The Cloud of Witnesses

I would like to put up one more post for the upcoming meeting between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Holy Father. As I posted before, the Pope delivered an address before an ecumenical meeting at Cologne on August 19, 2005. There the Pope said that the “real question” for discussion is the “presence of the Word in the world.” As Christians discuss this issue, they must pay close attention to three decisions made by the early Church in the second century: the establishment of the canon of Holy Scripture, the formulation of episcopal ministry, and the addition of the regula fidei as a key for interpretation. And, if this is what we must discuss, what do we seek? The Pope elaborated on the unity that we are obliged to urgently seek:

On the other hand, this unity does not mean what could be called ecumenism of the return: that is, to deny and to reject one’s own faith history. Absolutely not! It does not mean uniformity in all expressions of theology and spirituality, in liturgical forms and in discipline. Unity in multiplicity, and multiplicity in unity: in my Homily for the Solemnity of Sts Peter and Paul on 29 June last, I insisted that full unity and true catholicity in the original sense of the word go together. As a necessary condition for the achievement of this coexistence, the commitment to unity must be constantly purified and renewed; it must constantly grow and mature.

The Pope presumably did not have the time to give more concrete examples of the combination of Word, witness, and rule of faith, or to illustrate how we might prevent the role of the episcopal ministry from eclipsing the “sovereignty of the Word.” We also might wonder just how, practically speaking, the commitment to unity might actually be “purified and renewed” so that it does not become a pressure for uniformity.

I wondered what the learned Archbishop of Canterbury might say about all this. I would like to provide an interesting excerpt from a book about him, his fellow Anglican Mike Higton’s Difficult Gospel: The Theology of Rowan Williams. Please tell me what you think about this ecclesiology (I expect that many of you will respond to this excerpt with a “Yes, but …”). Is it a good description of the process of reaching what the Pope called “unity in multiplicity and multiplicity in unity”? The immediately preceding section, I should say, explains the Archbishop’s dismissal of the sort of judgmentalism that would claim that a group of Christians definitively possesses Christ and no longer needs to learn about him by, for instance, looking for continuing manifestations of him in the lives of holy men and women:

But this is not to abandon a concern with ‘orthodoxy’, as if anything goes, and as if we must be prepared to accept anything that anybody says about Christ, or any way that discipleship to Christ is lived out by others. What we are hoping to receive from others is more of Christ, and there is only one Christ – and so we are called continually to search for how other Christian lives relay Christ’s life to us; to hunt for the unity between all these diverse representations. Nevertheless, if we reject the idea that any one group already possesses the whole of Christ, and may simply measure other groups against the yardstick of its own existing possession, then the unity which we seek will not be obvious, or instantly grasped. ‘Only in the activity of conversation do we find what the depths and what the limits are of our common language, what it is that holds us together as sharers in one world.’ My understanding of Christ may be challenged by yours, and yours by mine – but it is only by discussing, by arguing, by returning to the Scriptures together, that we can hope to discover what is central and what peripheral, what must be rejected and what affirmed. Even those who we – perhaps rightly – condemn as heretics may have something to teach us of the nature of the Gospel which they too are trying to understand. …

A passion for orthodoxy, then, for right teaching and right learning of the Gospel, will take the form not of soap-box shouting, but of ecumenism – of building serious conversations between Christians who differ, not settling for platitudes which cover up the differences between us, but challenging one another and learning from one another in the hope of discovering more of the riches of Christ in one another. Williams argues that the very idea of ‘orthodoxy’ emerged in the early Christian centuries precisely from the attempt made by various Christian churches to recognize in one another the same Christ that they themselves worshipped. That is, the very idea of ‘orthodoxy’ emerged in the second and third centuries as a distinction arose between strands of Christians for which communication between congregations was an ad hoc and occasional affair, and strands in which there were ‘regular and significant’ links to the point of ‘an almost obsessional mutual interest and interchange’ between congregations – links sustained by mutual visiting, by the calling of common meetings, and by the exchange of letters. Much of the exchange took the form of argument and criticism – this was no smooth harmony. But the arguments took place because these congregations believed that they were exploring a common heritage, that they were hearers of a common Gospel – it mattered that they could not yet see the unity between their differing positions. The debates were long, arduous, and frequently deeply riven by conflict. But it is out of that crucible that orthodoxy takes shape, as the participants struggle to discover doctrinal forms ‘that will succeed in most comprehensively holding the range of proper and defensible Christian interest involved in the conflict’.

If we now seek to learn a capacious orthodoxy faithful to the Gospel, it cannot be by defending some sacred deposit of truth granted only to us against all comers. We are not champions of orthodoxy if we simply declare ourselves ready to shout down anyone who differs: that would be to defend a sectionalism which is a profound denial of the Gospel – a refusal to participate in the life which Christ shares with us. Rather, we seek to learn a generous orthodoxy by engaging in serious conversation, serious argument over Scripture, in the light of the sacraments, with those who differ from us. We engage in conversation both with those who differ from us now and with those Christians of past ages whose awkward and uncomfortable Christianity we meet in our history books and sometimes in our hymns and liturgies. Those others in space and time, with whom we do not easily agree, are the face of Christ to us, and to ignore them or shout them down (or to patronize them or effectively ignore them with spineless acceptance) is to disfigure that face.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to The Cloud of Witnesses

  1. FrMichael says:

    I wouldn’t even go as far as “Yes, but…”

    The fundamental error here is trying to equate all the different manifestations of Christianity as equal. There is a world of difference between the Apostolic Traditions of antiquity to much more modern affairs like Anglicanism which grew up recently upon a conscious rejection of Catholicism (or Orthodoxy, as the case may be). The Armenians, Assyrians, etc. might be off (or not) on their Christology compared to Chalcedonian orthodoxy, but it isn’t because they were intentionally trying to reject the Tradition. With the Anglicans and Protestants, we have another kind of split: conscious rejection of large portions of dogma. That type of division is different in genus, not just in species.

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Fr Michael,

    Thanks for writing. I would completely agree with you if I felt that Rowan Williams was suggesting that all manifestations of Christianity were equal or that Christianity must proceed on the basis of a “conscious rejection” of Catholicism.

    I think that he would certainly agree that some manifestations of Christianity are heretical. He has also suggested that certain Christians, while not technically heretical, have been “dangerously deluded in their belief about what was involved in serving Christ” (say, defenders of slavery). But he would suggest that we can only recognize other Christians as heretical or deluded after we have tried to converse with them and failed in our attempts to reconcile their beliefs with the Gospel. Even then, we can still learn from heretics and “receive something of Christ” from mistaken believers. For instance, Williams has suggested that orthodoxy has actually proceeded in “subsuming and even deepening the Christian concerns of the teachers it sets out to condemn.”

    Secondly, I don’t think that Williams would support a “conscious rejection” of Catholicism or Tradition. His own scholarly work has often been in dialogue with Catholic, Orthodox, and patristic figures (he has written books on St Teresa of Avila, Sergei Bulgakov, and important articles on St Augustine, among other figures). He has even warned that heresy is usually identifiable by its “reduction in the capaciousness of Christian language” (Higton’s phrase) – by what we might call the “conscious rejection” of uncomfortable aspects of Tradition.

    Thus, I think that Rowan Williams would plead not guilty to your charges.

    The main points of contention that we will have with Williams will come with his justification of the Reformation and the role of papal primacy in the reception of orthodoxy.

    Thanks again.


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