The Anglican Fallout and Luther's Precognitions

The developments in the Anglican Communion are fascinating to behold—if that’s the word for it. Read here Archbishop Rowan William’s address, and here you can read Stephen Bates’ column in The Tablet.

I must admit to being rather astonished at the calmness with which our local Anglican brethren and sistern are taking this. There is something of an assumption of inevitability about it all—even to the extent that they believe that the Catholic Church will eventually come to see things in the same light as the Anglicans do (ie. that in the end, whether you are talking about ordaining gays or women, or even if you are talking about treating HIV/AIDS and condoms, it is all a simple matter of justice and equality for everyone).

You sometimes hear people saying “Everyone is grappling with these issues—including the Catholics”. Yes, that is true. The ordination of women may not be such a hot topic within the Catholic Church these days (certainly there are a lot of people outside the Catholic Church who seem to want the Catholic Church to change its unchanging tradition in this regard), but the issues of whether or not gay men can be ordained, or whether priests should be married, or about conscience, and contraception etc. etc. are indeed hot topics of conversation. The difference is that we are not “grappling” in the dark. The fact that the Catholic Church, alone of all the Christian communions, has a living teaching magisterium makes all the difference. We have clear parameters within which these discussions are taking place. Not everyone accepts those parameters, but the parameters as such are not going away.

And when I say that, I am not saying that they are not going away soon. I am saying that they are not going away ever.

There is a remarkably prophetic, and insightful, and indeed true, passage in the Lutheran Confessions. Martin Luther wrote, in the Smalcald Articles of 1537 (Article IV. para. 7-9):

“Suppose that the pope would renounce the claim that he is the head of the church by divine right or by God’s command; suppose that it were necessary to have a head, to whom all others should adhere, in order that the unity of Christendom might better be preserved against the attacks of sects and heresies; and suppose that such a head would then be elected by men and it remained in their power and choice to change or depose this head. … If, I say, the pope and the see of Rome were to concede and accept this (which is impossible), …Christendom would not be helped in any way. There would be even more sects than before because, inasmuch as subjection to such a head would depend on the good pleasure of men rather than on a divine command, he would very easily and quickly be despised and would ultimately be without any adherents at all… What a complicated and confused state of affairs that would be!”

To all this, one can only say, “Amen, Brother Martin”. But he goes on to give a description of what history may call “the Anglican Experiment”:

“Consequently, the church cannot be better governed and maintained than by having all of us live under one head, Christ, and by having all the bishops equal in office (however they may differ in gifts) and diligently joined together in unity of doctrine, faith, sacraments, prayer, works of love, etc.”

Ah yes, if only. However, like all else in this universe, the communion of bishops tends also to be subject to the laws of entropy (tending to the state of greatest disorder). One cannot but regard it as a sign of the greatest divine beneficence that our Lord Jesus Christ did in fact institute, precisely by divine right, a “ministry of communion” (as the Petrine Office has come to be called) to maintain the unity of the bishops.

I have strayed somewhat from the outset, but I think you get the drift.

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