Splendid Article on Northern Ecclesiology

By Deacon Jonathan Munn of the ACC in the UK – Branching out of Yggdrasil. Our English and northern French culture is full of the old Norse mythology. It’s in our blood like the sea!

Deacon Munn discusses the English branch theory of ecclesiology, which has something to it as a fundamental intuition. However, Eastern Orthodox theology, in the hands of its more enlightened exponents, has a finer and better-defined notion of the Church being ontologically one even if it is humanly divided. Such a vision is made possible by the Chalcedonian notion of without confusion or separation as applied to the Hypostatic Union in Christ. The human dimension of the Church is called to realise the Unity that already exists, not only in one Church but in all Churches professing the Faith of the Apostles and the Fathers and enjoying the Apostolic Succession and valid Sacraments.

He is clear in the idea that the vocation of Anglican Catholicism is none other than that of Old Catholicism and Orthodoxy. His notion of Tradition is welcome, since organic development as expounded by Newman and Pope Benedict XVI are not exactly foolproof. Classical Orthodoxy, Anglicanism and Catholicism, for that matter, resemble the vision of Bishop Jacques Bénigne Bossuet in the seventeenth century – variation is a sign of heresy or at least something questionable. The famous Vincentian Canon (quod ubique, quod semper, &c.) is of interest but also is not an absolutely infallible yardstick.

I do find Deacon Munn’s approach a tad apologetic, but he himself sees these issues of ecclesiology and fundamental theology not to be above question. For me, there is no reason why the Church should not subsist in the Anglican Catholic Church as also in so many others also professing the Apostolic Faith and traditionally recognised by Old Catholicism to have a valid priesthood. The ACC is certainly doing the work of the Church.

Theology is always expressed by analogies, because the object of theology is the mysteries of faith (what is not against reason but above reason). Analogies are always imperfect and never above criticism or the observation that the analogy breaks down somewhere. The explanation and reasoning are imperfect, but nevertheless give a part of the picture. We don’t reject the whole because a part is imperfect. This is a case with the branch theory as expressed by some of the Oxford divines in the nineteenth century. It isn’t all wrong, even if I find more refined analogies in nineteenth and early twentieth-century Russian theologians and thinkers.

Some kind of analogy to admit the possibility of some measure of ontological unity between all sacramental Christian communities is certainly an improvement to the idea according to which only one human institution contains the true Church and other institutions are fakes and to be destroyed in view to mining them for individual converts. Trees, branches, universal communion – there are many ways of trying to see all this positively and look for the good in others rather than showing one’s own evil eye by pride and the customary lack of empathy.

I find Deacon Munn’s thought most promising and well-intentioned. I like the analogy of the Yggdrasil tree with the Níðhöggr dragon gnawing away at the Church at its roots, the very place where Unity is found and manifest. Well done!

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24 Responses to Splendid Article on Northern Ecclesiology

  1. ed pacht says:

    I think the mystery of “Church” is much like the mystery of “Trinity” or of the dual nature of Christ, or of freewill/predestination, or of sacramental presence, or of . . .

    To claim actually to understand such mysteries is to betray ones lack of understanding. There is more to any of them than can be grasped by the finite human mind. Truly it is only by analogies that we can approach mystery, and they are no help at all if we do not recognize how inadequate they are.

    The church is eminently visible and organic, something the Reformation concept of an invisible church seems thoroughly inadequate to express, but neither can the church be mechanically bound to a single human structure. The Body of Christ is far more than that, far more diverse than either of the “one-true” churches can comprehend, and yet palpably one in a way somehow visible. It cannot be anarchic in the sense that anything goes, but neither can it be rigidly administered from a visible center. Christ is the Head. He alone is the center, the root, the defining unity of the church.

    And yet the church is divided, visibly, sometimes angrily. Is Christ divided? God forbid! I don’t much like a ‘branch theory’, but I don’t see a better way to discuss our essential unity. There is only one life flowing through our preaching and our sacraments. We need to be moving toward one another, finding ways to love one another, to share with one another, to make our essential unity more and more visible.

  2. Michael Frost says:

    I believe one of the great insights of the East is the understanding that not all can or should be explained by the Church, including those ideas focused on who and what she is. So instead of focusing on who the Church “is”, we might better focus on who she “is not”. Of course, the Church has to have an appropriate balance of “is” and “is nots” to most areas of her existence. The “is” usually is most necessary when someone is spreading error. The Church cannot leave the field to those who preach and teach error. But when the Church focuses too much on “is”, esp. when there is no ongoing error (i.e., at the wrong time), we end up with pure reason or logic, and that is not the entirety of the Holy Spirit or His gifts to the Church.

    • This is no place for binary thinking. There will certainly be some “expressions” of Christianity that are clearly not of the Church, with good reasons given: heretical doctrine, immoral, delinquent, criminal or badly-intentioned clergy, “wanton irregularity”, etc. But it is all an infinitely graded continuum (scale of variation without “steps” or other quantities) and other “expressions” might be more borderline. The separation between “is” or “is not” might then become more difficult.

      We live in 2012 and churches have a decreasing hold over people through political or police constraint, and none at all here in Europe. A church that wants to be seen as “true” has to compete on fair terms with all the others, and show its “truth” by its intrinsic merit. If you can do that, then perhaps the “is nots” may be more clearly “not” – but there may be surprises!

      • Michael Frost says:

        Living in the middle of USA, I can’t say anything about Europe. In America, too much “church” focus seems to be on things like the prosperity gospel (for the young, pentacostal and evangelical), the social gospel & political correctness & being at one with the prevailing secular culture (for the declining mainline protestant churches), liturgy as entertainment (rise of our mega-church culture), the rejection of the concept of core belief/Truth/dogma (esp. the young, but seemingly afflicting all), and a withering away of certain basic concepts that no longer seem to exist for so many (esp. evil, sin, hell, and repentence) as they’ve been replaced (by things like therapy, psychotropic drugs, and pop psychology).

        I think we see this playing out in regard to whether churches will approve and promote homosexuality and homosexual marriage. The young are strongly tending to see no religious or moral issue here. The State is advancing the issue. In 50 years, how many churches will remain steadfast in the biblical message and tradition of the Church regarding this issue? And will a church that holds to such “retrograde”, “reactionary” views be seen as “true” or having the “Truth”?

        I would suspect that any Christian Church that wants to be seen as “true” (as having Truth?) demonstrates same by living out the Gospel and bringing people to the risen Christ, one sinful person at a time in our fallen world. The Church is about redeeming sinners, worshipping God, and spreading the Gospel; the Church is not about bringing wealth to individuals, entertaining them on Sundays, holding no core beliefs, or getting right with a changing secular culture.

      • Patience! From what I hear, Christianity in America will go the way of Europe as secularism advances together with the pressure against belief and transcendence. Anti-clericalism will rise against the ambition some have for theocracy. Of course there could be a sudden swing around as people react against the present claims by the LGBT world – Would that happen in Europe or the USA first? I have every esteem for the Orthodox Church, but we have to face the fact that it is too “irrelevant” to address current concerns, and will always remain very marginal.

        If a Church wants to do everything you say it should, it should be keeping people out, not trying to bring them in. The more a Church becomes popular, the more it will become a “mega church”, and that’s not what you want. People need drab, boring, flat and grey secularism and develop a thirst for the transcendent…

      • Michael Frost says:

        Father, An interesting comment with some interesting insights. The Apostolic Church started very small indeed and, according to recent sociological estimates, it took centuries for it to grow significantly large to encompass the masses and change the pagan culture. A return to an Apostolic Church way of thinking and believing might be quite valuable in a cyncial, decadent, unbelieving West?

        As regards keeping “people out”, I might say “away”, at least in regard to Eucharistic participation. Christian Churches that take the Eucharist seriously need to remind worshippers what proper reception is all about, both a proper understanding of what they are receiving and when they should receive. I’m not talking about only “saints” receiving. I’m talking about sinners who understand their is evil in the world and damnation awaits, recognize their sinfulness and their own personal sins, are truly repenting, and recognize that only Christ can save them as they try to live out the Gospel. But “out” might also apply to a re-discovery of a true catechumenate and much better confirmational preparation, ensuring that adult Christians have an adult faith that they know, understand, and take seriously. (Would it open many eyes to tell the “marginal” or “luke warm” that they should leave after the gospel reading/sermon, as the creed and Eucharist are reserved for mature Christians? Would many of the immature even care?)

        As regards the transcendence, I’m thinking that is, in some part, tied to understandings about goodness, truth, and beauty. Unfortunately in the West, post-modern secular man’s concepts about same seem either pretty warped or attenuated. Every modern art gallery I see is the opposite of beauty and seems to care nary a whit for goodness or truth. And look at the utilitarianism and ugliness of so many modern Western churches? They certainly don’t build or decorate them like they used to!

        And, yes, the Orthodox Church is not the “answer” for the West. It can be a small, though significant, part of the longer-term solution (Was it JP II who said the Church needs to breath with both Her lungs?), but that has to come from and within the West, both Churches and their members. I suspect it starts with an appreciation for their historical roots and a better understanding of what they believed in their confessional statements and historic creeds.

      • Thank you for this contribution. These are words of wisdom!

    • Dale says:

      Michael, one “church: that you did leave out was church as ethnic club; very widespread in the United States. “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” about sums this type of church up rather well.

      Also, liturgy as entertainment is horrible, liturgy as an expression of ethnic chauvinism is perhaps even worse. The “Orthodoxy is Hellenism and Hellenism is Orthodoxy” comes to mind.

      • Michael Frost says:

        Dale, I don’t find this in OCA or Antiochian churches. Certainly not in our Western Rite! But can be an issue with some Greek and Serbian churches in USA. Not unlike how it used to be with RCs. Irish vs Polish vs Italian. How PNCC came into existence. And like how Lutherans used to be in USA. Went to an ELCA Lutheran church recently for Danish festival. One block from another ELCA church. Both 100 years old. So I asked. The Danes told me those were the Swedes! I laughed. But that was USA in early 20th century.

    • Dale says:

      Michael, the OCA completely Russified all of the Ruthenian and Ukrainian parishes foolish enough to join them; so the OCA is just as ethnocentric, in English, as either the Greeks or the Serbs; one should mention that although they profess to be a Byzantine Church for all Americans, they only permit the Russian recession of the Byzantine rite and are more full of hatred to the western tradition than even the Greeks. Their Romanian parishes now use the Russian recession of the rite in English. I well remember an OCA priest telling me that only “English” Americans wanted a western rite, and that these people derserve to have their tradition destroyed.

      The fact that the Antiochians have NO bishops not of Arab descent is also troubling.

      • Michael Frost says:

        Dale, The “fact” that the Italians ruthlessly controlled and manipulated the papacy for hundreds of years is certainly most troubling! Most troubling indeed! What was it, over 300 hundred consecutive years of Italians? Maybe longer? Such ethno-tyranny! God forbid! And that horrible Latin forced on everyone worldwide for what, over 1,000 years? As you so eloquently put it, talk about “church as ethnic club. “My Big Fat Italian Wedding” about sums this…up rather well. … liturgy as an expression of ethnic chauvinism.” Darn those wily Romans! 🙂

        My personal experience in USA with OCA has been completely uniformly excellent. Maybe because I was married in OCA? And both of my kids were baptized in OCA? And I was an English-speaking-only convert in churches that were filled with same! Both they and the Antiochians appear very positive toward non-Orthodox converts and English speakers.

        When, at the 2004 annual convention, I and many others helped select 3 or 4 new Antiochian Archbidoces bishops, I got to meet them and interact with all the candidates. Their ethnic backgrounds were of no interest to me. I was praying the Spirit would guide me and others to select the “best” as my bishops. They impressed me as serious men who wanted to advance the Gospel. Good enough for me.

    • Dale says:

      Well, at least you appear to admit that there is no difference between the Italians and the Greeks…at last I think that was your point. Was just watching the eastern rite pannahikda for Pope John Paul II; gee, I wonder if the Greeks will have an Orthodox Latin High Mass on the death of their pro-abortionist ethnic leader? How many non-Greek Patriarchs of Constantinople have you had during your lifetime? Thank you, I think the Italians have done quite well with preserving universalism in the Roman Catholic Church.

      I happen to know, personally, an OCA priest who refuses to give communion to anyone who belongs to a so-called western rite Orthodox parish.

      • Michael Frost says:

        Dale, Send those Western Riters to me! I’ll get them thru those pesky eastern inquisitions. I teach a class on “How Western Rite Orthodox Can Fool Greeks & Slavs Into Believing You Are One of Them”. Is always the “little” things one has to hide. Starting with lighting those candles and doing some prostrations right away. And don’t forget the Sign of the Cross! Fingers have to be located in the “proper” Byzantine way and, of course, one makes if from right to left. But old habits die really, really hard and too many botch it when they approach the priest. Looking down and shuffling slightly helps. As do chain smoking and talking about vodka, the good old days, “the Turks”, and any great Russian writer. I recommend, where they can, they first practice trying to fool schismatic EOs and Old Believers first before trying to talk to a canonical EO priest. 😉

      • Michael Frost says:

        Dale, I’m pretty good with the Slavs. My son in US Navy recently married a Polish woman (nominally RC) who has a 94-yr-old Polish grandma, who was born in old country. When I first met my daughter-in-law, I asked her if her babushka threw sticks at black cats in the back yard. She looked at me stunned, laughed, and said, “How did you know?” (She really does. And she loves going thru garbage looking for treasure.) 🙂

    • Dale says:

      Michael, at least you do admit that one of the prerequisites to being accepted in your denomination is ethnic self-loathing and becoming more ethnic than the ethnics. Personally, I am quite satisfied with the traditions of my own ancestors and have no interest in joining a religion that demands that I fool people about my own background for acceptance.

      • Michael Frost says:

        Dale, You’re kidding, right? Have you completely lost your sense of humor? Ever read someone like Jonathan Swift? Satire? I admitted to no such thing in my highly satiracle comments. I will pray that God either grants you a sense of humor or re-activates it! And that you work to attenuate any sense of triumphalism or bigotry against your fellow Christians. Happy Thanksgiving (USA).

    • Dale says:

      Michael, I certainly did get the sarcasm of your posts, but all sarcasm is grounded in reality; and my own impression is that your humor is very, very close to the truth.

  3. ed pacht says:

    Ah, well, some folks certainly know what they dislike, hold onto their dislikes for all they are worth, and refuse to see anything good about what they dislike. Of course no church is perfect, why not? Because they are all composed of sinful erring people – yes, people like me. I try to draw my unbelieving friends to look toward Jesus. They can’t see Him because all the people that claim to follow him are so busy looking for faults in all the others. We need to stop squabbling.

    • Dale says:

      I couldn’t agree more, but when the eastern church presents itself as the one and only true religion and continues to attack the west as fallen and lacking in grace, then it is time to point out their own, numerous, defects.

      I have also find it strange how often we westerners accept their attacks so graciously, and how nasty they get when their own ecclesiastical foibles are presented.

  4. ed pacht says:

    Let me see now . . .

    You hit me first, so I can go ahead and hit you, and then you think you have to hit me again, and I . . .

    well, that’s what I see going on everywhere. Can’t we just admit our own flaws and present honestly what our strengths are without feeling we have to slap the other guy down? Do we have to answer an attack with an attack, or can’t we answer it just by being better than the accusation? The arguments between various divisions of Christianity (or, in secular affairs, between various political groupings) remind me of a bunch of squabbling children in the schoolyard. It won’t stop until someone stops. So let’s each one of us stop our own part in it. We can’t make someone else grow up and act adult, but we can do it ourselves.

  5. Stephen K says:

    I think I’m with ed here. I like his analogy that the mystery of church is like the mystery of Trinity, a mystery! (And if we understood it clearly and consistently, it wouldn’t be a mystery).

    I do think we have to live with mystery and let it be as it finds us or we find it rather than try to wrap it up in a safety-harness of our own making. I find, frankly, that I can no longer accept that Jesus deliberately founded anything like a church as we have been brainwashed from birth into accepting, but that he conceived of a “movement” of hearts. He already had a religious structure – the temple and pharisaic judaism – that he was working out how to stop it stifling him or stifling others. I therefore find ecclesiastical territorialism and disputes futile and unedifying. I see earnest searching in all sorts of Christians and find that my own native church – the Roman Catholic Church – continues in one way or another to foster a culture that gives the message that it doesn’t matter whether you are a Christian or not, just so long as you are a Catholic! That sort of exasperates me, although many would simply write me off as a non-believer or a syncretist etc. I have long ceased to think I can come to the desired answers or conclusions by fixing on a particular label or definition. That seems to me to be entirely the wrong way of going about the spiritual life in which I accept as completely normal that I should be able to draw insights from not only unexpected sources within Christianity, but within Buddhism and Hinduism too. You see, I think Incarnation and the whole Joannine God-from-God revelation is a mystery, and as such can hardly be reduced to a formula for dogmatic acceptance. Thus there are times and modes in which I simply accept Jesus as God revealed, and other times and modes in which I see him as a searching and insightful Jewish healer and teacher. Thus I find I can sing the chant of the Credo as a prayer-in-common with all the generations of long-dead faithful and lovers of God, but find I choke on irresponsible myths and allegories if I confine myself to saying it.

    Now I don’t describe these attitudes of mine with the intent to assert their coherence or cogency for anyone, but rather to share the perspective I have developed through my life about the way I respond to or make sense of religious mystery. And church is one of that. I know little, theologically speaking, about orthodoxy, but when I was in Rome many years ago, I attended on several evenings, some beautiful sung Vespers at the Russicum, and I used to come out swearing I would “become a Russian”, so powerfully and sensually did their liturgy speak to me. I have deep, ineradicable memories of quiet recited office with Carmelite friars, as the autumn sun bathed a stark modern chapel with crisp light through the windows on an Australian Holy Saturday and the chanting by monks at Melleray in France. I have seen and felt the earnest focus of bible Christians in their simpler gatherings and study and prayers and saw them as beautiful and honest. I feel humbled at the steady commitment and strength of the Bruderhof and Hutterite Brethren and acknowledge that whatever Christianity I have been accustomed to imitating often pales by comparison. I feel privileged to have been made to feel welcome at a local low-ish Anglican community, where I play the organ for some of their services, and who do not seem to mind when I organise and play the more traditional and “high” repertoire.

    So, this whole Christianity thing is too big, I think, for thinking that ecclesiastical affiliation is much more than familiarity, formation and temperamental fit, and does not have as much to do with theological rationale as we like to think. I think it is very likely quite commonplace that our theology follows our love.

    I could be wrong, but personally, I see some positives and negatives in many forms, if we look carefully enough.

    • Michael Frost says:

      Stephen K:

      “I see some positives and negatives in many forms, if we look carefully enough.” … I think those of us who have spent significant time worshipping with other faith groups would tend to be somewhat favorably inclined to much of what you say. I have a great love and respect for pretty much any real, serious worship of God. But I’ve spent long periods of time worshipping with EO (both E & W Rite), RC, Lutheran, PNCC, and Anglican congregations. I’ve also spent a bit of time worshipping with Methodists, Reformed, and Evangelicals. (Never been Baptist, Pentacostal, or Charismatic.) But I never cross the line (from my EO perspective) when it comes to receiving the Eucharist. I can love and respect their worship, and worship with them, but I communicate with my fellow immediate family, waiting for the day when my family gets officially “larger”.

      “many would simply write me off as a non-believer or a syncretist.” … I think this is true IF you stop taking the differences between faith groups seriously. Those differences are significant and important. They can’t be minimized or white washed. Nor should anyone just say they don’t matter and treat all faith groups exactly the same. Treat them as they want to be treated. (A reason I love reading both Touchstone and First Things magazines; first-rate ecumenical publications that respect differences and the expression of first principles within faith groups.)

      I often go back to a quote (I think I remember many from years ago) when I was reading Philip Jacob Spener, famous Lutheran pietist: “Better a good Roman Catholic than a bad Lutheran.” One potential “key” to “Church”, “church” and “worship” for any individual is to find a “home”, one where you know you fit in. You may not know exactly “why” you fit in, but you just know you do. Once you’re there, stay, be active, and worship God fully within that tradition while respecting the traditions of others.

      • Stephen K says:

        Thank you, Michael, for your comments. You make good points. I certainly do not ignore or discount the differences between faith groups, and would go so far as to say that I think it would be impossible to be indifferent to the differences: they are things or factors of – what shall we call it – the metaphysics of the religious traditions, that will always sit as alien or contradictory and which, by the time we’ve knocked up our half-century, can never be absorbed or adopted with any spiritual or intellectual fluency. I do not disagree with anything you have said in your final paragraph either, which seems to me not inconsistent with my conclusion that God may theoretically be found and experienced in many traditions and is greater than any single one of them. Whether, of course, I (or anyone) is capable of finding God or is “called” to experience God in more than one is a foundational existential and religious question. There is considerable force to the idea that each of us is born into highly deliberate customised circumstances in which and through which we have to work out the great issues of life and death; the corollary being, of course, that this applies equally to every one who has ever lived, which means of course that we must dispense with ideas that depend on the “one-size-fits-all” calculation. On the contrary, it means that we can or should open our eyes to the wondrous diversity of each person’s unique experiential prism and God’s love for each of them. All in all, the great challenge of our existence. Thanks again, Michael, for your responses.

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