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The Anglican Inheritance and the Church Catholic - by Cheryl White

The Anglican Inheritance and the Church Catholic

Cheryl H. White, Ph.D.

"We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church. We repeat those
words every Sunday when we stand together to recite the Nicene Creed.
What it means to be a part of the church catholic holds a renewed and
special meaning for Anglicans today because of the crisis issues that
face us. It is our unique Anglican heritage that allows us to lay claim
to the historic faith we profess in that creed. So what does it really
mean and why is it important?

The early Christian church, by the end of the first century A.D., was
called catholic simply because the word means universal. It comes from
the Greek, katas holos, which literally means according to the whole.
The second bishop of Antioch, St. Ignatius, said at the end of the first
century: wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church.
Before the end of the fourth century, the church administration became
centered in Rome; hence, the term developed Roman Catholic Church.
However, when speaking of the historic universal church that has always
existed since the time of Christ, the term catholic is correct. By the
historic office of bishop that has been preserved through the centuries
since the time of the Apostles, we are also able to claim the apostolic

When the Protestant Reformation emerged during the sixteenth century,
scholars like Martin Luther and John Calvin sought to re-claim what
early Christianity was like before corrupted during the Middle Ages at
the hands of Rome. By the time of the late Middle Ages, the church in
Rome was openly selling church offices, selling Gods grace through
indulgences, and the legitimacy of the papacy was seriously in
question. What reformers sought was a renewed catholicity; a return to
the universal apostolic church of the first centuries. The word
catholicity simply refers to unity and universality the common bonds
that tie Christians together.

The exact meaning of catholicity is something that has been hotly
debated among theologians and historians. However, it is clear that
during the Protestant Reformation, some believed that the best way to
re-claim the early Church was to abolish many practices and doctrines
that had been embraced by the Roman church for centuries. In varying
degrees, mainstream Protestant churches distanced themselves from the
historic catholic faith by abandoning the historic sacraments of the
church and the traditional liturgy, eliminating the office of bishop,
and even carrying out more symbolic acts like doing away with clerical
vestments and removing altars from churches. These reformers saw
catholicity as an invisible unity that was not necessarily found in the
traditional practices of the Christian church. In the minds of many, the
Roman Catholic Church was completely flawed and therefore, anything
historically associated with that institution was also flawed.
Therefore, some churches that emerged from the Protestant Reformation
developed new models of administration and differing methods of worship.

However, some defined catholicity in more visible and tangible terms.
When the Reformation came to England, it was much more rooted at the
national level than it had been on the continent of Europe and
conditions there dictated that church reform be more moderate to ensure
a legitimate link to the past. In England in the sixteenth century, it
was important that the historic elements of Christian unity be
absolutely defined in concrete terms -- the consecrated office of
bishop, the sacraments, the authority of Holy Scripture, the Creeds, the
orthodoxy of the Church Fathers, the traditional liturgy all of which
were historic ties to the early Church. Therefore, when the Church of
England broke away from Rome in 1534, it could still claim to be a part
of the church catholic and apostolic by virtue of history. All of the
historical elements of catholicity remained intact yet purged of the
corrupt errors of Rome.

This is the unique Anglican identity to be truly part of the one holy
catholic and apostolic church. When the Episcopal Church of the United
States broke away from the authority of Holy Scripture in consecrating
Gene Robinson as bishop, it made the statement that our history is
unimportant that somehow, our tie to the rest of the Anglican
Communion does not matter. Yet the Anglican Communion is our only tie to
the historic past. Through our Anglican forebears of nearly five hundred
years ago, we inherited a claim to the historic catholic church of the
first century.

There has perhaps never been a better time in recent centuries to review
and embrace our history and heritage. Our legitimacy is anchored firmly
in the past, therefore eliminating the need for any discussions about
new theologies for the modern world. Even amid the doctrinal squabbles
of the Reformation period, all learned and scholarly men agreed that
there was only one true authority Gods Holy Word. Holy Scripture and
the Creeds have defined for us the limits of our inclusiveness; they are
our signposts, fixed and true. To remain a part of the church catholic
means to cling fast to the history we know the orthodox faith of
centuries of Christians who have gone before us.

Cheryl H. White, Ph.D. is a professor of history at Louisiana State
University in Shreveport and she serves on the vestry of St. Paul's
Episcopal Church. She is a frequent guest lecturer on topics related to
church history and Reformation studies, and is a member of the Sixteenth
Century Studies Conference. Her major fields of study and research are
early Anglicanism and historical catholicity.


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