Some weeks ago I came across a comment on an Internet blog that has been rattling around in my head ever since. It was made by a former Episcopal priest who has since departed our pleasant quad for the more open expanse of the Roman campagna. (Even having set his hand to this particular plow, he spends a great deal of his time looking backward.) The substance of his comment was that if one truly wants to be a catholic one must either be in communion with Rome, or in communion with the sees of the East. The problem, of course, is that exceptional monosyllable or.
The Roman Catholic Church declares that the church subsists in those who are in communion with the heir of Peter. The Eastern churches make a similar claim. Neither of them would, within their own doctrine and discipline, recognize that monosyllabic exception: it is not a question of either/or — and certainly not both/and. Rather each of them claims, ultimately and separately, to be the institutional incarnation of the body of Christ on earth. It is true that their language has cooled since the days of the Great Schism, and has even waxed fraternal; but when it comes down to institutional structure, and most importantly that evocative but ephemeral word communion, the gap is as wide as ever it was. They are not in communion with each other.
It continues to amaze me as I read the comments of various Episcopalians set on jumping what they wrongly perceive as a sinking ship, weighing the various advantages and disadvantages of these two options for purported catholicity, without recognizing the inherent contradiction in being able to make such a choice. These are competing claims: both cannot be “the catholic church” — either one is and the other isn’t, or as I believe, neither of them is, at least not exclusively. This Katholic Kafeteria (with its sparse menu of only two items) is a perversion of what it means to be catholic.
And so I come to the myth of the catholic church: no single institutional church can rightly claim that title. One can’t even make those little lists of “branches” so dear to Anglo-Catholics of a former age, who clung to the myth of short-list catholicity: Rome, Constantinople, and Canterbury — the latter somehow desperately clinging to the fringes of the formers’ garments, as they might rightly say, Who touched me?
No, my friends, this is not where the church catholic subsists. The church catholic subsists in the body of all the baptized, for the church is one and holy as well as catholic and apostolic. There is only one holy catholic and apostolic church — and all the rest are just denominations, just the promontories and peninsulas of the mainland, the denominated seas of the boundless ocean, even Rome and Constantinople, and yes Canterbury too, and for that matter (on this the feast of Willibrord) Utrecht, and Geneva, Wittenberg, and Uppsala and Calcutta and Tokyo and all the countless places where the word has been preached and the bread has been broken, and the water splashed, and the voices raised, and God glorified. This is the catholic church — that curious and contentious caravan of wayfarers who though they fail to recognize each other, will one day discover they are long-lost children of one Father in heaven.