Saturday, 19 March 2011

Letter to Margaret - an Evangelical Anglican friend

This is an attempt to answer a question put to me by a long-time Anglican with an evangelical background. I believe her question reflects the feelings of many with personal faith who seek to relate to the Church as the Body of Christ but do not fully comprehend the essentially corporate nature of the one Church Catholic.

Margaret wrote the following to me after reading an article about the Ordinariate which attempted to express how ordinariates are open to all baptized Christians who are not already in full communion with the Holy See:

. . . the comments [made on the teaching of the Catholic Church] are far from supportive, they raise many obvious questions for which there seem to be no convincing answers . . . Jesus is my answer, He is my Saviour, my King of Kings and Lord of Lords, His Holy Spirit is ever present, He is my friend . . . what more could I ever need; is it too simple?

God bless,

My response was as follows:

Dear Margaret,

Of course, I couldn't agree more with you that Jesus, the risen Lord, is the answer to the human dilemma.  My pressing question is: What vehicle, what group will insure that his message and the communion which Jesus offers us will be carried forward for others?  

I certainly cannot do it on my own and I am required by his express command to share his story, his message and his good news.  It is not just for me.

Following are some thoughts I have been working on . . .

None of us came to an understanding of Jesus on our own.  Someone -- many people --  translated the scriptures, printed them, taught us the principles of Christ and their meaning as young people in a community of prayer (a church) and provided us with an understanding of Jesus, his mission and the way in which it can be carried to others.

Maintaining and passing on the message of Jesus implies the need for some organization.  To those who say that they do not like organized religion, Christianity or the Catholic Church, I can only say that they must then engage in some kind of unorganized religion (there are plenty of those ...  not to mention New Age and the occult) which attract many naive young people.  

The other alternative is to have your own private faith.  As someone put it: people who don't want the Catholic faith must want to be their own pope i.e. decide matters of faith on their own.  That may seem to serve the individual's perceived personal needs but their faith and understanding are still based upon what the they have received from others.  How will an individual pass the content of Christian faith on to children and others without sharing the duty and responsibility with others of like mind in some organized way?  

No matter how you look at it, some group or individual must interpret the Scripture and make decisions for the ordering of a community which celebrates, preserves and passes faith on to others.

Either of these two alternatives noted above is a recipe for disunity at least and probably will lead to disorder and the loss of any coherent message or vestige of Christian faith.  Such approaches certainly cannot maintain a Christian witness or community to carry Christ to  the world, to pass on the moral and ethical message of Jesus, or nurture the personal faith of people.  All of this requires an ordered community with worldwide authority in this global era.

It is not enough to say that I hold the Christian faith myself.  We are required by Jesus and by the very faith we profess in him to share our faith in communion with others (The Great Commission - Matthew 28).  That sharing implies a specific organization which Jesus commissioned and appointed his Apostles to oversee.  

This is the Christian faith, it cannot be possessed by any individual alone and is only really maintained by sharing it in a thoughtful and systematic (sacramental) way with the oversight of those who are ordained by the power of the Holy Spirit in a community.  This has to involve co-operation with others.  And so the question is: What group of people is it our call and duty as Christians to work with in the mission to which Jesus calls us? 

As John Donne, the great poet and dean of St. Paul's, London, put it in his Meditation XVII on 'The Church Catholic': 
"No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."

The toll of the church bell was for Donne, as it is for us, a symbol of our unity in the Body of Christ which is made up of individuals who need one another and have a spiritual responsibility for one another and for future generations.  Such a responsibility to children and the future can only be worked out in a communion, in a body of people organized in some way. Every baptized person is a member of Christ's body and so has a responsibility to be in communion (imperfect as we all are) with one another in the communion of Christ which is only found in his Church because faith cannot be maintained and passed on by islands of humanity. Individual faith apart from a community means that the mission of Jesus ends with the individual and that is directly contrary to the purpose set forth by Jesus which is to share his life with everyone.

We need a community to interpret and sustain us and the message and mission of Jesus; to stand up to the demands of a secular world which does not want the message of Jesus (or thinks it knows better).  Which group of people, then, is best carrying forward that truth and which group does so in real communion with God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a worldwide fellowship which Jesus instituted, commanded and sustains?  

Which group of people systematically educates children in this truth and provides for its transmission into the future?   Which community of people is divinely commissioned and graced by the Holy Spirit to do this around the world and which group has formulated in council and sustained the scriptures, teaching and sacraments through the centuries despite human error and folly?   Which group is on every continent and island offering self-sacrificing love for the orphans and the dispossessed as consecrated sisters and brothers, ministers of God's love?

I truly wish I could say that the Anglican Communion was, is, and will be part of that community.  I believe that it certainly was.  Is it now?  Will it be in the future?  

It seems clear to me that with the decision-making of the past thirty years, many of the synods of the Anglican Communion have largely abandoned the understanding of Jesus that I was raised with and still believe. "I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church" - The Apostles Creed.   

The Anglican Church of Canada and the US Episcopal Church and others in the Anglican Communion have said in recent years that they can change what the sacraments and the moral teachings have been since the time of the Apostles.  They have said, in effect: "we will change these as we like and we don't care what other Christians do" i.e. they make decisions following the secular spirit of age which are directly contrary to what the vast majority of Catholic, Orthodox and Evangelical Christians believe (90% of Christians around the world) about family, sexuality and church order.   We, they say, can decide whatever we wish by a majority vote in our meeting.  It reminds me of the old aphorism quoted by the constitutional scholar Senator Gratton O'Leary "Parliament can make a man a woman."  By this he illustrated the constitutional power of Parliament in the British system but also the foolishness of legislating what was contrary to Natural Law.  The result - Anglicans have come to different conclusions from country to country on a number of central issues and so now are out of communion even with each other.  

Does this matter?  Yes, because without communion the message of Jesus is compromised, confused or lost.  Children will not hear and respond to the message without a teacher and the teacher needs to be supported by a group, a group which in an organized way produces, teaches and distributes the bible and its moral and ethical code.  That is the only way it works in human life.  It isn't mine, I must pass it on with others.

Am I part of a community which will carry the mission and truth of Jesus forward?  That is the question we all have to ask if we want to serve the person and mission of Jesus.  Sadly, I have come to the conclusion that the Anglican Communion as a whole is no longer committed to this and to the unity with others for which Jesus prayed and to which he commands us.  At the same time, we have this gracious offer from Pope Benedict (Anglicanorum Coetibus) to welcome Anglicans into full communion with the universal Church.  This has been an answer to my prayer since I was a child.  I believe that the Catholic Church is the only body which can carry forward in a consistent and effective way the message that the majority of Christians hold dear.

Is the Church perfect?   Do I like what everyone says and does?  It is made up of imperfect human beings seeking communion with the Lord.  That is the answer for me.  It teaches that we are sinful and need constantly to seek forgiveness.  That is the truth.   But, the Catholic Church proclaims the same faith that the Apostles handed on.  The Catholic Church does all of those good things that I noted above in a greater and more extensive fashion than any group or individual.   

We cannot be Christians on our own. We only have faith because of and within a community which exists by Jesus own command and has persisted over time against all odds.   This reality can only describe the Catholic Church, the divinely graced  bearer of the good news; which isn't to say that sincere Protestants and others are not Christians.  However, Jesus prayed and we must take seriously his words: "that they all may be one . . . that the world may believe that you have sent me" (John 17: 21).  I have to take that seriously and respond to his call and invitation to be one with the universal Church not part of a group which is separated and continues to fragment and compromise the message of Jesus (Anglican or Protestant) or as an individual.   I see no alternative if I want to be faithful to the call of Jesus.  

. . . I am still working on these thoughts, Margaret.

It is a simple message as you say and I agree, but someone must deliver it and it can't be done alone.   The Ordinariate is a gift from the Lord for people like me.  Everyone must make his or her own decision, of course.  

I will get you a copy of The Catechism of the Catholic Church to consider.  This is what people in your community and elsewhere are studying and we will be doing so here.  It sets out the full Christian Faith in a Catholic perspective.  I do not disagree with any of it though, like everyone, I have my questions.  

What is the alternative?  For me the only way to remain a Christian and an Anglican is in communion with the wider Church.  I don't believe I can refuse this invitation and still be true to the Great Commission of Jesus (Matthew 28: 16 - 20). 

Much love in Christ,


NOTE:  In August 2013, "Margaret" was received into the full Communion of the Catholic Church. She is a woman in her 90s who has followed Christ her entire life and now has come home in communion with the Holy See.  Thanks be to God for his grace and mercy and for her witness to the guiding power of the Holy Spirit.