Every now and then in the comments section, someone will tell me that this or that is what the Catholic Church teaches, as though I am a Protestant. That’s either kind or unkind of them according to taste, but to put it beyond doubt, like most Anglicans I consider myself a Catholic, and so let me explain a bit.
To start with, the Church is an organic institution and in its visible form, it changes. Thus, prior to the French Revolution and the rise of nationalism in the nineteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church was a loose federation of churches under the headship of the Pope in Rome. The precise extent of his powers were not defined, and one of the effects of the changes in Europe in the nineteenth century was the need to make explicit what Pius IX and the Ultramontanes claimed had always been agreed – that the Pope was, in certain matters, infallible. I don’t have a dog in that fight, but use it as an example of how the visible church here on earth changes in response to events. At Vatican II it acknowledged, for the first time, that the visible church had some deficiencies: ‘This empirical church,’ it stated, ‘reveals the mystery [of the Church] but not without shadows, and it does so until it is brought into the full light of Christ, who also reached glory through humiliation.’
My own Church, in repudiating Rome’s jurisdiction, already, in the sixteenth century acknowledged this problem; indeed it was one of the difficulties which precipitated the Reformation, that Rome regarded itself as not in need of reform because what is taught was ‘once delivered’ to the saints, not acknowledging that difference which those wanting reform saw. The English bishop, John Jewell expressed this well when he wrote: ‘The general or outward Church of God’s elect is visible and may be seen; but the very true Church of God’s elect is invisible and cannot be seen or discerned by man, but it known to God alone.’ [Works, Pt. 4, p. 668]
Hooker elaborated on this. The Church of England was, he stated in his Ecclesiastical Polity, only part of the Catholic Church, existing for the preservation of Christianity in which ‘consideration as the main body of the sea being one, yet within divers precincts has divers names; so the Catholic Church is in like sort divided into a number of distinct societies, everyone of which is termed a church within itself.’ The Church had its faults, and, unlike some of those with a more sectarian mind-set, Hooker could consider that Rome was a ‘church’ too: ‘we have,’ he wrote, ‘and do hold fellowship with them [Rome] for even as the Apostle doth say of Israel, that they are in one respect enemies but in another beloved of God; in like sort with Rome we dare not communicate concerning her gross and grievous abominations, yet touching those main part of Christian truth wherein they constantly still persist, we gladly acknowledge them to be of the family of Jesus Christ.’ For the time and the circumstances, this was a remarkably irenic view.
For Hooker, what the New Testament envisages in its imagery about the Church is, to some extent, visible in the Church of England and in the Church of Rome and, I am sure he’d have agreed, the Orthodox Churches, but it is imperfect. The mystery is present but imperfectly revealed. The catholicity of the church is to be found by those who are attentive to the Gospel’s message and who are being formed in its image through that attention and through the Eucharist. This formation in Christ is the real tradition and is the dynamic part of a triad formed by reason, scripture and the church.
For Hooker, and for most Anglicans, the way in which we represent the Gospel and the forms through which we do it are framed within the context of the ‘place and persons for which they are made.’ Nations, and peoples, are not all alike and, as Hooker sagely remarks: ‘the giving of one kind of positive laws unto only one people, without any liberty to alter them, is but slender proof that therefore one kind should in like sort be given to serve everlastingly for all.’ It is simply not in the human condition for the form of the church not to change. It did so from the time of Christ, it will do so to the end because the Holy Spirit leads us into truth, and as truth is infinite in the person of Jesus, and as our understanding is only ever ‘as through a glass darkly’ it has to be so. Living things grow and respond to their enironment and the promptings of the Spirit. One can enjoy an ecclesiastical museum, but it’s unwise to live in it; life forms preserved in aspic and amber can be pretty, but they are dead.
Rome caught up at the time of Vatican II. At the heart of our Anglican understanding of catholicity is the acknowledgement that the universality of the visible church is impaired because communion is incomplete, but in its local expression the Catholic Church is there, even if, as Vatican II finally acknowledged it is not ‘without shadows.’ That is my own understanding of what my church teaches and of catholicity.