Sunday, February 28, 2016

I believe in the Catholic Church

“Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven… and each one heard them speaking in his own language.  And they were amazed and wondered, saying, “How is it that...we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God." Acts 2:5-6, 11

Theologian Brian McLaren wrote a noted book a few years ago with this very wordy subtitle: “Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/calvinist, anabaptist/anglican, methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian.”[1]  He’s not schizophrenic, I think.  And I don’t think that he had a particularly checkered history of joining different churches.  He was just trying to make a point about how the truth about God and Christ often transcends the divisions and labels we like to use.  I think he could have saved plenty of ink if he had just titled his book, “why I am a Catholic Christian.” 

If he had used that subtitle, though, plenty of people would have misunderstood him.  They would have expected chapters on the pope and prayer to the saints and purgatory and all sorts of other things that he wasn’t prepared to discuss in his book.  In the minds of many people, Catholic means only one branch of the church, the branch more properly called “The Holy Roman Church.” 

The term catholic has been used to describe the Church almost from its very beginning.  It was coined by a second century bishop named Ignatius of Antioch, and it means “according to the wholeness” or “universal.”[2]  It means the church as it is found throughout the world, beyond the local gathering; the church as revealed in all that it teaches and does, not just in the things that I prefer and that have a special meaning for me.  The Holy Roman Church is, of course, part of the Catholic Church, the largest single part, but it is only one part, and plenty of insights from all those other groups that McLaren named in his very long subtitle also belong within its scope.

The Church was destined to be catholic from the day of its birth.  I began with a quote from the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles, and when that great miracle of language took place in the middle of Jerusalem.  The crowds had gathered together from all over the world to celebrate the feast, and when Peter proclaimed the good news about Jesus to them, each group of people understood him in its own language.  Parthians, Medes and Elamites , Mesopotamians, Judeans and Cappadocians, and all the rest of that great assembly: the message was for each of them.  Jesus may have begun by gathering around him a company of followers much like himself—humble Galileans, dedicated Jews.  But he sent them out into all the world, to preach, as he told them in St. Mark’s Gospel, “to every creature.”[3]  God’s plan was to heal and restore the entire world—the whole of it, not just one small group with a common ancestry and way of life. 

And as the faith took root in new places among different kinds of people, it developed a kind of breadth it had not known before.  Through prayer and study, people came to discern new things about Christ, new ways of honoring God and of working together to accomplish the commission we have received.  The essentials of the faith remained the same, which is indeed part of the church’s catholicity, but the emphases were different, as different kinds of people made their own special contributions.  A truly catholic church is one big enough to hold together all of these different themes and methods, and truly catholic Christians are those with patience and humility enough to accept that the things that mean the most to them are not the only ways to be faithful to Christ.  Catholic Christians are willing to listen carefully to the insights of others, even when they seem strange or mistaken at first glance.  They rejoice in the fact that the true faith is complex, and sometimes even paradoxical, holding together things that seem contradictory. 

Heresy is the opposite of the Catholic Church’s faith.  It too is a word whose meaning is often obscured these days.  It means choosing your own way—deciding that your own insight alone is true and that the rest of the faithful must be wrong.  Heretics are those who think they have nothing to learn from fellow Christians in other times and places, that the faith of the whole is far inferior to the opinions they have formed through their own reasoning.  Heresy is as much an attitude, a moral defect as it is a set of opinions.  It springs from arrogance, impatience, and narrow-mindedness.  The Catholic Church at its best does not discourage creativity or honest questions, but it has always had little patience for the little minds who think they must be right and everyone else a fool.

 For our Anglican representative of the catholicity of the church, we look far back into our history, to the early days of the Church in England, and to one of its earliest leaders, Theodore of Tarsus, who served as Archbishop of Canterbury from 669 to 690.  Tarsus is not a city in England, as you might expect for the hometown of the Archbishop of Canterbury, but a place in what is now Eastern Turkey, a city whose other famous native son was Saint Paul.  Theodore lived in the time before the church began to splinter off into various branches, and his own experience represents a kind of catholic Christianity unlike that of almost anyone else since.  He was ethnically Greek, but had studied at the great school of Antioch, in Syria.  From his few writings that survive, we can surmise that he probably spent time at the court of emperors of Persia, in central Asia.  He was the leader of a monastery of Greek monks in Rome for a period before Pope Vitalian sent him off to the nearly the end of the world, to bring peace and order to the Church of England. 

The English Church was locked in deep controversy in those days between one group which upheld the traditions of the Roman Church and one upholding those of the Celtic Church, spread from the monasteries in Ireland and Scotland.  The most contentious issue, believe it or not, was over the proper way to calculate the date of Easter, but there were also disputes over the discipline of monks, the appointment of bishops and the laws of marriage.  The disagreements had been paralyzing the church for decades, and perhaps the Pope thought that choosing the new archbishop from among the English clergy would have only angered one side even more.

So he sent Theodore instead, an old man at 66, and one who could not speak the language or know much at all about the terms of the disputes.  This outsider proved remarkably effective.  He settled the disagreements in a way that gained the respect of both sides, and allowed the mission of the Church to advance.  He was, the Venerable Bede remembered, the “first archbishop whom all the English obeyed.”[4]  Perhaps he was so fruitful because his wide-ranging experience had taught him patience and given him the good judgment to recognize truth on both sides and the best way to seek common ground.  He could see beyond the petty disputes to the whole vision of Christian truth. 

Theodore had a great reputation as a scholar.  From him and his assistant Hadrian, the great historian Bede wrote, “daily flowed from rivers of knowledge to water the hearts of their hearers.”[5]   He built on his reputation to found a great academy.  It was about the only thing you could call an institution of higher learning in the whole of England at the time.  It gathered together scholarship from throughout the world, using the books and manuscripts that Theodore had brought with him.  Perhaps it was even graced by a few of his old friends, who he persuaded to make the trip to lecture the Western barbarians so they too might learn the wholeness of the Church’s teaching.  Theodore’s school trained the leaders of the English church for decades to come, and also many missionaries, who would, in turn, take the faith out from England to Scandinavia, the Low Countries and Northern Germany—so that many more nations might embrace the Catholic faith, and in time, make their own contributions to the fullness of Christian truth.    

We play our own role in building up the Church’s catholicity by trying to learn as much as we can about the way the faith is lived and taught in other times and places.  We should read Christian books and watch films that will challenge us, exposing us to new ideas and practices.  We must also learn patience and humility, holding our own opinions in question as we seek listen carefully and understand more widely.  A Catholic Church is also a missionary church, aiming to share the faith with those people who do not yet know our Lord.  The Gospel is not yet preached to every creature, and while so many do not know Christ and His love, our work in making the church truly Catholic remains unfinished.

[1] A Generous Orthodoxy.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.
[2] Letter to the Smyrneans
[3] Mark 16:15. 
[4] History of the English Church.  IV.1
[5] Ibid.

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