Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Roman claims

In a post entitled Newman Hits the Bulls Eye, Fr Dwight Longenecker quotes from and then expounds on John Henry Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine which deals with, among other things, the unity of form versus unity of doctrine dichotomy so relevant to the current goings on in the Anglican Communion. (What follows is a digest of that post and resulting comments.)

Fr Dwight paraphrases Newman as follows:

If the faith is to be applied now and in all ages, then it needs to be adaptable, and for it to be adaptable you have to have someone (or some institution) who decides when and how far the adaptions can be made. This interpreter needs to be infallible. If you don't have this infallible authority you will argue and disagree and eventually fall into one of two errors. Latitudinarian error preserves unity of form, but sacrifices unity of doctrine. The Anglicans and other mainstream Protestant Churches are an example of this. You can believe anything as long as you don't break down into schism.

The other error is sectarian. Those who move into a sect maintain unity of doctrine, but lose unity of form. The multitude of Evangelical, independent denominations are an example of this error.

These are the only choices for non-Catholic Christians, and every individual or group falls into one camp of the other. The non-Catholic individual or group is either sectarian (and there are more and more sects as more and more divisions take place) or they are latitudinarian, and these groups (in their attempts to include everyone and allow everything) are now so far from historic Christianity that they will soon need to take a new name.

The only other option is the Catholic Church . . .

To which Brian Britton of Mandeville, Louisiana very reasonably asks, 'where do the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox fall in Newman's scheme?' Fr Longenecker replies, 'following Newman's logic, the Eastern churches not in full communion with the Holy See must fall into the sectarian error--they have maintained unity of doctrine, but sacrificed unity of form.'

Not, I would argue, if you look at the picture from the Orthodox perspective which holds (not without some merit, I think) that the Church of Rome was in error in the events leading up to 1054. And this surely illustrates the moral and intellectual absurdity of holding on to the defensive 'I'm right, you're wrong' school of argument. Sooner or later, if matters are to be resolved, people have to get off their high horses and engage in discourse withone another in a spirit of Christian humility.

And interestingly this is indeed what seems to be happening between (some) Catholics and (some) Orthodox, the starting point of whose dialogue is that both wings of 'the Church' made mistakes before the schism occurred and, among many errors, both were transparently guilty of the collective sin of pride.

Our Lord established 'the Church' on earth and left it in the hands of the all too fallible apostles (and by implication their successors.) From the outset theysquabbled about jusidiction and doctrine and have gone on doing so ever since. Of course that's not the complete picture and there's no doubt the Holy Spirit has guided 'the Church' but all too often such guidance has been in the face of the abject stupidity of His human instruments. (One can't help feeling sorry for the Holy Spirit: so often invoked, so rarely listened to.)

One has to look no further than the Holy Land to see this happening on an hourly basis. For a start one can see in action in one place the amazing and rich diversity of Christian practice. In Jerusalem alone there are eight, nine, ten (possibly more)institutionally-established ecclesial groupings which can reasonably claim apostolic origins going back to the first or second centuries AD. Their relations with one another cover the complete spectrum of full communion to mutual (even sometimes physical) antagonism. All claim that they either constitute or are at least part of 'the Church' established by Our Lord.

In a recent posting, Fr Dwight, wrote a piece entitled Size Matters in which likens the Roman Church to an ocean liner and the Anglican Communion to a sailing dinghy. I beg to differ not to defend the Anglican Communion but because I would contend that size of itself truly is not important. Again, I refer to the Holy Land which is nothing if not a great leveller. Alongside numerous examples of behaviour that I can only describe as fully justifying the contempt in which the Christian Church is held by much of the non-Christian world, there were little beacons of hope which amply fulfill Our Lord's promise 'that where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.'

If you want to be impressed by size, I commend standing almost anywhere in the Old City of Jerusalem at about 1pm on Friday - any Friday, I suspect - to see wave upon wave of Muslim Palestinian men and women returning to their homes and to their work after Friday prayers. (I am grateful to Michael Freilich for the photograph.) That was impressive.


Fr. Dwight Longenecker said...

Was Rome right or was the East right in 1054? Both sides were wrong, but the whole thing is a red herring.

What happened in 1054 does not negate the logic of Cardinal Newman's observation. When the Great Schism happened (whoever was at fault) those churches that lost an agreed infallible authority structure necessarily fell into either latitudinarian or sectarian error.

This is not to cast a condemnation in anyone's way, or to make value judgements, but simply to make an objective observation based on Newman's logic.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker said...

Size is certainly not the sole criteria for judgement, but it is a criteria.

When using size to judge it seems to me that we must look not only at a particular situation or experience, but the biggest picture possible. We must see the Muslim hoardes, but we must also see the whole Church of Christ, triumphant down through the ages.