One of the major contributions the English Reformation made to Christian thought is the “Branch Theory” of the church. The idea is that there are degrees of unity among Christians, so that not every formal division between groups forces us to label those on one or both sides of the break as un-Christian. In a blog post last year, The Reverend Mr Jonathan Mitchican, a priest of the Episcopal Church in Pennsylvania, sums up the branch theory quite lucidly. Mr Mitchican writes:
The issue is not whether Rome, the East, and Anglicans have some secret bond of true catholicity that only the Anglicans seem to be aware of. Rather, it is that what makes a church truly Christian and truly Catholic is not automatically lost even when churches choose to separate from each other. [William] Palmer even makes the point that errors in doctrine, so long as they do not constitute out and out heresy, are not enough to remove a local church from the Catholic whole. “All errors,” he says, “even in matters of faith, are not heretical.”
He goes on to cite the most famous early theologian of Anglicanism, Richard Hooker:
In his Learned Discourse on Justification, Richard Hooker affirms the doctrine that we are saved by Christ alone through faith alone, the doctrine that Martin Luther said was the one which the Church rises or falls on, and he excoriates Rome for teaching a counter message. Nevertheless, when it comes to understanding what the Church is, Hooker took a different tack:
How far Romish heresies may prevail over God’s elect, how many God hath kept from falling into them, how many have been converted from them, is not the question now in hand; for if heaven had not received any one of that coat for these thousand years it may still be true that the doctrine which at this day they do profess doth not directly deny the foundation and so prove them to be no Christian Church…
Quoting from various Reformed sources, Hooker goes on to say that denying the title of church to Rome would be like denying the title of man to a sick man. The existence of error weakens a church but does not turn it into something else entirely any more than having a bad cold might weaken a man but does not kill him. Of course, a disease left untreated can eventually kill, but Hooker sets the bar very high. So long as Rome continues to preach that Jesus is Lord, accept and obey the Scriptures, and celebrate proper Sacraments, she cannot be left for dead.
In this paragraph, Mr Mitchican mentions alternatives to the branch theory:
Several possible options exist. The first is to do what Rome and the Eastern churches have done, to declare that their particular churches are, in fact, the whole Church and that anyone not in communion with them is outside of the Church. On the other extreme is the generic Protestant option, so often employed today under the label “non-denominational,” of suggesting that there is no real division at all, that what matters is solely correct faith and not visible communion, and that the true Church is therefore invisible, not corresponding at all with existing bodies. What Anglican ecclesiology says is that both of these options are inadequate. What we require is a much more dynamic understanding of the Church, one that accounts for the irregularity of the era we live in.
To amplify these remarks, I would quote from rather an old publication of the Church of England, Doctrine in the Church of England: The Report of the Commission on Christian Doctrine Appointed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in 1922 (London and New York: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1957; reprint of the original 1938 edition.) Where Mr Mitchican says that Rome and the churches of the East “declare that their particular churches are, in fact, the whole Church and that anyone not in communion with them is outside of the Church,” the Commission phrased it rather more precisely:
Since the date of the Great Schism, 1054, the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church have each claimed to be the one Catholic Church, at least in the sense of being the sole authoritative guardian of the apostolic tradition. (page 109)
This statement makes it clear that a theory of the unity of the church must address two closely related, yet quite distinct questions: 1, who is a Christian; 2, what is the church? Among the great strengths of the branch theory is that it makes it possible to consider these questions separately without dismissing either of them. For example, a friend of mine was once serving as a minister in a church in an area where many people were Hindu. The place was usually quite empty, but on Christmas Day the neighbors crowded in. He asked them what brought them. They told him that they had come to celebrate the birth of Jesus. “He’s one of our gods,” they cheerfully explained. Were they Christians? In a sense, yes. One of the ways Jesus defines his movement in the Gospels, after all, is that where two or more are gathered in his name, there will he be (Matthew 18:20.) But this sense hardly tells the whole story. For one thing, Jesus himself gives several other, far more restrictive definitions of who his followers are. For another, I doubt that many of those gathered in the name of Jesus the avatar of Vishnu would be interested in claiming the title of “Christian” for themselves, and few indeed would be the self-described Christians who were prepared to yield to their authority as interpreters of the Gospel. So, “Christian” they may have been, in some special and severely limited sense of the word, but in no sense would we include them in “the church,” still less expect them to function as “the sole authoritative guardian[s] of the apostolic tradition.”
It is the rootedness in history of the branch theory that makes this distinction clear. The worship of Vishnu, the identification of such major figures of the Hindu pantheon as Krishna as avatars of Vishnu, and the rest of the ideological and ceremonial system into which Hindu devotees of Vishnu-Jesus fit their beliefs and practices long predate the exposure of India to the story of Jesus and the presence in that country of representatives of “the apostolic tradition.” This devotion, venerable and admirable as it no doubt is, stands apart from “the church” in a way that groups that were once in communion with the Patriarchs of both Constantinople and Rome do not. The separation of those groups from each other represent a different challenge to followers of Jesus than do the separation of groups, even groups that revere Jesus, that have never been united under any institutional umbrella.
Doctrine in the Church of England includes two lengthy paragraphs about the unity of the church that I would like to quote in full:
The divisions among Christians, as a result of which Christendom is split up into a number of competing and rival “denominations” and “communions,” are not the least grievous among the scandals that have been mentioned. There is a long history behind them; and in some cases, at least, there are serious divergences of principle involved, such as must needs make the way to reconciliation neither easy nor obvious. It is, moreover, to be remembered that the life of the Christian Body is enriched by varieties of emphases and interpretation, and that historically these have been developed in their familiar forms in the several communions which have resulted from the divisions in the Church. Yet it often happens that in developing one valuable interpretation of the Gospel, a particular communion becomes unduly restricted to this interpretation, while others may fail to receive the benefit as a result of their separation from that communion. Further, there is a natural tendency to form sectarian loyalties, which make men unappreciative of new ideas arising from outside their communion, and prompt them to defend, out of regard for their founders and heroes of the past, traditions for which the justifying circumstances have disappeared. Thus any gain due to division is offset by loss to the whole Body and to its parts. The gain can be secured without loss only through a real combination of unity with liberty.
The term “schism” has historically been used with some fluctuation of meaning. It should, however, be recognised that “schism” is, in fact, a division within the Christian Body. That Body is not to be thought of as a single true Church, or group of Churches, with a number of “schismatic” bodies gathered around it, but as a whole which is in a state of division or “schism.” The various “denominations” may and do differ in the degree in which they approximate either to orthodoxy of doctrine or to fullness of organised life; but, just in so far as their very existence as separate organisations constitutes a real division within Christendom, it becomes true to affirm that if any are is schism, all are in schism, so long as the breaches remain unhealed, and are affected by its consequences, at least in the sense that each in its own degree suffers the loss or defect involved in schism; and this irrespective of the question on which side rests the major responsibility for the schism.
(pages 111-112; emphasis added)
Certainly a theory of ecclesiology which identifies “the Church” with a particular organization that has a headquarters, a table of organization, and a pension fund does place some rather severe restrictions on Christian thinkers who survey the world at large. I would cite Joseph Ratzinger as one who has made clear his dissatisfaction with the view that his particular church is “in fact, the whole Church and that anyone not in communion with [it] is outside of the Church.” In his 1960 book The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood, the future Pope Benedict XVI wrote:
This discussion of Christian brotherhood has endeavored to apply what the New Testament says to the world today, even when what it says seems unexpected, even alien, to us. As I followed up the references, sometimes with surprise, in my mind there arose the question of the “separated brethren,” the popular designation of Christians of differing confessions who thus express, across the gulf of their separation, their common adherence in faith to Jesus Christ, their brother. Must this formula be discarded because the New Testament restricts brotherhood, in the narrower sense, to those who share one table, united through their common communion, which cannot exist among separated Christians? But then, what is the relation of these Christians to one another? Is a non-Catholic Christian, for a Catholic, the “other” brother only in the sense in which an unbaptized person is? Or does the community of baptism and the confession of the one Lord not, in fact, impart to him a greater share of fellowship? It is not easy to answer such questions, especially as they have seldom been asked in a sufficiently radical way, for fear of touching wounds that are still open. And yet it is necessary to ask this, just as truth is necessary for love.
The difficulty in the way of giving an answer is a profound one. Ultimately it is due to the fact that there is no appropriate category in Catholic thought for the phenomenon of Protestantism today (one could say the same of the relationship to the separated churches of the East.) It is obvious that the old category of “heresy” is no longer of any value. Heresy, for Scripture and the early Church, includes the idea of a personal decision against the unity of the Church, and heresy’s characteristic is pertinacia, the obstinacy of him who persists in his own private way. This, however, cannot be regarded as an appropriate description of the spiritual situation of the Protestant Christian. In the course of a now centuries-old tradition, Protestantism has made an important contribution to the realization of the Christian faith, fulfilling a positive function in the development of the Christian message and, above all, often giving rise to a sincere and profound faith in the individual non-Catholic Christian, whose separation from the Catholic affirmation has nothing to do with the pertinacia characteristic of heresy. Perhaps we may here invert an old saying of Saint Augustine’s: that an old schism becomes a heresy. The very passage of time alters the character of a division, so that an old division is something essentially different from a new one. Something that was once rightly condemned as heresy cannot later simply become true, but it can gradually develop its own positive ecclesial nature, with which the individual is presented as his church and in which he lives as a believer, not as a heretic. This organization of one group, however, ultimately has an effect on the whole. The conclusion is inescapable, then: Protestantism today is something different from heresy in the traditional sense, a phenomenon whose true theological place has not yet been determined.
(from pages 88-89 of the 1993 translation by W. A. Glen-Doepel)
Here we see the future pontiff proposing a theory that works in the opposite way of the branch theory. The branch theory posits a time when Christian organizations were formally united, and holds that a kind of informal unity can survive formal division. The Ratzingerian theory does not depend on any particular answer to the historical question of whether two denominations split off from an older, united denomination. For him, the kind of unity that Anglican divines have described from the days of Hooker to Mr Mitchican and his colleagues today can exist even between groups whose organizational structures do not spring from a common genealogy.
In his career since 1960, Joseph Ratzinger has returned to this theory time and again as an attempt to supply the “appropriate category in Catholic thought” which was still missing in that year. He has done this both in his own writing, and in his influence on others. We can find the signs of this theory in Pope John Paul II’s letter, Ut Unum Sint, issued when Joseph Ratzinger was Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, especially in the famous paragraphs about relations between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church (paragraphs 50-70, including the line “The Church must breathe with both lungs!” in paragraph 54,) and in John Paul’s comments about the Lutherans in paragraph 72. And paragraph 87 is pretty nearly a paraphrase of the quote from The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood above:
87. Along the way that leads to full unity, ecumenical dialogue works to awaken a reciprocal fraternal assistance, whereby Communities strive to give in mutual exchange what each one needs in order to grow towards definitive fullness in accordance with God’s plan (cf. Eph 4:11-13). I have said how we are aware, as the Catholic Church, that we have received much from the witness borne by other Churches and Ecclesial Communities to certain common Christian values, from their study of those values, and even from the way in which they have emphasized and experienced them. Among the achievements of the last thirty years, this reciprocal fraternal influence has had an important place. At the stage which we have now reached, this process of mutual enrichment must be taken seriously into account. Based on the communion which already exists as a result of the ecclesial elements present in the Christian communities, this process will certainly be a force impelling towards full and visible communion, the desired goal of the journey we are making. Here we have the ecumenical expression of the Gospel law of sharing. This leads me to state once more: “We must take every care to meet the legitimate desires and expectations of our Christian brethren, coming to know their way of thinking and their sensibilities … The talents of each must be developed for the utility and the advantage of all”.
Here again, we see the idea that Christian groups, separated from the mainstream, can grow beyond that separation, eventually to merge into a new mainstream.
As Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger himself spoke in 2011 to Lutheran leaders at Martin Luther’s old monastery in Erfurt. Praising Luther’s theological prowess and the depth of his commitment to Christ, the pontiff went on to imply that today’s Lutherans face the same challenge that Roman Catholics faced in 1517:
The geography of Christianity has changed dramatically in recent times, and is in the process of changing further. Faced with a new form of Christianity, which is spreading with overpowering missionary dynamism, sometimes in frightening ways, the mainstream Christian denominations often seem at a loss. This is a form of Christianity with little institutional depth, little rationality and even less dogmatic content, and with little stability. This worldwide phenomenon poses a question to us all: what is this new form of Christianity saying to us, for better and for worse? In any event, it raises afresh the question about what has enduring validity and what can or must be changed – the question of our fundamental faith choice.
Here Pope Benedict shows that he has reached the same conclusion as did the Church of England’s 1922 Commission. Recall their words, quoted above: “there is a natural tendency to form sectarian loyalties, which make men unappreciative of new ideas arising from outside their communion, and prompt them to defend, out of regard for their founders and heroes of the past, traditions for which the justifying circumstances have disappeared.” In this passage and elsewhere, Pope Benedict has suggested that the occasional inability of the Church’s human ministers to distinguish between the indispensable heart of the Christian mission and the incidental forms that mission may take from time to time was responsible for the crises that issued in the Protestant Reformation. Here, he suggests that the same weakness which prevented Rome responding as it may have done to the crises of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries may today be preventing the Roman Catholic and Lutheran hierarchies from recognizing and fully meeting a similar challenge from the global South. It is precisely the same chronological depth and richness of tradition that has, in Benedict’s view, ennobled Lutheranism that may also have blinded it to the need to cast aside many of the most treasured inheritances in answer to Christ’s call to enter a new world radically different from the ones in which those legacies were crafted.
I am in no position to judge between the Anglican theory and the Ratzingerian theory. I can express only my personal preferences. These incline me somewhat toward the Anglicans. I suspect that Pope Benedict falls between the two stools Mr Mitchican describes. Certainly he is in no danger of reaching the logical endpoint of the extreme Protestant rejection of historical relations among organized groups as the basis of church unity, that “what matters is solely correct faith and not visible communion, and that the true Church is therefore invisible, not corresponding at all with existing bodies,” since his theory is embedded within a defense of a particular, actually existing Christian denomination as the best venue for the formation and expression of the human person. That is a point in his favor; if all that unites Christians is “correct faith,” and faith is a matter, not of social action, but of assent to and defense of particular abstract propositions, then the proper life for a human being is that of an internet comment box warriors, sitting alone, prepared to take all to task if they express incorrect ideas. A path that leads to such a life can hardly be one worth traveling.
However, to the extent that his theory does not draw a distinction between the two questions “Who is a Christian?” and “What is the Church?,” Benedict cannot lead one entirely clear either of that danger or of the opposite danger, the denial that groups with which one is not in full communion are not at all Christian and the refusal to learn anything from them about the meaning of the Gospel and the mission of the Church. For him, the Church is and can only be what the 1922 Commission explicitly said in the quote above it was not, “a single true Church, or group of Churches, with a number of “schismatic” bodies gathered around it,” since it is that “single true Church” that, however corrupted it may from time to time be by the stupidity or wickedness of its ministers, however richly it may from time to time be instructed by the witness of those outside its communion, must ultimately remain “the sole authoritative guardian of the apostolic tradition.” The difference between Roman Catholics on the one hand and Protestants or Orthodox on the other, therefore, varies only in degree from the difference between Roman Catholics and Hindus who pay homage to Vishnu-Jesus. If Benedict concedes that a non-Roman Catholic can be a full-fledged Christian, therefore, he is conceding that Christians can be fully formed altogether outside the influence of the historic Church. In that case, it is difficult to see how he could explain why the worship of Vishnu-Jesus should not be classified as one of the schismatic bodies gathered around the communion of which he claims for eight years to have been the earthly head, unless by assigning to the creeds a significance that would throw us back into the world of the combox warrior.
Let us consider how Christian groups have justified claims to be “the sole authoritative guardians of the apostolic tradition.” Many groups have done what Rome does, what Eastern Orthodoxy does, what Oriental Orthodoxy does, and claim that their hierarchies represent an unbroken succession dating back to Jesus and the Apostles, so that they are and have always been The Church. Others claim, as William Penn claimed of his fellow Quakers, to be the embodiment of “Primitive Christianity revived,” the restoration of the original church as presented in Scripture. These are the “Restorationists” of the chart at the top of this post. A few groups, such as the Mormons and the Christian Scientists, claim to have received new revelations that are to be added to Scripture, and base their claim to authority on their status as recipients of these revelations.
The new revelations crowd include some of the nicest people I’ve ever met; honestly, I’ve never had an unpleasant exchange with a Mormon, and I’ve met hundreds of them. But their founding premises are such that formal union between them and other Christian groups must surely be a most distant prospect. Perhaps the nearest approach to such union is to be found in the Community of Christ, originally the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints, which seems to be well on its way to becoming a liberal mainstream Protestant denomination. In the course of that reinvention, the Community of Christ has deemphasized all of its Mormon distinctives. It still affirms that the Book of Mormon and the Latter Day Saints’ Doctrine and Covenants are two of the “three books of Scripture,” but places the other of these three, the Bible, above them and no longer mandates the use of the Mormon writings in worship or as tests of membership. Their name change marked a similar movement. It may well happen that the Community of Christ will sooner or later enter into some kind of formal union with a Protestant denomination, but if it does, that will likely be because that Protestant denomination is convinced that the Community of Christ has severed all its ties to its Mormon origins.
The Restorationists have had more success in building ecumenical bridges, but they too have had to moderate their founding principles in order to do so. If two distinct movements build themselves on the belief that they are accurate recreations of the church Christ intended to found, then a merger between them can only represent a concession that at least one of them has been wrong all along. That seems like rather a steep hurdle in the way of formal union, though perhaps not a major obstacle practical cooperation.
That leaves the Traditionalists as the best hope for Christian unity. And, in my not especially well-informed opinion, it seems that the branch theory is the best starting point for any project that would turn that hope into reality.
What started me thinking about all of this was a humorous little exchange I participated in yesterday on Twitter. Nathaniel Torrey tweeted this:
(A spoof of TV’s The Big Bang Theory, in case you didn’t recognize the reference.)
This prompted my reply:
Micah Meadowcroft, a student at conservative bastion Hillsdale College, apparently found in the reference to sexual minorities an issue that might chop some branches off the tree of Christendom; he expressed this in the most effective possible way, through a link to a video produced a couple of decades before he was born: