Share   Print
Related Content

Anglican/Orthodox Pilgrim Newsletter

Vol. 2, No. 4

WHITHER THE "BRANCH THEORY"?

by Fr. Gregory Mathewes-Green

Note: If articles carried warning labels this one would alert the reader that its contents, while meant to be thought-provoking, are not the result of top calibre academic research, being but the ponderings of a parish priest.)

I doubt that many Confirmation or Inquirer's Classes speak about it much any more (except perhaps in some of the more hard-core Anglo-Catholic parishes-that rapidly vanishing variety in the species Anglicana) but for several generations the reigning ecclesiology in many Episcopal parishes, including numbers of mid-church parishes, was called the "branch theory". Or at least this theory was an important adjunct. The universally respected Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church gives this definition of the "branch theory:" the theory that, though the Church may have fallen into schism within itself and its several provinces or groups of provinces be out of communion with each other, each may yet be a "branch" of the one Church of Christ, provided that it continues to hold the faith of the original undivided Church and to maintain the Apostolic Succession of its bishops. Such, it is contended by many Anglican theologians, is the condition of the Church at the present time, there being now three main branches, the Roman, the Eastern, and the Anglican Communions..."

As an aside it should be noted that the major theoretician of this approach to ecclesiology was William Palmer (1803-1885), the Oxford theologian and liturgical scholar, and not, as many suppose, John Henry Newman. Palmer's two-volume Treatise on the Church of Christ (1838) formulated the notion, recapitulated in the above OCDC quote, that, provided that both 1) the Succession, and 2) the Faith of the Apostles are kept intact, then there the Church exists, albeit in one of its "branches".

Interestingly, though this understanding of ecclesiology was to permeate much of Anglicanism, at least of the mid- to high- church persuasions, it initially attracted little attention from the Oxford Fathers. Marvin R. O'Connell writes in his The Oxford Conspirators: A History of the Oxford Movement 1833-1845 (MacMillan, 1969) that Newman greeted Palmer's Treatise "...with faint praise. Palmer was dismissed."

Several points need to be made at this juncture. First, there is the undeniable fact that Anglicanism as an ecclesiastical structure had already been around for almost 300 years before there was any formulation of the "branch" theory. And while there were no doubt some embryonic, "branch"-like notions afloat, still it was not until almost three centuries had passed and a catholicizing movement was emerging that needed some theological justification for the existence of a separate English Church that this theory arrived center stage. Apparently even then it was not immediately and universally welcomed. But be that as it may, there is little doubt that the "branch" theory did take hold, and for many Anglicans gave, and gives, catholic ecclesiological legitimacy to that body. Still, arriving comparatively late on the scene, being balked at by at least some Anglo-Catholics, even in the leadership, and, truthfully, having for all practical purposes died out in the present day Anglican teaching, the question is raised as to how such a short-lived theory could even yet be maintained, though it is defended it seems by an ever-decreasing number of Anglicans. It would seem logical that its declining popularity (it's not in the 1979 catechism, nor is even its spirit present in most current published Confirmation materials in widespread use) is evidence of its doctrinal impotence.

What then for present day Anglicans passes for ecclesiology? Aside from the ever-diminishing Anglo-Catholics who hold to the "branch" theory, there are the evangelicals of several stripes who hold to a minimalist theology of the Church. For most of them some version of the Church as a voluntary association of those who have accepted Christ is operative. Orders and the ecclesial/sacramental life are negligible compared to individual piety, with or without the Church, in this view. This is clearly a Protestant understanding of the Church; honorable, arguably culturally relevant, and historic (at least 500 years old), but definitely not Catholic. The other view is that the Church is that group of people who minister in Christ's name, and who live out of a tradition called Christian. Here to be Catholic (connected by Faith and Succession to the apostles) is an irrelevant category, and unless things Catholic serve the modernist agenda, they are dismissed.

But the question still remains in some minds: Even though its holders may be numerically decreasing and though it may be out of current theological fashion, is, in fact, the "branch" theory still a sensible, valid, and theologically sound way to legitimize Anglicanism as a part of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church?

It would seem that the argument of tactile episcopal succession in Anglicanism has been established rather well. If there is not an air-tight case, it certainly has no more holes than does the Roman case. On this score, that Anglican bishops have historically been in succession to the apostles by means of the laying on of hands, the "branch" theory seems acceptable. However, it is when we examine the second element in the theory that we run into a great deal of trouble. Indeed, from several theological perspectives, including the Orthodox, this second element is the most important ingredient of all. In most theological encounters with Anglicans, when Anglicans would seek Orthodox comments on the "legitimacy" of Anglican orders, the Orthodox invariably insist on first examining Anglicanism's theology, to determine whether or not it is Biblical and Patristic, in short Traditional. Without being such, say the Orthodox, then it makes little difference whose hands were laid on whose head, how many times, in what manner, or if incense was used. The first question to be answered is, Is the Faith of this community recognizable to the Apostles, would the Fathers claim it as their own, and would the martyrs find it the very faith for which they shed blood?

From the above citation from the OCDC, we note that the "branch" theory is said to be operative, not only when there is a tactile apostolic succession, but also "...provided that it continues to hold the faith of the original undivided Church..." Thus, if the theory collapses when this element is missing, then Anglicanism has no claim whatever to it in the present hour. Liberal modernists, who now control Anglican Christianity in England, America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and who are in the ascendancy in the remainder of the Anglican world, are usually forthright in their condemnation of the ancient and patristic Faith. Certainly modernism is antithetical to beliefs such as the bodily Resurrection of Christ, the Virgin Birth, the existence of absolute and revealed standards of moral behavior (especially with regard to sexual activities), or the delineation of complementary male and female roles within the Church and family life. The modern secular aversion to the sacramental worldview of patristic Christianity pervades Anglicanism and creates an ecclesiology with a social and psychological program agenda, rather than one of simply listening to the Master's voice and seeking to be obedient to it (for example, the commands in Matthew 25 to serve the poor and in Matthew 28 to evangelize).

The secularization of Anglican ecclesiology has been accomplished by jettisoning not only the Holy Scriptures but also, and perhaps more significantly, the guide the Church had always used to interpret the Scriptures: the Holy Fathers, those ancient writers most widely accepted by community consensus, and whose writings provided the Church with the necessary interpretive frame work to comprehend Holy Write. Today, what passes for such among Anglican powers-that-be (bishops, seminaries, diocesan and national committees, commissions and conventions) is typified by the Report of the Bishop's Committee of Sexuality of the Diocese of Maryland. In this report, both Scripture and Tradition are acknowledged as sources of authority; but how does the report approach them? With the new interpretive grid of modern scholarship whose current fashion is the oppressor/oppressed model. Hence, in this particular report the understanding of much Scripture and most Patristics are governed by John Boswell's revisionist work, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Consequently, the assumption is that only those portions of the Bible and the Fathers which support the highly questionable and selective "findings" of contemporary social scientists are to be respected. Thereby, divine revelation is undercut and the secularization of theology guaranteed. "...To hold the faith of the original undivided Church.." is a description of one of the primary purposes of Anglicanism, or so many of us were taught a generation ago in Church School and Confirmation classes across the Episcopal landscape. And yet it appears that in this one generation such a task has vanished from the agenda of the contemporary Anglican church. Occasionally, similar language will be employed, partly to placate traditionalists, partly to assuage the liberal modernist conscience that still clings to such images, but by and large it has disappeared. It is no longer relevant, useful or true.

Thus the "branch" theory no longer commands attention and theological weight. If it were ever a valid theory, nailing down Anglicanism's claims to legitimately manifest the Catholic Church in a certain place and time, it no longer is.

But let's ask another, perhaps even more important question. Granted that the "branch" theory has collapsed because of the failure of Anglicanism to uphold both of its essential elements, nevertheless, what may we say of the strength of the theory before the fall of Anglicanism to modernism? Several points need here to be made.

First, the fact that Anglicanism has fallen into heresy and apostasy is itself evidence that, even if the "branch" theory were valid, Anglicanism is not and was not one of the branches - probably not since the East-West split and certainly not since the Reformation. A community's apostolicity is evidenced in that it continues to hold the apostolic Faith. There may be from time to time theological ferment and heated doctrinal debate, but when the time comes for decisionmaking, that community which is apostolic insists on fidelity to that received Tradition. Anglicanism is presently not such a community.

Second, the Holy Scriptures know nothing of the "branch" theory. The early "branch" theoreticians made much of the fact that the earliest people of God consisted of twelve tribes, and, at times, two nations, Israel and Judah. But this ignores the fact that Christ established the new people of God through the twelve apostles, pre-figured in the tribes, bound together in visible communion under the headship of Christ Himself. Whatever the Old Covenant configuration may have been, Christ's intention for the Church of the New Covenant is clear: visible unity expressed through mutually recognized ministerial orders, Eucharistic fellowship, doctrinal agreement, and adherence to Christ's lordship. This Church is exhibited on the pages of the New Testament and, today, subsists in Holy Orthodoxy. In so far as "branches" are recognized in the Bible, they are, as in St. John 15, individual believers, not Churches who are not in communion with one another and who hold conflicting theologies.

Similarly, Holy Tradition knows nothing of such a theory. In the early Church, there were schisms from the Church, but not within the Church. The Fathers wrestled deeply with the implications of schism and, of course, the famous cases of how to handle returning former schismatics, but clearly acknowledged schism as a breaking with the Church, not the establishing of a "branch".

In the end then, we find the "branch" theory to be theologically defective, resting as it does on a non-Biblical, non-Patristic ecclesiology, very late in development and believed by a minority of those for whom it was devised. This is not at all to say that Anglicans could not be holy, or be recipients of God's grace, or indeed be considered Christians. On the contrary, many men and women of exemplary devotion and holiness have inhabited the house of Anglicanism; the beauty of traditional Anglican worship is deservedly legendary; its often inspiring architecture is grace in stone; and its teachers, preachers, poets, and writers, when at their best, have engaged intellect with heartfelt imagination in the service of the Gospel. For all of that and more, we thank God. But, to say this is not the same thing as affirming the "branch" theory, but instead it is to acknowledge the work of God, even beyond the Catholic and Apostolic Church, and to express gratitude. And yet one would be remiss in not saying that authentically traditional Anglicans, formerly bolstered by such things as the "branch" theory, would find all that they love in Anglicanism and which is reflective of the classic Christianity of the first millennium to be at its fullest and most authentic in Holy Orthodoxy.

Many people, myself included, told themselves for years that when Anglicanism came to its theological senses it would acknowledge its true heart and center, its Catholic identity.

We have the privilege of living at the time when the true heart of Anglicanism has been revealed, and it has turned out to be not Catholic but liberal protestant. For many, again including me, that is a painful discovery. And yet, God being the death-to-life transformer, this painful situation can also be the occasion for finding our way to that to which the best in Anglicanism points, our true home, the Holy Orthodox Church.

Fr. Gregory and his wife Frederica are former Episcopalians. He is now pastor of Holy Cross Orthodox Mission, Baltimore, MD.)

PROBLEMS OF ECCLESIOLOGY BETWEEN ANGLICANS AND ORTHODOX IN THE DUBLIN AGREED STATEMENT (1984)

by Fr. John Daly

There is much to celebrate in the Agreed Statement between Anglicans and Orthodox which was the result of the 1984 Dublin meeting. There is a commonness of vision in many places and a great deal of mutual respect conveyed in areas of disagreement. this is cause for hope in future dialogues.

However, the sometimes profound areas of disagreement in our respective understanding of the Church combined with very different parameters for dissent and disagreement within our respective communions is evidence of how very far we still are from anything approaching reunion. Events in the Anglican communion in the years following the Dublin meeting have only exacerbated the situation (e.g., the "consecration" of several women to the episcopacy; ever widening disputes between traditionalist bishops and churchmen on the one hand, and "radicals", on the other, about basic doctrine; the issues surrounding human sexuality and homosexuality in particular; the very real possibility of a major schism or series of schisms among Anglicans worldwide as these matters reach their climax). As we shall see, the very possibility of actually defining an Anglican response to Orthodox apprehensions and doubts about the authoritativeness of any such attempt were it accomplished makes it extremely difficult for Orthodox to know who actually speaks for Anglicanism (i.e. what distinguishes the position of various Anglican spokespersons as authoritative vs. mere opinion? Who decides and on what basis?). In a very real sense, our discussion with Anglicans is a sort of "tertium quid"—neither like the discussions with Roman Catholics nor like those which might be had with Protestant congregationalists. All of this, of course, is grounded fundamentally in the ecclesiology, or lack thereof, which forms the basis of the Anglican Communion.

Section I, para. 9, of the Dublin Agreed Statement reflects the fundamentally different approaches to the Church between Orthodox and Anglicans: Anglicans are accustomed to seeing our divisions as within the Church, but they believe that they belong to it. Orthodox, however, believe that the Orthodox Church is the one true Church of Christ, which as his Body is not and cannot be divided.

Though the true doctrinal position of each Church is presented very openly here, what is not (and perhaps cannot — or at least ought not be) set forth is the tremendous psychological and emotional conflict between the two views. For instance, it is extremely distressing for most Anglicans to deal with the fact that Orthodox view them as not fully in the Church. This perceived (and real) exclusion is especially painful when it is contrasted with Anglican openness to intercommunion and mutual recognition of orders. Conversely, Orthodox are often offended and hurt when our own very deeply held convictions about the need for unity of faith to precede any restoration of communion is attacked as mere triumphalism or as the rejection of others as persons. Orthodox believe that there can be no ambiguity or compromise about Church dogma even while admitting the need to explicate certain dogmas in a manner more intelligible to the contemporary culture. Anglicans allow a wide expanse in the interpretation of dogma — to the point of what appears to be contradiction in Orthodox eyes — even while they believe that they are continuing to affirm the catholic faith. This leads to a real problem that can (and does) arise when both groups use the same words to describe their faith but in vastly different contexts.

Before exploring specifics within the main body of the Agreement, it may be helpful to look at the summary statements regarding the Church in the Epilogue. While we agree that the Church is one,

holy, catholic and apostolic, we are not agreed on the account to be given of the sinfulness and division which is to be observed in the life of Christian communities. For Anglicans, because the Church under Christ is the community where God's grace is at work, healing and transforming sinful men and women; and because grace in the Church is mediated through those who are themselves undergoing such transformation, the struggle between grace and sin is seen as characteristic of, rather than accidental to, the Church on earth. Orthodox while agreeing that the human members of the Church on earth are sinful, do not believe that sinfulness should be ascribed to the Church as the body of christ indwelt by the Holy Spirit" (Epilogue, Section IV, para. 99 (d)). This paragraph alone reveals a great deal about the quandary in which we find ourselves when talking about the Church with Anglicans. It also reveals how it is possible to talk to each other in the same language, using the same vocabulary and still misunderstand each other on the most basic level.

For example, Orthodox are often perplexed and frustrated in theological conversations with Anglicans. It is quite easy to find Anglicans who are very close to the Orthodox theologically, sacramentally, and devotionally, and at the same time it is just as easy (in fact much easier nowadays) to find Anglicans who are so far removed from an Orthodox understanding of anything that it is rather difficult to seriously regard them as Christian (in the sense of confessing Jesus Christ as Lord and God, one of the Trinity who was Incarnate in our midst). How, we Orthodox will say, is it possible for both to exist in the same Church (often in the same diocese, deanery, or parish)? How is it that one bishop may for all intents and purposes deny the Virgin birth, the Bodily Resurrection of Christ, the necessity of confessing the Trinity alone as Godhead, the whole ethical and moral tradition of the Church and then some, while another bishop may strictly abide in the universal tradition of the Orthodox Catholic Church (yes, there really are some who do!)?

If we look at what is stated in Sec. IV, para. 99 we may be able to better understand the enigma. If the Church herself is understood to be struggling between grace and sin, then there is indeed a very wide room in which debate may take place. After all if grace (and truth) are mediated (and often corrupted) through sinful women and men, then how exactly can one ever determine the fullness of Truth in anything before the Eschaton? Since not only particular persons but the Body as a whole may at times fall into error, it will be exceedingly difficult to categorically admit the rightness or wrongness of any doctrine. At the extreme end, this line of thinking becomes so positivistic that everything is reduced to the perceptions and valuation of each individual (in the fullest sense of that terrible word!). The actual experience of doctrine as authoritative has eroded so profoundly in some segments of Anglicanism (notably the Churches in North America and Oceania — and with increasing rapidity in the British Isles themselves) that new doctrinal statements are being made without regard (or with flagrant disregard) for the experience of the Church in the past. This is especially so in the area of liturgical reform (e.g., inclusive language liturgies), moral and ethical teaching (e.g., homosexuality, abortion, "euthanasia"), and sacramental order (e.g., the "ordination" of women, the admission of persons to communion from traditions which deny any understanding of the actual presence of Christ's Body and Blood in the eucharist), etc. This, rather harsh, critique of the implications of Anglican ecclesiology from an Orthodox perspective will find a mixed response at best from those who are committed to the Anglican tradition even if they are otherwise very close to us in their assessment of specific issues. This is why bishops with utterly contradictory interpretations of the faith will remain in communion with one another.

How does the Orthodox claim that "sinfulness should (not) be ascribed to the Church as the body of Christ indwelt by the Holy Spirit" sound in ears of many Anglicans — especially considering that we admit that the members of the Body may indeed by sinful? (In all fairness, one could probably find not a few Orthodox who would also have a problem with the apparent paradox inherent in this question.) For most Anglicans, coming from a cultural and religious mileu (Protestant, mostly) which takes as a given fact the idea that every institution is fallible and which furthermore, understands the Church much more as a "structure" than as an organism, the very idea that dogma is immutably and eternally true — "the same yesterday, today, and forever" — is alien and reeks of totalitarianism and fanaticism. Once again, to be fair, history and some of the would be spokespersons for the Church have lent more than a little credence to such apprehensions.

However, in spite of the miscommunication and misinterpretations of our ecclesiology by some who would represent us, there still remains the fact that we confess that the Church, as the Body of Christ, cannot fall into error. The very presence of error (heresy) and confusion in the assembly is evidence that it has departed from the fullness of the "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church." This is hard to convey in a pluralistic culture which not only tolerates but even "celebrates" a wide diversity of mutually exclusive traditions. (The real depth of this "celebration" of differences, however, often falls short of accepting any teaching which makes absolute claims about anything — especially when such claims call into question the beliefs and behaviors of others).

This leads to a consideration of communion and so called 'intercommunion.' Anglicans along with Protestants in general (as well as a not inconsiderable number of individual Roman Catholics) regard shared communion as a means toward unity. The sharing at the table is seen as a sign of hope for future organic reunion. The Orthodox understanding of communion as something which can only be shared within a community of faithful in which there is no difference of faith (DAS, sec. I, para. 20) bears a much closer resemblance to the sharing of the marriage bed than it does to the prevalent notion of "table fellowship" among Anglicans. Just as marriage is a "closed community" when it comes to the sharing of its most intimate form of communion so is the Church (the Bride) in Communion with the Body and Blood of Christ (the Bridegroom). To put it rather bluntly, the idea of sharing communion with those outside the Orthodox Church — using the symbolism found in Ephesians 5 and elsewhere — has as its parallels, fornication and/or adultery in marriage. The only means of entering into communion is through the establishment of complete unity of faith. The image of fidelity in both the Church and within marriage is by no means accidental.

However, when we read certain section of the Agreed Statement concerning the marks of the Church it would appear that we are on our way toward re-union. For instance, in DAS sec. I, para. 12, we read a statement about catholicity of faith (as opposed to schism and heresy) with which both Anglicans and Orthodox were in full agreement. Once again, the actual interpretation of the paragraph within the respective communions may not be at all the same. Consider the statement, "If Christians cease to love each other or to respect Church order they are in danger of schism. If they depart from the essentials of the apostolic faith they become guilty of heresy." (DAS, I 12). According to Orthodox standards, Anglicans have, to varying degrees, become both schismatics and heretics. In the matters of Church order and in keeping of the apostolic faith (and praxis), it can be quite fairly demonstrated that the Episcopal Church in the United States has indeed departed from the Tradition in several areas. Obviously, the Anglicans who agreed to the statement about catholicity have a very different understanding of the essentials of increasing — even as the words and concepts which fill these agreements sound more and more harmonious.

Continuing with the same paragraph we read, "...(L)ocal churches, in faithful response to their own particular missionary situation, have developed a wide diversity in their life. As long as their witness to the one faith remains unimpaired, such diversity is to be seen, not as a deficiency or cause for both faith and order. This terminological confusion is all the more striking because the Agreed Statements and other Ecumenical documents (e.g., B.E.M.) have come out at a time when the actual doctrinal distance between the Church and the various denominations, may, as a matter of fact, be division, but as a mark of the fullness of the one Spirit who distributes to each according to his will (1 Cor. 12:1)." What is meant by diversity? Differences in ritual and ceremony have always existed in the church; the admission of western rite Orthodox into canonical Orthodoxy bears witness to this. However, the diversity which is accepted — even celebrated — among Anglicans goes far beyond ritual (i.e. ceremony). The theological understanding of the rites and sacraments of the Church is interpreted by Anglicans in such diverse ways as to make it impossible to identify any one Anglican definitive, authoritative, statement about virtually anything. (Just ask what the "Real Presence" actually means at a gathering that includes representatives of the various types of Anglican "churchmanship".) Furthermore, diversity as understood by many Anglicans (at least those who control the General Convention of ECUSA) includes tolerance of (or acceptance of) beliefs and behaviors which have no precedent in Christian experience other than their identification with sin — sometimes very grave sin. This is by no means a polemical statement. A cursory glance at virtually any mainline (i.e. neither reactionary nor radical) publication of the Episcopal Church USA will show how broadly the call for respecting diverse opinions has been interpreted — even when such opinions would have been understood to be deeply perverted at any other time in Christian history.

Finally, attention must be given to two additional aspects of ecclesiology, related to one another and to everything else that has been put forth in this paper; these aspects are Tradition and the contemporary innovation of "ordaining" women to the "priesthood" in several parts of the Anglican communion (since 1989 there have also been "consecrations" of women to the "episcopate"). Section III, para. 47, states:

Looked at from outside, the two Churches appear to be very different in their attitude to tradition, the Anglicans allowing a great variety of attitude and teaching, the Orthodox being strongly attached to the definitions and the structures of the tradition, especially to those established in the Ecumenical Councils and by the Church Fathers.

Not only do the two Churches appear to be very different from the outside regarding Tradition but they appear so from the inside as well, at least in the experience of one who has been on the inside of both. This fundamental difference in approach to Tradition is really connected with fundamentally different approaches to authority in general, as we have already seen. The fact that Anglicans, like most western Christians, believe to some degree in the "development of doctrine" in the sense that new and innovative doctrinal assertions may arise out of historical experience, allows for the establishment of practices which may (apparently) contradict what had gone before. Were this confined to matters of "discipline" alone it might indeed be an acceptable example of diversity but since the changes and "developments" also touch on matters of the "esse" of the Church (at least to the Orthodox mind) there arises the immediate objection that the "Spirit of Truth" Who "blows where He wills" is not a spirit of contradiction blowing against the Church and the Holy Tradition (which has been given to us in and through the same Holy Spirit).

In Sec. III, para. 52 the discussion is of the "dynamic nature of tradition" under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and exercised with careful discrimination in the midst of the societies and cultures in which the Church finds herself. "The Church at the present time needs to exercise...discrimination, remaining true to the mind (phronema) of the Fathers and facing the new questions with which our century confronts us", concludes the paragraph. Here again, the way Orthodox understand the "mind of the Fathers" and its living application to the present seems to be very different from Anglican evaluations of the same things. Whereas many (but by no means all) Anglicans view the "ordination" of women to the priestly and episcopal orders as in keeping with the "mind of the Fathers" and faithfully facing up to the challenges of our times, the vast majority of the Orthodox regard the move to ordain women as a contradiction of the Church's mind and Tradition and a very rash one at that — something which was done in response to political and social changes in the larger culture which had more to do with a power struggle than with the right practice (orthopraxia) of authority.

With regard to the specific, unilateral, and sudden decision to ordain women to priestly ministry, the Orthodox response in the Agreed Statement (DAS IV, 102) cites contrariness to Scripture and Tradition.

However, in a very positive way the paragraph goes on to state the need to examine such issues as the meaning of the distinction of the sexes, the meaning of the sacramental priesthood and its connection to both the High Priesthood of Christ and to the royal priesthood of all believers and to furthermore explore the other forms of ministry in the Church.

From such explorations we shall no doubt see again a difference in the approach and in the conclusions drawn by the two communions. Orthodox will continue to look to Holy Tradition to provide a consistent and continuing witness to the meaning of the sacramental priesthood even while exploring "new" but never contradictory expressions of the other ministries of women and men in the Church. Likewise, Anglicans will probably continue to regard doctrinal and sacramental expressions of the "Church" as being subject to historical and cultural conditions and always in the light of the tension between "grace" and "sin." Of course, some individual Orthodox will come out in favor of women's ordination (as an eschatological sign?) while some Anglicans will reject it as a compromise with the "spirit of this world." However, it is exceedingly unlikely that the Orthodox will "discover" in the Tradition a line of thought that would permit the wholesale rejection of Church practice for 20 centuries on such a central matter as ordination (of the "esse" of the Church) just as it is unlikely that Anglicans as a body will repent of what many of them consider to be an issue of "justice" and "prophetic witness" to the world.

The good which will come of all this is that Orthodox will be challenged to explore the meaning and truth which underlies our understanding not only of the all male sacramental priesthood but of the much larger issue of the meaning and value of the two sexes created "in the image and likeness of God." This too, as we will see, is a fundamentally ecclesial issue directly related to the most fundamental of all ecclesial models, that of the Bride-Bridegroom with all its ramifications for Christian life both in the home and the Church. If Anglicans and Orthodox actually do manage to address this issue seriously among themselves and with each other, it promises to be a profoundly enlightening experience — though the likelihood of real agreement may prove to be unobtainable.

In the final analysis, ecclesiology and how it relates to our understanding of Tradition and authority is by far the most difficult and even contentious area in our dialogue with Anglicans. However, if our dialogue is conducted in a spirit of frankness, fearlessness, and love, we have much to say to one another. This means we must be willing to say (and hear) "hard sayings." The failure or unwillingness to do so at this critical juncture in our respective histories will spell the end of any fruitful conversation. The ultimate question is whether or not either or both participants in the dialogue have the courage to proceed into the rough and uncharted waters ahead.

Fr. Daly is a former "liberal" Episcopalian who converted to Orthodoxy. He is pastor of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Southbridge, MA.)

ECCLESIOLOGY: What is it? Why is it important?

by Franklin Billerbeck

How we view, think about, and understand the Church is referred to as ecclesiology. While this may seem like an abstract area best left to academic theologians in seminaries, it is not. It is an area of vital concern to every Christian.

Whether or not you have thought about it much, you have an understanding of the Church, an ecclesiology, even if only by default. Indeed, you must deal with the Church: Christ founded it and spoke of it and it has been a big part of history for almost 2,000 years. How you understand the Church, however, is influenced in no small part by how you answer the basic question: who is Jesus Christ?

If Jesus Christ is merely one of many prophets, then Church is less important because there are always other prophets and ways of relating to God. In this view, Christianity is only one of many possible religious choices. Moreover, all (or at least most) religions have some truth. Therefore it is simply a question of choosing which you prefer. No religion is really superior to another religion except that it may be a better religion for you. Such a view destroys missionary activity and means we can't claim one religion is true and another is false (likewise it may become very difficult to claim one moral view is right while a different moral view is wrong). In this view either the various religions are all valid throughout all time or they are given in a series of revelations as humanity needs them—one revelation follows after another. Thus while original Christianity was good in its day, it is today replaced by something more appropriate to our situation. While this view is held by many in America today it is not the view of the undivided Church and it is not compatible with traditional Christianity.

On the other hand, if Jesus is who He said He was, God Incarnate, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, who came once to give the fullness of God's revelation, then we have a very different picture; for Jesus founded the Church and the "gates of hell shall not prevail against it." To misunderstand the Church would lead to a misunderstanding of our very relationship with God as Jesus intended that relationship.

"Unless ye eat my flesh and drink my blood ye have no live in you," says our Lord. But this is possible only within the Church, and Scripture is very clear: there is one Church, one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. How then do we account for the literally thousands of so called "churches"? Three basic responses come to mind.

The first is to say we can't account for the differences. In essence this is nihilism (that is, we don't know and we can't know). Such a view is not agreeable with Jesus being Who He claimed He was. If Jesus is God and He founded one Church which is necessary for our salvation, would He leave us in a setting where we could not locate this Church? Had He done so, His painful death on the Cross would have been largely in vain. Moreover, His promise that the Holy Spirit will lead and guide us into all truth would be nothing more than a bad joke. If Christ's promise that the Holy Spirit will lead us to all truth is a false promise, then why should we trust any of His other promises? If this is how God so loved the world, then we are in deep trouble! Indeed, such a perspective calls into question our very understanding of God's nature (loving) and whether or not Jesus Christ is God.

A second approach is best described as minimalism. This view tries to account for the various "churches" by claiming that there is a minimum necessary to be the Church and that wherever that minimum is present there is the Church. Because this minimum may be present in any number of denominations, and it is this minimum which makes the Church one, there is one Church, with one minimum faith, in a variety of denominations.

Of course the problem with minimalism is deciding what the minimum is! Forgetting for a moment the question of who is the judge of what minimum is needed, we find a wide variety of possible minimums.

One the one end of minimalism is an understanding that those who do good in Christ's name are the Church. This view allows a wide variety of beliefs about Christ and about doctrine. In fact, you could reject most of the Bible but still believe (in some vague way) in Christ and be considered part of the Church. Such a view could make part of the Church such different groups as David Koresh, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Episcopalians, Holy Rollers, Baptists, Roman Catholics, and even Arians (who denied the Divinity of Christ and were anathematized by ecumenical council!) and Moslems!

Slightly less broad, but still minimalistic, is to require some set of beliefs e.g., that Christ is God and Man and that the Bible is God's Word. Depending on how much is included in this minimum of requirements, it may or may not narrow the field of churches. Yet it is exactly this minimalism that underlies all of Protestant Christianity! Some "churches," for example, have a very short list of minimums (e.g., Methodists, Fundamentalist, etc.—[believe in Christ and be saved]) while others have a highly developed statement of beliefs (e.g., Lutherans and their Augsburg Confession).

The understanding of Church with the largest minimum is probably the Anglican notion of the "branch" theory. In this view, those churches holding the faith of the undivided church and maintaining apostolic succession are fully Church i.e., Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox. Like all other varieties of minimalism, the "branch" theory suffers from the problem that there is no authoritative determination of what the minimum is. Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox disagree about what the faith is (e.g., papal infallibility, filioque, etc.) and they disagree about what the undivided Church believed.

Besides this problem of deciding what the minimum set of beliefs are, minimalism suffers from three other problems: it results in contradictory and mutually exclusive beliefs, there is no authoritative judge to decide the minimum of beliefs, and it is contrary to the Bible.

Minimalism, clearly the dominant American understanding of the Church, results in accepting a variety of beliefs which are contradictory and mutually exclusive. Once you have the minimum, then a variety of additions are all accepted—you may believe in papal infallibility or you may not, you may believe Communion is the Body and Blood of Christ or you may not, you may accept apostolic succession or you may not, you may accept sola scriptura and biblical inerrancy or you may not, etc. Because many of these beliefs contradict one another and are mutually exclusive (you can't both believe in papal infallibility and reject papal infallibility, and you can't both believe the Bible is with out any error and believe the Bible may have some errors), the only option is to say that beyond the minimum of beliefs, whatever additional beliefs you choose to hold are not essential—believe whatever you like. In other words, beyond the minimum there is no absolute, identifiable Truth. Thus, for example, whether or not Communion is the Body and Blood of Christ or whether the pope is infallible is, arguably, irrelevant and, at least from looking at the Christian landscape, can't be determined with certainty.

Such a view is not satisfying and leads to disunity in the faith. Therefore in such a view the Church would logically be seen as "by heresies distressed," for to view her as the pure and spotless bride of Christ is inconsistent with the reality of her many, divergent, and contradictory beliefs and practices. Yet this is the understanding of probably most American Christians! As President Truman once is reputed to have said: "We are all on the same train, going to the same place. We are just in different coaches." In other words, what you believe is really not very important. Thus, when you hear people say they will go to whatever church feels right, they are really minimalists. When you hear people say, "Oh, the churches are really all the same," they are minimalists. When you see people change from Roman Catholic to Lutheran or from Lutheran to Methodist, unless they really have changed their theology, they are minimalist. One cannot change from being Episcopalian to Presbyterian, Methodist, or Roman Catholic without undergoing serious and profound theological change unless, deep down, they are a minimalist or are ignorant or unwilling or unable to study. For the millions of people like this there is some certain minimum (about which they have probably thought little) and beyond that they will pick and choose what they like.

Of course in minimalism there is really no authoritative judge to decide what the minimum of belief is. Many would respond that you just need to accept the Bible. However, two people can accept the Bible (even as God's Word) and mean very different things by that—God's Word once and for all time or one of God's Words which will be replaced when we become ready for more. Moreover, there is no authoritative way to interpret the Bible. Thus when Article 6 of the Articles of Religion says Episcopalians can't be required to believe something that can't be proven by Holy Scripture, the problem is to whom does the proof need to be given and by what standard will that proof be judged?

Thus, in minimalism, because there is no authoritative judge determining what is minimum, each individual must decide for him or herself what the minimum is. The end result of such individualism is, of course, confusion. The result is a cafeteria approach to Christianity—take what you like, leave what you don't and please don't disturb anybody else's choices. The logical result is that the faith of the individual, not the faith of the Church, become primary. Thus the individual person, parish, or diocese can retreat to isolationism, largely ignoring the rest of the Church.

Many conservative Anglicans and Episcopalians are exactly like this. The Church as a whole is not primary. What is important is themselves and/or their congregation. Thus as long as their diocese or parish does not bless same sex marriages they will not be too upset—even if their neighboring diocese or parish does bless same sex marriages. In such a view, a person or an individual parish can simply go on holding to what they have always done and the national church can do whatever—it does not impact on the individual or the local parish. Such a view and practice is and must be at its very foundation minimalistic. Given the response of many so called ESA dioceses, parishes, and individuals, it seems fair to say that they accept minimalism and hence view the Church primarily as individual or congregational (a very unbiblical view) rather than as a larger organism. Ultimately for these people faith is divorced from a larger setting and is determined by the individual—with the resulting diversity of beliefs and practices—a tower of Babel!

Such an individualistic view means that ultimate authority in the Church rests only with the individual. The Church as a whole has no binding authority. Thus an individual can claim, for example, to be a "good" Roman Catholic but can also choose to reject the dogma of papal infallibility or call God Mother, Daughter, Spirit. In a word, the sheep are scattered, each to fend for him or herself. Of course, at an institutional level, the view of the church becomes focused, not on the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, but on individualistic beliefs and theories. Control of the church as institution is viewed in human terms and the most powerful group of individuals gains control.

While this individualistic result of minimalism is the basic understanding of the Church held, I believe, by many "conservative" Episcopalians, it is also the basic understanding of the Church held by many so called "liberals." For the "liberals" the minimum may be different than for the conservative, but it is ultimately the individual who decides what Christianity is. While the conservative may accept certain minimal standards of belief, conduct and judgment for determining the faith, it is an individual decision. For the liberal there is simply a different personal choice regarding what the minimum is and, like for the "conservative," it is on a personal or individual authority that he accepts alternative standards for determining belief and conduct. Because they accept different standards, the "liberal" and the "conservative" are in conflict. But at their core, they share a certain common understanding of the Church, namely, minimalism and its resulting individualism.

Because there is no authoritative way to decide what the necessary minimum is, we are left with basically the same problem as we had with nihilism. We have no way to locate the Church or account for the denominations. Granted, each denomination has its own answer (e.g., just believe in Jesus, be baptized [some would require that be with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit while others would not]) but which is right? Perhaps safest route is to choose the "church with the most."

But this only leads to the problem that minimalism is unbiblical. Christ's promise to send the Holy Spirit who will lead and guide us into all Truth is suddenly brought into question. Christ's revelation once delivered in its fullness is suddenly not clear because various groups (all under the Holy Spirit?) have different ideas what minimum is required. Given that the Spirit will not lie, do we take only as minimum that basic truth upon which all denominations can agree? If so, what is it? They are mutually exclusive—for example, Jesus Christ is true God and true Man or Jesus Christ is true God but not true man. Moreover, minimalism fails to account for the explicit warnings in Scripture to beware of false prophets which will lead us astray and of the devil roaming about like a lion seeking to devour the sheep.

Scripture points out that Christ is the Head of the Church and Christ is Truth Himself (John 12:6). Truth is not a confession of certain beliefs but rather Truth is God, and we know Truth only through relation with Truth. Christ called us to a full relationship. Christ did not merely call us to believe certain things. Relationship can never be captured in its fullness by a listing of beliefs—a listing of beliefs about marriage is not and cannot be, for example, the same thing as marriage. To understand Church primarily as a set of beliefs about God is to fundamentally misunderstand the Church. Church is a community of humanity united with God. Thus minimalism starts its basic understanding of Church on a false premise. It is only because of the Church's relationship with God that she can proclaim doctrine to defend the faith. This is different from proclaiming doctrine to define fully what the faith is—the faith, in a way like marriage, is ultimately a mystery beyond our understanding and ability to define. Try, for example, to define marriage so completely that the definition gets at and includes every aspect of a marriage relationship. Thus when the Church is viewed as primarily as doctrine, instead of relationship with God, human logic becomes more important than God's mystery and we start playing theology. The Church's doctrine is not and cannot be a total delineation of the faith. Rather it is a partial defense of the already existing reality of the Church's relationship with God.

The third response to the various denominations is perhaps best described by the term wholeness. In this view, the Church is that which has the whole relationship with Jesus Christ. This whole relationship is ultimately beyond our definition. It is a mystery which we understand only through a cloudy glass. Hence there is no actual definition of what Church is, rather there are simply comparisons to get at as much of the meaning as we can understand.

Jesus called us to intimate relationship with Himself and Scripture refers to the Church as the Body of Christ. Where there is unity with Christ there is the Church. The Church, because she is Christ's body, can never be separated from Christ. One is united with Christ by being part of His body—the Church is communal in nature, not individualistic. The Church is a living relationship with Christ where each member of the body is interacting and interdependent with the other parts of the body. If one part is ill, it impacts on the other parts—see I Cor. 12:26.

In the Church God indwells with humanity so that humanity might become god. We are, in the Church, made whole, complete, and perfect. We are a new creation. Taken as a whole, the Body is united with Christ and because Christ is holy, pure and spotless, so also is the Church. Her individual members are on the path of holiness and salvation is a process; therefore individuals will have to struggle against sin, but hell will not prevail against them—they will be united with Christ and made pure, holy, and spotless. Hence church is the pure and spotless bride of Christ and not primarily a body by heresies distressed.

This Church is identifiable in earthly time and space because she possesses one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and shares the one Communion—the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Because Christ cannot be divided there can be no division in His Body the Church. Neither can there be different and contradictory doctrines. Christ would not lie to the Church and the Holy Spirit leads us to all Truth. Thus in the Church one finds unity in faith—a unity preserved by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The Church is infallible because the Holy Spirit who dwells in the Church is infallible. An individual member of the Church, however, is not infallible.

One can identify and point to the Church where one finds the same fullness of the faith and practice of the apostles—the wholeness of relationship with Jesus Christ. The faith and practice of the Church, her relationship with Jesus Christ, simply do not change.

Ultimately it is up to God to make someone a member of His Body. Hence there are probably people not associated with the external aspects of Church who will be saved, that is, they will be united, made part of, Christ's Body. Hence we can say that outside the Church there is no salvation. Similarly there are those who go through all the motions of Church but will not be saved. It is not for us to decide who is and who is not part of Christ's body.

We cannot say someone is saved (going to go to heaven), but we can say someone holds the fullness of the faith and practice of the apostles. That someone is, of course, Orthodox. There are others who do not hold the fullness of the faith, and therefore they are not Orthodox. This fullness of faith includes not only dogma but faith and practice. When one holds the fullness of faith and practice then one shares the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the Mystery of Communion.

Those who do not hold the faith are more or less distant from the Church as that Church is seen and locatable in this world. The divisions of the denominations are the result of their leaving the fullness of the faith—a leaving ultimately caused by evil. We are warned of this in Holy Scripture.

Indeed, our Lord Jesus Christ founded the one Church. It is this one Church which preserves, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, the Faith "once delivered to the saints." There is and can only be one True Faith—that revealed to the Church by the Lord Jesus. Jesus warns us about false faiths and warns us to be faithful to the True Faith received from Him and passed on in its fullness by the apostles whether in word or in writing. Because of her unity with Jesus Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit the Church rejects false teaching and embraces the Truth.

The Church, therefore, is and can only be fully united and in agreement about what the faith is. Doctrinal unity in the faith is a necessary aspect, a sine que non, of Church. Those who do not hold the fullness of the faith are simply not viewed as Church — though the Church does not pass judgment upon their salvation. Where questions arise (e.g., iconoclasm, Arianism, etc.) it is the one Church, acting conciliarly under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which is led to the Truth. Hence a decision of an ecumenical council is not considered true until the Church accepts it.

The Nicene Creed, proclaimed by ecumenical council and accepted by the Church, describes the Church as "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic." Her faith and practice come from the Lord and His apostles. Part of this faith is the Church's understanding of what it means to share Communion—the Body and Blood of Her Lord. Receiving Communion is unity with Christ—a unity more intimate than even monogamous sexual unity shared between man and wife. To be united with Christ is, of course, to accept and be united with the fullness of His Revelation—to accept the "faith once delivered to the saints" and to reject false teaching. Therefore, only when there is this agreement on the faith, can we share Holy Communion. Sharing Communion is ultimate unity with Christ and unity with all the members of His Body. For this reason the Church does not admit to Communion those who do not share the faith—she denies communion to heretics. This is part of the faith and practice of the "undivided" Church, and it is not open for debate. The same councils that proclaimed the Nicene/ Constantinopolitan Creed excommunicated heretics who rejected the faith expressed therein (e.g., Second Ecumenical Council, Canon 1). The Body and Blood of Christ is shed for the life of the world but is given only to those who are united with the Church. By not giving Communion to heretics the Church preserves the fullness and unity of the faith and makes abundantly clear what that faith is. She also preserves the health of the body and saves the heretic from doing something that is dangerous for his/her soul. Holy Communion is fire that burns the unworthy. In Communion we are fully united with God. Remember that no one has seen God and lived—here we receive God! St. Paul warns us that those who eat and drink but do not discern the Body and Blood bring judgment and even death upon themselves (I Corinthians).

Where the bishop is there is the Church because the bishop teaches the fullness of the apostolic faith (or he is not a bishop) and celebrates the Eucharist. Because of her unity in faith and hence her unity in Eucharist, the Church is and can only be united—she is utterly indivisible! Schism is separation from the Church; a leaving, a moving away from the faith and hence the eucharistic union of the identifiable community which is the Church. Schism is never a division within the Church. When receiving Communion one is fully united with the entire Body of Christ, both on earth and in heaven; hence one is united with, for example, the present Patriarchs of Moscow, Antioch, and Constantinople and also with Sts. Peter, Paul, Basil, Patrick, Katherine, and, of course, the Virgin Mary. The true unity of the Church, therefore, is found in her receiving and sharing in the one Body of Jesus Christ.

Because sharing Communion requires sharing the same faith, it is not possible to be an Orthodox Christian and share Communion with non-Orthodox. This does not mean we do not love the non-Orthodox, that we don't have things in common with them, or that we think we are better than they are (after all, they might be saved and we might not be—that is up to God). However, for Orthodox, to share Communion with non-Orthodox would be a rejection of their Orthodox faith—the fullness of the revelation is an all or nothing proposition. Reject the Church's understanding of Eucharist and sharing Communion, and you reject the Church!

While ecclesiology may seem foreign and abstract, it impacts upon how we live our Christian life. Our understanding of the Church is grounded in our understanding of who Jesus Christ is. While there are three basic ways to view the Church, the first two, nihilism and minimalism are filled with problems and are in error. While the Church is ultimately a mystery beyond our understanding, the only Orthodox approach to understanding her is to approach her as wholeness, that is, the whole and complete revelation of God which calls us into union with Him who is forever and ever, the Alpha and the Omega.

A FEW READINGS ON THE CHURCH

  • Finding the New Testament Church, by Fr. Jon E. Braun. Short and concise.
  • Scripture and Tradition, by Raymond L. Zell.
  • For the Life of the World, by Fr. Alexander Schmemann. A classic. Sacramental approach to the world based on the liturgical experience of the Church.
  • Common Ground: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity for the American Christian, by Jordan Bajis. Includes a superb but easy to understand discussion of the church.
  • The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom, by Fr. Alexander Schmemann. A classic.
  • Catholicity and the Church, by Fr. John Meyendorff. A classic.
  • Living Tradition, by Fr. John Meyendorff. A classic.
  • All the Fullness of God, by Fr. Thomas Hopko. See esp. chapters 1, 3 and 6.