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Bowdlerized Catholicism

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By Anthony F.M. Clavier

Perhaps only my fellow gray heads notice what an enormous change has occurred in the American Episcopal Church during the past half-century. In so many ways a Catholic approach to Anglicanism seems to have triumphed. Perhaps the most significant symbol of this triumph is the Book of Common Prayer (1979), one of the most high-church volumes to be adopted by any province of the Anglican Communion. I think this finally came home to me when an English bishop, one of the most vocal members of the Catholic party in the Church of England, told me that he could happily use the American prayer book. I was astonished.

One can point to its bold statement that the Eucharist is the principal form of worship on Sundays. One may cite the various forms of the Greater Thanksgiving contained in its Eucharistic liturgies, or the assumption that the Eucharist should be the setting for baptism, matrimony, and the burial of the dead. The order for the Reconciliation of Penitents clearly affirms the place of what was once termed auricular confession as an appropriate spiritual discipline. Prayers for the departed form a normal part of liturgical texts.

Fifty years ago a majority of parishes observed sung Morning Prayer as the principal form of Sunday worship. In parishes where reconciliation was available recourse had to be made to vague texts in the offices for the sick, or unofficial liturgies borrowed from Roman Catholic texts. Today Eucharistic vestments are used, the sacrament is reserved, bishops gad about wearing copes and chasubles, their heads adorned with miters, pastoral staffs carried — even if some bishops grasp them in the wrong hand. The consecration of bread and wine is accompanied by manual acts and elevations made public by the adoption of the westward position at the altar. These customs, fifty years ago, were normal only in the most “Catholic” dioceses. Today, even in such former bastions of low-church religion as Virginia, albs have become the normal form of clerical worship attire. Fewer and fewer clergy own a cassock and surplice, let alone a hood and tippet.

Yet, despite all this, there’s an area in which development of Catholic belief and practice has made no progress, and indeed there has been significant regress. That area is crucial to a Catholic worldview. I refer to the concept of universality, pivotal in a robust proclamation of “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” to which we all refer each time we recite the Creeds and renew our baptismal covenant.

Opposition to the Anglican Covenant continues to be linked, perhaps more vigorously than ever before, to a passionate belief in provincial autonomy and omnicompetence. The motive for this conservative, anti-developmental position is not doctrinal. Rather, it is asserted to protect what are called justice issues, and these are mixed up with a cultural attachment to American exceptionalism, normally espoused by rightwing political platforms, informed by a patriotic commitment to the ideal of Americanism, enshrined in the founding documents of the United States.

Quite remarkably Episcopalians cite Reformation ideas about National Churchism which developed in Tudor days as an apology for the separation of the English Church from the See of Rome. Tudor apologists like Bishop John Jewel were obliged to dredge up or create a national myth to defend the autonomy of the Church of England. The myth ran something like this: England was an empire before the Norman invasion. Imperial entities in ancient times developed national churches. It all looked rather odd in 1560. The empire was just adjusting to the very idea of nationalism, and in comparison with Spain, for instance, it was tiny — England, Wales, and perhaps Ireland.

A closer look at the thoughts of those Divines who attempted to justify the Anglican Reformation shows them to be caught on the horns of a dilemma. They were obliged to affirm the Royal Ascendency in all matters political and religious. Yet they still looked beyond the channel to other Reformed churches, hoping that some further unity might be envisioned, perhaps through a General Council of Protestant Churches. That hope dimmed as time went by. Politically the birth of a new British Empire, the union of the crowns of England and Scotland, the creation of imperial outposts abroad, gave further impulse to imperial justifications for what became known as Anglicanism.

For roughly 200 years after the Reformation, Anglicanism spread to the New World and slender outposts in Africa and India. The problem of justifying the theory of national churches hardly figured. The establishment of a dissenting Episcopal Church in Scotland, and then of a national church for the United States, changed all that. Yet for nearly 70 years after the creation of the Protestant Episcopal Church in America little thought was given to what that development meant in terms of ecclesiology, the theology of how area churches relate to each other within the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church.

Much of the movement towards a visible expression of worldwide Anglican unity came from the Tractarian Movement. Canadian and American bishops, we should note, pressed for developing robust intercommunion structures. Many worked for elevating the See of Canterbury to patriarchal status. They sought international instruments which would affirm doctrinal, structural and liturgical norms, and international forms of discipline. The first two meetings of pan-Anglican bishops in what would be dubbed Lambeth Conferences adopted resolutions which would have created a structure far more authoritative than the proposals contained in the Anglican Covenant.

It may be justly remarked that this first move toward an Anglican Covenant failed because successive archbishops of Canterbury resisted most of these proposals. Even without formal recognition of the Lambeth Conference as a juridical synod of bishops, the authority of its deliberations was widely accepted. Pan-Anglicanism seemed a logical partner in the growing ecumenical movement. In ecumenical dialogue Anglicanism needed a united voice. Attempts to unite the church on the mission field required Anglican unanimity.

In practice the establishment of what are now called Instruments of Communion was a natural development in the quest not only for Anglican unity but for the eventual reunion of a fragmented Christendom.

The dissolution of the British Empire spurred a similar development of autonomous and more often than not national churches, in a climate of liberation and national aspiration. It was in this context that the ideal of the autonomy of national churches, developed in Tudor England, gained new life. Since the 1960s two impulses have been at cross-purposes. The first was the impulse toward visible expressions of mutual responsibility and accountability between the churches of the Communion. The second was the rise of nationalism and the emergence of the United States as a superpower. This dichotomy is alive and well in the Communion today, lurking behind the policies of the provinces of the Global South in opposing policies in North American provinces, and a formidable presence in the Episcopal Church’s self-description as an autonomous worldwide church, accountable to no one but its own governing bodies. Catholicism and nationalism clash, woven together in a manner difficult to untangle.

The Anglican Covenant is a very mild attempt to reassert a vision of the unity of the Church into this context. Perhaps it is inevitable given the times and the seasons that its gentle proposals should be viewed as an attempt to subordinate provinces to an all-powerful, reactionary centralism. No fair and impartial reading of its text would lead one to such a conclusion.

We have the irony of an American church, transformed so remarkably by the triumph of “Catholic” teaching and practice during the past half-century, clinging stubbornly to an ecclesiology at odds with its own development. At the same time the Episcopal Church now seeks to affirm a Catholic sacramentalism and territorial episcopate, while harking back to the Reformation’s pragmatic defense of national ecclesiastical autonomy, tinged with denominational aspirations once believed to be antithetical to any genuine belief in one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church and the ecumenical vocation of Anglicanism (which has become a notable gift to the contemporary Church).

If “No Covenant,” what? How do Anglicans express a sound doctrine of the Church without competent instruments of unity? The foes of the Covenant remain silent about that vital question.

The Rev. Anthony F.M. Clavier is a missioner in the Diocese of Springfield.

Bowdlerized Catholicism

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