Arthur Middleton on ecumenical priorities in Anglican divines

The Ecumenical Movement and the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity are phenomena of the twentieth century, but a concern for the unity of the universal Church in East and West is present in Anglican divines throughout our history, such as Lancelot Andrewes, who prayed for ‘the whole Church, Catholic, Eastern, Western, our own.’ The Church of England in the seventeenth century, in the opinion of Herbert Thorndike (1598-1668), was fighting for the preservation of two things it believed necessary to the life of the Church, the episcopate and the liturgy.

In From Uniformity to Unity 1662-1962, Prof. Owen Chadwick wrote that High Churchmen of that age, like Bramhall or Thorndike, would not compromise because they saw that their paramount duty was to the Catholic Church; their subordinate and derivative duty was to the Church of England as the representative of the Catholic Church in this country. The Catholic Church is known by its faithfulness to the primitive model. The Church of England has no choice but to follow that model, while it must seek to apply the principle rigorously and exactly.

‘I am satisfied’, wrote Thorndike in 1660, ‘that the differences, upon which we are divided, cannot be justly settled upon any terms, which any part of the Whole Church shall have just cause to refuse, as inconsistent with the unity of the Whole Church – how shall we recognize as ordained, men who were ordained for the purpose of setting up altar against altar?’

The argument represents a contention which has survived the centuries. Any act which divides the Church of England further from the universal Church of the centuries is to be abandoned, even if that act offers temporary or local advantage; and the test of universality, may be found in the appeal to the ancient and undivided Church of the first centuries. The question as to whether there are sufficient ambiguities or exceptions in the episcopal practice of the ancient Church to warrant modern exceptions was answered by Thorndike with a vigorous negative.

What we have in the resources of the undivided Church, which have been appropriated into Anglicanism by the Reformers, Carolines, Tractarians and others, is a tradition that was outside the parameters of their particular time and thought, the solitary confinement of the ‘present’. It offered to them alternatives that were not available to the historically limited world of their time, and enabled them to escape from the imprisoning effects of their contemporary religious controversies by bringing a productive past that still lived in the Church. It brought a critical stance to those controversies and enabled them to render the more recent answers of their time questionable and not to be accepted simply as given.

The undivided Church will speak to an issue facing us that is far bigger than the saving of the Church of England. In the face of today’s priorities, what we are being called upon to save is the Apostolic Faith and Order of the Church for which Ignatius died. It will challenge the uncritical assumptions of much contemporary ecumenism and will not be instantly popular, but in its appeal to Scripture and antiquity it will face them with something deeper. At the same time it will show us how theology can, and cannot, be influenced by the culture of the age.