Recent comments by a number of our readers have implied that the reason we are not in full communion with either the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Churches (RCC and EOC henceforth, respectively) is that we have separated from them both. A correlative assertion is that we have done so for reasons of incompatible dogma in one area or another, such that this self-imposed isolation was obligatory. Deriving from this position is a syllogism such as that following, and a claim that we cannot accept reunion with either the RCC or EOC until they are restored to an orthodoxy which we, almost alone apparently, represent.
The only justifiable reason for a particular Church or Churches separating from another portion of the Catholic Church (especially if that included the Primatial See) would be certainty that that other portion had committed itself serious doctrinal error or heresy. Only then would separation not be the sin of schism.
The Church of England did so separate from the Roman communion, being followed in this by its daughter churches. It also rejected communion with the EOC.
Therefore, Anglicanism’s state of separation from Rome and the EOC was and is sinful unless it can point to definitive heresies in Roman and Eastern dogmatic teaching that constitutes a barrier to reconciliation until rescinded by them. As a corollary, it would be wrong to remain Anglican unless asserting such a heresy in the RCC and EOC.
The problem with this argument is not that the conclusion does not follow from the premises. It does. The problem is that the major, ecclesiological premise is disputable and the minor, historical premise is false.
As I noted in “Necessary Admissions“, there have been cases where churches have broken communion for perceived gross derelictions in other churches or bishops that did not rise to the level of binding teaching being manifest heterodoxy. So a suspension of communion with a church or bishop for their toleration of gross error in faith or morals, for example, does not seem to be absolutely unthinkable on Catholic principles. Thus the first premise is dubious.
However, even if the first premise was granted, it has little purchase on Anglicans for the simple reason that the separation or break in communion between us and Rome was made definitive from their side, not ours. The fact that we in the ACC are willing to accept RCs at our altars in practice and that neither we nor our forebears in the faith ever excommunicated or declared outside the Church any part of the RCC makes the nature of the separation clear. Its origin and continuance are primarily the result of a unilateral Roman act. Many Anglican divines have no doubt reciprocated in their expressed opinions, but none of that has ever obliged the Church.
In the 16th Century Queen Elizabeth I was willing for her bishops to attend and participate in the Council of Trent under certain conditions which were not met. In the 17th Century the 1604 Canons rejected the notion that the C of E had rejected outright the Continental Catholic churches, the Archbishop of Spalato was received into the C of E without renunciation, and Abp Laud declared the RCC was within the Church depsite its deficiencies. In the 18th Century Abp Wake negotiated for restoring communion with the Church of France without simply treating it as heretical or schismatic. The Tractarian apologetics of the 19th Century made it clear that the “schism” was not the result of an intention to separate by us but a decision by Rome to repudiate us unless we simply submitted to it and pretended that all fault for the separation lay with us. The 20th and 21st Century Anglo-Catholics have likewise stressed the unilaterally Roman nature of the separation. Absent a binding and authoritative ecclesial declaration of separation from communion on our side, the facts listed are sufficient to show that the C of E and its daughter churches could not be guilty of formal schism, having never broken communion definitively for their part. Indeed, before the Twentieth Century Ecumenical Movement, Anglicans had made suggestions for reconciliatory steps and been rebuffed. King James I was one of the earliest of those.
So, the reason we are not in communion with Rome is their decision to have it so. We never excommunicated them. And we have always had divines, at least since the 17th Century, who have made this point and whose eirenic attempts to interpret Roman dogma in a patristically consistent fashion have been mirrored by similar interpretations permitted within the RCC. In other words, it is not certain that there are insuperable doctrinal barriers.
As for our historical relations with the EOC, these are even less characteristic of schism. The reason we are not in communion with the East is their non-decision to normalise relations with us despite the fact we reject no dogma, properly speaking, of theirs, nor they of ours, and despite the fact we have since the Reformation rejected the Roman position on the purportedly schismatic position of the EOC. We are not intentionally separate from the Orthodox. The following facts all support this.
In the 17th Century a string of Caroline Divines such as Archbishop Laud disputed the ecumenicity of the Council of Trent on the basis that the EOC bishops were not included, rejected the Roman argument that the East was in schism and heresy and specifically included them as part of the wider Catholic Church, and even carried on friendly correspondence and relations with them in some cases. In the 18th Century the Non-Jurors carried on ecumenical dialogue with the EOC with a view to reunion, a dialogue that was ended by, among other things, a letter from the then Archbishop of Canterbury stating that the Non-Jurors were a schismatic group trying to lure the East away from communion with the Church of England. In other words, he assumed inter-communion as the default position from his side. The Church of England also invited Greek Orthodox candidates for the priesthood to be educated at Oxford as a fraternal act, and some were in fact sent to do this. In the 19th Century, while the Church of England set up a bishopric in Jerusalem in order to minister to their own people (who were not accepted at Eastern altars) and evangelise Jews, they were careful to disavow any prosyletising intent and recognise Eastern jurisdiction, though this original intent was not always followed. The Oxford Movement and its “children” had a great number of divines who not only recognised the EOC as a sister church, truly and fully Catholic, but pursued reunion in earnest. This renewed effort began in the 19th Century and continued on afterwards, always with the premise that it was the East that needed to be convinced of our Catholicity, since we already accepted theirs.
If one really believes that neither the RCC nor the EOC have kept the Faith, and that only Continuing Anglicans or a segment of them have kept it, then one has implicitly denied the infallibility of the Church during the centuries before the Reformation and reduced the scope of “True Catholicism” today to Continuing Anglicanism or a portion thereof. This, I’m afraid, is a reductio ad absurdum. It appears to be self-refuting Anglican Sectarianism, not Anglican Catholicism, if taken to its logical conclusion. Let me make this clearer.
If it is claimed that our state of non-communion with both the EOC and RCC since the Reformation is due to our perception of certain long-standing doctrinal error on both their parts, then the following implications are unavoidable. One, since Christendom was almost entirely composed of the RCC and EOC before the Reformation, then the ascription of heresy to both, or at least of an error that justifies withdrawal from their communion, is a denial of the existence of the Orthodox Catholic Church as a visible body in the centuries before the Reformation and so a denial of the infallibility of the Universal Church. It contradicts Scriptures like Matthew 16:18, John 16:13 and 1 Timothy 3:15b. This is especially the case if it is being claimed that any of the errors purportedly identified are common to both. Then it is implicitly but unavoidably an assertion that the whole church can fall into fundamental error doctrinally. This is a an absolute denial of an essential Biblical and Catholic ecclesiological teaching. It is precisely along this fault-line that the epistemological division of Catholic vs. Non-Catholic ecclesiology lies. The former says that the Catholic Church as a whole cannot fall into fundamental or binding error, so that its consensus is divinely guaranteed to be a safe guide to the interpretation of Scripture and the understanding of the Faith for believers wanting to know what to believe. The latter rejects this and says that orthodoxy can and has disappeared (or virtually disappeared by being limited to an almost invisible “faithful remnant” or succession of isolated communities) for centuries during Church history. The main difference among the various sub-species of non-catholic ecclesiologies is how long they say orthodoxy was lost, who restored it, and when. Many protestants would “write off” the entire mediaeval period, at least since the invocation of saints, for example, became widely practised, and give Luther and/or Calvin the honour of “restoring the Gospel” supposedly lost till then. Other sectarians would include these Reformers among the deceived and point to their own sect’s denial of the Trinity or of worship on Sunday as the point when “real” Christianity came back to light. Once a person accepts that the whole Church can go wrong for centuries, the slippery slope risks leading, logically at least, all the way to denial that the Creeds are any more certain than any other inference of that person from Scripture, or to a denial of the Creeds themselves. It is strictly impossible for this kind of ecclesiology and epistemology to be objectively consistent with any claim to Catholicity, as it is its exact contradiction. It is ruled out on Anglican principles by, among other things, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer’s Preface which describes as “of dangerous consequence” and to be “rejected” that which opposes a doctrine “of the whole Catholic Church”.
Therefore, there are only three coherent and traditional opinions on the pre-Reformation Church admissible for Anglican Catholics. One, neither the RCC nor the EOC were committed absolutely to any heresy, whatever their flaws in common teaching, and the separation between us and them is due to choices on their side, including a desire for uncanonical and unbiblical domination by Rome and a refusal by it to accept that our particular Church had a right and responsibility to correct abuses and errors (including that domination) itself. Two, the RCC had fallen away from Catholic Orthodoxy, but not the EOC, and our Reformation was, in its ideals, a return to the patristic consensus still shared with the East. Three, while neither the RCC nor the EOC maintained Catholic Orthodoxy perfectly, in what they held in common nothing heretical could possibly be found, such that any problematic idiosyncrasies they each possessed were never truly binding (despite appearances) because they were never truly a Catholic consensus. Hence, their errors did not unchurch them or oblige withdrawal from them, as that would mean an obligation of complete withdrawal from the Church, an impossibility. The last of these opinions seems the least persuasive and probable.
Given that the RCC and EOC together make up the vast majority of Christians in episcopally ordered Churches even now, a similar argument can be made, mutatis mutandis, for what is permissible for Anglican Catholics to posit regarding those Churches’ catholicity and orthodoxy in the present day.
What, then, are the remaining barriers between us and the RCC and EOC? Why is the present Roman offer flawed? Why are we not obliged to commit to reunion with either the RCC or EOC on whatever terms they offer, for the sake of precious unity?
Between us and the RCC there are outstanding doctrinal issues, all of which I believe are able to be resolved without renunciation by either side. However, the theological work required to manifest underlying doctrinal unity has not been completed yet and would require significant clarifications and qualifications by Rome of its teaching. No doubt we also would have some duties in this regard.
Additionally, even assuming the aforementioned work was done, any subsequent agreement that effectively required of us an “admission” that we were outside the Catholic Church until Rome chose to “take us in” would be asking us to be dishonest about our historical ecclesiology and thus to mislead our people and others in the Church. If it obliged a straightforward denial of the validity of our Orders or an adherence to Apostolicae Curae as practically infallible it would force us to be dishonest about our identity as a particular Church and to commit sacrilege at every absolute reordination. It appears that this, unfortunately, is exactly what the Apostolic Constitution involves.
At present, one major barrier between us and the EOC is that they have been wary of all Anglicans since the defections from Apostolic Order and other heterodoxies of the Anglican Communion derailed progress towards unity that had been previously attained. Another barrier is that a significant minority in the EOC are opposed to all such ecumenical dialogue and reconciliation except on the premise that to be presently outside the canonical boundaries of the EOC is to be certainly outside the Catholic Church and heterodox, such that any reunion would require renunciations and submission by the non-EO interlocutors. Yet, there is no binding doctrine of the EOC we have rejected. There is no binding doctrine of ours they have rejected. We both stand on the Scriptures as interpreted by Holy Tradition, the Seven Ecumenical Councils, adhere to Apostolic Order and use the Seven Sacraments. We both accept the Creeds, affirm both both the unmerited forgiveness of sins and the inner renewal that is given by God’s grace, and exhort our people that they must strive for holiness and grow in that grace and theosis in order to “make [their] calling and election sure” (cf. Hebrews 12:14, 2 Peter 1:3-11 & 3:18). While our recitation of the Creed usually includes the filioque clause presently, it has been common for Anglican theologians to note that per filium (“through the Son”) properly and sufficiently expresses the equivalent orthodox intention of this insertion, and for Orthodox theologians to accept the per filium and the fact that such an explanation acquits us of the error of denying the unique Monarchy of the Father. Also, it is normally agreed by Anglican theologians that the insertion and maintenance of the clause against persistent Eastern protests, in what was always intended to be an ecumenical Creed containing essential and agreed dogma, was wrong and should be reversed. Therefore, this barrier could be overcome by our omission of the clause without rejecting all related theological reflection. (Indeed, omission of the clause has been and still is practised in the Anglican Catholic Church (ACC) by episcopal permission based on a plausible interpretation of the Affirmation of St Louis and its attendant obligations.) So, the main element missing in the Anglican Catholic / Eastern Orthodox relationship is confidence in the East concerning our genuine Western Orthodoxy. Again, this is a largely unilateral separation, but unlike the Anglican/Roman separation requires little to repair in objective terms, however long it may take due to subjective doubts on the other side.
It might be replied that, if there is already substantial doctrinal unity between us and either or both the RCC and the EOC, then we are obliged to accept any offer they make to reconcile us to themselves, for the sake of unity. However, this is easily seen to be a flimsy assumption by a quick analogy. If, say, the Serbian Orthodox Church was declared heterodox and excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church tomorrow, but for inadequate or incorrect reasons and without the Serbs reciprocating, would the Serbian Orthodox Church be obliged to meet all Russian demands to restore communion later? If the Russians said the Serbs must henceforth dissolve their church structure (as having previously been a non-entity) and be absorbed into the Russian Orthodox Church, would this too be obligatory? The answer is an obvious no. Therefore, since the Anglican Catholic Church, for example, is a true particular Church that has not committed either schism from its side or heresy, and has valid continuity of jurisdiction as well as Orders, it can be under no obligation to accept offers amounting to renunciation of identity and absorption. (As explained above, to accept such an offer might very well involve grievous sin.) Given the haphazard way the Western patriarchy came to be defined and grow, the fact that regional consent was relevant even in ancient times to how patriarchal boundaries shifted, and that the Archbishop of Canterbury was once treated as having a quasi-patriarchal status pre-Reformationally, I do not see us as even necessarily obliged to assume a distinct identity jurisdictionally within the Patriarchy of the West in a re-united Church. This is especially the case since, as Canon Hollister has noted, it was Rome that rejected us from communion and maintained the exclusion rigidly, and centuries of separate development have occurred since then.
(However, while I believe the ACC et al., are the legitimate continuation of Anglican jurisdiction, which I take to be the native and natural Catholic jurisdiction of Britain and its former colonies and mission fields, I also recognise the EOC’s and RCC’s proper Patriarchal jurisdictions. So, if I were an Italian or Spaniard, for example, the RCC would be my Church. If I were Greek or Russian, the EOC would be. If we don’t believe this, then we should have been proselytising these nations and deliberately establishing explicitly competing hierarchies in order to restore Catholicism to these nations. That we have not and will not speaks volumes and shows that we do in fact accept the essential orthodoxy and catholicity of the sister Communions. This is a “dogmatic fact” for Anglicans, and thus must provide definite limits and parameters for our ecumenical and doctrinal claims.)
To sum up then, any reunion which clearly implied a denial of our present Catholicity and jurisdictional validity, would seem to involve necessarily the sins of sacrilege, lying and scandal. Since it is a basic principle of moral theology that intrinsically evil means are never justified or permitted even for good ends, then such reunion would be prohibited. Nevertheless, we are clearly impelled by our own principles to seek reunion on an honest basis, firstly with the EOC and secondly with the RCC, and we cannot falsify and misrepresent our traditional ecclesiology by positing that a barrier to communio in sacris has been erected and maintained by us as a chosen act of separation from both the EOC and RCC.