succession. By both Catholic and Orthodox reckoning, the branch theory is incoherent, for it denies that which any catholic ecclesiology must not deny–the visible unicity of the Church. Orthodoxy is perhaps the most emphatic in its rejection of any suggestion of schism within the Body of Christ (see the Russian statement Basic Principles and Florovsky’s Limits of the Church, as well as this traditionalist critique of Orthodox ecumenism); but Catholicism, while willing to acknowledge ecclesial communities outside her boundaries (see Lumen Gentium and Dominus Iesus), is equally emphatic in rejecting all forms of ecclesiological relativism. There is only one visible Church. It cannot be divided up into parts or branches. As Newman wrote to one advocate of the branch theory, Thomas Allies:

Why not boldly discard what is no longer practically professed? Say that the Catholic Church is not, that it has broken up,–this I understand:–I don’t understand saying that there is a Church, and one Church, and yet acting as if there were none or many. This is dreaming surely.

Canon Heidt, I fear, is also indulging in a form of dreaming but of a different type. He rejects the branch theory, not because it ultimately denies the visible oneness of the Church, but because it does not expand the boundaries of the Church to include our Protestant brothers and sisters. Hence the impossible mission to create a new Anglican model of the Church:

We need a model of the Church which can preserve all the catholic doctrines and practices we once defended through the branch theory and restore our self-confidence as a legitimate province of the whole Catholic Church. We need to resurrect a truly biblical model which, though always a part of our Anglican tradition, has, I think, never been allowed to transform our thinking sufficiently to meet the demands of the present moment. We need to rediscover the Church as the mystical body of Christ.

Anglicanism is in a mess, torn apart by heresy and schism, so in order to convince ourselves that we are still truly catholic, we apparently need to concoct one more new theory. So what does Canon Heidt come up with? A Protestant ecclesiology! The Church is is actualized wherever two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name:

So where then are we to find this visible and mystical sacrament of Christ? Where is the true Church? If, as we have always acknowledged in our baptismal rites, all baptized people are members of Christ’s mystical body, then the true church is wherever the baptized are gathered together claiming the name of Jesus: In Solemn High Mass and local study group, in village church and Gothic cathedral, on street corners and TV platforms–wherever two or three are gathered together in his name.

There is nothing remarkable or innovative here, at least not by free-church standards. Every Protestant sect believes something along these lines. It’s not my intention in this article to critique free-church ecclesiogy. I simply wish to point out that in his effort to salvage some from of catholic identity for the Episcopal Church, Canon Heidt has ended up as a very denominational Protestant.

Of course, Canon Heidt in no way wishes to deny the catholic notes of the Church. He is not suggesting that valid sacraments and bishops are mere ecclesial options, for example. He just wants us to chill out and relax. And while we are relaxing in our new-found assurance of our catholicity, it would also be helpful if we could discard our antiquated notions of denominational and geographical boundaries:

Look all around you. There are still people proclaiming the whole gospel of Christ, still sacrificing priests offering the Holy Sacrifice, still apostolic bishops. We cannot get rid of any of them even if we tried, but we need no longer limit their activity to any particular denomination nor even to any particular place or time. As members of an apostolic college, most of whose members are already in the Church triumphant or expectant, local bishops and their priests have the pastoral care of all who accept their ministry in whatever denomination or geographical area they happen to find themselves — diocesan boundaries not withstanding. In our world of the internet and the international corporation, geography has become history.

Surely at this point we have fallen with Alice into Wonderland. We are all ecclesiological winners and everyone gets a prize. Indeed, Heidt’s theory gets curioser and curioser. It turns out that the primacy of the Bishop of Rome is just as firmly established as Scripture, the ecumenical creeds, and Holy Orders. John Paul II is as much as our Pope as anybody else’s! Consequently, we have a moral obligation to listen to him, though apparently not a moral obligation to enter into communion with him. On the contrary, Canon Heidt intimates that we have a duty not to enter into communion with the Pope, since it would mean “denying our present catholicity.” At this point I am wondering if catholicity has any content left at all.

I have never met Canon Heidt, but I am told he is on the side of the angels in our present church conflict. I am therefore distressed to have to state my judgment that his proposal fails, utterly and completely, to offer a catholic way forward. It is not grounded in living catholic religion nor can it claim the support of antiquity and ecumenical witness. It’s simply a theory–and a new-fangled Protestant theory at that. Its ecclesiological home, if it has one, is not catholic Christendom but American denominationalism. I imagine that many will be pleased with it, since it provides justification of the status quo; but Anglo-Catholics should not be fooled. If the branch theory is untenable, and I’m convinced that it is, then we are back to square one.

Now is not the time for theories and paper churches. We are in the midst of a theological and ecclesial crisis. Anglo-Catholics feel this crisis acutely precisely because we have wanted to assert, with at least some degree of integrity, the catholicity of our church and of our theological commitments. The events of the past forty years are forcing us to call into question our deepest convictions. Anglo-Catholics have no interest in inventing new models of the Church to justify our Anglican catholicity, for in that very act we deny our catholicity.

It’s time to awaken from our dream.

Let me reiterate what I have said before: If you are an Anglo-Catholic, or if you have a catholic bone in your theological body, then you simply must read through Newman’s Anglican Difficulties. These lectures are also available in book-form from Real View Books (877-247-6886).

No more dreams. No more delusions. Only the truth.

29 January 2005

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