Friday, October 14, 2011

C. S. Lewis on Roman Catholicism & Anglicanism

A couple of years ago, the Pope proposed an "Anglican Ordinariate" (Anglicanorum Coetibus) making it easier for disaffected Episcopalians to become Roman Catholic by allowing such "converts" to maintain some Anglican forms of worship. At the time, someone asked me, somewhat tongue in cheek, if I was considering taking the pope up on his offer. I replied that I wasn't, because, among other things, I could not accept as formal dogma some of the Roman church's recent theological innovations, e.g., the Immaculate Conception of Mary (1854), Papal Infallibility (1870), and the Assumption of Mary (1950). Of course, this was intentionally impish given that the Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion more generally, has sometimes been accused of theological innovation. There is much that I appreciate about Roman Catholicism and have benefited greatly from reading R. C. scholars, theologians, and writers on prayer and spirituality. And, frustrated as I am sometimes with some tendencies in the Episcopal Church, it has its attractions. Still, there are parts of the package I cannot bring myself to accept. I am in many ways a catholic minded Anglican. But, there is more than one way to be catholic.

I was thinking about this as I read an entry on Anglican vs. Roman ways of being "catholic" at The Curates Desk, a fine blog by Fr. Robert Hendrickson of Christ Church, New Haven, Connecticut.

I was also reminded of this letter from C. S. Lewis to a correspondent enquiring about his views of the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church (I have spelled out some words Lewis abbreviated):

My position about the Churches can best be made plain by an imaginary example. Suppose I want to find out the correct interpretation of Plato’s teaching. What I am most confident in accepting is that interpretation which is common to all Platonists down all the centuries: What Aristotle and the Renaissance scholars and Paul Elmer More agree on I take to be true Platonism. Any purely modern views which claim to have discovered for the first time what Plato meant and say that everyone from Aristotle down has misunderstood him I reject out of hand.

But there is something else I would also reject. If there were an ancient Platonic Society existing at Athens and claiming to be the exclusive trustees of P’s meaning, I should approach them with great respect. But if I found that their teaching in many ways was curiously unlike his actual text and unlike what ancient interpreters said, and in some cases could not be traced back to within 1000 years of his time, I should reject these exclusive claims: while still needing, of course, to take any particular thing they thought on its merits.

I do the same with Christianity. What is certain is the vast mass of doctrine which I find agreed on by scripture, the Fathers, the Middle Ages, modern Roman Catholics, modern Protestants. That is true ‘catholic’ doctrine. Mere ‘modernism’ I reject at once.

The Roman Church where it differs from this universal tradition and specifically from apostolic Christianity I reject. Thus their theology about the B. V. M. [Blessed Virgin Mary] I reject because it seems utterly foreign to the New Testament: where indeed the words ‘Blessed is the womb that bore thee’ receive a rejoinder pointing in exactly the opposite direction. Their papalism seems equally foreign to the attitude of St. Paul towards St. Peter in the epistles. The doctrine of Transubstantiation insists in defining in a way which the New Testament seems to me not to countenance. In a word, the whole set-up of modern Romanism seems to me to be as much a provincial or local variation from the central, ancient tradition as any particular Protestant sect is. I must therefore reject their claims: though this does not mean rejecting particular things they way.

. . .

Hooker (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity) is to me the great formulation of Anglicanism. But the great point is that in one sense there is no such thing as Anglicanism. What we are committed to believe is whatever can be proved from Scripture. On that issue there is room for endless progress.
From a letter to Lyman Stebbins, May 8, 19454 in The Collected letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol 2. (the recipient become R.C. anyway)

I mostly agree with Lewis. His approach is my default position. But, I wonder if it is altogether possible or desirable for a church to avoid all innovation or development in theological or biblical understanding. Lewis himself notoriously rejected the idea of one innovation, the ordination of women, which I accept as a faithful extension of the gospel. And this is something the Roman church rejects as well.

Perhaps the question is not simply whether or not innovation is faithful, but which innovations are faithful, how is their faithfulness discerned, how are they adopted once discerned, and where does the authority lie to do so? The Roman Catholic Church has some relatively clear answers to those questions. The lack of clear answers to those questions is straining the "bonds of affection" in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the quote and for your thoughts.

I struggled for some time before deciding on the Episcopal Church on whether I should be Roman Catholic or Anglo-Catholic. I kept returning to the fact that the Papacy (as it is today) is an innovation that I consider to be unfaithful, even though I'm quite fine with primus inter pares.

I don't think innovations should or can be avoided, but you're right that each innovation must be judged on faithfulness. But even more so, I think that a spirit "in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity" should rule every conversation in the Church. This is something I pray for with all of the disintegration in the worldwide Anglican body and the strife within our own beloved Church. May God have mercy on us all.

Barry Harvey said...

Interesting comments. Graduate students in theology here at Baylor have been reading John Henry Newman, and have been engaging these questions. Newman came to the opposite conclusion from Lewis, arguing that antiquity, as it was claimed by Anglicanism, was answered by a proper understanding of development. Important considerations all.

Robert F said...

I am someone who exited the Roman Catholic church some decades ago and, even though I'm very uncomfortable with the theological drift of the ECUSA in recent years, I would never consider returning to the RC church because its dogmatic claims about its own authority seem as implausible as ever to me, even though I often find myself in agreement with its ethical and social critiques and positions. And it really comes down to that: what does or doesn't seem plausible to us as individuals. Yes, innovations need to be assessed based on their faithfulness, but different people will use different criteria to assess faithfulness. But there is always the risk that we may be wrong even after careful and prayerful consideration. However, innovation is unavoidable because some innovations are necessary and faithful in a way that past Christian practices were not. Luke Timothy Johnson in his book "The Real Jesus" shows how we can cannot recover the truth of Jesus by simply looking to the past because Jesus is alive in the present and speaks to us in our own contemporary experiences as well as in the historical embodiments of the church. The trick is to let the life of the church be disciplined by Scripture, tradition and experience in a faithful way, and this is always a risk. To the degree that any church, Roman Catholic or otherwise, endeavors to hide that risk from its adherents it is acting in bad faith, and that bad faith represents a protest against the church's adequacy and faithfulness.

Loukas said...

I too cannot agree with Lewis on the worthlessness of innovation, because sometimes there has to occur a fundamental moral breakthrough for which previous generations were not yet prepared, and which is essentially in accordance with the spirit of the Gospel, which itself came as a revolutionary proclamation to abandon 'the ways of the world.' Sadly, much of 'the world' remained in the church, or, better, influenced it in result of its institutionalization. If someone, a person or a group, experiences a revelation of what they believe is the meaning and path of the Gospel, they should peruse it and the rest of us should listen closely and examine if there is truly a spark of God's inspiration to be seen in what they propose. We must not stone the prophets, but accept that they too have an important role to play. Revelation has in no way ended and continues within the Body of Christ, which is a very broad reality we cannot fully define or comprehend. We live in sin and the systems we create are inevitably sinful, so it is more than likely, at least for me, that some part of our teachings and practices was from the very beginning infected with it and still survived many centuries. Things like slavery and, today, the role of women are great examples. Other prominent ones include perhaps the development of general ethical sensibility to the fate of the 'evil ones' whom not so long ago we would proclaim damned and rejoice at justice being served (or attempt to help them by sending them to prison or, in extremal instances, even purify at the stake). I think we should be cautious not to label anything as a 'sect' prematurity and without due consideration, because if we take the definition we often use for them, it may turn out that Jesus and his team were in fact a perfect example of one. And most of the people followed then what (almost) all have always believed in and done. It doesn't mean that we should simply accept everything or follow every self-proclaimed prophet, but I think it requires something more than Lewis' 'rejection at hand.'
Several people expressed here their discontent with the recent developments in TEC. I'm curious what are the specific issues that seem problematic to you, the way you see them from the inside, so to speak. Is it theological, ethical or social liberalism? To much attention paid to social justice rather than to the spiritual matters? How would you sum it up?

Robert F said...

In response to your query: one of my critiques of the ECUSA is that it has implicitly, and to a great degree explicitly, adopted an attitude and language of religious pluralism in its public statements and institutional drift. As a Christian, I do not believe their are a variety of equally valid approaches to God or his Kingdom. Salvation is found only in Jesus Christ and his sacrificial life, death and Resurrection. The world is Fallen and awaiting its redemption. But if you go into many Episcopal churches in the United States, you will hear sermons, and participate in liturgies, that acknowledge only a need for greater mutual human understanding, tolerance and compassion, and suggest that all will be right if we only undertake these things, in conjunction with greater care for the environment of course. This is not the Gospel. The primary cause of evil, and death, is sin; everything else is only a proximate cause. And the only final deliverance from evil and death is Jesus Christ, who in the Parousia will reveal the work he completed on the Cross by delivering the entire Creation from sin and death. This is the only truly radical approach to the problems that confront us. But you will not hear this preached, or prayed, in most ECUSA churches, even many of the "conservative" ones.

Matt Gunter said...

"I think that a spirit "in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity" should rule every conversation in the Church."

Yes, Andrew, this is key. Of course, part of the very challenge of many church debates is disagreeing as to what is essential and what not. And with some it is hard to see if they consider anything specifically Christian to be essential.

It is also true that we have become quite lax when it comes to the discipline of charity. That reminds me of this from a letter of Karl Barth's: “You say many correct things. But what is correct is not always true. Only what is said kindly is true. You do not speak kindly in a single line.”

Matt Gunter said...


This is partly why Newman abandoned the Church of England for Roman Catholicism is it not? I'm quite sure his book on the development of doctrine was published after that move.

Matt Gunter said...



As I said, I doubt that it is possible to be faithful and avoid all variation or development in theology. So I am not quite as "conservative" as Lewis. That said, the assertion that
“Revelation has in no way ended and continues within the Body of Christ, which is a very broad reality we cannot fully define or comprehend“ is more than I would claim. In any event, the questions at the end of this post remain: which innovations are faithful, how is their faithfulness discerned, how are they adopted once discerned, and where does the authority lie to do so?

Matt Gunter said...

"what are the specific issues that seem problematic to you"


First of all, I am an Episcopalian by choice and happily so. Or, at least, I am confident that there is no other branch of the church that I would find less problematic.

I have written on this blog about some tendencies in the Episcopal Church that I find problematic:

1. The the increasing practice of offering Communion to the unbaptizeed, a practice that is highly suspect from a sacramental and ecclesial, not to mention scriptural, perspective.

2. The assumption of a naïve and deceptive religious pluralism.

3. The tendency toward the idolatry of the prejudices/values of a certain segment of American society. This idolatry calls our judgment generally into question.

4. A simplistic universalism.

None of these is universal and none is the official teaching of the TEC, but that they are as common as they are is a problem.

Matt Gunter said...

"The trick is to let the life of the church be disciplined by Scripture, tradition and experience in a faithful way, and this is always a risk."

Robert, I would subsume experience under reason - and reason under creation - but I agree with you. There is risk. We would do well to do more serious thinking and theologizing about what responsible and faithful risk in this regard might look like.

Anonymous said...

Cardinal Henry Newman would seem to not agree with some sentiments here: to go back into history for him made him cease being a protestant (his words, not mine).

The papacy was instituted by Our Lord, the teachings on Our Lady "Marian doctrines" are found both in scripture and tradition, the practice of the universal Church. We sometimes forget, "who" exactly gave us Holy Scripture: the Church. It is for the Church to decide what is doctrine, so that all might be taught this doctrine. Our Lord founded a Church that would teach His doctrine until the consumation of the world, and that the gates of hell shall not prevail against His Church.

An interesting blog, and interesting thoughts from Fr. Gunter. I look forward to reading more.

Fr. Brown

Matt Gunter said...

Fr. Brown,

Thanks for stopping by and commenting. As mentioned in the comments above, you are correct about Newman.

I wonder who or what counts as “the universal church”. Do you include the Eastern Orthodox in that?

Whatever Jesus meant vis a vis Peter, it is a stretch to go from there to the infallibility of the bishop of Rome. As Lewis points out, Paul gives every indication that he did not recognize that kind of authority in Peter. That does not mean that the RC position is indefensible. But, it is far from obviously taught in scripture or tradition.

Nor do our E.O. brothers and sisters see it that way. And I inclined to credit more authority in those areas where the eastern and western traditions converge and treat with caution those areas that seem “peculiar” to one. The orthodox also sometimes talk as though they are the true bearers of the authentic tradition. I do not accept that either. But, I do not credit them less in this regard than the RC. But I take very seriously those areas where they (you) agree.

The same goes for teaching and piety regarding Mary. I am not up on all RC apologetics and would be interested in where you find the Immaculate Conception or the assumption of Mary taught in scripture. And of the two, the latter has more to support it in the post-biblical tradition. But even there, the Orthodox have stopped short of declaring it official dogma.

As I wrote in the post, I am a “catholic” Episcopalian so I grant what you say about the Church and scripture and the Church’s authority to interpret the scriptures and discern doctrine. The question is where does that authority lie post 1054? Let alone post 1517.

Grace and peace,