The Petri Dish of Ecclesiology

The Anglican “communion” – such as it is – provides a sort of petri dish in the laboratory of ecclesiology. A recent document by the Anglican Communion Institute in the United States, which is also authored by Britain’s foremost Anglican scholar, N. T. Wright, is entitled The Anglican Communion: Shared Discernment Recognized by All.

There’s discussion over at Fulcrum, a British evangelical site.

Also, while on this topic, there are similar issues among Lutherans – similar in the sense of having to deal with foundational cracks. [Update: article in the Rapid City Journal]

Speaking of Lutherans, as someone posted on Free Republic:

The formation of the ELCA is what nudged Fr. Richard John Neuhaus into the Catholic Church. At the time, he said that the merger was not based on theological principle or belief, but was merely a material merger for material reasons—like a merger of Wal-Mart and K-Mart.

Neuhaus said he had always viewed the Lutheran “Church” as the Lutheran “Movement” within the universal Church. After the formation of the ELCA, he could not maintain that view—of Lutheranism as a principle-based movement within the Church.

While the characterization of “communion” or, better, “movement” can be useful, I find it more productive to use the phrase “separated religious order” for such ecclesial structures.

The ACA’s (Anglican Church in America, one of “continuing anglican” ecclesial groups) Rt. Rev. George Langberg recently said:

The ongoing collapse of the Anglican Communion and the concurrent inability of conservative Anglicans outside that body to get their act together suggest that these groups may share a fatal flaw. Anglicanism may arguably be seen as a 450-year experiment to determine whether a separated part of the church can remain fully catholic, keeping its apostolic ministry and grounding its teaching and practice in Holy Scripture and the Sacraments, but replacing the authority structures of the main body of the Church with a sort of democracy in which no single leader has complete authority, and in which clergy and laity gathered together in Synods and Conventions take the place of Church Councils. A strong case can be made for the premise that the experiment is concluded, and it has failed.

[Update: 23 Sept 2009] In the context of current Lutheran difficulties, there’s an article on The Agony of Mainline Protestantism by R.R. Reno in First Things. Reno has personal experience in this matter:

. . .
I once wrote a book defending the spiritual vocation of loyalty to a declining mainline denomination-and I eventually left when I recognized that my own spiritual mediocrity left me unable to live up to St. Paul’s vision of a Christ-like sacrifice. So readers should not be surprised that I have sympathy for David Yeago’s Pauline admonitions-and that I am consoled by his generous concessions the opaque and uncertain and sin-weakened condition of each person.

But I am more than consoled. Since my entrance into the Catholic Church, I have become more and more aware of the importance of personal discernment, which Yeago rightly emphasizes. It is a perversion of our age-one shared I might add by both Protestants and Catholics-that we think ourselves capable of coolly judging or assessing or somehow weighing the orthodoxy of our churches by what we imagine to be objective criteria.

This approach is wrongheaded. Yes, we have the scriptures, and we have a patrimony of theological wisdom. But it is important to recognize that the church is not created by confessions. She is not a theological artifact, nor is she a catechism or set of doctrines. The church is body of Christ, a primal fact that guides the reading of scripture, supports confessions, and gives birth to doctrines. Events may force us to make a fundamental decision about our ecclesial community. But to act independently, to step outside the fellowship of faith and navigate forward on our own-this circumstance brings more blindness than clarity of vision, and it requires far more prayer than theological analysis. So, yes, the decisions made by the ELCA last summer are wayward. The future is not rosy for Lutherans or other mainline Protestants who care about orthodoxy. But no wavering Protestant should step back and tote up the apostasies of the UCC or Episcopal Church or ELCA. The truth of Christ comes clearest when one is closest, and this requires drawing near rather than stepping back. As a former mainline Protestant who hovered at a distance for longer than I care to admit, I can report that, without an abiding loyalty to a church (however debilitated, however removed for its true source), there is no reliable list of essential doctrines, no confident navigation by biblical principles. . . .

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