Cracks in the Foundation

Cracks in the Foundation November 20, 2009

It’s been observed that the gap between the Anglican Church and Catholicism is not wide but deep. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech at the Gregorian Pontifical University uncovered the real depth of the divide. Read the speech here.

The Archbishop defended women’s ordination and argued that more unites the two churches than divides them. He said issuess that are not of the ‘first order’ should not be points of division and he suggested that the Anglican communion, with its sharp internal differences on issues such as homosexuality, could offer a model for other Christian churches. The Anglicans, he argued, show that unity is possible despite such doctrinal disagreements. He argued that Christians are bound together by ties that are stronger than their disputes, and suggested that Christian unity could be achieved by, in effect, agreeing to disagree, in order to “maintain a degree of undoubtedly impaired communion.”

This is all very Anglican, and it reveals the genetic code of Anglicanism. The genetic code is written in the Elizabethan Settlement. This is the legislation under Queen Elizabeth the first that established the Church of England as a relativist rather than a dogmatic institution. To put it in simple terms, the Elizabethan Settlement allowed Anglicans a measure of freedom to be ‘Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’ in their attitudes as long as they remained loyal to the Queen. This latitude of attitudes became the founding principle of Anglicanism and tolerance became the primary virtue. Dogma became suspect and relativism became the default setting.

The ‘impaired, but real communion’ which the Archbishop pleads for is the way Anglicanism has always existed. The present crisis in Anglicanism is simply testing the principle to its utmost. Catholics should understand that what they perceive as fuzzy, compromising wishy washiness is actually considered by Anglicans to be the primary virtue of their religion. In his speech in Rome yesterday the Archbishop was simply offering the Anglican Way (which he believes to be the best way) as a way forward for the whole church.

There is, of course, a name for the Anglican position. Those who love long words will love it. It is called ‘Latitudinarianism.’ This is the belief that unity of form in religion is to be preferred above all things and that unity of doctrine may be sacrificed to achieve the unity of form. The opposite of Latitudinarianism is Sectarianism. This is the belief that unity of doctrine is more important than unity of form. Sectarians therefore divide into groups with others who believe the same way they do and therefore they sacrifice unity of form for unity of belief.

Cardinal Newman wrote on this, saying that only an infallible authority could guarantee both unity of form and unity of belief. Sectarians have a dogmatic church that is not isolated. Latitudinarians have a united church that is not dogmatic. Only with an agreed infallilble authority which is the focus of unity and the arbiter of belief can we have a church that is both dogmatic and unified.

The Archbishop, in his well meaning speech, is only offering the Catholic Church his own latitudinarian vision. For Catholics this is as insufficient as the Sectarian solution. After the Archbishop’s speech we see again the deep philosophical divide between Catholicism and Anglicanism.

It is a divide that can only be crossed with a bridge, and we must remember the word that means ‘builder of bridges’: It’s ‘Pontiff’.

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