Universal and Particular – 2

 

So when the General Synod took the decision I was in a quandary. Everything within me

said a church that claimed to be Catholic could not make such a decision on her own. Yet

I hated taking a negative position about anything. According to my motto that a person

is “right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies”, I was denying women priests

and I was wrong to do so. Then a Catholic friend gently pointed out that greater

affirmations often include smaller denials. In other words you can’t have everything.

Choices need to be made. Denying women priests was merely the negative side of

affirming something greater–the apostolic ministry; and affirming Catholicism had to

include the denial of those things contrary to Catholicism.

Once I began to look again at the different churches and the claims of the Catholic

Church I realized how very strange it was to have so many different Christian

denominations. How could Jesus command and prophesy for there to be “one flock and

one shepherd.” (John 10:16) then we quite happily make thousands of different flocks

with thousands of different shepherds? Furthermore, it seemed to me that the different

Protestant denominations were identified not by what they affirmed, but by what they

denied. So, for example, the Baptists were identified not so much for a mode of baptism,

but by their denial of infant baptism. The Anglicans were identified not so much for

their allegiance to a corrupt and depraved King Henry VIII, but by their denial of the

papacy. And despite their own internecine warfare, what united all the Protestants, and

made them bedfellows with all sorts of atheists and non-Christians, was their shared

antipathy for the Catholic Church.

 

If I was wrong in what I deny, could it be that, as a Protestant, I was most wrong in my

denial of the claims of the Catholic Church? I began to study the writings of the early

Church fathers and got a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In our parish

Bible study I took our people through a study of the New Testament Church. We

considered the role Jesus gave the apostles. We considered what St Paul had to say

about the Church. We considered the New Testament’s clear teaching that Church unity

must be maintained at all costs. (Eph.4:3-6; I Cor. 1:10-13) We confronted the verses

which taught that the Church was built of the foundation of the apostles and prophets

(Eph. 2:20) and that it was the Church through which God has made manifest his

wisdom. (Eph. 3:10) and that the Church is the ‘pillar and foundation of truth’ (I Tim.

3:15) I was stunned when one lady in the Bible study said, “If what you are saying is

right vicar, all of us ought to become Roman Catholics!” She had drawn the very

conclusions that I was trying to run away from.

 

When I began to express my own increasing convictions about the strong claims of the

Catholic Church the people were shocked and upset. Some had listened closely to my

preaching and had seen the whole crisis coming. Others were angry and accusatory. I

was being disloyal to my own troubled church. Even worse, I was calling their Christian

life into question by leaving. Still others were confused and frustrated. Their feelings

were summed up by a good Methodist lady who came to our church with her Anglican

husband, “Surely the only thing that matters is how much we love Jesus!” she cried.

Her question was difficult to answer, not because there was no answer, but because

there were too many answers. In a letter to an inquirer Cardinal Newman said,

“Catholicism is a matter, it cannot be taken in a teacup.” What he meant was that

Catholicism was so vast and the reasons for conversion so overwhelming and complex,

that it was impossible to sum up the whole thing in a neat and pithy formula.

In one sense my Methodist friend was right, “The only thing that matters is how much

we love Jesus”. Hers is the right answer, but it is also the right question. How much do

we love Jesus, and how can we be sure that we love Jesus and not just our idea of Jesus?

I had seen so many Jesuses amongst different Christians, and each one was strangely

like that particular Christian. Charismatics saw a Spirit-filled prophet of God, people

concerned with justice and peace saw a radical revolutionary who spoke for the poor,

Intellectuals saw a Jesus who was cleverer than anybody else and suffered for it. The

tasteful Christians at Cambridge saw a Jesus who was a kind of persecuted agnostic

poet. Snobs saw a lofty Jesus who was head and shoulders above everyone else while

working class people saw Jesus the carpenter.

 

The list could go on and on. More importantly, I began to see that my Jesus was also a

reflection of myself. I’m inclined to be intellectual, contemplative and intuitive by

nature. I followed a Jesus who pondered problems, went out to the wilderness to pray

and found crowds of people difficult. My Jesus was one who walked a lonely path to a

distant cross because that’s how I was walking through life myself.

 

But to follow Christ means to lose yourself, not to worship yourself. More and more I

wanted an objective Jesus– one who was not my own reflection. I wanted a Christ who

was cosmic, not a Christ who was comfy. Where was this Jesus to be found? In the

incarnation. In other words, in his body. Where was his body to be found? The

Scriptures were clear. The body of Christ was the church. Saint Paul was inspired to use

this image for the Church. I had been taught that the church was the body of Christ in a

symbolic way, that all of us in a particular congregation should work together like

members of a body. But the emphasis in that teaching was on only one half of the image:

it stressed “body”-not “Christ”. When I put the two together and saw the church as the

body of Christ a window opened.

 

As an Evangelical I was taught that the different churches were all man-made

organizations which were useful, but essentially un-necessary. Suddenly I saw the

Church as the mystical body of Christ-a living, dynamic organism empowered by the

Holy Spirit to continue the work of the risen Lord in the world. The Church was

suddenly a sacrament of Christ. In my brothers and sisters I could find Jesus. In my

service to the Church I could find Jesus. In our worship I could find Christ. In obedience

to the teaching of the church I could find Jesus. By immersing myself in the Church I

was immersing myself into Jesus himself and transcending the limitations of my

personal walk with the Lord. But if my church was simply a gathering of people like

myself, and Jesus was a reflection of ourselves, then we were only serving ourselves not

him.

 

I began to feel that my experience of Christ within the Anglican Church was simply a

larger version of the individualistic Christ I had experienced within Evangelicalism. In

other words, if the Evangelical Christian was inclined to find a ‘Jesus’ who was rather

like himself, then the same problem could be seen on a denominational level as well. I

began to see that Anglicans worshipped a very Anglican Jesus. He was a refined, softly

spoken gentleman. He was tolerant, tasteful and forgiving. He was eventually

persecuted by the barbaric, bigoted religious people. There was much that was good and

true in the Anglican portrait of Jesus, but there was also a fair bit missing. If individual

Christians made Jesus in their own image, so did the various denominations.

The problem with a Jesus who is only personal is that he becomes private property.

There were only two ways around this problem of the merely personal Jesus. One way is

the Anglican way in which every opinion is tolerated and encouraged. By allowing every

personal Jesus-even heretical ones-the Anglican hopes to obtain a comprehensive Jesus.

The other option is to break away into a little Christian group where everyone shares the

same vision of Jesus, and that one becomes the only one. The first way is called

latitudinarianism- or indifferentism. The second way is called sectarianism. In the first

option every type of personal Christ is tolerated. In the second only one type of personal

Christ is tolerated.

 

But surely both ways had an element of truth? All the different personal Jesuses

reflected a dimension of Jesus Christ, but it was also true that there had to be one that

was the fullest, and most complete experience of Christ. Somewhere there had to be a

Church that embraced all the varied portraits of Jesus while still holding up an objective

Christ who transcended and completed all the partial portraits. If Jesus’s promise to be

with us always was true, and if the Church was the mystical body of Christ, then there

had to be a Church which presented an objective Christ to the world in a personal way.

How could any one denomination hope to present such a cosmic view of Christ since

they were all founded by particular men at particular points in time for certain historical

reasons? For any church to present a Christ big enough to conquer our individual

portraits of Jesus it would have to speak with a special authority. To offer a universal

Christ in a personal way the Church had to speak with an authority that was bigger than

any one individual or denominational group. To offer a universal Christ, that authority

had to have certain traits. I began to draw up a little list to outline what traits such an

authority ought to have. Read More


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