Project Canterbury

Conversion, Catholicism, and the English Church

By Walter Carey, D.D.
Bishop of Bloemfontein

London: Mowbray, 1923.

The Position of the English Church

ONE thing has to be said clearly: that we shall never do any good as ministers or laity in the English Church if we disbelieve the principles for which she stands. Of course none of us are contented with our position of separation: nor are we necessarily in love with, or even patient with, many of the existing practices, methods, or expressions of our Church life. But I feel nothing less than a passionate disgust at the type of mind which fastens on details for bitter or exulting criticism while completely ignoring the strong and massive principles which give so solid a justification for the life and existence of the English Church.

I allow for a real dissatisfaction with a separated position, and for a real, healthy criticism of details, but I think the English Church has never had a fair chance. She has been maltreated by extremists at both ends, and suffers still from a sustained depreciation at the hands of mere "libertarians" at one end and mere "authoritarians" at the other, who, although they belong to her, never give her a fair chance of asserting her real glory, namely the combination of authority with liberty, and the setting forth of a Catholicity which is neither Roman nor Protestant but scriptural.

There are numbers of clergy and laity who never forgive the Church of England because she is not Roman Catholic, and an equal number who bitterly resent that she is not Protestant. In the clamour of their rancour the true principles of the English Church can never or seldom make themselves heard.

And this resentment of the extremists because the Church of England is not what they wish takes many forms. It makes Dr. Henson assert that the English Church is a Protestant body--which it is not. It means many Evangelicals hide and obscure, or denounce, what the English Church plainly teaches. It makes neo-Romans abuse bishops ad nauseam; alter and use services without any authority except their own lawlessness (acting entirely as Protestants in so doing); and vilify their own people who--perfectly lawfully--refuse to accept all their views and positions.

I think that the greatest enemies of the English Church are within her own borders, because they create a general atmosphere of criticism and unrest which depresses the whole body. And I put down nearly all these difficulties to the fact that comparatively few people have thought out the principles on which their own position is based. It seems to me still a very extraordinary fact that it should be so. Yet I am convinced that if you took to-day the men who are to be ordained at the next ordination in England you would find the following opinions:--

1. That the Church of England is part of the Catholic Church: it has Protestant affinities, and these must be removed as far as possible; and the Church of England should copy Rome in all matters that seem to help people by promoting devotion.

2. That the Church of England is a Protestant body, and the Catholic section in it is disloyal, and if not expelled should be frowned upon and kept under.

3. That the Church of England is a compromise between Roman Catholicism and Nonconformity, and suits the average Englishman, and promotes decency and morality.

4. That the Church of England teaches the Gospel, and adds to it the Sacraments and the episcopal office, which links it up with the ancient Church. Therefore it fits in with evangelical fervour, historical continuity, and suits English people very well.

As I strongly disagree with most if not all of this, let me enunciate the real principles which seem to me to underlie the English Church.

1. The Church of England is the English part of the one historic Church of Christ, separated from the rest of Christendom by causes which are in the main the result of the efforts of the Roman Catholic Church to force upon her an authority and a jurisdiction which are neither scriptural nor true.

The effort of resistance, which resulted in this forced separation, was not conducted with that care and quiet which could be wished, but, like all reformations, was accompanied by regrettable acts and the loss of some valuable perspectives and proportions, but was in the main inevitable and just. But the separation did not mean the loss of essential Catholicity, and the Church retains the Apostolic Ministry, the Bible, the Creeds, the Catholic Sacraments, and a jurisdiction and power of legislation which, although impaired by the fact of separation, are yet adequate.

Therefore the Church of England is first and foremost Catholic, i.e. a real and true part of the one Church of the Acts of the Apostles.

Whatever is really and truly Catholic is hers by right and inheritance, and she has moreover the right to add such services, canons, practices as are helpful, provided that they are recognized as local or provincial, and not necessary for salvation, and are not contrary to Catholic wont or usage, or to constitutional authority.

2. All Catholicity is qualified as regards what is laid down as necessary for salvation by Scripture. It is certainly true that the Catholic Church wrote or approved the Scriptures; but the veneration with which the Church has always regarded them, and their unique value and position, make them a standard for all ages. They can never be unwritten or contradicted. "The Faith once for all delivered to the saints" can be explicated and reinterpreted, but can never be added to or diminished.

So in all Catholic doctrine we must make a division, (a) All that appertains to the salvation of the souls of men must be found in, or naturally deduced from, the Scriptures. (b) Other doctrines, e.g. the invocation of saints, the likelihood of purgatory, and (if you like) the Assumption of our Lady or her Immaculate Conception, or (with the Wesleyans) the need of felt conversion--all these may be taught as likely or true, but none of them can ever be taught as necessary for salvation unless they are scriptural.

In other words, the Catholic Church is not an unlimited spiritual autocracy. It is a spiritual monarchy constitutionalized by a continuous and specific reference to Scripture as a final and permanent standard laid down by the Holy Spirit.

Take away this scriptural standard and there is nothing to prevent the Roman Church from making it obligatory on all Christians to believe in the corporal Assumption of our Lady or the Temporal Power.

The whole foundation of the English Church is laid on these two principles, Catholic and scriptural: and I would sum up the real religion of the English Church by this one pregnant phrase, "Scriptural Catholicity." It is a Catholicism older than the modern Roman or the modern Protestant: it carries us back in principle to the glorious days of the Early Church.

3. I am anxious that nobody should stumble at this and say "Do you mean that services and practices and devotions are to be scrapped unless they are directly scriptural? "

I must be very obscure if any gather this conclusion. You may have all sorts of frills and extras and ancillary helps, if lawfully allowed. And scriptural doctrines may be found to have wider and deeper applications than were realized at the time. But "as necessary for salvation" is the key-note. I do not necessarily mean that "salvation" means salvation from hell: but it does mean "necessary for fullness of spiritual stature," necessary for a right status in God's sight.

And here the English Church is firm as a rock in all her formularies. The doctrines of the Blessed Trinity (with the full Deity and Humanity of Jesus), the historic fact and spiritual significance of the Creeds, the reality and authority of the Catholic Church, the doctrines of sacramental life and grace, the need of holiness and love, are all insisted on as having behind them the authority of the Catholic Church and the weight of Scripture.

Other services or practices and minor doctrines are admitted, e.g. the use of ornaments of ministers or certain occasional services, but when it comes to matters of belief which are of the last importance, and must be believed under penalty of loss, then the test is scriptural.

And perhaps I might point out the advantage of this twin standard of reference. It safeguards the two most vital principles of human life, Liberty and Authority. For here is probably the most difficult problem of political, t civil, and religious life, how to combine a real liberty with an equally real authority. One way of settling the point has been the assertion of one and the negation of the other. Pre-war Germany was practically all authority and no liberty. The earliest advocates of Bolshevism;, preached all liberty and no authority. The whole history of civilization, and of England in particular, records the attempt to keep both I these complementary ideals alive. In England a limited monarchy is the result, and although the English constitution is riddled with inconsistencies yet these very illogicalities illustrate the English genius for finding a practical solution of problems where rigid adhesion to a paper constitution would injure either real liberty or real authority.

And the English Church, quite naturally and rightly, reflects the English character. She is often inconsistent in practise, and is adverse to crushing minorities. She is good-natured and reasonable, and tries to prove her points less by authority than by the intrinsic reasonableness and Tightness of her tenets. In the last resort she would extrude all those who deny some Catholic and scriptural truth, e.g. the Deity of the Incarnate Jesus; but she much prefers to give extreme Modernists a good deal of rope because she feels that they will, in the long run, come back to the orthodox belief just because it is true.

So for myself: I energetically repudiate the view of the late Mgr. Robert Benson that without the Roman authority the world (including the Anglican Communion) will become atheist. I know that authority is needed, especially for the weaker brethren, but I have sufficient faith in the intrinsic truthfulness of the orthodox position about God and Jesus to believe that truth-loving people will go on believing the truth. I should continue to believe in God and in the Deity of Jesus if there were no authority in the world to back that belief. I think these truths are true. I find them borne out in life and experience, and do not worry about them any more. I suppose it helps some people to feel that the Church imposes them by authority, but I will not believe that such authority is the sole source of certainty. If you search your own soul and study the history of man you will find God. Believing in God and your own soul you come to the study of Jesus, and have less difficulty in placing Him where the Catholic Church does, as the Word made Flesh, than in any other or lower position.

And that I think largely represents the position of the English Church. She is Catholic, and in the last resort would assert Catholic authority; but she is not in any hurry to assert that authority because (1) she strictly limits that authority in vital matters to doctrines confirmed by Scripture, (2) she trusts in rather an easy-going way to the acceptance of her teaching in the long run on grounds of its native and intrinsic truth.

You will never alter the temperament of the Church of England. To try and make her Italian or Spanish or French is merely to kick against the goad. We shall never persecute--it is not in our blood; we shall never have an Inquisition; we shall never be absolutely rigid and clear-cut. We have too much regard for liberty, and prefer a certain haziness of horizon to a sharp delimitation which would hurry or overpress the delicate explorations of souls seeking truth.

So temperamentally and officially the Church of England seeks to combine real authority with real liberty. It involves seeming inconsistencies and great patience. Her patience extends even to those who, while clamouring for more authority and definiteness, reject that authority when applied to themselves. It is really laughable to realize that people who condemn the Church of England for not exercising her authority to forbid, for example, evening Communions are at the same time saying the Mass in Latin, or altering the Canon entirely on their own Protestant initiative. They are tolerated because they come under the large patience of the Church of England: in the authoritarian Roman Church they would find short shrift.

But, quite apart from temperament, the Church of England maintains this balance of authority and liberty by her official pronouncements. She is totally committed to this. Authority is represented by the Catholic Church; ultimately, I suppose, by an Oecumenical Council. In the divided state of the Church we have to fall back on the admitted consensus of the Catholic Church either in past Councils or in an undisputed unanimity on any point. There is really not much difficulty here in all matters that make for a devout and disciplined life. It is really absurd to say that Keble and Church and Liddon and ten thousand other saints were without any steady guidance or light from Catholic consent and authority. Short of this ultimate authority we have to depend on the Holy Spirit acting through provincial councils, and we can trust that the Holy Spirit will not desert us.

But Catholic authority, so the Church of England asserts, will never in any age be unlimited. We are not committing ourselves to any position without limit or brink. Our liberty is safeguarded by the test and Canon of Scripture. No one will ever be forced on pain of excommunication to accept and act upon any decision unless it is plainly in accordance with Scripture, or can easily be deduced therefrom.

So Scripture constitutionalizes authority and keeps it sane, and so guarantees to Christians a real freedom from excess or unreasonableness. On the other hand, lest individuals wrest the Scriptures into any system of private interpretation, the authority of the Catholic Church remains. For example, the Scripture says that in the Eucharist the elements are the Body and Blood of our Lord. Individual interpretation has often affirmed that this is merely symbolism. But we are saved from the distractions of individual interpretation by the consent of the Catholic Church, which says that the Body and Blood are sacramentally real and not merely symbolic.

So all the way through the Church of England stands by her twin principles. She emphasizes them most trenchantly in the service of the Consecration of Bishops. But if you once grasp her insistence of Catholicity and Scripture you have the key both to the Prayer Book and to her whole attitude.

All the fuss about the words used for ordaining a priest--for instance, Why was the porrectio instrumentorum dropped, or the mention of offering sacrifice omitted?--is explained very simply by the fact that the Church of England wanted to use a scriptural form for her ordinations. The power to absolve is an exclusively priestly function; it was used by our Lord in S. John xx. 22, therefore the Church of England fixed upon it as her ordaining formula because it was so scriptural.

In any case of perplexity as to why the Church of England made this alteration or that, the answer is that she was determined to be scriptural; and in so doing I hold that she was entirely within her rights.

To sum up, I feel that it is useless to be indefinite. If you truly believe that the Catholic Church is unlimited by Scripture, and is able to add to or subtract from the Faith de novo, then your place is not in the Church of England. You are, except by accident, alien from her. Your place is elsewhere.

If, on the other hand, you hold that you have a right to work out a religion of your own apart from any authority whatever, your place is with Quakers and not with the Church of England, who (with the qualification of scripturalness) believes in the supreme authority of the Catholic Church of Christ.

Make up your mind. For the future of the Church of England belongs to those who ex animo believe in the twin principles. You may hang on to her in a wild hope of shedding Scripture or shedding authority. That hope will never be fulfilled. The future of the Church (and it produces great souls and great characters) lies with those who are content with these two great tests, and can live happily and serenely within the Church of England because they are sure that if ever the Church is to be reunited at least these two great and fundamental principles will never be scrapped, because they are true.

And I hope that the vast majority of us will take heart and go ahead quietly on our principles. If people leave us to go to Rome then they must go. It really isn't worth worrying about. An army in the field always has some wastage; it doesn't deter the determined commanders and men.

I think that absolute authoritarians and absolute libertarians ought to leave us. They merely hamper us. And I doubt whether the rather hectic type of Christian they produce is really the solid English type we ought to produce. Although Catholic we are English, and there will always be something solid and sane about us. I don't want to produce the sort of folk who live on little books of devotions translated from the French or Italian. My heart burns when I think of our own English heroes: of Sir Henry Laurence and John Laurence, of Edwardes and Nicholson, of Collingwood and Saumarez, of Church and Pusey and Smythies. These are the men of English breed who knew what justice and liberty, truth and honour, meant. They are the men who staked their lives on great issues and high enterprises.

They are English of the English, and it is to serve such that God has given us our commission. Some of them might well have been more Catholic: it is our business to teach them so. None of them could have been much more scriptural, and we do well to keep them so. But if you want us to indoctrinate these men with the cults of Naples or Lisbon I decline. God has put us here to serve our part of the Catholic Church, and that is English in its principles. I would be unfaithful to neither part of our trust.

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