Thursday, April 01, 2004

Where Have All the Catholics Gone?

I recently stumbled across a letter Bishop Paul Marshall of Bethlehem wrote a year ago. He articulates very well a concern that needs to be part of the current conversation in the Episcopal Church. What follows is an excerpt from his letter:

The catholic ideal in Anglicanism seems to have died out among those who most vocally claim Catholic identity, and worse, to have fallen entirely out of the consciousness of those we used to call Liberal Catholics. The partisans on the right and left in our church have becoming so thoroughly protestant and congregationalist in their polemic I now find myself wondering what we intend when we speak of Catholicism in our tradition. Protestants tend to emphasize apostolic doctrine, while Catholics do not-cannot-separate doctrine and order. Order is a doctrine and the matrix of doctrine. The tradition unfolds within the ordered Church.

A basic intellectual rule is that ideas are not responsible for who believes them, and a corollary is that the alleged abuse of an office or power does not make the office or power illegitimate. I am quite willing to admit that in the past two millennia there have been heavy-handed bishops on both ends of the spectrum throughout the Christian world. I am even more certain that there are and have been many, many heavy-handed priests! It is, after all, from the ranks of the presbyterate that we elect our bishops. In neither case is that the point, however.

Liberals and conservatives have both been attacking the theological and canonical underpinnings of church order because they don't like particular results that the system has produced. This has produced, among other palpable evils, a disciplinary system which does not produce better results, and costs all involved a fortune. Frankly, in my view, the liberals have been doing this longer, but of late the conservatives have taken the center stage. A blessing on both their houses.

There are those who on account of some bad moments want to overturn a theology of the church that goes back to the very earliest descriptions we have of the apostolic church, as we recall those familiar passages in Ignatius, Polycarp, and Clement of Rome, that every seminarian comes to know. The patristic sources have one central point: the bishop is the pastor, evangelist, and teacher; in this way of thinking presbyters function only as representatives and colleagues of the bishop. The Tractarians recognized this and accomplished their reformation precisely by remaining with and under their bishops - until even the bishops caught on. It is the theology of our Ordinal and letter of institution. Priests have no franchise independent of their relationship with their bishop.

There are two grave theological errors afoot today. They come from the very real anxiety that some feel about bishops who persecute members of the right; anxiety is not, however, a reliable basis for theology.

The first error is that a priest can declare her/himself to be out of communion with her/his bishop and still be a priest. The priest is there as a partner of the bishop's in a "ministry which is mine and yours in this place." To reject that relationship is to put oneself out of business as a priest, plain and simple. St. Jerome to the contrary notwithstanding, the presbyterate is not the foundational order of the ordained ministry. The Eastern Orthodox churches are so clear about this relational basis for a priest's function that nobody in the west can bear to discuss their position for very long without trembling.

The second error is the proposal that a bishop cannot choose who will be among the trusted colleagues, cannot determine what priests serve as the bishop's associates in parishes or other ministries. It is the bishop's trust that the letter of institution expresses. If a rector can be imposed as a colleague over the bishop's conscientious refusal, one wonders how the relationship can in fact function. Much more, one wonders what it means theologically. Even the Lutherans cannot imagine this, despite their curious position on ordination.

If we are to have historic order in any meaningful sense of the word, we are going to have to accept the fact that we may not always like episcopal or synodal decisions. For priests to obey their bishops only when they happen to agree with them is not obedience at all, and to this commonwealth's endemic congregationalism we unhappily see added presbyterianism of the most unsubtle kind these days. Again, by clearly teaching the simple doctrines of the catechism and by our living out our relationship with each other, we can overcome this misperception.

I am aware of wild-man situations in the ancient church where bishops were dumped locally. That is not the pattern that the Catholic Church came to endorse. The way to discipline an allegedly errant bishop is through the larger, not the smaller, unit, an ancient principle that our Episcopal canons enshrine. To permit any other path is to abandon the ecclesiology on which the catholic movement is built. There is simply no point in drowning the baby to save the bath water. There are already many ecclesiastical structures in existence for persons desiring to inhabit presbyterian or congregationalist polity. We have something much more enduring to offer, and I ask that you join me in the endeavor to demonstrate its value in word and deed.


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