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Evangelical Catholicism: The ecclesiological vision of Archbishop Michael Ramsey (2)

This is the second part of Fr. Will Brown’s seminal piece, originally published on Sep. 20, 2007, immediately after Covenant was foundedYou can find the first part here

For Michael Ramsey’s The Gospel and the Catholic Church, on this side of the last things, the ecclesial life and the unity of this life are constitutive of the Godward gesture that is the Church’s vocation in history. “This unity is connected with the truth about Christ Himself. It is the unity of His own Body, springing from the unity of God, uttered in the Passion of Jesus, and expressed in an order and a structure” (p. 47). And because ecclesial unity is at once a gift, as well as an historical making-known of the truth of God in Christ, its universality precedes its locality.

Thus each group of Christians will learn its utter dependence upon the whole Body. It will indeed be aware of its own immediate union with Christ, but it will see this experience as a part of the one life of the one family in every age and place. By its dependence upon the Church of history it will die to self-consciousness and self satisfaction. (p. 44)


[B]y their place in the one Body they are to learn to be humble and dependent and to die to self. Let them consider the Body and exist only as members of the Body, and they will learn of Christ’s Cross whereby men are lost as separate ‘selfhoods’ and found as members of Christ and of one another. (p. 52)

Ecclesial life — life in Christ — includes a conviction about the valuelessness of the local — of individuals and individual groups — outside the terms of its inclusion in the universal. A group or an individual’s membership in the one Body therefore “includes the redeemed man’s knowledge of death and resurrection through his place in the one visible society and through the death to self which every member and group has died” (50). Acts of disunity are thereby betrayed as inimical to the life of Christ — as anti-Christ. Yet any act uninformed by the life of the whole Body is just such an act of disunity. “For every part of the Church’s true order will bear witness to the one universal family of God and will point to the historic events of the Word-made-flesh” (50).

Innovations, “new things” or new truths putatively undertaken or revealed by the Holy Spirit to an individual or group within the one Body must therefore be explicable in terms of their witness (μάρτυς) to the Gospel — to the historical reality of God in Christ — as well as in terms of their status as gift to the whole Body. And here naturally issues of mutual recognition, inter alia, arise.

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God. (1 John 4:1)

And “If there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silence in church and speak to himself and to God. … For God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (1 Cor. 12:28, 33). Indeed Ramsey notes St. Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthians for their factionalism and self-consciousness, for their failure to die to separate selfhoods and become alive in Christ: “To possess a gift is to feel no pride of possession, for only in the life of the one Body is it of use or of significance” (p. 53). Ramsey might have gone further: a gift is only realized as such in the gratuity of being-given; “to possess” a gift is to nullify its character as gift (cf. Jacques Derrida in “Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money”).

Gifts are for giving.

Anglicanism has become factious in the extreme, and one cannot help but wonder if the spirit of Christ-like gratuity, of self-effacement for the sake of the Body, has been quashed by a climate of hyper-self-consciousness. It is wondrous that, when the Episcopal Church’s new “gifts” have met a lack of recognition from the One Body, it has still not given the church any pause. We can only wince at the self-awareness of Episcopal rhetoric at times : “our church law … our canons … our autonomy … our Constitution … our founding principles … our own liberation from colonialism,” etc. (see the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops’ “Mind of the House” resolution from March 2007 in Navasota, Texas). Has the Episcopal Church not “succumbed to the peril of thinking of these gifts as possessions of their own and interpreting them in terms of human wisdom, knowledge, and individual ownership” (Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church, p. 51) – terms born of the spirit of Anti-Christ, as we have seen, inimical to the life of the Body?

Neither has TEC given an adequate theological account of how her innovative gifts bear witness to God in Christ. There has been much talk of “justice” and of the making-possible of our gay and lesbian brethren’s appropriation of what is theirs by right. But if the sexuality between persons of the same gender is to have a place within the one Body, it must be accounted for in terms of the given life of the one Body. It is not enough that it should be accounted for in terms of the autonomous life of the Body’s members.

We know something of the iconography and sacramentality of the gift of human sexuality. But the one Body has rooted human sexuality in the differentiation and complementarity of the sexes, which our Lord himself placed under the rubric of creation and grace in one of his very few explicit teachings on the subject:

Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” (Matt. 19:4).

As intimated by St. Paul in Ephesians 5, the Body has known the gift (the datum) of sexuality within the one Body as complementarity within differentiation, as iconographic of the mutual self-gift that takes place between the different but complimentary natures of God and man in the one flesh of Jesus Christ, the theanthropos — the consummation of which is constitutive of the Body’s life.

How might Anglicanism gesture “toward the question mark of Calvary at the center of its teaching” (p. 4), even amid the difficulties and disagreements we face? Here are some far-fetched ideas:

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that “the liberals” are right

If, as the Episcopal Church seems to be claiming, the gift of sexuality must be revised or elaborated, let this revision or elaboration take place within the context of the common life of the one Body, within the spirit of mutual recognition and self-gift which alone characterizes the love by which our Lord said we would be known (John 13:35). Let the Episcopal Church offer her gifts in patience and humility, knowing that love is patient, kind, and does not insist on its own way (1 Cor. 13:4-5) — knowing that in autonomy she is nothing (1 Cor. 13:2). And if it is true that her interlocutors in the Communion at large are blinded and ignorant, as many have suggested, let the Episcopal Church bear the burden of her brothers’ and sisters’ blindness and ignorance, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2). Let the church bear it “with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:2).

Assuming, for the sake or argument, that “the conservatives” are right

For the conservatives’ part, let them listen in humility for the voice of the Spirit in their interlocutors, knowing that the Spirit’s groanings are too deep for words, even traditionalist words. Let them be willing to suffer at the hands of the litigious. Let them be eager to be defrauded to keep the scandal of factionalism away from the consciousness of the unbelieving world for whom the Lord suffered and died. Let the conservatives prefer to suffer injustice for the sake of the souls of their brethren; let them know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins (James 5:20).


Would that this difficult season of disagreement in the Anglican Communion were characterized by Christians competing with one another, only to give the most extravagant gifts of self, to be the most gratuitous in their outpourings for the sake of one another. Would that the secular media told stories about parishes and dioceses attempting to give away their property to one another, rather than seeking to hold onto it at almost any cost, like ravenous dogs snarling over scraps. Would that when Anglican Christians sat down to eat, they might wait for one another, that the world might know that the Father sent the Son.


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