The Nordic Catholic Church and Gnosticism

Update from 5th March 2020.

I have received various bits of new information and I am concerned not to be an obstacle in the developing relationship between our churches. Bishop Flemestad has a remarkably lucid philosophical view of the fundamental incompatibilities between orthodox Christianity and the modern world. We all need to evolve in our study and understanding of these issues, and I am far from possessing all the answers. These discussions are intended to help this process of understanding.

I am waiting for delivery of a book by Eric Vögelin to try to understand what his comprehension of ancient Gnosticism was, and whether he made the distinctions we make today in view of extensive studies of the Nag Hammadi texts and other recently discovered sources. We have then to look at modern or post-modern culture and discern whether its influences are indeed some modern form of Gnosticism or some other phenomenon to be called by a different label. A physician has to make a careful and profound diagnosis in order to prescribe the most effective treatment for his patient’s illness.

I will respect the anonymity of my correspondent, and merely summarise some of his notions, whilst adding my own thoughts.

Gnosticism was an extremely diverse and complex phenomenon in the late Jewish, early Christian and ancient pagan world. Some tendencies were quite wild, and others would be refined in time into the spiritual and mystical dimension of orthodox Christianity. The issue, which we must not forget, is to try to trace the origins of the kind of nihilism and individualism (as opposed to personalism and nobility of spirit) that were bewailed by Nietzsche and other philosophers over the past couple of centuries.

I think Bishop Flemestad’s first concern was not Gnosticism but the question of whether Christianity has any relevance for people of our time. It has for some and not for others. Some aspects of our society are homogenous, but others are extremely fragmented. Which people does a Church try to reach? Myself, I would have had a better understanding of the conference in Germany had I been present to hear the talks, ask questions (or listen to other questions and answers) and talk with people I would have met. I am concerned that some of my criticisms below may well be unjust. I am told that all the Churches of the Union of Scranton are concerned for the development of relations with the G4 Anglican Churches and the movement towards unity.

I ask my readers to read the earlier article in this light of all of us who are trying to understand issues as best as we can and showing the best possible sincerity of will to achieve unity between ourselves.

It might also be reassuring for you and your readers to learn that Bishop Flemestad (…) did in fact emphasise the priority of seeking dialogue with Continuing Anglicans with the goal of welcoming them into the Union of Scranton.

Without usurping the position of our Bishops in such matters, I think it will remain to be seen how the Union of Scranton and the G4 of Continuing Anglican Churches would be united – in the present Union of Scranton or some other entity. That will depend on those at much higher “pay grade” than I.

I am certain that our vision of Church unity will continue to show our common esteem for diversity in things like philosophical and theological speculation and study as well as pastoral methods and liturgical rites. None of us seeks to impose uniformity over the other or the fruits of our own experience. This is the wonderful thing about the kind of ecumenism that seeks unity in essentials, diversity in what is not set in stone and mutual love in all things (expression of St Augustine).

* * *

Something very interesting has come up on the side of the Nordic Catholic Church, the European member Church of the Union of Scranton with the PNCC in America.

The talk by Bishop Roald Nikolai Flemestad (NCC): The Loss of Transcendence and the Collapse of Faith is particularly fascinating.

I have two main observations. The first is their concern for sacramental unity with Orthodoxy. There is no mention of any dialogue with Continuing Anglicanism either side of the Atlantic. The second is the tendency to blame everything on Gnosticism in the same way as Pope Pius X grouped every scrap of non-scholastic theology he could find and call it all Modernism.

They call the present challenge to Christianity institutionalised individualism. It seems rather simplistic to me, since the secular world is returning to collectivism – but an anti-Christian form of it. Individualism or personalism are not necessarily nihilist or Gnostic. In history, there were several types or degrees of Gnosticism. Some were totally unacceptable to Christianity, especially the dualist types. Fathers of the Church like St Clement of Alexandria and Origen accepted some aspects of Gnosticism but not all. The distinction has to be made. Without any esoteric dimension, Christianity will become like salt that has lost its savour, to be rejected as something illusory and false. Their epistemology is also too simplistic, because some truths are foundational and others are transcendent. Their approach is quite dialectic, all-or-nothing, black and white in their opposition between the individual person and the community, or between personalism and individualism. Would they too like to find a kind of garrotte-wielding Caudillo who could be “used” for the enforcement of “true religion and virtue”?

I frankly do not find the influence of Gnosticism (Valentinian or not) in the modern world.

(…) this reorientation “back to basics” cannot be done as a nostalgic effort to “restore” an idealised past.

What does this mean? If the past is no longer relevant in any way, they have no option other than sucking up the “future”, even if it is not their future. Perhaps they are having a go at what I keep writing! Perhaps I flatter myself…

We have heard a lot about the “faithful remnant” over the years, and the novelty of it is wearing off. Instead of ironically seeing themselves as the pure ones, the meaning of the word Cathar, perhaps we can see ourselves as sowing seeds that others will harvest after we are gone. We cannot go into quarantine against this world, because we live in it. However, there is nothing wrong in our getting into little groups to try to do some good in whatever way we can.

I have always had a lot of esteem for Bishop Flemestad, but I do think they need to give more thought to things. I resorted to Romanticism, in spite of the fact that some Romantics were not Christians, atheists in some cases, because there is a general mindset that can work above the dialectics of ultra-rationalism and irrational conservatism. They don’t seem to realise that Nietzsche has also to be read and understood before he is accused of being an insane nihilist. I am not a fan of Nietzsche, but I appreciate what is germane and cogent in his work.

They are not wrong, but too narrow in their criticism. They need to go much deeper in their knowledge of historical Gnosticism and questions of personalism / individual freedom as we again may face new forms of collectivism and totalitarianism. I wish them the best in their continued research and a more balanced evaluation of things.

In some cordial correspondence with one of the French NCC priests, the elephant in the room between them and the “G4” Continuing Anglican Churches is their denial or doubt of our Orders and Sacraments. The PNCC was once in communion with the American Episcopal Church.

So the question is whether their dialogue with the Orthodox will go anywhere…

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12 Responses to The Nordic Catholic Church and Gnosticism

  1. Unless we retain current members and evangelize effectively, we won’t survive long enough for the Orthodox or anyone else to care about our existence!

    • Was there something I said to suggest that you should not “retain current members and evangelize”? Perhaps there is something we can discuss…

      • Father, I didn’t mean to suggest that you don’t care about those things, so I apologize for not making that clear. What I mean to say is that, if we don’t grow, the other churches will simply wait for us to give up and convert. To me, it shows that they won’t be respectful of us unless they have to – an attitude they didn’t take in the 1920s, when the Anglican Communion was orthodox and the Big Three seemed ready to get together. The Orthodox, in particular, have many former Anglicans among them, so they know that there are Continuing Anglicans with valid orders, with whom their old inter-communion agreement should still be in force.

      • Thank you for the explanation. I don’t think there will ever be a successful “union” with any Orthodox Church and the Union of Scranton or the Continuing Anglicans. There might be a union between the Union of Scranton and the G4 Continuing Anglican Churches. On what terms? This is unclear. Does the Union of Scranton expect us Anglicans to come under the Union of Scranton? As a corporate whole or as individuals to be sifted and screened for re-ordination like with the RC ordinariates. Sometimes, information comes up in the G4 Anglicans group on Facebook. We need to be patient and avoid chafing at the bit.

      • William Tighe says:

        These “intercommunion agreements” are mythological; no Orthodox jurisdiction ever reached any intercommunion agreement with any Anglican jurisdiction. Rather, some Orthodox jurisdictions “accepted the validity of Anglican Orders” in the sense that they concluded if.any Anglican church formally embraced the Orthodox Faith and asked to be recognized as Orthodox by the Orthodox churches its clergy would not need to be reordained. Other Orthodox jurisdictions, however, reached contrary conclusions.

        The Russian Orthodox “auxiliary Bishop of Brooklyn” for Arab congregations, St. Raphael (Hawaweeny) of Brooklyn (1860-1915) did, in about 1912, urge Orthodox Christians in America who could not access Orthodox churches to attend services of the Episcopal Church instead, but two years later he publicly revoked his letter, declaring that further reading about Anglicanism had convinced him that Anglicanism was a form of Protestantism, and not Catholic in a sense compatible with Orthodox ecclesiology.

      • William, I think there is a misunderstanding here. I did not allude to any idea of Orthodox Churches recognising Anglican orders or coming to intercommunion agreements. I mentioned the Union of Scranton (PNCC and NCC) in this position in regard to the Orthodox. In my own posting, I commented on prospects of intercommunion and recognition of Orders between the Union of Scranton and the G4 Continuing Anglican jurisdictions. I am not completely informed about the present status of these dialogues between one lot of bishops and the other.

      • Chris Cox says:

        That may be so, unfortunately. I hope a communion agreement isn’t too much to ask, though.

        In response to Mr. Tighe, so there is no further confusion, I enclose the following link: Most major Eastern patriarchs permitted intercommunion as an act of pastoral oikonomia, from 1922 until the ordination of women. Intercommunion between Anglicans and Orthodox was so normal that an instance is even mentioned, in passing, in the novel “The Towers of Trebizond.” In fact, some Arab Episcopalians in the USA descend from parents who baptized them in the Episcopal Church because there was no Orthodox church.

        Anyway, this is Chris Cox from the United States. Don’t know why my name has been replaced with that of my blog!

    • William Tighe says:

      Fr. Anthony, I wasn’t responding to anything you wrote, but to the very end of “when…spend8’s” second comment here::

      The Orthodox, in particular, have many former Anglicans among them, so they know that there are Continuing Anglicans with valid orders, with whom their old inter-communion agreement should still be in force.

      There are no such “old intercommunion agreements,” not a single one.

      • I’m sorry about this, William. Indeed this question comes from wheniconsiderhowmylightisspent8’s comment. I was puzzled unjustifiably. Indeed, I have never heard of any intercommunion agreements between any kind of Anglicans and any kind of Orthodox. Perhaps he was thinking about the PNCC and the American Episcopal Church.

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Gwyl Dewi Sant Llawen! – I hope you are having a Happy Feast of St. David!

    Thanks for this – I comment (sloppily?) before having read the two talks, though having read the linked reflection-post… but I wonder when that post was posted… for I had just been interested and cheered to see (belatedly) this notice:

    but no follow-up yet that I can find…

    Some years ago, already, I think, Fr. Robert Hart had a fine Continuum blog post (or more than one?) about something St. John Chrysostom wrote about avoiding opposite extremes – I think with some comparison with something analogous C.S. Lewis wrote (but have – sloppily? – not paused to search for it). That came to mind in terms of ‘individualism’ and ‘collectivism’, as negative terms for opposite extremes to be avoided – while I think one could also compare and contrast with them some senses of ‘personalism’ and ‘community’/’communitarianism'(?) as positive ‘things’.

    The discussion of ‘Gnosis’ and ‘gnostic ideologies’ has been a complicated and controversial matter since you and I were children, at least, involving things like Jung’s expressed connections (and, e.g., the Codex Jung), Hans Jonas’s thorough work on antique gnosticism, but with comparisons to then-contemporary ‘existentialism’, and probably especially Eric Voegelin’s work from the late 1950s on, attending to both early Nineteenth-century scholarly attention to antique gnosticism and to resemblances of the (systematized) thought of Comte, Marx, and Heidegger (among others). I also have the sense that there are sensible contemporary Orthodox thinkers that are very attentive to the writings about ‘Gnosis’ from, say, St. Clement of Alexandria through St. Maximus the Confessor. That might give a different dimension to dialogue with (some) Orthodox…

  3. William Tighe says:

    I would urge interested readers to go to the link provided by Chris Cox in response to my posting above, and read it and especially the comments on its thread. Nothing there provides factual support for his claims, but rather supports mine. In sum,

    (1) the recognition by some Orthodox jurisdictions and patriarchs of Anglican Orders – others rejected them – concerned any Anglican jurisdictions wishing to become Orthodox in the future, not Orthodox practice towards Anglican clergy in the present (although on their face, if read out of context, they can be taken as granting “present recognition”) – because

    (2) no Orthodox jurisdictions have ever, then or later, rec’d Anglican clergy “in their Orders,” as opposed to their practice regarding Catholic clergy (whom some Orthodox jurisdictions receive “in their Orders” and others reordain)

    (3) Bishop Hawaweeny gave explicit witness why he, upon becoming better informed about Anglican/Episcopalian practice and “comprehensiveness,” publicly revoked his earlier permission for Orthodox unable to access Orthodox churches and clergy to avail themselves of those of the Episcopal Church. In doing so he did his due diligence. Other Orthodox bishops, then and later, may have done the same thing as Bishop Hawaweeny initially did, without leaving any written record of it, and perhaps without themselves subsequently emulating that bishop’s diligence. In fact, my impression is that here in America a number of Orthodox bishops of various ethnicities may have done so by “word of mouth” from the 1930s onward, until the general tendency of the churches of the Anglican Communion from ca. 1965 onward showed them how mistaken they had been in doing so. Acting thus “by word of mouth” often serves the purpose of “plausible deniability” if things subsequently go wrong, as of course in this matter they did.

    The comments on the thread to the linked article regarding Orthodox attitudes and practice, especially those of Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) are IMO clear and historically accurate, while those of most (not all) of the Anglican respondents seem content to make unsupported/undocumented claims about Anglican/Orthodox intercommunion and to attribute Orthodox refusal to accept “Anglican claims” either to ignorance or
    (in the case of Bishop Hawaweeny’s revocation of his earlier permission) to being “leaned upon” by their ecclesiastical superiors. To all this I respond quod gratis asseritur gratis negatur.

    By the way, Fr. Anthony, if you have not acquired a copy of Louis Bouyer’s Memoires, oublished in French in 2014 by Les Editions du Cerf, you ought to do so. It contains an informative (and at times hilarious) chapter concerning his relations with the “Parisian Orthodox” in the 1930s. He was then a Lutheran pastor, but allowed Lev Gillet to persuade him to become Orthodox in secret, while remaining publicly a Lutheran pastor, “a dream,” as he writes, from which he awakened after about a year, and which in the longer run pushed him towards Rome.

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