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“The more things change the more they stay the same.”  “There is nothing new under the sun”.  We remember these sayings, learnt in our childhood.  I am fascinated by the way controversies fought and long forgotten have resurfaced as new concepts in our church.  I want to mention two, which were full of life during the Reformation period.

1. The Tudor “Empire”.

Justification for the breach between the English Church didn’t merely revolve around doctrinal issues, superstition and morality. There was also a political argument. It ran something like this. There was a fabled time in the days after the Romans left England when “England” was an Empire. An Empire, is was affirmed, as entitled to a discreet and autonomous “church”. One might have thought that the polemic historians who sought to justify the complete autonomy of the Church of England would have dragged up the Arthurian legends.  But it was to “Old King Coel” that merry old soul that such historians appealed.  Even respectable Reformed bishop-theologians like John Jewel of Exeter, Richard Hooker’s mentor sought to advance such an argument. Over the years others pointed to the Celtic Church, assuming that it held no allegiance to Universal Church.

Nowadays one would describe such attempts as conspiracy theories. Most such theories have some slim grounding in fact. Obviously the connection between local churches and the See of Rome in early periods were much less robust. Distance, communication methods and the complexity of post Roman Empire political structures precluded any formidable centralized system. The Roman See had not established formally the claims it would make to universal jurisdiction. Thus those who sought to advance a political theory to bolster the authority of the Later Tudors over a National Church found plenty of ammunition factual and imaginery, by culling through the historic records and legends of their day.

Now I do believe that the breakup of the Western Church during the Reformation was inevitable. It was so for theological and political reasons. It was so because Rome feared the house cleaning it needed. But the casualty was the Church and it led to the sort of “denominationalism” which is such an obvious part of the modern ecclesial scene in America.

After a century or more of Ecumenism it seems to me tragic that some in our church seek to resurrect a theory of a National Church, and yet one with a crucial difference from that advanced by “Anglicans” during the Reformation. The crucial difference is that no one claims that TEC is The Church of America.  Rather the claim is now being made that TEC, as a worldwide body, is a discreet and autonomous unit competent to advance and create not only a local flavor suitable to serve a disctinct “culture” but whose reference to any wider body is discretionary not only in local government and liturgical usage but in doctrinal “development” and a discipline stemming therefrom. Such claims, like those advanced by Tudor historians are proposed in order to justify local unilateralism. Thus some propose a theory of a “National Denomination” in voluntary association with other churces throughout the world whose origins are in the migration and missionary activity of the English.  Such complete “denominational” autonomy has no justification in a reasonable interpretation of Scripture or in the historical Tradition. Rather it relies on a concept of discreet “denominationalism” which is part of the heritage of Protestant American religion.

2. Mutual Ministry

The second takes us back to the controversy between the Church of England and those who sought a more thorough reformation “root and branch”  It is absolutely true that for a period of time Anglican reformers attacked what they termed “sacerdotalism.”  By this they meant a theory of ministry which suggested that bishops and priests possessed the ability to transform bread and wine into the actual physical Body and Blood of Christ. There were other elements derided,  many bound up with miraculous relics, masses purchased to hasten along a person’s period of time in Purgatory and of course Indulgences.  There is a case to suggest that the threefold ministry of Bishops, Priests and Deacons was retained in the English Church, at least in part, for political and social reasons. The idea of one church in one place at one time, within its ancient Provincial, Diocesan and Parochial system was regarded by the Tudors as an essential ingredient in preserving the unity of the nation under the Crown.

Yet, however Reformed the teaching on ministry and sacraments there remained a theological conviction that the pastoral Ministry of Bishops, Priests and Deacons was not merely functional. Only those set aside by solemn rite were competent to preach and administer the Church’s sacraments. The teachings of Scipture and the unfolding witness of the Tradition anchored such authority in a pastoral ministry guaranteed by a threefold ministry evident to be in place from “The Apostles’ Time” or so spoke the Preface to the Ordinal.

It is important to note that such ministerial authority was vested in specific persons, the Primate in the Province, the Bishop in the diocese and the Parson in the parish. However the radical Reformers, fearful of preletical and sacerdotal overtones sought a greater reformation in which ministerial authority was shared by the gathered church of elect pesons, from whose midst were located and elected ministers of Word and Sacrament whose pastoral authority was limited to those associating themselves with the “elect”.  The elect, the gathered, separated congregation, either gathered into wider fellowships in the Presbyterian model or totally discovered in each congregation in the Congregational model,  raised up and authenticated those who preached and presided at sacramental rites of Baptism and Holy Communion. Even then while most models recognized teaching elders, ministers, and governing elders, those elected as in a modern vestry, there was no suggestion that elements in “teaching eldership”  sought to distribute different elements in such ministry among the elect, ordained or not.

The Diocese of Northern Michigan recently sought to elect a bishop whose episcopal ministry would be distributed among ordained and lay “members” of that diocese. They did so relying on a theory of ministry first advanced in the Diocese of Nevada, as it faced the familiar problem in our church. How do small parishes which cannot afford a full-time, payed priest, provide themselves with a preaching, sacramental and pastoral ministry?  Thus a practical suggestion emerged, which naturally sought to discover theological and  traditional precedents for identifying ministry in the entire “gathered” congregation, raised up from that gathered congregation, sharing in the elements of ministry hitherto located in a person…Parson.  Small groups of people would seek to see who was good at visiting the sick, who “taking services”, who using “Sermons that Work” for preaching and so on.

There was an attractive, non hierarchical, egalitarian ring to such a system. It was left to the tiny group of congregations in Northern Michigan to adapt such a theory to episcopacy. What they produced was episcopacy by committee, by the elect.  Now at base such a theory was bolstered by TEC’s slide into denominationalism, to describe itself not as a parochial church but as a gathered church of those who liked being Episcopalian.  One is tempted to suggest that the Puritan ideal of a gathered congregation of those predestined to salvation has become a theory of a gathered congregation (and National Church) of people who like whatever Episcopalianism is seen to be.

Let me stress that even the most pronounced sectarians, no attempt embraced such a functional approach to ministry that would have allowed the principle Preaching, Sacramental and Pastoral authority – I stress authority or authenticity – in the  a selected group within a congregation,  those who regularly worship, support and belong to a church among whom elements of “ordained” ministy would be distributed.

The justification for some in our church embracing such a theory is variously justified by appeals to supposed “Father knows best” activities of parish priests, eccentric appeals to Early Church evidence and purely practical considerations. No one doubts that our present problems in small rural parishes and dioceses call for solutions which are not anchored in the ideal of a full-time parish priest.  Yet both in appeals to Tudor “National Church” theories and “Mutual Ministry” theories of a functional approach to ministy based on odd concepts of Baptism, of which another time, there is an ironic call for us to reach  beyond such nativist theories towards more robust concepts of “Catholicity” in our doctrine of the Church at “national” and all other levels, and one based not on seeking proofs to excuse local unilateralism and self will.

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