“Catholic?! I thought we were Anglicans!” This is a question that I hear and am asked from time-to-time. Both the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds (which may be found on page 188 and 189 of the Book of Alternative Services) affirm our faith in the “holy catholic church.” This affirmation is an important aspect of our Christian faith, and yet understood by so few. The question of “what do we mean by catholic?” often comes up in the context of baptismal preparation classes in which we examine the content of the Creed. As many will know, I was recently ordained to the priesthood. The invitation to that event can be found elsewhere on this site, but in brief, it cited my ordination to the “sacred order of priests in Christ’s Holy Catholic Church.” As a result, I had a number of individuals pose the question again: “Catholic Church? It thought you were going to be an Anglican priest!”
This whole thing has made me think about how we in the Church often use terms that generate confusion, rather than clarity. It must be very hard for newcomers to “crack the code” as they come through our doors. At the same time, there are so many cradle Anglicans who have been dying to ask some of these sorts of questions for years, but feel afraid to ask what they perceive to be a “dumb questions.” Well let me assure you, the frequency with which this particular question is asked certifies that it is not a dumb question. I hope that the following will go some way to offering some clarity and explanation.
According to F. L. Cross’s Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (1st ed, 1957), catholic “is a word derived from the Greek, catholicos, and meaning ‘general’ or ‘universal’. It goes on to indicate, “…of the universal Church as distinct from local Christian communities. It is applied thus to the faith of the whole Church.” Thus, when we confess our faith as “catholic Christians” we are expressing a belief in the Church as one body, and not simply our own little community, much less our own denomination. This is why we refer to our bishops, priests, and deacons as bishops, priests, and deacons “in the Church of God,” or of “Christ’s holy catholic church,” rather than as Anglican bishops, priests, or deacons (although we may use the adjective “Anglican” colloquially to describe them or differentiate them from Roman Catholic or Orthodox clergy).
Another way of thinking about this is with respect to our baptism. Sometimes, when I do baptismal preparation, people will say “I was baptized Anglican,” or “I was baptized Roman Catholic,” or “I was baptized Presbyterian.” Well, none of these statements are actually true. While you may have been baptized in any of these churches, or using rites (or services) according to the tradition of these different denominations, your baptism is Christian baptism. You are baptized into the one, holy catholic and apostolic Church, which is the body of Christ. You are not baptized Anglican, Presbyterian, RC, or anything else – you are baptized Christian, and are members of the body of Christ. As St. Paul writes in the letter to the Ephesians, “There is one body 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” (Ephesians 4:4-6, NRSV).
The Roman Catholic Church is a Church in communion with the Bishop of Rome (the pope), which chooses to self-identify as “catholic” as part of its name. It sees itself as the Universal Church, from which all others have fallen away. There are Eastern Catholics, also in communion with Rome, who use Orthodox (Byzantine or Eastern) rather than Roman forms of the liturgy (church services). However, most denominations, including Roman Catholicism, the Orthodox Church, Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, the United Church, and the Reformed Churches, recognize baptism in each others’ traditions as valid. Most mainstream Protestant Churches will allow any baptized Christian to receive Communion in their Church. Roman Catholics and the Orthodox, while recognizing baptism in other denominations as valid, are more restrictive and require reception in to their denomination as a precursor to receiving Communion and some other sacraments.
I suppose what is at stake in all of this is that most denominations, with the exception of some conservative evangelical groups, believe that we are all in this together as the body of Christ, that we are all part of one Church, and hence the use of the word “catholic,” or “universal,” to describe that belief. In practice, we may be somewhat divided. Many Christians reject each other, judge each other, and condemn each other. The history of Christianity is certainly filled with examples of one denomination thinking that they had it right at the expense of all others. This is truly a sad statement. And yet, as we recite either of our Creeds (Nicene or Apostles’ – creeds that are accepted by most mainstream Christian Churches), and profess to be part of the Holy Catholic Church we choose to “dream big” and “believe big.” We choose to claim the reality that we are one in Christ, and hope and pray for the day that Jesus’ prayer “that they may be one,” is manifested not just in hope and prayer but in visible and tangible signs of Christian brotherhood, sisterhood, and friendship in Christ.
Text copyright 2008, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed either in whole or part without the express written permission of the author.