Generous Catholicism: a reply to Fr Richard Peers

Generous Catholicism: a reply to Fr Richard Peers

‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’

John 2.10

Catholicism, at its heart, is the art of being generous. Through its life and practice the Catholic faith seeks to make Christ really present to all peoples, in every time and place. This is because it is in Jesus that the fullness of life is found. The sacraments are, in this sense, aimed at showing the best of what God has given us. Baptism rescues us from the folly of our fallen condition. The Eucharist takes bread and wine and makes for us the true food and true drink. In the sacrament of Reconciliation, we receive complete forgiveness and the chance to start again. It is right, then, to hold up for close inspection any approach to the Catholic faith that seems to be lacking in generosity. Generosity is the reason for Catholicism. It’s what it aims to do.

But what does it mean to be generous? We need to look to Jesus to answer this. And having just left the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany, the wedding of Cana in Galilee is a particularly good place to go to for an answer. It was at Cana, St John’s Gospel tells us, that Jesus performed the first of those signs that revealed his glory — that showed us his true nature. Wine ran out at a wedding, and as an act of complete generosity, Jesus created more wine from water. St Hilary of Poitiers said that this miracle revealed Jesus’ identity as the divine creator. And indeed the quality of the wine, ‘good wine’ far surpassing what was served before, shows that creation itself is to be understood as complete abundance and total generosity: life is nothing but gift — the best of gifts — from God. The Catholic faith is characterised by generosity, then, precisely because generosity points us to, indeed participates in, the very nature of God as creator, as shown in Jesus Christ. And for a Christian to be generous in the way God is generous, his or her acts must be characterised chiefly by gratuity and abundance. Christians are generous when they seek to give the best of what they have as gift.

It’s in light of these reflections, I think, that we can best assess, from a Catholic perspective, the recent proposals in Mission and Ministry in Covenant for greater communion between British Methodists and the Church of England. Fr Richard is absolutely right in characterising the aims of these proposals as generous. Anglicans, in common with Roman Catholics and the Eastern Churches, see the episcopate, stemming as it does from Christ’s commission to his apostles, as ineluctably part of the very essence of Christ’s gift, the Church (cf. John 20.19–23). And so it is fitting that Methodists and Anglicans seek to use the episcopate, Christ’s own means of unity, to heal the sin of disunity that exists between the Church of England and the Methodist Church. Fr Richard is right in pointing to the dominical command for unity here.

Where I respectfully differ from Fr Richard, however, is with his (implicit) characterisation of critics of the proposals — seen in responses by Anglican Catholic Future and Forward in Faith, as well as in Fr Andrew Davison’s recent article in The Church Times — as lacking generosity. I don’t read these responses as ungenerously denying the historic episcopate, and by extension intercommunion, to the Methodist Church of Great Britain. Rather, they seem to be questioning whether Mission and Ministry in Covenant can truly be considered generous at all.

‘Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?’, asks the Lord (Matthew 7.9–10). Jesus requires us to be generous — to give over everything he has given us, in its perfect fullness, as gift. Just think of Mary, when she pours costly ointment on Jesus’ feet in a display of reckless generosity (John 12.1–8). Or think of God himself, who gives up his own Son for crucifixion that we might be made one with him. It’s this life of sacrifice, of complete giving of ourselves and the good we hold, that is to characterise the Christian life. And the thrust of the complaints against Mission and Ministry in Covenant is that it fails to live up to this calling.

I don’t propose to go over the arguments made by Anglican Catholic Future, Forward in Faith and Fr Davison. But each of them is united in characterising Mission and Ministry in Covenant as not being truly generous. Rather than giving the fullness of the episcopate, with its emphasis on a personal, permanent ministry of place, exercised collegially, the report seems to propose that the Church of England gives the Methodist Church a partial episcopate, to be exercised by a short-term national office holder in a far less personal way. In many ways the report falls into the same trap that a minority of hyper-legalist Catholics fall into, treating apostolicity as nothing more than a narrow, technical, almost quasi-magical laying-on of hands with a merely formal purpose of making ‘valid’ something whose substantive reality is simply incidental. Relatedly, the report, in the same breath as recognising the historic episcopate as a prized treasure of the Church of England that it longs to share, is happy, for a period deemed ‘anomalous’ (one that will apply for the rest of all our lives!), to treat episcopal ordination as dispensable in certain circumstances and thus, a fortiori, not strictly necessary to the sacramental life of the Church. What sort of generous gift is this, when we don’t offer the historic episcopate in its fullness — when we treat it as reducible, even dispensable, in the life of Christ’s Church? This isn’t a ‘happy anomaly’ at all.

It’s important to see, then, that those of us who are unhappy with the proposals in Mission and Ministry in Covenant aren’t seeking to be spikey or defensive or legalistic. And we’re not selfishly looking out for the integrity of the Church of England, conceived in purely technical, dispassionate terms. We’re just rejecting a sort of false generosity that seeks to water down the great gift Christ has given us in the historic episcopate — one that isn’t truly generous with the episcopate at all. No response to the Mission and Ministry report I’ve read has rejected the idea of a generous effort being made to bring Anglicans and Methodists closer together. But this cannot be done in a way that avoids difficult issues surrounding the episcopate. We need to ask hard theological questions about what being generous with the episcopate, and treating it with integrity, really means. I’m far from convinced that the report, as it stands, does this. Total abundance and generosity are withheld in favour of artificial compromise and superficial political solutions.

While I’m grateful that Fr Richard does dive deeper into the theological issues raised by the report, I’m afraid I cannot agree with some of his conclusions. Surely Catholic Anglicans do believe that a priest, a presbyteros, in the Church of England is of the same type of priesthood that Roman Catholics (and Orthodox) profess — one that is quite distinct from more Protestant understandings of presbyteral ministry argued for by Ian Paul (cautiously cited by Fr Richard) and which, arguably, have greater similarities with Methodist understandings of that ministry. I’m also unconvinced by Fr Richard’s suggestion that other instances of episcopal ministry — suffragans, ‘flying bishops’, etc. — are really as significant deviations from the episcopal ideal as the proposals in Mission and Ministry in Covenant. Each instance Fr Richard cites approximates to the ideals of permanence, geographical link, personal relationship and collegiality in ways that the Mission and Ministry proposals do not. Relatedly, while I agree with Fr Richard that Baptism is the ‘Ur-sacrament’ of all other sacraments, including Holy Orders, this does not mean that the conditions of those sacraments are more easily dispensable or less important than those of Baptism: discussions of ‘validity’ and ‘sacramental assurance’ still have a place, when framed within a broader understanding of the sacraments as generous gifts.

The theme of generosity provides one further point I’d like quickly to touch on: one that relates more to how the Church of England should act as recipient of gift rather than as giver of gift. As I’ve made clear above, Catholics believe that the historic episcopate lies at the heart of Christ’s brilliant gift of the Church. We must be careful not to forget this. ‘Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have’, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews tells us (Hebrews 13.16). We must share what we’ve been given precisely because ‘[e]very generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above’ (James 1.17). It is ungenerous, Scripture tells us, to reject God’s generosity by refusing to share what he has given us. That’s the whole mission, the whole purpose, of the Catholic Church: to share God’s gift of his Son with the world. It is the responsibility of the Church of England, then, as a recipient of the historic episcopate, to share that gift in its fullness. It is not for us to choose which bits of it can be dispensed with, withheld or not insisted upon. All of it is perfect gift, and we show our thankfulness to God by handing it on in its perfect fullness. By treating the historic episcopate as in some circumstances dispensable, and by divesting it of its permanent, personal, geographical and collegial characteristics, the proposals in Mission and Ministry in Covenant fail to do this. Handing on the episcopate according to the terms of that report is not true generosity.

Fr Richard is absolutely right when he says sharing episcopacy with the Methodist Church ‘will make the Church of England more, not less, Catholic’. But the type of episcopacy the report seeks to share isn’t full episcopacy as Anglicans, Roman Catholics Church and Eastern Christians have received it. With Fr Richard, I wholeheartedly endorse the generous spirit and aims of the report: I long for true unity with the Methodist Church. But the ecclesiological wine on offer here is quite inferior and we shouldn’t be offering it. I hope that Synod, while recognising a heartfelt desire for unity of all Catholic Anglicans, makes clear that very serious work is still to be done on the report. The ways of Christ and his Church are long and difficult, and there are few easy fixes. But I hope that by rejecting this report’s recommendations and re-approaching the issue of episcopacy afresh, we will one day be able to turn to our Methodist brothers and sisters and say, with full integrity, we ‘have kept the good wine until now’. That is what true Catholic generosity will look like.

Dr Philip Murray

Ordinand at Westcott House

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