What possible reason could there be for someone who is Anglican/Episcopal and faithful to the theology of historic Christianity, not to be drawn to that greatest of churches within the Western tradition, the Roman Catholic Church?
It is remarked by many that over the last few decades there has been a steady movement of Anglicans to Rome whenever the leaders in the Episcopal or Anglican Church advance teachings which do not accord with Scripture.
Yet, the migration to Rome is surprising because: (1) Current scandals make Rome unattractive and undermine its claims to uphold the historic faith, at least in practice; (2) Rome holds certain doctrines, such as papal infallibility, which cannot be reconciled within Scripture, nor could ever be rightly considered necessary to salvation.
On the other hand, there are many reasons why bright, orthodox people convert to Rome; one can point to the influence of magazines like First Things, the Encyclicals of St John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, and the importance of the Roman Catholic voice in the ‘culture wars’.
Recent scandals in the Roman hierarchy have not significantly changed the situation, possibly because people who have studied church history know that there have been scandals in Rome in the past, and yet, despite the individual sins of those holding episcopal office, the church has maintained the orthodox faith in its official teachings. Furthermore, many find Catholic apologists such as Chesterton, or Belloc appealing, or have read Thomas Aquinas in college philosophy classes. In the long run, Rome looks solid and secure.
Furthermore since Vatican II, it has incorporated biblical teaching into encyclicals and encouraged bible studies at the parish level. It no longer officially holds that ‘there is no salvation outside of the Roman Catholic Church’. The general emphasis, since Vatican II, has been on the more historically and biblically accurate teaching of salvation through the Cross. Thus certain barriers to Protestants were removed from the path.
Thus, if one is an Anglican who is thankful for the apologetic work done by many Roman Catholics, one is continually forced to ask the question: why should one not affiliate oneself with the church which has the greatest and longest claim to Christian teaching, and which even with all its troubles, is less wayward than Canterbury and the episcopal leadership of the Anglican churches in the English-speaking world?
A response is not easy. One can take solace in the fact that the majority of Anglican clergy, particularly those living in very difficult circumstances in Africa and Asia, are inspiring witnesses to the truth of the faith. But that is little solace, if one is living in a place where it is hard to find a church which reflects the fullness of Anglican witness. Under such conditions, it seems quite reasonable to seek out any church where the rector appears to be a true believer and there is an institutional connection to people who uphold the faith.
Nonetheless, I would like to explain why I do not go, stemming from some thoughts about of the relationship of practice to faith, tradition and reason, culture and worship.
Expressions of the faith comes from many different sources, the culture and religious practice and books. The task of recognizing those remnants in Anglican culture, however, is not easy. But once the leading figures of the English world worshipped with the Book of Common Prayer, and its theology was ubiquitous. Throughout much of the seventeenth and eighteenthcenturies it shaped nearly all the works of the mind, whether in literature, art, law, government or philosophy. That legacy remains in different ways. It is even part of the way we still live, although we do not realize it.
That unique legacy might not have been if England had stayed under Rome, or if the Puritans had erased the whole legacy of the Reformation. One can make that claim without disparaging the intellectual legacy of Rome or Puritanism; both religious traditions are rich and deep, and extraordinarily significant, and these traditions enriched each other. In the seventeenth century Anglican, Roman Catholic and Puritan thinkers are in dialogue; their theologians debated, and artists engaged in debate through literature. Milton’s poetry was important, admired, and read by all, whether or not they thought his theological ideas acceptable. Among the greatest of seventeenth and eighteenth century poets and musicians, there are many English Roman Catholics. It is fair to say that English culture would not be English culture if it had not been shaped by all three streams of theology. Horton Davies’ books on worship and theology in England in the seventeenth century, is a thought provoking study of the interrelated practices and habits of Puritans, Roman Catholics and Anglicans.
The effect of the English Reformation was, thus, to create a complex and rich religious and intellectual culture. It is important to maintain the practice of worshipping with the traditional Book of Common Prayer if one has any desire to maintain anunderstandingof the unique cultural legacy of English-speaking Christianity, so that the theology, music, and literature, not to mention the legal and political legacy which brought forth our free institutions, might continue to be appreciated and understood. We forget how unique it is for English-speaking nations to have developed rational and free institutions. The idea of representative government, the idea of separate legislative, executive and judicial powers, limited yet free each within their sphere, came forth from ideas which were rooted in English theology and practice, not least the Trinitarian idea of soul rooted in Augustinian theology.
To put what I am saying another way: the objects of human understanding in Christian teaching can be reduced to two things – the abstract truths or conceptions (such as the essential nature of God as Trinity), and things which actually have existence, such as the practices of worship. Evidence of the truths of faith are perceived in two ways: there is as Augustine called it, ‘the inner teacher,’ knowing God intuitively and immediately in prayer and contemplation; but also, there is discursive reason, teaching through argument and instruction, and in worship, which is the way we signal our beliefs in action. Cranmer was intent to make all evidences of truth available to the common person in the church he helped found, make it part of their daily lives. The fact is that the historic prayer book was central to the culture that sprang forth because it shaped spiritual life, and western civilization is the better for it.
Augustinian theology thus underlies our culture, its practices and ideas, even if people do not see it. It can be found even in the remnants of Anglicanism– occasionally in a sermon, most certainly in traditional BCP worship. But the point to be made is that that historic legacy of Augustinian and Reformation theology will not continue to inform people if it is only in the head, learned from books, and not a part of practices and beliefs in every aspect of life; in the way one worships, and if one cannot see the way it has shaped what is most beneficial in our culture. This is why we need to return to practice the faith with the traditional Book of Common Prayer, because the church has abandoned its intellectual foundations for a warped theological system.
Dr. Bayer is Associate Professor of Political Philosophy
at Patrick Henry College, Purcellville, Virginia and Currently on Sabbatical at Princeton
The scene above is taken from the painting, “Fishing for Souls” by Adriaen Pietersz. van de Venne