What Does it Mean to Say the Church is Catholic?

main image

The Basics

At the most basic level the answer to this question is simple: the Church is catholic “because it proclaims the whole Faith to all people, to the end of time.” (BCP p.854) The word “catholic” means “universal” and so to be catholic is to hold to the Faith and Church which is beyond that of a local sect, tribe, or time period. It was used by the Early Church against challenges by such local sects, schisms, cultural isolation, tribalism, and heresies that undermined the whole Faith inherited by the Church from the Apostles. We are part of that Catholic Church, just as fully catholic as Roman Catholics without being Roman Catholic. Note that the 1662 Book of Common Prayer had no qualms associating the Church of England as being a part of the entire “Catholic Church of Christ”. We are just as much part of the “big C” Catholic Church as the Roman Catholic Church is!

Being Catholic means we do not exist by ourselves as autonomous local entities or individuals. To be catholics is to understand the Church as an international institution transcending all localism or regionalism for a grander vision of a universal Church made of all peoples. If you visit a particular church of the Catholic Church of Christ in Nigeria, Japan, Peru, France, or Australia, you’re visiting the exact same Church! When you join a Parish, you are joining not that individual Parish, but the entire Diocese, the entire Episcopal Church, the entire Anglican Communion, and the entire Catholic Church. So to be Catholic is to also retain the Catholic Order of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons; particularly Bishops in Historic Succession. This ordering unites us as a Church for all people for all time, as the worldwide unification of the Episcopacy stands against un-catholic regionalism. In fact it’s not an understatement to say, as Archbishop Ramsey argued in his excellent The Gospel and the Catholic Church, Bishops are an expression of the very nature of the universal nature of the Gospel itself, and so in that sense integral to the nature of the Church itself.

Being Catholic means we are a Church of every “tribe, nation, and tongue” (Rev 5:4), with no room for ethnic superiority. The Catholic Church of Christ is where there is no Jew, Greek, English, Japanese, Mexican, or Ethiopian. Christianity is not European, nor American, nor even Middle Eastern, but both international and universal. This means two things for missions. First we must take the Gospel to all people. We have a mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ out of every single nation on earth. Because the Church is Catholic the Church cannot leave any people group without the proclamation of the Gospel resulting in Baptized disciples in every nation. Secondly, this means never confusing our culture with the Gospel. Our mission is to preach Jesus, not Western culture; bring the Bible, not the English language; and establish the Church in every nation, not spread American or European culture around the globe. To place one’s ultimate loyalty in tribe, race, language group, or nation is to not be truly Catholic. It’s easy to see why nation-states prefer a less Catholic vision of the Church with less competition to their own demands of loyalty. 

Being Catholic is, as St. Vincent said, holding to that believed “everywhere, always, and by all”. (Commonitorium, IV) Christians are not just those who are fans of Jesus’ teachings, but who hold to specific truth claims about who God and Jesus are. To be Catholic is to allow legitimate debate on unclear issues while also holding strongly to the Faith inherited through the Church found primarily in such places as the Nicene Creed. All clergy in the Episcopal Church swore before God and their Bishop that they “believe the Holy Scripture of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation” and would conform to the “doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church.” (BCP 513, 526, 538) Our Canons further define our official doctrine as that “found in the Canon of Holy Scripture as understood in the Apostles and Nicene Creeds and in the sacramental rites, the Ordinal and Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer.” (IV.2) Catholic Christians take very seriously the obligation not to be clever, but to uphold the Faith of the Church found in the Holy Scriptures seen through the lens of the Catholic Creeds. Believing in the Trinity, Incarnation, and Resurrection are not just good ideas; they are part of the core in how we can claim to be catholic at all. The Catholic Faith is not just following Jesus’ humanitarian teachings, but also of belief in him as the risen Lord and Son of the Eternal Father. 

Being a Catholic Anglican in the Episcopal Church

Is that all there is to it? As far as the basic concepts of being part of Christ’s Catholic Church, yes. However when an average Episcopalian talks about being “more catholic”, “High Church”, or “Anglo-Catholic”, there is more than the above implied. Usually they are picking up on something else, something more in terms of piety, emphasis, or worldview. So in addition to what’s found as basic in our Catechism I propose four points as core aspects of what it means to be a catholic-minded Anglican in the Episcopal Church. This could be termed a proposal for a “Catholic Worldview”, or set of distinctives which define being Catholic from other types of being Christian: 

Incarnationism:

The first Catholic distinctive is an emphasis on God working though his material creation instead of opposition, or as St. Thomas Aquinas said: “grace does not destroy nature but perfects it”. (ST I.1.8.r2) The relationship between grace and nature may in fact be the defining worldview feature of being Catholic. The primary example of this theological principal is the Incarnation. So to be catholic-minded is to be Incarnation-centered, viewing salvation as redemption of the material world instead of an escape from its physicality. This implies a few sub points. First, that the physical sacraments actually convey invisible grace. We unapologetically affirm that God works his saving power through physical objects. Second, that the Church is an organized institution founded by Jesus on the Apostles which has been delegated authority, rather than just being a gathering of people or a movement. It’s something we join, not just something we create by gathering. Thirdly, salvation is a synergist experience. God works in conjunction with our wills instead of radical opposition. Fourthly, rituals and ceremonies, vestments and candles, and all other physical aspects of worship are both inherently good and more human ways of worship. Spirit is not opposed to the material creation and so we worship God as embodied spirits, not spirits trapped in bodies. Materialist worship and rituals don’t detract from God’s Spirit because God’s Spirit works though nature, not in opposition to it.

Maximalism:

Being Incarnation focused will lead to being Maximalist in the Christian life. As my Dominican Brother Guy Mackey said: the major difference between being Protestant and being Catholic is that Protestants ask “what’s the minimum amount we need to get in” whereas Catholics say “look at all this cool stuff I get to believe in!” Being catholic is more about “Prima Scriptura” rather than “Sola Scriptura”, and so very much reject the Reformed Regulative Principal of Worship as does Article XX. The Bible is primary without the need to reduce all of Christian life to only what the Bible explicitly states, for Bible contains all things “necessary” to “salvation” as per our 39 Articles (VI), not all things useful or helpful in the Christian life. This also applies to art, rituals, prayers, prayer beads, and devotional or spiritual practices. We fully embrace the wealth of traditions, pieties, and practices from two thousand years of Christian witness without the need to constantly turn to a minimalism of bare necessity.   

Communalism:

One thing the Church and Sacraments do is place us in a more communal relationship with God. There is an inherent value in community itself; especially the institutional community we call the Church. We don’t read the Bible alone, but as a Church; not just in the present, but the past; making even tradition an inherent authority which shows us in the present the guidance of the Spirit through the generations. Even salvation is more communal. More emphasis is placed on being saved as part of the Church, the Bride of Christ which is more than the sum of us its parts. The Church is the Ark of Salvation whereby in a real sense salvation is applied to the individual by virtue of being a member of God’s covenant people called the Church. Catholics see the Church as not just a voluntary gathering of like-minded believers who join after being saved, but as the creation of God to which we are invited and through which in Baptism we become members of God’s Covenant, Children of God, and so heirs of God’s salvation promises. 

Soteriological Holism:

Finally, being Incarnational, Maximalist, and Communal leads to a type of soteriological holism. Salvation is more (though not less) than an individual soul getting into Heaven when they die. Salvation is a gradual process which involves the co-operation of our wills with God’s grace, for God’s grace does not destroy our natures but perfects them; though we must always remember that God’s grace precedes even the desire for that grace. (Council of Orange, III-V) One important principle to remember is that the solution must match the problem. If the problem is that we are dead to sin and corrupt in our very natures then the solution must be a true transformation of our natures and purification from inward death into life. Salvation, therefore, is not just a puncticular moment of crisis-conversion Justification, but a lifelong sanctifying process of becoming more like Christ: with ups and downs as we co-operate with God who truly transforms us slowly by his grace. Not only that, but it’s more sacramental: the best answer to “when where you saved?” would be giving your Baptism date! Salvation is in a word, messy. A sanctification though our participation in the sacramental institution of the Church and the Sacraments such as Baptism and Eucharist. It’s not a clean or neat radical point of life change. We may sometimes do well and sometimes badly, and this is the entire process of “working out our salvation” (Phil 2:12) with the trust that God is truly at work within us as we seek him and cooperate with him on our road to be holy as he is holy.

Fr. J. Wesley Evans is Rector of St. Stephen’s in Sherman and a Novitiate in the Anglican Order of Preachers (Dominicans)

Posted by The Rev. J. Wesley Evans with

The Apocrypha

For those of you who are in the habit of saying Morning or Evening Prayer on a regular basis, I want to congratulate you on availing yourself of a very meaningful spiritual practice.  If, in the course of your devotions, you have looked at the readings assigned for the week of the Sunday closest to June 8th, also known as Proper 5, you might have discovered an abbreviation with which you are not familiar.  It looks like this: “Ecclus.”  You think to yourself, “Did they mean the book of Ecclesiastes?  I’ve looked in the table of contents in my Bible, and they don’t have any book that looks like it would fit that abbreviation.”  If you’ve had this experience, then you know what it is like to try to find a book within the Apocrypha.  For most Christians, it is not easy, and for some, it’s impossible.  Please allow me to explain why. 

The Bible, which in Latin means “little books,” was originally transmitted orally, by faithful people whose job it was to pass along the foundation of our faith to succeeding generations.  After the use of paper and ink became more common, the information traditionally handed down orally evolved into a collection of writings that we now identify as the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament, and the Christian Scriptures, or the New Testament.  For the purposes of understanding the Apocrypha, it is the development of the Hebrew Scriptures that is important.  The development of the Hebrew Scriptures took place over a long period of time, and the priority given to specific books and texts varied, depending upon the person, or people, responsible for passing on Scripture to others. 

Jewish tradition tells us that Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-246 BC) desired a translated copy of the Hebrew Law (and later all of the Old Testament) for his library in Alexandria, Egypt.  It is said that he asked 72 translators to set about completing the work.  The Septuagint, as it came to be known, was actually the work of a number of translators, working across a broad geographical area (not just Alexandria), over a considerable period of time.  By 132 BC, however, the translation of the Old Testament into Greek was largely complete.  This translation benefitted those Jews living outside of Israel, who only spoke Greek, and not Hebrew.  It meant that they could hear and read the Bible in their own language.  The Septuagint was also the version of the Hebrew Scriptures commonly used by the early Christians, who mostly spoke Greek.

200 years after the Septuagint was created, the official canon of the Hebrew Scripture was fixed by a group of rabbis, creating an official version for use by Jews.  In their version, they omitted several of the books the scholars chose to include in the Septuagint, as well as using the order and length of the books as found in the original Hebrew.

When Latin became the official language of the church, the Septuagint was the version Jerome used to translate the Old Testament from Greek into Latin.  His work was completed in 384 AD, and became known as the Vulgate.

During the Reformation, Protestant leaders ignored the traditional acceptance of all the books of the Septuagint, desiring a return to the biblical authority of the early church, and refusing to grant the status of inspired Scripture to those books that were not found in the Hebrew Canon.  Different translators over time have chosen to accept or reject these books based upon their own understanding of their importance.  

As a set, these “extra” texts from the Septuagint eventually became known as the “Apocrypha,” which means “things that are hidden,” because they are a collection of texts that were excluded from some versions of the Bible, while kept by others.  Over the years, Anglicans have had mixed views on these texts, which has often resulted in them being printed as a separate section within the translation of the Bible used in Anglican churches, rather than intermingling them with the books of the Old Testament, as in many versions of the Bible used in the Roman Catholic Church.  Some of these texts are read aloud in churches during worship services, while others have not been included in worship.

The books of the Apocrypha contain several different kinds of writings.  Some are historical, like 1 and 2 Maccabees, which tell the history of the Jewish revolt against foreign domination in the second century BC.  There is an addition to the book of Ezra (1 Esdras).  There are stories, legends and writings with a moral, including Tobit, Judith, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon.  It includes books of teaching from the Wisdom tradition, such as the Wisdom of Solomon and our example from earlier, Ecclesiasticus (also known as Sirach – just to keep us on our toes).  Some books are devotional and some are liturgical.  Some are additions to the prophetic writings.  Given the time in which they were written, many of the writings contain apocalyptic (end-time) elements, during a time when the land was ruled by foreign governments and often overseen by hostile governors. 

Some might wonder at the value of these books if they have been included by some Christian denominations, but excluded by most.  The truth is that these texts have had, and continue to have, an impact on our faith.  There are passages such as those in 1 and 2 Esdras that help us interpret the relationship between God the Father and God the Son (2 Esdras 13:26).  There are passages that give us great comfort in times of grief, such as that from the Wisdom of Solomon (3:1-4), in which we read, “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them…they are at peace.”  They also provide important historical context in what has come to be known as the “intertestamental period,” that time between the history recorded within the Old Testament and the history recorded within the New Testament.

The debate about the Scriptural significance of these books, and others like them such as the Gospel of Thomas, that did not make it into the widely-accepted canon of the Old and New Testaments will continue well beyond our lifetimes.  Regardless of their official status, however, wisdom and insight can be found, resulting in a positive impact on our relationship with Jesus Christ and with others.  They are worth reading, if for no other reason, then to have a greater understanding of why they were important to so many people over the course of history.

I encourage you to find a translation of the Bible that includes the Apocrypha, and read these texts.  Discuss them in Bible study with other Christians, and come to your own understanding of their importance.  It will be well-worth your time.

12345678910 ... 3637

Priests from throughout the diocese explore religious topics with depth and nuance.