Perhaps it is time to move back to theology as a less provocative approach to this blog, since someone rightly observed that I have no real parish life (I live in France and proselytism to continuing Anglicanism is rather dimly viewed here, as we are not a cult). I can see how a discussion of men’s hairstyles can get up the noses of certain conservative Americans living in the southern States!
We continuing Anglicans have different approaches to things in order to distinguish ourselves from post-Tridentine Roman Catholicism and Reformed Protestantism. Our ecclesiology resembles Old Catholicism to an extent and we tend to consider ourselves as western Orthodox (ie: adhering to conciliar ecclesiology but worshipping like Roman Catholics before Vatican II). It is difficult to be coherent.
Coherence is the problem of many of us. Newman’s theory of development was never a perfect analogy, and the distinction between genuine organic developments and perversions – whether by way of heresy or “accretion” – is hard to make to any degree of scientific rigour.
We have the famous “canon” of Vincent of Lerins (d. 450): We hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all. The problem is that if everything is rigorously subjected to that test, very little would remain. We would have to find out whether something has been held by the RC Church and the Patriarchate of Moscow, but also whether it is held by the East Syrians, the Copts and the Syro Malabar Church. Such a criterion is difficult to reconcile with honest historical study. Embarrassing sore thumbs tend to get chopped off to keep the ever-narrowing orthodoxy more or less credible!
Protestant doctrines are variously perceived as innovations and restorations of the standards of the early Church. Which is it? Vincent’s canon is often bandied about by RC convert apologists, and they create more problems than they solve. Newman was confronted by the historical fact that Catholics were believing things that were not explicitly found in the Bible or the Fathers of the Church. On one hand, there is the liturgical life of the Church and the role of the Sacraments and iconography. On the other hand there was the famous “development” of Papal infallibility that he had to justify in order to become a Roman Catholic with some intellectual integrity.
We seek stability, but we also seek coherence and a certain amount of freedom. Go too far along the development line, and just anything can be justified. Therefore, we get the qualifying adjective organic. There has to be growth, using the analogy of biology. An acorn becomes an oak tree, not a London bus.
The interesting thing about Vincent’s canon is that it is appealed to by some of the Protestants themselves. They justified their Reformation by the notion of cutting back developments and accretions to restore that pure and pristine faith and religious practice of the early Church. The canon is made to justify two radically opposing systems of theology and belief. “Good” developments are condemned because there are “bad” developments. The biggest problem with this approach is having a perfect level of historical scholarship. The elephant in the room is the fact that the early Church was a mess, a horribly divided mess.
There has to be some limiting mechanism for development, from whence the notion of organic development and identity of type. Newman’s criteria are very carefully thought out and quite convincing. He puts them in a nutshell before explaing them and expanding his reasoning:
Taking this analogy as a guide, I venture to set down seven Notes of varying cogency, independence and applicability, to discriminate healthy developments of an idea from its state of corruption and decay, as follows:—There is no corruption if it retains one and the same type, the same principles, the same organization; if its beginnings anticipate its subsequent phases, and its later phenomena protect and subserve its earlier; if it has a power of assimilation and revival, and a vigorous action from first to last. On these tests I shall now enlarge, nearly in the order in which I have enumerated them.
Since reading this book, I have found such notions a lot more credible than the notion that they had Sacred Heart devotions and the Tridentine liturgy in the second century, or that a Calvinist service really restored what they did in the early days. Newman’s theory really was the only one possible, other than debunking Christianity totally. The problem is using this theory for defending ideologies that cannot reasonably be defended – like Ultramontanism.
Newman was strongly opposed by Roman Catholics and Protestants alike, so we see the same appeal to the Vincentian canon and opposite conclusions. Newman’s theory is as imperfect as the Vincentian canon when it comes to continuing the reasoning to its logical conclusion. The more I read and think, the more I realise that much of “classical” Christian teaching reposes on a very weak intellectual structure. Both Newman and Vincent of Lerins are used to justify just about anything, including “pop” liturgies and women priests.
A considerable amount of time has been expended in the twentieth century to understand an essentially “immobile” tradition and the more dynamic notion encouraged by modern Roman Catholic theologians. The notion of development had been carried much further than what Newman intended. It, combined with philosophical trends like historicism and immanentism, was the subject of the Modernist controversy under the pontificate of Pius X (1903-1914), condemned in the encyclical Pascendi. In varying degrees, men like Alfred Loisy sought to wrest the notion of tradition away from the restraining influence of the Vincentian canon to justify an evolving notion of the Church.
We will live with these contradictions for many generations to come, as the credibility of Christianity unravels in the eyes of our contemporaries. I have for a long time felt that Christianity cannot be justified and defended by apologetics, or by conservative ideologies, but by a profound vision of contemplative life.
There are no prizes for guessing who said:
The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb. Better witness is borne to the Lord by the splendour of holiness and art . . . than by the clever excuses which apologetics has come up with to justify the dark sides which, sadly, are so frequent in the Church’s human history.