A tragedy of historic proportions took place today, November 2, 2003 in the state of New Hampshire. Four hundred and sixty nine years after the English Reformation, the Episcopal Church of the United States has chosen to forfeit what is an incredible inheritance - our Anglican forebears of the sixteenth century diligently endeavored to forge a strong bond with the historic church catholic while reforming the errors of Rome. The unique inheritance of the Episcopal Church was to be part of that Communion that served as a faithful depository of orthodoxy; indeed, the distinguishing nature of Anglicanism is its preservation of historical catholicity.
By denying the authority of Holy Scripture, the American church has made a conscious and deliberate choice to embrace a "post-modern liberalism" instead of the orthodoxy of the early Church Fathers that was handed to them intact, to be nurtured and preserved. Is it any wonder that the Primates of the Anglican Communion have denounced this? The Episcopal Church of the United States has broken with the historic faith and can no longer claim to belong to the church catholic. Indeed, the only claim the Episcopal Church has to the church catholic will dissolve away once the tie to the Anglican Communion is severed. To say this is a tragedy does not even begin to properly summarize the import of these events. If ever there was a time to review our history lessons, it is today.
The Anglican Church is, in a purely historical sense, quite unique among the churches of the Reformation. This cursory summation is not intended to imply that the great Reformation scholars Martin Luther, John Calvin and others were unfaithful guardians of Christian truth or somehow insincere in their quests for renewed catholicity. The point can be made, however, that the search for catholicity on the continent of Europe in the sixteenth century was quite different than the path that was taken in England. Understand that to the continental reformers, catholicity was a theological concept before it was a historical one; they saw the essence of catholicity as being in faithfulness to the Gospel and the conduct of the Apostles in the early Church. Also, continental-style reform seems to have been driven from the clergy level upward to the national level; in England, the reverse was true. On the continent, catholicity meant an invisible unity with Christ; in England, it meant defining and preserving a visible unity professed by history. In England, catholicity became an important component of a national body politic that sought legitimacy by rooting itself firmly in the past. That legitimacy, which was forged by a foothold in the first century, is the unique Anglican identity in history.
Various streams of the Protestant Reformation on the continent of Europe arose from specific theological affirmations, which found expression in differing ecclesiastical organizational models. In an outright rebellion against the established Church of Rome, the Protestant reformers endeavored to put their theologies into ecclesiastical practice and some were more successful than others. At the end of the sixteenth century, however, the map of Europe was predominantly Protestant in its ecclesiastical structure and theology, while Roman Catholicism seemed to be at its nadir. However, what became then, of traditional ecclesiastical structure and theology? Might it be found anywhere in western civilization other than the Roman Church? It is a solid point of historical observation that it was indeed - in the realm of England.
Recalling that what all reformers claimed to seek was actually a return to the primitive church, a state best described as the simplistic comprehensive unity of the earliest centuries following the death of Christ, then that same comprehensive unity must be applied as a measurement of the objective. The degree to which this objective was accomplished on the European continent varied, given its diverse and often unstable political and religious conditions. It differed also according to individual definitions of catholicity; for the context of this argument, historical catholicity is defined as manifesting itself in the visible elements of traditional Christian unity. In England, the rhythm of life required a more moderate and stable course of reform, given the chaotic conditions that had existed before the accession of the Tudors. Indeed, for England, it was the guiding and forceful hand of the monarch that shaped the sixteenth century path to catholic reform in a manner unparalleled on the continent of Europe, and produced a unique national church. As demonstrated in the history of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin, the earliest beginnings of the Protestant Reformation on the continent of Europe emerged and took hold in the remnants of the disordered Holy Roman Empire, and this is perhaps not a historical accident. The lack of strong and consistent national unity there provided rich and fertile ground for a splintering and diverse reform movement, whereby the strong national monarchy of England shaped the Reformation there. Viewed from a historical and theological standpoint, this inimitable situation for Tudor England is one that demands our 21st century attention. While mainstream Protestant churches emerged from the sixteenth century with varying degrees of attention to Christian history, only the Church of England preserved the historical pillars of catholicity intact - the authority of Holy Scripture, the Sacraments, the orthodoxy of the Church Fathers, the historic and consecrated episcopate, a historic liturgy and traditional doctrine. This was the course of history that was necessary in England at the time, but it yielded a unique movement that, even though severed from Rome, could lay legitimate claim to the church catholic and apostolic. What an awesome inheritance!
Anglicanism is catholicity embraced and defined in a simplistic and timeless sense. It is much more than our identification with the apostolic church through the consecrated episcopate. It implies the guardianship of a historic trust handed down from those who waged the doctrinal battles of the sixteenth century. We no longer need to explore the boundaries of diversity; that has been explored and defined for us - the limits of our inclusiveness can stretch no further than the historic ones of the Creeds and Holy Scripture. The Christian faith does not need to be created anew; the English reformers of nearly five hundred years ago understood that simple truth.
Whether through ignorance, apathy or defiance, the Episcopal Church of the United States has taken a stand against the historic faith. Now, some of us will appeal to the Anglican Communion to embrace us in our common orthodoxy. For us, it is more important that we be historic Anglicans than post-modern progressives who confuse heresy and the love of Christ, and ignore history as if there were no further lessons there.
--Cheryl H. White, Ph.D., is a professor of history at Louisiana State University in Shreveport and on the Vestry of St. Paul's Episcopal Church. Her primary field of study is Church History and Reformation Studies, and her doctoral dissertation, "The Struggle for Catholicity in the Tudor Church of England" explores the unique historical aspects of early Anglicanism.
Return to the home page