Monday, October 14, 2013

Are we on the right track? - St Vincent of Lerins

Last Friday in the Office of Vigils (or Readings), many of us pondered this passage from St Vincent of Lerins on the development of doctrine in the Church, sparking some discussion about where we find ourselves in relation to a proper ecclesiology. St Vincent’s teaching is clearly relevant to some of the contentious issues being faced by the Church in our time. So, I share with you a short piece I wrote some time ago about the implications of this for modern day Anglicans.

Until recently the following paragraph of St Vincent of Lerins (400-450 AD) was a much used reference point among Anglicans: 

“Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all. That is truly and properly ‘Catholic,’ as is shown by the very force and meaning of the word, which comprehends everything almost universally. We shall hold to this rule if we follow universality [i.e. oecumenicity], antiquity, and consent. We shall follow universality if we acknowledge that one Faith to be true which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is clear that our ancestors and fathers proclaimed; consent, if in antiquity itself we keep following the definitions and opinions of all, or certainly nearly all, bishops and doctors alike.”

- From Chapter 4 of the Commonitorium    434 AD

In fact, St Vincent’s expression “we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all (‘ubique, semper, omnibus’)” is referred to as The Vincentian Canon.    

Doctrine does develop. Not the Faith itself, but its formulation in words. It is not possible to be against doctrinal development per sé if we accept the Creeds, the Trinitarian and Christological formularies of the ancient Church (or, indeed, the even more basic emergence of the Canon of Scripture and the Apostolic Ministry). 

Naturally, we want to know how to tell if a particular development is right or wrong. For St Vincent it was a matter of discerning whether or not the local teaching, the new development, really reflects what the Universal Church believes and has always believed. 

Now, St Vincent lived a long time ago, well before the open schism of East and West, and the subsequent splintering of the western Church in the 16th century. So, it could be said that the ecclesial context in which the Church of the first millennium, with comparative ease, discerned particular developments simply does not exist in the way that it did for St Vincent, and as it will again when the kind of unity for which the Lord prayed has come about. (And, of course, I know that what I have just said raises questions about the unique charism of the Bishop of Rome and how that, too, will operate in a future unity of East and West.)

But, given this state of things, there has been among Anglicans a commendable spirit of caution with respect to novelty, and a real concern to check what is taught (and practised) against the convictions of the ancient undivided Church. The injunction in Canon 6 of The Canons of the Church of England, 1571, is typical:

“See to it that you teach nothing . . .which you would have religiously held and believed by the people, save what is agreeable to the teaching of the Old or New Testament, and what the Catholic fathers and ancient bishops have collected from this self-same doctrine.”

This principle of accepting the Church of the Fathers as the definitive reference point by which developments in doctrine or interpretations of Scripture are to be evaluated, explains the Anglican habit of quoting the Vincentian Canon.   

But the theological and doctrinal development in many Anglican provinces upon which the attempt to ordain women presbyters and bishops is predicated, represents a breaking free from that hermeneutical principle and the constraints it imposes on a matter as basic as the sacrament of Order which we claim to share with the great apostolic churches of East and West. Anglican liberals have been and are still intent on being ‘trailblazers” in sacramental actions that impact seriously on a whole range of basic Christian doctrines, creating huge new obstacles to our growth toward the unity for which Jesus prayed and to which we have said we were committed. 

How can a tiny minority of the Church Catholic on its own be confident that this is a legitimate development of doctrine on which to act sacramentally? Some say it is; others, including the present writer, say it is not. The most charitable - and factual - response, consistent with the Anglican habit of referring to the Vincentian Canon, is to say “we can’t know.” To be sure, there are Roman Catholic and now even a handful of Orthodox theologians no longer theologically opposed to the innovation. But the churches of the first millennium with whom we have always looked to what the “Catholic fathers and ancient bishops” have collected from Holy Scripture, have not themselves (so far) endorsed the development as legitimate. 

Will they do so in the future?  

I personally don’t think so, for a range of reasons, including the importance to the Eucharist of the nuptial imagery undergirding the whole of Scripture, and the implications of that for the sacrament of Order. At a time when the fruitful recovery of  communion ecclesiology (so closely related to Eucharistic nuptiality) which is fundamentally important to the Vatican II Documents, as well as to the work of ARCIC and the developing theological dialogue between Rome and Orthodoxy, it would seem foolhardy for Anglicans to embark on a development that undermines its biblical and theological basis.

Those of us who treasure the claims our church has made and continues to make for her catholicity might be right or wrong on the substantive issue, but we believe that she should not be purporting to ordain women as priests and bishops at this time. Such ordinations would seem precluded by her own traditional means of discerning developments of this kind. 

If, however, it turns out that the development is embraced by the whole Church, then we will gladly admit that we were wrong.

In the meantime it is regrettable that we are portrayed by the trailblazers as misogynist, fundamentalist and obscurantist. The truth is that we are simply mainstream in our Christian believing, and in our view of who we are as Anglicans.

Twenty years ago, in order to obtain the last few synodical votes necessary to make the changes they wanted, the trailblazers invoked the theological idea of a “period of reception.” It is quite common now to hear them speak as if that period has reached its end. They forget that, properly understood, “reception” is a prayerful dialogue throughout the WHOLE Church (and not just our little part of it) in order to discern together the rightness or otherwise of a proposed innovation. It is a long process, and on the matter of women and the sacrament of Order, we will be living in it for quite a while yet. Furthermore, for it to be a genuine “period of reception”, both sides must accept the possibility - however remote it might seem to each - that they are wrong.

In the meantime, because those wanting the proposed development  have “jumped the gun” and created a ministry of which the most that can be said is that it may or may not be valid in the apostolic and sacramental sense, it is an urgent matter of justice and fairness that a proper, undisputed catholic sacramental ministry be provided for the many women and men of our church who cannot in good conscience (yet) affirm that women standing at the altar are, in fact, priests and bishops. In a church whose general operation is regulated by legal canons, such provision must also be legally constituted, otherwise - human nature being what it is - unfair discrimination will be the order of the day. Nor must the provision be grudgingly offered, for its purpose is to prevent the “unchurching” of those Anglicans who believe the Faith concerning Holy Order that has been believed “everywhere, always and by all”, and as it is still officially believed by the vast majority of Christians, including those ancient churches with whom we have been actively seeking full sacramental unity.

Proper provision, enshrined in our church’s law, is surely the way to preserve the highest possible level of communion and association together during this “period of reception” while the question of the ordination of women to the presbyterate and episcopate is discerned by the whole Church Catholic to be a legitimate or mistaken development of the Faith we have received.


Post a Comment