Tuesday, February 12, 2002



The requests for definitions of terms and for clarifications that followed my previous post about "denominations" were excellent, and I thank the various writers for their thoughtfulness.

Part of the confusion of terms follows from the fact that Anglicans in America have to use the word "denomination" in two very different ways. Since our civil constitution forbids the establishment of a church, all churches in this country are, in a civil sense, "denominations," since none can claim to be the "national church of the United States of America." In this civil sense, the Romans, the Orthodox, the Anglicans, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, etc. are all "denominations": named Christian societies or churches. It is in this sense that the Preface to the 1789 Book of Common Prayer uses the term.

On the other hand, the Creeds that we profess assert that there is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. The understanding of the Church that follows from this statement cannot really sustain the civil sense of denominations as essentially competing groups. The Roman and Orthodox way of dealing with this problem (to oversimplify a bit for the sake of brevity) is to say, "We are the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church." The most common American Protestant ways of dealing with the conflict between our civil and ecclesiastical constitutions are either to ignore the matter completely or to translate it to a realm of complete invisibility where the Church, despite appearances, is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

The Anglican Way is distinctly different from all of these approaches since, historically, Anglicans have never claimed either to be "the Church" or that the Church on earth is so invisible as to be unknowable. Anglicans have tried to preserve a biblical and patristic understanding of the local church as a representative of the whole Church, and we have maintained that the completeness of that representation can be determined by standards such as the Four Notes of the Church (one, holy, catholic, and apostolic) and the continuity of doctrine, discipline, and worship of any particular local church with the undivided Church of the Apostles and Fathers.

Thus, Anglicans have not argued that anybody needs to be an Anglican for the sake of his salvation or that all churches ought to conform themselves to the Anglican Way (as opposed, for example, to my local Roman and Baptist churches, which believe that all men ought to be Romans or Baptists). Anglicans have, however, claimed that by God's grace they have received a vocation to be a complete representation (saving only their own human
sinfulness) of the one Church of Jesus Christ.

Our 16th century Reformation, for example, was a reformation of the Church of England, and not an effort to reform the Church in the whole world (except, perhaps, through the desire to be a good example). The basic (if not sole) ecclesiastical claim of the English Reformation was that the Church of England, as a coherent national church, had both the right and the duty to reform itself upon the principles of Scripture and the undivided Church. The Church of England did not deny the right and duty of other national churches to do the same, but it did ultimately reserve to itself the pastoral authority to determine sacramental communion and the transferability of ministers with those other churches based on their conformity to the objective standards listed above (the Notes of the Church, etc.).

While God's grace was abundant during the Reformation, so also was the sinfulness and fallibility of man. Various Christian groups, in England and on the Continent, departed for one reason or another from one or more of the objective standards of the Church on earth. The Anglican Way has not been to dismiss the members of these groups as "not Christian" or "bereft of God's grace and love," but to consider their societies as incomplete representations of the fullness of Christ's Church, not by virtue of the actions of their individual members, but on the basis of the incomplete intentions expressed in their ecclesiastical constitutions.

One of the shorthand ways of describing this situation has been to refer to those groups with incomplete ecclesiastical constitutions as "denominations" and to refer to those that possess a complete ecclesiastical constitution as "churches," "communions," or "jurisdictions" (that is, self-governing households, local or national, with a complete constitution, within the one Church). This differentiation does not necessarily imply approval or disapproval of a Christian society's life, but only the reality of its express intentions in its constitution.

Some people have tried to simplify Church history into a "branch theory," which is really only a conceptual device for visualizing continuity. As is true of all conceptual devices, the branch theory breaks down if it is treated as the reality that it is only attempting to describe in simple terms. One can't, for example, eat a piece of pie from a pie chart. I've used the branch diagram myself, for certain limited purposes, but I prefer the language of jurisdictions, since it is more faithful to the Anglican understanding of the local church, national church, etc. as a representation or exhibit of the whole Church.

One famous expression of the Anglican perspective on how one jurisdiction recognizes another as complete is the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral (1886-1888). This was not a list of "minimums" to be Anglican, but a list of the basic standards for the recognition of a Christian society as complete in its constitution: 1. the Holy Scriptures as the Word of God; the Nicene Creed as a sufficient statement of the Christian Faith (based on the Scriptures); the Dominical Sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Communion, ministered with Christ's words of institution and the elements given in Scripture; and 4. the historic episcopate, adapted as necessary to the local circumstances. This Quadrilateral was merely a reiteration of the belief that a complete exhibit of the Church ought to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic in a visible way.

It is worth noting that no one is "unchurched" by this statement, since it does not discuss the Christianity of individual persons, but only the completeness of a Christian society. It does not suggest that any other Christian society adopt the canons of any Anglican jurisdiction, and it certainly allows those societies to choose their own bishops however they wish, and they need not have any temporal, coercive power at all. (It is worth observing here that the original constitution of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America granted bishops only sacramental and pastoral authority, depriving them of any temporal power. The current chaos and tyranny in ECUSA are not representative of the history of the Anglican church in America or any place else).

In regards to bishops, the question has been raised (rather too dismissively, I think) of the "hands on heads view of apostolic succession." I would point out, first of all, that the outward sign of the laying on of hands by the chosen men of God of one generation upon the chosen men of God of the following generation is Biblical and antedates Christianity itself. I would also like to suggest that the issue of apostolic succession is too often described by a false dichotomy between the outward sign of the laying on of hands and the inward graces of a true faith and the authority to administer that faith to others. One or the other, on its own, is incomplete, and that incompleteness is magnified if the constitution of a particular Christian society denies one or the other. The outward signs of authority and continuity do matter, unless one adopts a completely invisible understanding of the Church, and the Preface to the Anglican Ordinal (in the traditional BCP) puts the matter as clearly and as generously as it is possible to do. No one is asked there to adopt an Anglican polity, but only to be apostolic-"continu[ing] in the Apostles' teaching and fellowship" (2nd Office of Instruction, BCP 1928, p. 291).

Lastly, the word "Protestant" appears in these discussions in a sometimes confusing way. Originally in English, "Protestant" more or less meant "Lutheran." The English reformers tended to use, in regards to the Church of England, terms like "the reformed church" and "the reformed catholic faith." Eventually, the meaning of the word "Protestant" was broadened to mean "Western Christians not Roman Catholic," and it was in this sense that it appeared in the title "Protestant Episcopal Church." Today, in the United States, the word "Protestant" still sometimes means "Western Christian, not Roman Catholic," but it also can take on a sense of a self-conscious discontinuity with the Christian past and, at times, a fierce denominationalism. I thank God for the grace of being a Protestant in the former sense, but I cannot be a Protestant in the latter.

Thank you for your patience, but you asked big questions that required serious answers.

Louis Tarsitano, ltarsitano@home.com, St. Andrew's, Savannah Please note that as of Feb. 28, my e-mail address will become ltarsitano@comcast.net

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