“…to adore Christ’s person in His Sacrament, is the inalienable privilege of every Christian and Catholic heart How we do it, the way we do it, the ceremonies which we do it, are utterly, utterly indifferent; the thing itself is what we plead for…”
James DeKoven – October 26th, 1874
I frequently ponder James DeKoven’s speech to General Convention from 1874. “The thing iself…” remains a term that sticks with me. Whether talking about ceremonial, Sacramental theology, Christology, or a host of other Church topics, I find my mind returning to DeKoven’s emphasis on “the thing itself,” the Real Presence of Christ.
The other day, in a conversation, I made a rhetorical overreach and claimed, “Catholic Anglicanism is, perhaps, more Catholic than Roman Catholicism today.” This seemed to cause a bit of a stir amongst those I was talking to and I was asked to elaborate – never a fun question when one is speaking both extemporaneously and hyperbolically!
Yet, now my mind turns to “the thing itself” in relation to this question of Catholic Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism. I am not one of those former Roman Catholics that harbor some deep-seated anger toward Rome in my heart for past offenses done to me and mine. Yet I do carry a real sense of just how the Roman Church has failed in the last decades.
Clergy abuse, indifferent clerics I meet, minimal roles for women in leadership, a stunted sense of lay leadership, a disconnect from the social realities of places like Africa when condemning contraception, and a host of other issues come to mind as I think about the Church I left for Anglicanism. (Of course, Anglicanism is caught in its own struggles now and is, perhaps, being undone by its very attempts at comprehensiveness.)
In the past, “Romanism” was a term of derision for those of advanced churchmanship within Anglicanism. Yet it is a term I find, perhaps uncharitably, to fit the current state of the Roman Church. The papacy, legitimately a seat of honor, has been elevated in a way that is sometimes more political than spiritual. What has developed is not catholicity but Romanism – an unhealthy attachment to the centralized authority and bureaucracy of Rome that short-circuits local oversight and results in a Church bureaucracy that is unresponsive to acute crises or systemic needs.
At the parish I serve, we hear Confessions, offer daily Mass, believe strongly in the Real Presence, say the Daily Office, offer Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, and hold Our Lady in high esteem. These are all integral parts of a Catholic faith that sustains this community. They point toward “the thing itself” which we hold dear – that we worship a living God that condescends to come among us.
We are also a parish that has women serving as priests, has long supported LGBT causes, and supports a degree of freedom in matters of conscience such as birth control.
For some, this seems like a case of serious cognitive (or at least theological) dissonance. Yet this is the joy of Catholic Anglicanism. We balance holy tradition with reason and Scripture in such a way that the individual is neither left unmoored to their own devices (as with much of mainline Protestantism) nor denied the dignity of conscience (as with much of Romanism). This kind of Generous Orthodoxy, to purloin a term, is supported by the comprehensive underpinnings of a creedal theology and Prayer Book Catholicism.
Our first concern is “the thing itself.” This means that our worship and service are directed toward the Holy One. All that we have we offer in worship, praise, and thanksgiving. It also means that we trust in a competent God that can handle the many issues that divide the Church today.
I believe that Catholic Anglicanism offers the best of traditional Catholicism and also offers substantial and distinctive contributions to the life of the Church.
In 1054, owing much to political machinations, the whole Church divided between Constantinople and Rome. Where was the “true Church” to be found? This would have been a simple matter to adjudicate if one branch or the other had simply adopted some great heretical position so that we could have clarity. Yet they remained faithful to the whole of the Christian faith – albeit with some distinct differences.
Claims to exclusivity by either do not seem wholly justifiable on doctrinal grounds – and both would recognize the other strain as authentically Christian. It is possible to have divisions (outwardly political ones) within the True Church and still have a coherent doctrinal core. In other words, it is possible to focus on “the thing itself” despite differences in bureaucracy and polity.
If we fast-forward a bit to sixteenth century England, we find a case of gross papal abuses. The sale of indulgences, the essentials of the faith neglected, Confession and Communion only at Easter, and doctrines of the Mass that held truth and beauty were taught crudely and mechanically. Sadly, some sort of “Reformation” was needed. There was desperate need for reform as the political sins of men choked the spiritual needs of the Church.
(This is a meandering and overly simplistic view of things, of course. Those with some interest in English Catholicism would do well to read many of Eamon Duffy’s works, especially “The Stripping of the Altars.”)
That said, political reasons again led to Schism within the Church. As Henry VIII, a generally strong defender of the Catholic faith, sought to assert royal supremacy over the Church in England. The final break came in 1570 as Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth.
Once again, we are challenged (due to political machinations) with the question, “Which is the True Church?” And our answer is the same as before – in its fullness. For which part of the Body is not vital?
Moreover, what part of the Faith Catholic did the Church in England repudiate? There were absolutely changes made to the Church. There were myriad shifts of leadership that brought alternating waves of anti-Catholicism and anti-Protestantism into ascendency.
Yet, what held? The Creeds, the Sacramental system, and the apostolic succession. The thing itself, perhaps. We have retained the essentials – and allowed our whole Church a greater say in what we declare about non-essentials.
Catholic Anglicanism represents a great hope quite frankly. We blend a healthy respect for the tradition with a deep regard for the present and the future. Perhaps it was those great battles within our Church between Protestant and Catholic wings that have given us an ability to focus on the thing itself. We have practice at negotiating difference and finding not compromise for the sake of ease, but compromise that reflects the vital breadth of the Church.
I wonder what the modern mind makes of the Roman claim that “We declare, affirm, define, and pronounce that it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”? (Boniface VIII) This was a doctrine proclaimed in 1302, affirmed in 1870, and remains the summary of the Romanist position today.
I daresay that the Catholic Anglican position would be somewhat different. Many of us acknowledge the spiritual guidance and even leadership of the Bishop of Rome. Yet the only salvation I know of is that offered by Christ. All of our worship, prayer, and Sacraments point toward that one great reality – that Christ comes among us offering the grace of the Sacraments to all believers.
For Catholic Anglicans, dogma and doctrine are declared because they are found to be true in our deliberations, tested by reason, and discerned over time. Within the Roman system, dogmas are declared true because the Church defines them as such. This may seem overly simplistic, but I believe it strikes at the heart of the difference between Catholic Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism. We are willing to allow that sinful people administering a Church might be mistaken and that their judgments should always be up for debate, scrutiny, and reflection.
Our claim is simple, “the thing itself” matters most. If systems distract from that then they are non-essential. If doctrine obscures that then it is non-essential. If traditions twist that then they are not truly tradition but are customs.
Within Catholic Anglicanism, Catholic Christianity is practiced without regard to claims of earthly authority or sovereignty.
So when I told my conversation partners that I oftentimes think of Catholic Anglicanism as “more Catholic” what I really meant was, perhaps, that our focus is on the essential, the necessary, and the vital. It is not systems or structures that occupy our energy but the great gift we have been handed by Christ and the apostles –the cure of souls in the name of Christ.