Someone visiting to inquire about our church recently asked me, “Are you Catholic?” I replied, “Yes, but we are not Roman Catholic.” The inquirer’s face turned quizzical – as faces generally do during that exchange. Sincerely, I was not being obtuse. We are Anglicans, but we are also Catholics, along with our brothers and sisters in the Roman and Orthodox churches. We all track our lineage in an unbroken succession of ordinations and confirmations through the laying on of hands back to the Apostles themselves. And, we understand our origins as a Church to be rooted in the Biblical, Apostolic and Patristic Faith which has been faithfully preserved and carried into the present.
There was a time when I thought that if I was going to belong to the real church – and by that I meant the church that is closest in belief and practice to the New Testament church – I would have to become Roman Catholic. As I wrestled with that question, I came to see that Anglicanism had a unique and less complicated correspondence to the Early Church than any other denomination I knew. I realized God placed me right where I needed to be, and I no longer viewed Rome as having sole possession of Catholic Christianity. I know for many Christians that relationship to the Early Church is not very important, but for me it has always been an important value. Certainly the most important aspect of being a Christian is the quality of our relationship with Jesus. Do we know Him as our Savior, or not? Everything else pales in comparison.
Even so, the way in which Christians relate to Jesus and worship Him is also very important. I have always thought that those closest in history to Christ and the Apostles, had the most intimate understanding and experience of worship – and they practiced liturgical and sacramental worship. Therefore, as an Anglican priest, I study and practice my ministry, not so much from a denominational perspective but more and more from a desire to be grounded in the Faith and practices of the Scriptures, Apostles and Early Church. Fortunately, that is a perspective shared by my bishop and many other Anglicans. I just wish more people had the opportunity to experience it, but it requires effort. Isn't that typical of the best things?
Therefore, consider one of the best treasures of this catholicism: the collected writings of the Church Fathers, many of which were re-discovered and translated from Greek into English by British scholars in the nineteenth century. Probably due more to the English style of the translations in the nineteenth century, rather than the original authors, these writings can be laborious reading. But here is an excerpt from the writings of Hilary, the fourth century bishop of Poitiers, which I have paraphrased to give a flavour of what they have to offer Twenty-first century Christians:
The words that we use to speak of the things of God must not be used in a simple human and worldly sense, nor should a sloppy interpretation which is corrupted by strange external sources be forced from the soundness of heavenly words by any abusive and pigheaded preaching. Let us read what is written, let us understand what we read, and then fulfill the demands of a mature faith. For unless we have been taught by Him as to what we say about the reality of Christ’s nature within us, our words are foolish and disrespectful. For He Himself says, my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. [John 6.55, 56 - ESV] As to the truth of the flesh and blood there is no room left for doubt. For now both from the declaration of the Lord Himself and our own faith, it is truly flesh and truly blood. And when these are eaten and drunk, bring into reality that both we are in Christ and Christ is in us. Is this not true? Yet they who affirm that Christ Jesus is not truly God are welcome to find it false. He Himself therefore is in us through the flesh and we in Him, while together with Him our own selves are in God. [Bishop Hilary of Poitiers: On the Trinity, Book VIII.14 – AD 367]
I did not present this particular quote to be a “stick in the eye” to those who do not believe in the Sacraments or the Real Presence, but because it is such a reverent and lucid exposition of an early bishop's understanding of Jesus' words in John 6, and to encourage those not familiar with the Church Fathers to explore their many treasures.