Windows Into the Soul

The Protestant/Catholic schism of the late fourteenth, early-to-mid fifteenth, and even into the sixteenth centuries is still felt among some conservative Anglicans and Episcopalians: at times an anti-Roman-Catholic sentiment pervades. Anglican identity has always been troubling to many religious folk. Are Anglicans Protestant or Catholic? Yes! But what is meant by "catholic"? The word simply means "universal," "comprehensive," "broad-minded." Anglicans are catholic, but not Roman Catholic, and that qualification is paramount. Note the lower-case "c" for our use of the word catholic.

Queen Elizabeth I. is infamous for stating: "I have no desire to make windows into men's souls." (link) One's private beliefs regarding theology, for her, should remain as such. She also boldly asserts: "There is only one Christ, Jesus, one faith. All else is a dispute over trifles." (link) We may sneer at the zealous nature of past Christians but many people lost their very lives over theological issues such as the nature of the elements in the Eucharist, a proper mode of and proper candidate for baptism, and whether devotion and prayer to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, should be retained in the life and worship of the believer. These issues are still of paramount significance to millions upon millions of believers.

Lately, though, I have noted an anti-Roman-Catholic temperament among conservative Episcopalians. I am not referring to Calvinistic Anglicans. Most Calvinists (and not a few Arminians) have historically maintained a fanatical animus toward all notions regarding the Roman Catholic Church. But to witness this anti-Roman-Catholic-Church sentiment among conservative Episcopalians has been disconcerting. Anglicans have, historically, represented the grand via media -- the soft-natured middle way position between militant Protestantism and overt Roman Catholicism. What happened?

I think some Episcopalians have forgotten their roots, their history, their identity. We are both Protestant and Catholic: we are the best of both worlds. We retain the catholic worship of our Church fathers and defend the theological values of the Protestant Reformers. We, crudely stated, worship like a Roman Catholic and think like a Protestant. However, even that simplified statement is not entirely accurate, as we also revere Mary, unlike most Protestants, and remain open to modern theological notions that the Reformers proper would, today, reject: e.g., ordaining women to the priesthood.

When a Roman Catholic decides to join an Episcopal church, he or she is not required to think of him- or herself as "a recovering Roman Catholic," nor should anyone from any other Christian faith tradition consider oneself in such a fashion. Anyone who is trusting in Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world, by grace through faith, is a Christian proper: taglines such as Episcopalian, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Methodist, etc., are unnecessary, and can be offensive. We have forgotten to be biblical: "There is one body [of Christ] and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all." (Eph. 4:4-6) Why make enemies of those who are also in this one Lord, one faith, and one baptism?

Some people complain that liberals are guilty of being too inclusive. Well my complaint regarding conservatives is that they are too exclusive. They make enemies of anyone who disagrees with them. Does the doctrine of transubstantiation, for example, really raise your ire to the degree that you are willing to castigate the believer in such a theory, such as a Roman Catholic, as an unbeliever? If so then you also, in a most ironic sense, condemn the father of Protestantism, Martin Luther, who argued for the doctrine! (link) I retain two ideas as to why some conservative Episcopalians are anti-Catholic.

First, when some former Roman Catholics join an Episcopal church, they may do so with a bit of resentment in their blood for their former tradition. This would account for nursing bitterness of all notions of Roman Catholicism. Second, many conservative Episcopalians are influenced by outside traditions, such as Southern Baptists and Pentecostals. These conservative Episcopalians learn to adopt an anti-Roman-Catholic disposition. This animosity is needless in an Anglican context because the Anglican faith, the via media, preserves the finest elements of both Protestant and Catholic traditions.

The ecclesiastical structure of The Episcopal Church is, of course, episcopal -- just like the Roman Catholic Church. The Episcopal Church defends the doctrine of apostolic succession -- just like the Roman Catholic Church. The Episcopal Church orders or frames its worship around a prayer book -- just like the Roman Catholic Church. Many Episcopalians cross themselves (make the sign of the cross) in worship or during prayer, acknowledge and revere Mary as the Mother of Jesus, believe not only in the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist -- as do most Calvinists -- but also, like Luther, that the elements are the body and blood of Christ, hold to the same ancient creeds and acknowledge the same ancient councils prior to Trent. We, as Episcopalians, are not the anti-Roman-Catholic movement.

Unlike Elizabeth I. before us, too many among conservative Episcopalians, as we learn from their own lips, are sinfully eager to make windows into the souls of others, to judge their thoughts and intentions, as though they are God. This is the hubris of the conservative: eager for condemnation. Only the Spirit of God knows fully the heart of any person. I will never be surprised in heaven to see a believing Roman Catholic and an eternally condemned conservative. Why? Because, like the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, one understood his need of a Savior and the other was giddy not to be like the one at whom he jeered and whom he judged. If you suggest that I am guilty of judging the conservative then I ask you whether you think Jesus should apologize to the self-righteous and judgmental Pharisees. Cease making windows into the soul of others and work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.