The End of the (Partially Christian) Line
The news from the Anglican front is not good, but it does illustrate an important point. The Archbishop of Canterbury has acknowledged that there should now be “two styles of being Anglican” (at least!), the style of those who ordain lesbians and gays living in same-sex unions and the style of those who do not. The former group will put homosexual unions on a par with marriage, and so will freely ordain those who have committed themselves to such unions. The latter will not bless homosexual unions because they are gravely sinful, and so Anglicans of the latter style cannot be expected to ordain those committed to such unions.
On the heels of this statement we learn that Blackburn Cathedral is offering the Anglican faithful a choice between communion blessed by a female resident canon and communion blessed by a male priest, because not all Anglicans believe the ordination of women is valid. One cathedral canon explained that this solution was adopted universally by the cathedral chapter and clergy “as the best way to handle what we call a mixed economy.” One presumes he was referring to the economy of salvation.
Painful as this must be to Anglicans, the dubious nature of their priestly orders clearly removes much of the theological sting. But what is going on among Anglicans is the same thing that has transpired-and, indeed, must inevitably transpire-in any version of Christianity cut off from Rome. Speaking in terms of recognizably traditional Christian beliefs, most of what used to be called mainstream Protestantism has long since dissolved. Other brands of Protestantism, all of which are theoretically based on private interpretation of Scripture, have likewise progressively deviated from their founding beliefs over time, though it must be noted that, in some instances, these deviations have brought them closer to the original Catholicism from which they were so untimely born.
Indeed, the only certainty for Protestant groups is that their beliefs will change fundamentally over time. Although few Protestants might admit it, much of the original Protestant understanding of Scripture-in all the areas in which Protestants agreed with Catholics-was drawn from the Catholic Tradition. But when Scripture is divorced from Tradition, it must inevitably be read through a new lens, and so it will be interpreted differently. Even more importantly, Protestant sects have no authoritative means by which they can distinguish legitimate understandings of Scripture from errors. The writing is on the wall. Increasingly, conservative Protestants in a wide variety of denominations find themselves battling over new expressions of their communal faith.
As for the Orthodox, there is only temporary security in not looking for one’s doctrine primarily in the spirit of the age. Anglicanism was born from a self-conscious compromise between traditional Christianity and the spirit of the age, so it could hardly last very long as religions go. By contrast, the Orthodox churches are largely defined by their commitment to what was originally held, that is, to Tradition. But Tradition too demands interpretation, and the Orthodox face a grave doctrinal difficulty of another sort-the risk of fossilization, the inability to develop their understanding of Christian doctrine to address new situations, questions and concerns. The reason is the same: They have no authoritative means for distinguishing errors from legitimate developments, which both extend and corroborate what has gone before.
C. S. Lewis once proposed “mere Christianity” as a solution to Christian diversity, suggesting that there were certain core beliefs that all Christian groups shared. His thesis was seriously deficient, being based inevitably on a sort of snapshot of what most Christian groups held in common at one particular time. Since the 1950’s, in fact, nearly all commonalities have disappeared. And why? Because the authority principle is vital to Christianity, and it exists only in the Catholic Church. The rejection of that principle by every other Christian body constitutes a virulent infection which must inevitably end in dissolution and death.
Today, we are witnessing the end of the line for Anglicanism, but Anglicanism is a cautionary tale for every other Christian body. Just as the first Christians had a visible, living and infallible guide in Christ, so too must each succeeding generation have a visible, living and infallible guide. The Archbishop of Canterbury speaks truly when he says that “no-one is seeking a risk-free, simple organ of doctrinal decision for our Communion.” Nonetheless, without Peter’s ministry of unity in truth, every form of Christianity is not mere Christianity but merely partial Christianity. Unfortunately, partial Christianity cannot stand. Its demise is only a matter of time.