In this article we shall think about the Catholicity of the Church, a term that requires careful analysis, for it is often misunderstood; and “catholic” is understood differently by several Christian denominations.
The basic meaning of ‘catholic’ is simply universal or world-wide, or wholeness. It is not a biblical expression and was introduced in the very early Christian centuries as the Church grew and developed. As explained in earlier articles the Nicene Creed was formed to clarify the Church’s true and essential beliefs about God and his Christ at a time of serious debate and disagreement. Hence the use of ‘catholic’ in the Creed was to stress the received New Testament Faith – the true Faith – the whole Faith as established from the beginning, and universally held across all local churches by practically all Christian leaders and people. So when in various places disputes and disagreements over some elements of that Faith occurred, Church leaders appealed to the “Catholic Faith” to settle controversies. They looked to the beliefs and teachings that from the first days were held in common; the Faith entrusted to the Apostles and enshrined in Holy Scripture (Jude verse 3). Our Anglican formularies refer to the catholic creeds because these were clearly defined statements of Faith held from the very first days, drawn up by Christian leaders from all worldwide local churches (i.e. truly Ecumenical Councils); thus representing all the People of God. I will now quote part of an official statement of how we who are Anglicans understand our Church.
“The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation”. Hence we Anglicans affirm our real, true and full belonging to the world-wide Church of Christ, and that we are catholic. We acknowledge of course that there are other Churches also truly and fully part of this large international Christian Family but do not specify them.
As Anglicans we have always claimed and will continue to assert our genuine legitimate authenticity; our full rightful place in the universal Church of God. We affirm strongly the absolute validity of our Ministry of Bishops, Priests and Deacons, our Gospel Sacraments with the God-given graces of sanctification, our fullness of saving truth, and the right to teach with authority the Faith revealed in Holy Scripture. Our basis is Ephesians 4:3 “There is one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all”. And as I wrote in a previous article, “the Church is apostolic”, and we as Anglicans are also most certainly apostolic.
We should also note that the large (Eastern) “Orthodox Churches” equally claim to be authentic Churches of Christ; indeed fully true, without any variation from the original teachings of Christ, and the way he meant his Church to develop and grow. Hence these strongly traditional Churches consistently use the meaningful title Orthodox.
Furthermore, other Christian Churches also rightly claim to be truly part of the One Church of God, having strong New Testament faith, full baptismal and sacramental life, ministry and teaching, witness and service.
The very large Roman Catholic Church however actually claims uniquely to be The Catholic Church, asserting that it alone has complete sacramental fullness, truth and teaching authority with its ministry and appointed head. Some consider it has given the term catholic an emphasis beyond that of its initial meaning and usage. From the Reformation period onwards the Roman Catholic Church has shown an exclusivist attitude towards the reforming Churches (Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anglican etc), regarding them as partial or deficient Churches. However, since the huge changes made by the Roman Catholic Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, the essential baptismal and Christian foundation of all these Churches has been fully acknowledged.
Praise God, in these better ecumenical times, despite still some differing understandings of some aspects of our Faith, most Churches do work together in a host of good ways, often worshipping together also. In Faringdon there is real closeness now between all Churches, with common projects like the Mustard Seed, the Family Centre, Summer Holiday Clubs, Clergy Fraternals, etc; regular times too of joint worship, prayer and study.
Our earnest hope and prayer must be that this will grow and flourish until we are all truly and wholly visibly one as Jesus longed and prayed, according to his will, and in his good time, and for all his people everywhere (John 17:19-23). Steady progress is being made, especially between Anglicans and Methodists; or with United Churches (as in Faringdon), and some other Churches. We pray that it will continue embracing all the Churches of Christ.
Although in popular parlance many folk do refer to the Roman Catholic Church as “The Catholic Church” (and certainly Roman Catholics almost invariably do so), many Anglicans will always use the full title. Formal Anglican documents, and all official discussions with the Roman Catholic Church always do. This is not to make for argument or point scoring but to say again that we as Anglicans are also catholic! If we are not, there is no point in reciting that part of the Creed with its strong affirmation on ‘catholicity’.
The Anglican Communion and its Churches have of course many differing emphases, usually called ‘churchmanship’; evangelical, Anglo-catholic, modernist, radical, liberal, etc. All these make for a rich diversity almost unique amongst the Churches of the Christian world. And this surely is a sign of strength, for our real unity in essential truths with wide harmonious diversity, is also part of what ‘catholic’ ought to mean. Unity in essential truths of faith does not mean or require absolute uniformity of worship, theological emphases, local practice or organization.
“In all essentials unity, in unessentials freedom and diversity, and in all things love” was a slogan frequently used in the Church’s early and later centuries. It should be our slogan and aim too as we seek to follow our One Lord and help build his Catholic Church. And above all we must remember that ‘catholic, world-wide or universal’ also means embracing all nations; all races, colours, social groups, ages, abilities, gender and sexuality. No one is excluded from the universal Gospel of Christ and the universal Christian Family. (Galatians 3:27-28).
Praise and glory be to our common Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.