January-February 1994By David Hartman
The Rev. David Hartman is the Minister of the Harrodsburg Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Harrodsburg, Kentucky.
Living Tradition. Edited by Jeffrey John. Cowley Publications. 135 pages. $11.95.
The Church of England grows increasingly alarmed about the number of Anglicans -- including some of her best and brightest priests -- who become Roman Catholic. How to respond? One way is to acknowledge the allure of Rome while maintaining that "the Anglican Church is Catholic, too." This is the rationale behind Affirming Catholicism, a movement whose views are reflected in this book. The movement wants to lay claim to Anglicanism's historic Catholic roots.
But this is no new Oxford Movement. As this collection of essays shows, leaders in Affirming Catholicism champion things that Roman Catholicism does not: the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate, homosexual union (provided it is, in some sense, monogamous), and the authority of some uncertain liberating principle that outranks Scripture and tradition. On one of the most compelling moral issues of our age -- abortion -- the authors are uniformly silent. Nonetheless, they maintain, "We are real Catholics, too." On that point, they are very, very insistent, if not particularly convincing.
The essays are a mixed bag. Psychiatrist Jack Dominian seizes the insights of developmental psychology to come to the exotic conclusion that the 2,000-year-old Catholic Church is only now (after Vatican II) emerging from puberty. Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway confesses to loving the poetry of A.E. Housman -- quite a revelatory statement to anyone familiar with the work of the old depressed agnostic -- and reassures his readers that what seems a great bally mess in Anglicanism is just the Holy Spirit knocking the tradition about. Holloway is also fond of poetry that incorporates what my 10-year-old calls "the 'f' word." One wonders if he employs it in his homilies.
Archbishop of York John Hapgood affably advises the Church to be very flexible, but then again, not too flexible. Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey writes thoughtfully on the incarnational and sacramental nature of Catholicism, while Oxford Professor Rowan Williams tellingly notes the need for the Church to tell the truth -- and adds the key insight that Christian doctrine is not only true but beautiful. Incidentally, Williams may be the best wordsmith of the lot -- his writing evokes memories of Malcolm Muggeridge. While I pray that I may be forgiven for attempting to predict where the Holy Spirit will lead another soul, I would not be at all surprised should Williams convert to Roman Catholicism. Mother Allyne, C.S.M.V., has the most deeply spiritual piece, "Belonging to God," which has considerably more to do with God qua God than it does with the Anglican Church. It is a lovely essay by someone who is clearly God-intoxicated.
The most curious essay is by the editor, Jeffrey John, who serves a south London parish, but was most recently Dean of Divinity at Magdalen College, Oxford. John reassures us that one may be a Catholic and "disbelieve the historicity of the virginal conception," as long as one is sensitive about it and doesn't articulate one's disbelief at the Christmas Midnight Mass. I know that doubting the Virgin Birth is a hallmark of modernity, and may be indicative of the sexual fixation of this particular Zeitgeist, but quibbling about the virginity of Mary while accepting the "incarnation and resurrection of Jesus as historical fact" (which John emphatically does) is, verily, to strain at gnats and swallow a camel. Moreover, I do wonder what guys like John do when it comes time to confess the tenet in the creeds about Jesus being born of the Virgin Mary -- cross their fingers behind their backs?
John is sanguine about the eventual result of all the controversies currently afflicting Anglicanism, reassuring his readers that "our current rows about women's ordination, homosexuality, or the virginal conception will eventually pass into obscurity, and our grandchildren will wonder how we can have been so foolish." There was another controversy in the Church some 1,700 years ago about whether or not the Son was "begotten" or "created" by the Father -- a controversy that the Emperor Constantine judged to be "merely an intellectual exercise too sublime and abstruse small and insignificant." One upshot of that "small and insignificant" controversy was the Nicene Creed. And most thinking Christians happen to believe -- 17 centuries later -- that Athanasius and the other defenders of orthodoxy were not at all foolish to be contentious.
What most of the authors in this book seem to be affirming is not Catholicism, but pick-and-choose Catholicism. Of course there's another name for pick-and-choose Catholicism. It's called Protestantism. And here is a principle worth remembering: If you see a bird that has feathers like a duck and quacks like a duck and waddles like a duck, it's probably a duck. They may call their movement "Affirming Catholicism," but most of the folks who authored this book sure sound Protestant to me.
Look, there are a lot of Protestant preachers out here in the bulrushes who are Catholics by desire -- who believe that the moral authority of Roman Catholicism and the depth and seriousness of its Magisterium far outrank anything contemporary Protestantism is saying or doing. Most haven't converted for a variety of reasons, including the need to support their families and loyalty to particular congregations. There is also a vague sense that being Catholic is a darned sight harder than being Protestant (e.g., Protestants who get an abortion, or who divorce and remarry, generally maintain it's their own business and nobody else's; Roman Catholicism says such matters are the Church's business, too). But at least most of the Protestant Catholics-by-desire I know have the circumspection not to bleat, "But we're really Catholics, too."