I said in my last post that the 2-word definition of Anglicanism is “Reformed Catholicism.” (Funny: isn’t there a blog name somewhere in the blogosphere with that name?)
Though often lost in an over-emphasis on Protestantism (the “Reformed” aspect of Anglicanism), Anglicanism has always been a quest for catholicity. As I said in my previous blog: “Reformed” is the adjective which modifies the noun “Catholicism.” By this I mean that there is a Catholic substance of the faith that Anglican seeks to maintain and preserve. When this Catholic faith is distorted, obscured, mixed with additions and errors, then it needs to be reformed. In this way, the Catholic identity of Anglicanism is always primary, while the Reformed aspect is always a secondary (but still essential) aspect that acts upon the basic Catholic faith which is at the core of Anglicanism.
So what does the word “Catholic” mean? If I’m going to claim that Anglicanism is essentially Reformed Catholicism, then it would be nice of me to let you know what it is that I mean by “Catholic.” Unfortunately, in the Western world for many centuries the word “Catholic” has been associated exclusively with one particular church: the Roman Catholic Church. For most Americans and Westerners to say someone’s a Catholic means that that person is a “Roman Catholic.”
But this isn’t the original meaning of the word “Catholic,” and it’s not what Anglicanism means when it says its “Catholic” by nature. When Christian recite the historic Creeds and say that they believe in the “Catholic church,” they’re not saying that they believe in the Roman Catholic Church or all that it believes. Catholic is a word that basically means “universal” or “whole.” It’s therefore used of the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Church as practiced by the undivided Church in the early centuries after Christ. It has taken on a secondary meaning of “universal in scope,” and the Church, the one Body of Christ, is certainly the most universal or widely spread religion in the world. St. Cyril captured the multiple and related meanings of “Catholic” when he wrote: “The Church, then, is called Catholic because it is spread through the whole world . . . and because it never stops teaching in all its fullness every doctrine that men ought to be brought to know. . . . It is called Catholic also because it brings into religious obedience every sort of men, rulers and ruled, learned and simple, and because it is a universal treatment and cure for every kind of sin . . . .”
Catholicity in the sense of what was universally believed is often expressed in the words of St. Vincent of Laurens, in what has come to be called “the Vincentian Canon.” The Vincentian Canon is this: “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.”
Anglicanism exists, therefore, because it is a Catholic faith, truly attempting to hold to the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3). This Catholic faith is first and foremost found in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. The New Testament is a record of the apostolic teaching of the first century, primarily preserved in the form of Gospels and letters. They alone are the Word of God and the inspired, highest authority for what Christians believe, and they contain all things necessary to salvation.
However, the Bible always requires interpretation, and so the question arises, “Who has the authority to interpret?” The best and true answer is, “The Church,” which, of course, must itself be defined. Certain authoritative interpretations of the Scriptures are necessarily a part of the Catholic faith. These include especially the Creeds (especially the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds) and the first four (some would say seven) Ecumenical Councils. While not having the same authority as the Bible, they are authoritative interpretations and summaries of the Bible, and are therefore Catholic, meaning apostolic and universal, in nature.
There are many points about doctrine, discipline, and worship that are not immediately clear from Scripture, even if Scripture speaks of these particular points. Often, issues arise that lie outside of what is taught in the Bible, the Creeds, or the Councils. Is there somewhere else we can turn for the best and most authoritative interpreter of the apostolic faith of the Church?
The answer is, “The Church Fathers.” While not inspired like the Bible and not as authoritative or unified as the Creeds or Councils, the Church Fathers provide a good record of the earliest and most universal beliefs of the early church on matters not entirely clear from Scripture itself. Anglicans have consistently turned and returned to the Fathers to help guide them in trying to maintain the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the early church, which is to say, the Catholic, apostolic faith of the Church. If a particular belief or practice was present in the first century and continued until the sixteenth century (when many ancient practices and beliefs were overthrown), then it’s a safe bet that that particular belief or practice is what was handed down by the apostles. To put things another way: who’s more likely to know what the apostles meant in Scripture and how they expected the churches to live and worship: those who were the immediate and proximate descendants of the apostles – or those who have come 2000 years later?
Another source of catholicity, in which the Catholic and apostolic faith was preserved, is the ancient liturgies. The early liturgies provide us not only with knowledge about how the early church worshiped, but also about how they interpreted certain things. Liturgies are not only about worship but also about spirituality and theology.
I’m willing to wager that just about every Christian believes his church is living, believing, and worshiping the way the early Church did. Well, we know a lot about what the early church believed, how they lived, and how they worshiped: and it looks a whole lot like historic Anglicanism, early Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and to a lesser degree Lutheranism. This is because these church traditions, in particular, have been built upon the apostolic and Catholic nature of the early church, while many Protestant traditions ignore the testimony of the early church and derive their faith and life from much later traditions that began at the time of the Reformation or even later.
And so this preserving of the apostolic faith in its doctrine, discipline, and worship, as was kept universally by the early Church, represents the Catholic ideal upon which the Reformed Catholic character of Anglicanism rests. While Anglicanism has some distinctives of its own, its fundamental identity and character is that it is an inheritor and keeper of the one, apostolic, Catholic faith of the early church, as inculturated into diverse time periods and cultures.
Next time: the Reformed character of Anglicanism. (And then a blog or two on how some of us have become Anglican.)
All Saints image from Wikipedia Commons.jpg
Category: Reformed Catholicism Blog
Sites That Link to this Post
- Church Ministry Center Is Anglicanism Catholic? | Give Us This Day | September 26, 2011
- Some interesting blog posts « Prydain | October 11, 2011
- Anglikanstvo je Reformirano katoličanstvo 1. dio – Anglikanstvo je katoličanstvo « Crkva Krista Otkupitelja | January 29, 2013
- Reformirano katoličanstvo | Glavni tok | September 28, 2013