Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Peter and the single Church
August 23, 2010, 2:43 pm
Filed under: Opinion | Tags: , , , ,

I have recently been re-reading the book, “Peter and the Single Church”, by John de Satgé, which first appeared in 1981. De Satgé was an Evangelical Anglican priest much involved in Catholic-Anglican conversations in the years following the Second Vatican Council. His early death, while still in his fifties, is much to be lamented. He wrote several books examining Catholic beliefs that often cause difficulties for Protestants, about Mary, for instance, and in this book he examines in depth the question of the Papacy.

He opens with the remark that, “The Roman Catholic Church has presented the Churches of the Reformation with a challenge whose force is not yet fully realized. The Second Vatican Council lasted barely three years, but it upset the balance by reopening for discussion fundamental questions that had been closed for four centuries. In doing so it has shaken, if not undermined, the foundations of separate Protestant existence.”

He went on to say that the Anglican Communion is notably on the spot, its bluff having been called. Did Anglicans mean business in their claim to be a bridge across which different Christian traditions might march to unity? He recalled that Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher in 1946 had called on the Free Churches to ‘take episcopacy into their system’ as a step towards full communion. “Thirty-five years later,” de Satgé went on, “a like realism suggests that Anglicans should not so much ‘take papacy into their systems’ as allow themselves to be taken into the papal system.”

There follow chapters of penetrating Scriptural scholarship regarding the place of Peter in the New Testament church, and of wide-ranging historical scholarship on the history of the Papacy up to the modern age. These chapters need to be read in full to appreciate their force. De Satgé then examines a number of theological themes, such as the nature of authority, of revelation, “magisterium” and infallibility, which arise from the forgoing Scriptural and historical analyses. Finally he asks to what extent Peter can be recognised in the Papacy of today (that is, of course, the opening years of Pope John Paul II). Again, it is impossible to condense his argument into a few paragraphs, they must be read and pondered in full.

He concludes that, “The renewal of the Roman Catholic Church at the springs of its own integrity has passed the point where the historic Protestant reproach of betraying the gospel message loses all force.” In his earlier books he had suggested that, should that be the case, there were still two questions to be answered. “Have the claims which Rome makes for herself come to look inherently likely? And if so, can you see them being fulfilled in the Roman obedience as it is now developing? To both questions I now return the answer Yes.”

“What then follows?” he asked. “The Petrine claims, once accepted, must be answered. Full communion with the see of Rome becomes urgent. The questions at issue concern the best way of effecting it.” Individual conversion was obviously one path that some would feel obliged to take. But, he added, “If a significant number of (say) Anglicans became convinced of Roman claims, then corporate reunion, that long, forlorn hope of a few, is a serious possibility.” His own choice, as it turned out, was to stay within the Anglican system and work for reunion within it. Sadly, he had too few years left to make an impact.

Thirty more years on, his words sound prophetic. The offer of Anglicanorum cœtibus explicitly endorses corporate reunion. The Anglican (or at least the Anglo-Catholic) bluff has been well and truly called. Although it seems that a majority in the Church of England is now moving decisively in a Liberal-Protestant direction, the rump of Anglo-Catholicism has to make up its mind. “If Anglicans now find the ground of their historic protest cut from under them, it is not a sign of their failure. If indeed Anglicanism is, as I hope, to lose its independence within the Catholic unity, it will be because its vocation is fulfilled… That which was held in trust for the whole Church within the Anglican boundaries has had its effect. Anglican return to Rome would signify not failure but success. In this connection, the influence of John Henry Newman may be especially important.”

Prophetic words indeed! But like every prophet, de Satgé has a word of warning. His final paragraph is this: “Should the Anglican Church continue an independent force sustained by the momentum of its own past with nothing distinctive still to stand for, that will be the failure. It will have missed the glad moment of its own Nunc dimittis.” Substitute for the words, “Anglican Church” the words, “Anglo-Catholic movement,” and that exactly expresses our position.


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