Leader: Perfection and the Anglicans

29 October 2008

UNITY, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity are the four marks of the Church given in the Nicene Creed. In the post-triumphal era of Western Christianity, it is perhaps more generally — even too lightly? — accepted than it was in the past that here they are as much matters of faith as of sight. At least, that is the position taken by Anglicans who have not been prepared to make over-large claims for their own branch of the Church.

Nevertheless, the marks remain because, though partly effaced by sin, they are the gifts of the Lord himself. Today, All Hallows’ Eve, the Church begins a period of reflection and remembrance in which the visible presence of those marks in the lives of the faithful and their consummation in heavenly glory — “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” — is at the heart of the matter. The Church celebrates All Saints because they point to this ultimate truth about herself. She commemorates All Souls, because even the great saints have — to borrow a phrase from the Prayer Book — acknowledged and bewailed their manifold sins and wickedness.

“Be ye perfect.” Anglicans have been reminded this week how far from perfection they are by the publication of the Lambeth Commentary on the draft Anglican Covenant. The Covenant, like canon law — and we publish Bishop Hill’s review of Professor Doe’s important study  — is designed for a Church of sinners. It goes without saying that this definition encompasses all Anglicans. The most insidious sins are the least obvious, the spiritual rather than the physical: pride, in traditional moral theology, is more ensnaring than lust. That is why what it is tempting to call the “penitentiary” aspects of the Covenant are contentious. There are always awkward questions for Christians when they aim at setting others to rights.


That unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity cannot exist without boundaries, however, is a truth from which it is easy to shy away. Fr Jonathan Graham CR, writing in the mid-1960s (The Office of a Wall, Faith Press), could have been writing today: “Before proceeding to abolish walls of hostility between Christian bodies, between the Church and the world, between nations, colours and classes, it is the Christian’s duty, as when he ‘builds a tower’, to sit down and count the cost. And the cost of effective wall-breaking is the cross. The danger of a too impetuous tearing down of barriers is that the would-be liberator finds himself creating new ones in their place. . . So easily the reformer becomes infected with the temper of scorn, impatience and intolerance, which grows into a conviction that he is the ‘only man in step’; and such a temper is indefinitely divisive.” That temper can sometimes be detected in individuals whom the Church now remembers as saints. It is, we suggest, one from which they have been purged before they are presented without spot before God.

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