Sometimes we Anglicans don’t help ourselves. Not long before lockdown mk.1 I welcomed a newcomer to the Church. He arrived just as I was beginning to set things up, so we had a good talk. He was, he told me, an ‘agnostic’ who had become interested in Christianity whilst involved in discussions at university to “prove” it was wrong. That was a good start. The Rector came in and said hello before she went to vest, and he turned to me shocked – “oh,” he said, “I thought this was a Catholic Church.” I assured him it was, but after he referred to the fact that “the Catholic Church does not ordain women”, I told him I’d take it up afterwards over coffee and a biscuit. I did, and he is still coming, I am pleased to say.
Talking with the Rector afterwards, she said it was “our own fault” for not being clearer about such matters – hence my first sentence.
I did us a little leaftlet to explain, and I want to set some of it out here.
“Catholic” comes from two Greek words meaning, literally: ‘according to the whole.’ In the Latin used by the Church Fathers, it means universal – as St Vincent of Lerins put it, ‘that which has been believed everywhere, always and by everybody.’
Now, unless one takes the view that the Oriental Orthodox and the Eastern Orthodox are not holding to what was believed from the beginning (a hard one as they have changed far less than we have in the West) then they are ‘Catholic’. That, following the schism of 1054, the Latin Church chose to arrogate the word to itself, does not mean that anyone else agrees, or had to agree with it.
After the Reformation some churches, including my own Church of England and the Old Catholics, continued to use the noun as it was the best description of the historical tradition of which are part. In the nineteenth century, especially under the influence of the Oxford Movement, the idea of the ‘branch theory’ became popular, the idea that the ‘tree’ of the Catholic Church had split into three branches (or more). Those who like that sort of thing will do so, but it seems to me and many other Anglicans, an interesting but unnecessary idea.
We are Catholic because we inherit from the past the historic doctrinal formulations agreed at the first five ecumenical conferences. We inherit the view that the consecrated bread and wine ARE the body and blood of Christ; the how and the why are deep mysteries, and wisdom suggests that we just accept what Christ said. We venerate saints, especially Our Lady. We understand the priesthood as needing an episcopate.
The former Archbishop of York, John Habgood, expressed it best when he wrote: ‘True catholicity belongs as much to the future as to the past. It entails the creative development of tradition as well as humble respect for it.’
We welcome, of course, that at Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church recognised the existence of other churches, even if it has occasionally to call them ‘ecclesial communities’, and that it wants to talk ecumenism. Naturally we hope it will work towards a better understanding.
I finish though, with our newcomer, who said afterwards that what, with kneeling at the altar, altar lights, the reserved sacraments, communion of the tongue and statues of Our Lady, our church seemed “more Catholic” than the one hae had attended, which had had none of those things. In the spirit of ecumenism my response was that we were both Catholic!