Martin Thornton, by Deborah Yetter

Thornton and Catholicity

Conceiving the term “Catholic” from a Thorntonian perspective means that catholicity emerges when a particular parish is seen as the whole/holy Church in microcosm. Thornton’s theology is anchored in parish life, and hence his sense of what Catholic means is fundamentally parochial, as well. Distilling from Benedictine/monastic order a highly original “parochial theology” (a term he coined), Martin Thornton must be seen as a Benedictine teacher of the Faith. He shows that Benedictine spirituality (both liturgically and ascetically) is at the heart of genuine Anglican patrimony, its historical “ethos.”

THORNTON’S PAROCHIAL THEOLOGY

Here is an excerpt that epitomizes Thornton’s teaching on parochial theology:

The consecrated elements are Christ to the communicant; wholly and completely Christ, divide them into ten thousand fragments and each is the Body and Blood of Christ. So the parish is the Catholic Church in microcosm. This Church, moreover, is threefold. The holy concourse in paradise and in heaven does not split itself up into insular parties of patrons-per-parish. If the whole Body is complete at every altar, the whole communion of saints are in attendance at every altar. As Lady Julian saw all creation in a hazel-nut, so her hazel-nut comes to universal size. When parochialism is organic and when ye are the Body of Christ, it is the antithesis of narrow but it is, in place, the Catholic Church. There is but one Bread, so each altar is microcosmic of the Throne of the Lamb in heaven. There is one Church and one Body, so that the work of each server, each organist, each verger, each good lady who arranged the flowers is of Catholic significance because it is truly parochial. This is why the Church’s Office, said by two souls in the village church on Monday night, is an infinitely tremendous thing; the “special” service with its teeming congregation is trivial by comparison. (Pastoral Theology, chap. 4)

In a Catholic parish (whether Roman, Orthodox, Anglican, etc.), the ascetical life and celebration—centered around the Altar, prepared daily through Divine Office and extended through personal Devotional ministry within the local community and environment according to the Bible; this is the threefold Regula—can make for wholeness and complete participation by the Angels, Archangels, all the company of heaven, and can do so in a way recognizable to the wider Church as it lives elsewhere in parish and monastic communities around the globe: recognizable even in contextual diversity. The particular, local parish is the Church, for Jesus is one, as He and the Father are one, and we are His by the sacraments.

That the local/particular is analoguous to the whole/cosmic is what I suggest is the most constructive, even useful definition of “Catholic,” for the etymology of the term, of course, means “according to the whole.” And let it be emphasized that “whole” means the threefold Church: in visible creation (Militant), in the intermediate state of Paradise (Expectant/Purgatory), and in the full company of Saints and all Angels in heaven (Triumphant).

For Thornton, a parish or monastic community is Catholic within the Church Militant when its ascetical life and culture is analogous with— corresponds to—the threefold whole/holy Church. To this theological sensibility Thornton invites the Church, through its particular local parish churches around the globe, to practice and live out in their particular gifts and vocation: their reasons for being.

THE QUICUNQUE VULT

Martin Thornton’s definition of “Catholic”—where the particular/local is seen as analogous to the universal/whole—is consonant with the claim for catholicity made in the Quicunque Vult (Athanasian Creed). In the Creed is said: “And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity.”

According to the Athanasian Creed, the basis of catholicity is assent-through-worship to the doctrine of Holy Trinity. Thornton’s definition of Catholic encompasses what the Creed demands because by embracing the universal (i.e. Catholic) template of Christian life revealed on the Day of Pentecost as the threefold Regula (Acts 2:42), we affirm—we worship—a Triune God.

The interesting thing to know about Thornton is the fundamental attention he gave to the doctrine of the Trinity. He called it “the most practical idea the Church has come up with.” By that he meant that the consequence of the doctrine is that it forms the basis for life and practice, for ascetic (or “praxis”).

The correlation of ascetic/praxis with doctrine is fundamental for Thornton. That correlation is what for him defines being “orthodox.” Being orthodox is not merely giving intellectual assent to dogmatic statements—”checking” the correct belief boxes. Rather, being orthodox for Thornton is seen in the matching/correlating of corporate and personal practice with doctrine authoritatively taught by the Church. Our prayer life, or “spirituality,” must apply, live into, and in a word enact, doctrinal truth, else we cannot claim orthodoxy, no matter what we claim to believe intellectually, no matter what boxes we check. Belief is not orthodox unless it is lived out.

This is clearly taught in Thornton’s theology of Regula. The threefold Regula—Office-Mass-Devotion—is the “ascetical application of trinitarian dogmatic.” (Pastoral Theology.) That is, the threefold Regula is the means by which the People of God respond in a totalistic way to the nature of God. Want to find out who God is? Then you must live out the threefold Regula (see Acts 2.42) which presumes Baptism and deepens repentence. (Note that explicit embrace of Regula is made every Easter Vigil, baptism, confirmation and reception by the 1979 Prayer Book.)

KNOWLEDGE ABOUT GOD

How does the Regula teach who God is? For Thornton, the Divine Office gives emphasis to, in that sense “teaches” about, the Father because set-prayer teaches about God’s transcendent otherness (following the Our Father model). Likewise, the Mass and the Eucharist give emphasis to, or “teach about,” the Son, because of the manifold ways He is mediated in the Mass. And Devotional ministry, both corporate and personal (anchored in the Bible), gives emphasis to and teaches about the Holy Spirit because we listen for God immanent in creation and creatures around us.

These emphases are never to the exclusion of the other Divine Persons of the Holy Trinity, One God. We are never “taught” about One Person without the other Two likewise experienced and revealed. Because Office-Mass-Devotion flows together in experienced life, the threefold Regula always orders one prayer life.

So to anticipate a common objection: This is not crypto-modalism in this theology of giving emphasis to One Person, because we are talking about emphases of forms of prayer by humans in the conditions of time and space (ascetic), not the doctrine of the Trinity itself, or God Himself. That doctrine says God is Three in One. Regula engages the ascetical time and space appropriation of the “stupendously rich reality” of that three-in-oneness, to quote von Hügel. This stupendously rich reality is precisely what the doctrine of the Holy Trinity seeks to safeguard, protect, and disclose.

The key point is that the “how” of that disclosure is threefold Regula. Whereas the Quicunque Vult establishes the centrality of the doctrine of Holy Trinity to Catholic Faith, by ongoing embrace of Regula we make that doctrine actually central, because our total prayer life is through Regula ordered by the doctrine. It is a two way street: the doctrine orders the threefold practice, and the threefold practice discloses what the doctrine teaches, which is the triune nature of God.

ANGLICANISM AND CATHOLICITY

This is why Thornton wrote in chap. 2 of The Purple Headed Mountain that a Catholic Communion’s use of Regula should be a test of orthodoxy and catholicity. The actual use/embrace of Regula should be a test of equal significance with its use of the Bible, its sacraments, its reference to the Creeds, its Ministry, he suggested. Embrace of Regula is really a test for embrace of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

Anglicanism, when it follows the Prayer Book as Regula—total pattern of prayer that applies and enacts the doctrine of the Trinity—obviously does very well in this test; likewise, we do poorly when we deny or deemphasize that the BCP is Regula. When we deny that—whether explicitly with words or implicitly by our (in)actions—in Thornton’s eyes we are doing nothing less than denying the truth of trinitarian doctrine. One may say one believes in a triune God, which is necessary; but without Regula, that belief is only partially appropriated. I think “Anglican disarray” has quite a bit to do with our confusion about the Prayer Book.

In sum, Anglicans are Catholic ascetically when they accept and live out the Book of Common Prayer as Regula, because as Regula, the BCP enacts the (practical) doctrine of the Trinity, which according to the Athanasian Creed, is the true basis for catholicity. By Regula—by the Book of Common Prayer—we “worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity.”

SCHISM AS POLITICAL

Let me also say something about our condition today in the Church, that being what is called “schism.” That there is separation between major Catholic traditions in the Church cannot be denied, but what kind of separation do we actually have?

The Body of Christ is one and whole; it cannot be separated, ontologically. So the “schism” we experience today is not ontological schism, but rather an existential schism: a schism rooted historical conditions of our existence. Real, to be sure, yet another word for all of that is “political,” which is the true nature of our schism and explains why it endures. Ontological schism, on the other hand, is impossible because Christ cannot be anything but One, and humans are utterly incapable of altering that.

The People of God are likewise incapable of being ontologically separated from Him: we are one in Christ by Baptism. And because the threefold Regula repeats and enacts baptismal reality—not only Eucharist, but also Divine Office and Devotional ministry, are the repeatable parts of Baptism—the way beyond political separation or schism can only be found through a more profound embrace of Regula doctrine, amid its diverse expressions throughout the Church, as our true means of existential unity—of true Catholic identity.