Monday, February 4, 2013

Who's your Daddy?

As all the various Christian denominations seek to create new believers in a spiritually hungry world, I hope we can avoid the competitiveness that insists that our own particular "brand" is best. I know that a deep confidence in our own tradition of believing and worshiping is necessary in order to be willing to share the tradition with others. Still, that deep confidence need not overshadow the knowledge that other denominations are seeking to do God's work in the world, as well.

In all honesty, I come to this concern with a certain axe to grind. Favorite authors of mine and even close personal friends tend to speak of basic Christian tenets as "Catholic," and they don't, unfortunately, mean the "little c catholic" that we refer to when reciting the Nicene Creed. As Roman Catholics, they even claim the word "catholic," but I don't think the non-Roman portion of God's "one holy, catholic, and apostolic church" is willing to let the word go.

Actually, we "little c catholics" ourselves give away more than makes sense. We tend to acquiesce to the notion that the early and medieval church and everything not explicitly Protestant is by default Roman Catholic. It would be more accurate to say that Roman Catholicism and Protestantism share the same roots in early Christianity and in the medieval church. Just because the Roman Catholic branch is by far the largest branch does not mean that the other branches do not still draw their primary nourishment from the roots of Christianity.

The branching off process was not an abrupt or tidy process. Luther's congregants were still buying indulgences in 1517 when he nailed his 95 theses on the Cathedral door, and Henry VIII was named Defender of the Faith for opposing Luther in 1521. Queen Mary would reinstate Catholic Mass in place of the Book of Common Prayer's Communion service a full thirteen years after Ignatius of Loyola finally managed to get his famed Spiritual Exercises published. Reformation leaders did not have lobotomies that cut all of Roman Catholic piety out of their brains. And, yes, it is true that reciting the Angelus and Ave Maria remained an integral part of the personal spiritual practice of Luther and other key reformers.

So why, in explaining the spiritual influences in his life, does the newly-installed Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, refer to the Benedictine and Ignation influences as Roman Catholic? He needs to claim them proudly as his Anglican birthright just as clearly as I cling to Copernicus, Kosciousko, and Chopin as part of my Polish heritage. That my branch of the Polish family tree now stretches across the ocean to America does not expunge my ancestry. Likewise, the Reformation did not expunge Protestantism's ancestry. It is ours forever, to be shared with loving respect for the other descendants of our beloved ancestors who also cherish our common roots.

Pride in our respective denominations is a good thing, but may it not devolve into an unhealthy religious jingoism. Paul figured this out 20 centuries ago in writing to those quarrelsome, egocentric Corinthians. Is claiming denominational supremacy any less a manifestation of jealousy than claiming Paul or Apollos? Christ is the destination: leaders and denominations are only the vehicles, wonderful though they be.

Let's be circumspect, generous, and honest in claiming and studying our roots. Doing so will make us more attractive and convincing in our efforts to spread the Gospel in a diversely-populated world.


  1. Snark meter running...

    I did not study ++Welby's story, but was he referring to St. Benedict of Nursia (c.480–547) in which case little "c" comes to mind, or did he mean
    Pope Benedict XVI or Big "C"?
    Did he mean Ignatius of Antioch (little "c") or
    Ignatius of Loyola (possibly big "C")?

  2. Good try, my friend Snarkster, but the references to Benedictine and Ignation spirituality only make sense as referring to the guys from Nursia and Loyola. As deeply spiritual a man as he is, I don't think Benedict VI could lay claim to a distinctive branch of spirituality, and ditto with the guy from Antioch. I think the common meanings of Benedictine and Ignation spirituality apply here.