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The Elusively Unitary Church

By Christopher Wells

Presuming, as a matter of faith — inscribed in Holy Scripture, borne by creed and confession — that the Church is somehow one, where may we reliably find it, and how will we know when we do?

Ecumenical labor in this field has turned up considerable fruit, by traversing semi-permeable boundaries between the churches of the Church. The bounds are real precisely as our divided denominations perdure, notwithstanding one and another attempt to gather them all together into one visible Whole. At the same time, the bounds are permeable because we have said that we recognize a persistent, real communion of faith and life, given at least in the Scriptures, prayer, baptism in the name of the Trinity, and the saints and martyrs. Many imagine these latter elements, and the institutions that bear them, as together making up the one — visible, or invisible, or both? — Church, the singularity of which we maintain by faith, notwithstanding apparent imperfection, impairment, and whatever else prevents our laying hold together of promised fullness. The potential visibility and/or invisibility of the Church remains contested and perplexing.

We find such irresolution in “inter-conservative” debates about appropriate means of reform or renovation of structures in the Anglican Communion. The 2009 Jerusalem Declaration of GAFCON charts a first approach to the problem by announcing recognition of “the orders and jurisdiction of those Anglicans who uphold orthodox faith and practice” (§11). The text attempts to establish or otherwise codify an unimpeachable visibility that right-thinking Anglicans may share and to which they may point. Building on this in its Letter to the Churches of 2018, GAFCON’s leaders wrote that they “have seen the hand of God leading us toward a reordering of the Anglican Communion.” If orthodox Anglicans may be seen, then finding and joining them becomes straightforward, just as other contenders can be exposed as unfaithful frauds. In effect, “nothing is hidden that [has] not been made manifest” (Mt. 8:17).

A second approach to the problem may be found in the Austin Statement of the Communion Partner bishops of the Episcopal Church following the General Convention of 2018. The text anchors its argument in a series of ecumenical images, which suggest that the unity of the Church itself, and therefore all the more the unity of Anglicans, may not be so readily apprehensible. To be sure, all Episcopalians (starting at home) “share the same baptismal identity” and on this basis should seek to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3) (§2). Walking together in communion, however, is the call of all Christians, and the Communion Partners locate their particular vocation within this wider horizon of pilgrimage, the end of which cannot be known (see §5). As they put it: “The larger Church is a catholic whole that includes our brothers and sisters in the Anglican Communion, and indeed Christians all over the world. In the face of crucial differences with our fellow Episcopalians over marriage, we seek the highest degree of communion possible consistent with these commitments” (§6). The ecumenical term of art degrees of communion flags a lack of agreed-upon, institutional fullness, while insisting that something real remains. Visibility is relativized, if not foresworn. For now, we may be grateful for “space[s] of differentiation, set within the wider communion of baptism and faith that we continue to share, however imperfectly” (§9).

Is there some way to sort out these varying approaches, perhaps as a contribution to the healing of divisions among Episcopalians and Anglicans more broadly, thence perhaps as a service to the one Church of Christ? In the present and several successive columns, I will map our debates onto a few classic discussions of the Church, in which we can find some old — catholic and apostolic — principles that may be of assistance.

Before turning to Anglican writers, I must start at the theological source of all western Christian ecclesiology, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430). In many writings, Augustine’s mature teaching about the Church specializes in nuance on the matter of ecclesial location, nuance that all western discussions inherit and appropriate, both for purposes of contestation and negotiation.

A primary and extraordinarily delicate task for Augustine concerned his need to wrench the surviving texts of Cyprian of Carthage (210-258), a great saint of the Church, out of the hands of Donatist mis-use. The Donatists were rigorist conservatives who initiated and maintained a breakaway church in Roman North Africa from the fourth century, centered around those who refused to repudiate their faith in the face of persecution. While Cyprian had upheld the unity, visibility, and salvific necessity of the one Church, he had also articulated a middle way between the “laxist” and “rigorist” parties of his own day by supporting rebaptism of heretics as a public penance and proof of validity. Against Donatist insistence, the Catholic Church would, in the next century, settle its teaching on this point, aided by Augustine’s argument that trinitarian baptism should be deemed valid wherever it takes place, even as its salvific effect will not ordinarily kick in unless and until one is reconciled to the Church. Such a distinction could allow for real sacramental beginnings outside strictly Catholic bounds.

At the same time, Augustine insists with great zeal that simple membership in the visible Church — baptism alone — also does not guarantee salvation, since deeper and determinative realities of true holiness and righteousness remain necessarily hidden. This, he says, should be learned from Cyprian. For the Church, as described in the Song of Songs, is “a locked garden” and “sealed fountain, a well of living water” (Song 4:12-13). This means that even when sinners — the greedy and fraudulent, robbers, usurers, drunkards, and the envious — “share the same baptism with the righteous, they do not share the same love with them” (On Baptism V, xxvii, 38). Thus St. Paul teaches, following an Old Testament precedent, that “a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart — it is spiritual and not literal” (Rom. 2:29; cf. Deut. 10:16; Jer. 4:4 and 9:26; Ezek. 44:9). Such spiritually circumcised righteous ones constitute, says Augustine, “the fixed number of the saints predestined before the foundation of the world” (On Baptism V, xxvii, 38).

Throwing the Donatists a bone, as it were, Augustine concludes that those who have been baptized “inside” the Catholic Church but who lack what St. Peter describes as “the appeal of a good conscience” (1 Pet. 3:21) cannot in fact “belong to the mystery of the ark of which Peter speaks.” For “how can those who make a false use of holy baptism and continue to the very end of their lives in profligate and dissolute ways be ‘saved by water,’ even though they may seem to be within?” Likewise, recruiting Cyprian to a revisionary end: if those baptized outside the Church later return to it in faith, may we not suppose that “the Lord in his mercy is able to grant forgiveness to them?” (On Baptism V, xxvii, 39).

On every count, Augustine’s teaching pays practical and pastoral dividends and rebuffs triumphalism. Writ famously as a wrestling with the “mixed body” (corpus mixtum) character of the visible Church and her members, Augustine cites Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the chaff, which are inseparable for a time until the final winnowing (De doctrina christiana III 37, 55). And he is especially interested in enumerating the several states of sojourning saints both within and without the visible Church, to underline the hidden character of God’s electing providence. Among the saints, says Augustine, we naturally find the most advanced who now “follow the supreme path of love” and are able to instruct others “in a spirit of gentleness.” And we also find  those persons “still living their lives at the carnal or natural level” who nonetheless fear God, “take great care and trouble to diminish by degrees their love of earthly and temporal things,” “give careful study to the rule of faith,” and readily accept “the authority of what is catholic.” Finally, however, we also find those “still living evil lives, [who] as yet still belong to heretical bodies or even to gentile superstitions. But in their case too, ‘God knows those who are his.’ For in that ineffable foreknowledge of God, there are many who seem to be outside who are really inside, and many who seem to be inside who are really outside” (all from On Baptism V, xxvii, 38).

In sum, three basic claims found Augustine’s teaching on the Church, putting pretty much every would-be Christian on notice — on principle, to help inculcate humility. First, the one, visible Church consists of those who are baptized and live within her clear bounds, and this institution is the ordinary vehicle for salvation. Second, membership in the Church does not guarantee salvation, since deeper, invisible realities are in play. Third, therefore, all Catholic Christians must work out their salvation with fear and trembling — and joy! — neither presuming their own destiny nor that of their invariably insufferable neighbors. They must patiently persevere with others and with themselves in faith, hope, and especially love. This is the promise of the gospel in the Church, the two being coextensive.

In the next installment, I will turn to John Jewel’s classic Apology of the Church of England (1562), an essay in aid of visibility if ever there was one.

Dr. Christopher Wells is executive director and editor of the Living Church Foundation.


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