One of the great theologians of the C of E wrote of the crisis of doctrinal authority which led to his reception into the Catholic Church several years ago. Re-reading this piece may be of encouragement to others who are now on the ‘journey home.’
Dr Edward Norman was Canon Chancellor of York Minster and is an ecclesiastical historian. He is an emeritus Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge. This article was first published in the Catholic Herald and is excerpted here. The bolding is mine.
It is not joining the Catholic Church which is intellectually or emotionally difficult: it is leaving the Church of England that is hard. This is not because the Anglican understanding of Christianity is particularly consistent or persuasive, very much not, but because over the years loyalties accumulate, friendships are established and styles of worship become fixed. How could it be otherwise?
. . . It was from books, and from a study of Christian thinkers and apologists, that my knowledge of the faith derive.
Among a fellowship of believers a sense of shared faith can also bring palpable blessings, but in the end these things (Church members being humans and not angels) are a fragile basis for a sustained adhesion to a religious life. What is needed, in some form of words or other, is a clear Doctrine of the Church, a sacramental view of the relationship between Christ and his followers on earth [what Newman called the dogmatic principle].
At its simplest (and therefore most useful) expression the Church is the body of Christ in the material world.
The unfolding truths were first delivered to fishermen of Galilee, and were to be received, as Our Lord himself declared, by such as little children. Christ did not entrust his message, and the gift of salvation, to a body of writings, or a philosophical formula, or a prescribed order of society: he entrusted himself to a people the People of God, the Church. By very definition, as a result, the Church must be universal, and there can be no such things as a National Church. The essentials of Faith cannot differ from place to place, or culture to culture, although particular rites or interpretations of practice may legitimately vary, not in essentials but in applications.
The problem for the theologians and theoreticians has always been to determine which things are essential and which are not. There is also, as the Catholic Church teaches, a hierarchy of truths, some of which are more applicable in some circumstances and times, than in others, but which are all nevertheless truths. And there are errors which, because of the ease with which humans allow their passions and enthusiasms to correspond too closely to their desires, are only too readily misunderstood as authentic developments of the exhortations of the Saviour.
Now the main difference between Catholic Christianity and Anglicanism is the nature of the Doctrine of the Church itself. It is not that Catholicism has one understanding and Anglicanism another; it is that Catholicism has such a doctrine and a very clear one and that Anglicanism does not really have one at all.
Far too much was left unattended at the Reformation, when English Christianity was detached from the centre of unity and from the Magisterium of the universal Church, leaving the Church in England without a means of determining its own doctrines. No one could have foreseen at the time that the split with Rome was to prove permanent. And so for the next three and a half centuries doctrine in the Church of England was determined by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council [Today in many places in the Anglican Communion doctrine is determined by majority vote in synods by people.]
. . . Anglicanism has no basis for its authority which links it to a universal body. The consequent effect has been that every section of it and, in these days of spiritual individualisation, every person in it feels free to make up faith for themselves and deem the result to be Christianity. How can the Church be the body of Christ in the world when its confession varies from place to place and person to person, not only in minor but in the most essential teachings about faith and morals? At the centre of Anglicanism is a great void.
Catholic readers will perhaps find this all very obvious. It is not. However, the way things are seen in the Church of England where there is actually very little consciousness of any need to think about the authority of Christian teaching at all. Moral issues are determined, where they are determined at all, on the basis of data furnished by media presentation or the findings of surveys of opinion. Doctrinal questions do not in reality get much airing, largely because there is so little common ground for precise formulations or any stomach for debating them and, anyway, there is no authority for determining the basis of authority, short, one supposes, of legislation in Parliament. As for Christian morality, there is a procession of tawdry public controversies. With every compromise the truths of which the Church of England purports to be the guardian mean less and less.
Seeking to join the Catholic Church, after the experiences of years of exposure to these ecclesiastical inconsequences in the Church of England, induces not only a feeling of coming home but a sensation of cleansing. Humanly speaking, nevertheless, gratitude to Anglicanism is still experienced, and a large degree of lasting affection. The Church of
England provides a master class in equivocation; it also, however, is the residence of very many good and faithful Christian people who deserve respect for their perseverance in so many incoherent spiritual adventures. To leave their company is a wrench; to adhere to the Catholic faith is to join the encompassing presence of a universal body of believers in whose guardianship are the materials of authentic spiritual understanding. After lengthy preparation I have immense gratitude.