Neither “Liberal” nor “Conservative”; and a whole bunch more

Father Thomas Fraser, who is rector of St Paul’s Parish, Riverside, Illinois (and theological consultant to Akenside Press) recently wrote a number of short pieces that he distributed to the parish. These are posted at the “Catholic FAQ” page on the parish’s website, along with a number of others. In each case, he touches on topics that are crucial to any renewal of Catholic reality in Anglican parishes.

QA_150In one, he responded to the question, “Is St Paul’s Parish liberal or conservative?” He began:

St Paul’s is neither liberal nor conservative in the popular sense of those words. St Paul’s is theological. That is, it takes the historic theology of the Universal Church very seriously; and faithfulness to Catholic theology – not partisan politics or “being PC” – is the basis for all judgments, decisions, teaching, formation, and practice here.

Read the whole piece (PDF). In my own opinion, that parishes work to cultivate a theological culture, rather than a political culture, is absolutely essential to Catholic renewal. As Father Fraser goes on to say, of course any parish is going to have for its members people of both liberal and conservative persuasions (and the grey areas in between). But what is at the center of this culture — a political agenda (whether liberal, conservative, or mixed), or God and His theology (i.e., the liturgical and sacramental life)? Unless it is God and His theology, then any renewal will simply not last. An ideological rather than theological renewal might stir up activity for a time, but it will peter out. A theological culture is centered around truth: God, ultimate reality.

In another piece, even shorter, Father Fraser gives a brief explanation of why the parish service leaflet says the following:

Being Benedictine means that St Paul’s is
Christian, Catholic, Anglican, Episcopalian
in that order. And we are here to stay.

Those words themselves are almost thought-provoking enough. What he says about them you can read here. Personally, I love that those words are in our parish service leaflet. They serve to keep our ecclesial priorities in order, because the emphasis is on spirituality and theology rather than polity (which is important but over-emphasized).

In a third piece, he responds to the question, “What is St Paul’s relationship to ‘the larger church’?” Owing to the fact that this subject is perhaps more complicated, I will give a longer excerpt from Father Fraser’s response:

As I have said so often, theology really is important to all of us; it is not just something of interest merely to those sorts of people who like that sort of thing. Here we see again the crucial importance of ones doctrine of the church.

In general the Protestant teaching about the institutional (“visible”) Church is that the Church is a human sociological institution (like schools and universities, hospitals, libraries, etc.) whose basic function is Christian fellowship, inspiration, and education. In general in Protestantism the only operative salvific/theological element is the person’s own “individual relationship with Jesus Christ as one’s personal Lord and Savior.” Therefore if one has a relationship with a church body it implies/proclaims/certifies that the person accepts that church body’s teaching and practice, i.e. its fellowship, inspiration, and education.

The Catholic Doctrine of the Church (held by the Early Christian Church and continued unbroken to the present by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Old Catholics, and the Oriental Churches) is that the Catholic Church is a Sacrament, the foundational Sacrament that actually makes present the Kingdom of God and administers the seven Sacraments, the principal means by which God gives His people salvific grace.

This means that the “visible” (institutional) Church on Earth was established by Jesus Christ Himself to continue His Incarnation – to be His physical Body here authoritatively continuing His ministry – until He returns again at the end of the age (the Parousia). The Catholic Church is indwelt by the Holy Spirit and is a divine, not a human, institution. Anglicanism teaches, based on Our Lord’s own teaching, that the Catholic Church while not infallible (it can err) is indefectible (it cannot remain in error; in the fullness of God’s time, the Holy Spirit will lead it back into all truth). What, therefore, is indispensable about the Church (“the deal breaker”) is not its immediate fellowship, inspiration, or education, but its sacramental validity.

And he goes on to say a good deal more, all of which I recommend.

Renewal tends to happen when basic questions are asked and explored anew. In this case, “what is ‘church’?” and within that, what is it for? As he has said in other writing — such as this one — there really is an enormous difference between how “church” is defined according to a general Protestant understanding and how it is defined according to a Catholic understanding. One might say that the difference boils down to taking the words, “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic” seriously, with each word pointing to and consummating profound theological recognitions. How these recognitions begin to reorient and reorder one’s life in Christ in terms of everyday living become, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, “the message”.

pentecostThe Church is, after all, not an end unto itself, but rather a “medium” by which the incarnation, life, and mission of Jesus Christ is extended and grown. The “message of this medium” involves our total life, ontologically changed and then fed by the Sacraments, continuously in relationship with God’s immeasurable love whether we recognize his grace or not. But it does matter that we attempt to recognize his loving grace. To do so, even when we don’t want to, is the call of the Christian life of prayer.

It is not that what we do is the fundamental bottom line for salvation. No — it is not what we do, but what God does, and how God imagines us. But we are called to respond. Our Prayer Book says it succinctly: prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words. Notice the emphasis on action, even as ‘action’ here is broadly defined. We are not called to be doormats amid a watching of God’s beautiful emanations all around us in creation, as if salvation is like watching the correct television show. There is no place for passivity in the life dedicated to walking with Christ. We are called to activity.

All of this is fully in line with the recognition that Anglicanism is pragmatic — that is, rooted in doing, in practice (some call this ‘praxis’). Unlike schools of spirituality that are “confessional” (where membership requires assent to a list of doctrinal propositions) or “charismatic” (where membership requires an affirmation of an individual spiritual experience), the English-Anglican School roots membership in doing.

This is, however, to say more than merely a churchy version of “half of life is just showing up”. Why? Because “just showing up” is I suppose active, but only minimally so. It is far too passive to be an authentic response to God’s calling. Yes, you have to “show up” to the Liturgy. But the Liturgy is not a movie, nor a theatrical performance. The Liturgy is God making Himself known to us through profound conversation and interaction. The Liturgy presuppose participation of a particularly profound kind. It is rather an immersion: the senses, the mind, the body, the heart.

And it is not just on Sundays and days of Holy Obligation. The liturgical life is continuous, Sunday to Sunday, Easter to Easter. As Martin Thornton writes, “the ‘liturgy’ is not worship, it is a system”. This system is the dynamic interaction of Mass, Office, and personal devotion (usually Bible meditation). It bleeds into, and fuels, the ordained ministry of the Laity — the people of God — to seek and serve Christ in others and in all of creation. To say that the liturgical life is continuous is simply to take God’s love seriously: it is immeasurable, it comes before and precedes anything we do — this is what “prevenient grace” means. Any pragmatic School of spirituality makes prevenient grace central to its self-understanding.

The English-Anglican School is pragmatic, yes. But perhaps it is better to call it “ascetical”. The term “pragmatic” has virtually lost all sense of its original meaning, rooted in “to do”. It now is commonly recognized as meaning practical and non-ideological: “what works”. The common definition leads in a different direction than a life lived following the steps of Christ. I guess if you meditate upon that common definition, you might still be able to detect echoes of the original meaning. But that is stretching too far. Ascetical is better, and a term from the Pauline Epistles and the early Church.

To say that the Anglican School is ascetical recognizes that the daily participation in the liturgical and sacramental life of Christ is participation rooted in our response to become disciples of Christ, and to deepen our relationship with, and likeness to, God (theosis). To call the Anglican School ascetical recognizes that this participation is a journey — one that proceeds through one’s entire life and into the next (from the Church Militant to the Church Expectant and hopefully to the Church Triumphant).

To call the Anglican School ascetical is to recognize that God’s plunging of our identities into the vast possibilities of Triune reality and discernment — a plunging accomplished through the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation — must issue in activity that is led by Christ. His own baptism in the River Jordan models this. Upon his immersion in water, Jesus heard God the Father speaking and was anointed by the Holy Spirit. And his ministry thus officially began.

“Pragmatic” is being there. “Ascetical” is being Triune.