On History, St. Peter, and Deals with the Devil
Randall Balmer and I share much in the motives of our wanderings toward Anglicanism from a more Evangelical past, including the desire for connectedness to the old, an awe and appreciation for beautiful sacred spaces, and a love for the Book of Common Prayer, which renders the liturgy and the faith in some of the most lovely English known to man. I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t sometimes miss that book, and some of those prayers. We also agree that the ‘main event’ of Christian liturgy is the Holy Eucharist, which is a pretty serious fundamental to agree upon, even if the real presence in that Eucharist may shape up a bit differently in our respective traditions. I could also be accused, like Balmer, of being an Anglophile, and there is something cozy about the ‘Englishness’ of the Canterbury Trail, which Balmer brings to life in his essay.
Reading through Balmer’s posting also brought up for me an oddity that I remember about my time in the Anglican Church, which had to do with the question of which church I was a part of anyway––the Anglican or the Episcopal? In reality, my bishop was Episcopalian, and so in the proper sense I worshipped alongside Episcopalians. But, part of what I longed for and identified with was a bigger, deeper, historic entity, and so it ‘felt better’ to say I was in the Anglican Church. I used the terms fairly interchangeably (as does Balmer), and while there was a freedom to use the term that suited me in a given moment, there was also something unsettling about that. It is all ‘the Anglican Communion,’ to be fair, but eventually, the real terms became more important as the congregation I belonged to split when Gene Robinson was ordained the first openly gay Bishop in the Episcopal Church. At that moment, we could have become ‘really Anglican’ as a significant part of our congregation realigned under an African Anglican bishop opposed to gay marriage and ordination, but, at that point we were already up to our ankles in the Tiber from a theological perspective, and it was time to swim. (Is it this issue of publicly homosexual clergy and bishops, Mr. Balmer, that you suspected was the “something else” at the root of my move away from the Anglican Church?)
Balmer is more comfortable than I was with some of the uncertainty that is just a part of being Anglican. While I surely appreciate the mystery of faith, the degree of diversity around what a priest or a member of the church might believe on a given topic felt too roomy. I can see that for some this would be a winning quality. Balmer brushes this off succinctly when he says, “I’m a historian, not a theologian. But the larger reason is that, although Anglicanism has its share of good theologians as well as the Thirty-nine Articles, doctrine does not lie at the core of Anglican or Episcopal identity.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a behemoth, to be sure, but met a longing I had to see the faith laid down in clear articulations.
Balmer as historian is apparently also untroubled by the Anglican church’s beginning. Now, the ecclesiastical history of the English people is another matter. Give me Augustine of Canterbury! Give me Bede! We named our seventh son Wilfred, after that great English saint. But of course, at this point the Church was still universal. When Henry VIII needs his divorce and decides to break the Church over it, the history gets dicey. I’m not a historian in the way Balmer is, but I love history, and when we worshipped in the Anglican tradition this unfortunate beginning did…niggle.
When Mr. Balmer, at the end of his posting, describes the Roman Catholic Church as ‘a bridge too far,’ he points to Petrine primacy and papal infallibility as primary stumbling points. I can appreciate these issues as final hurdles or even obstacles for swimming the Tiber. These are two very separate issues, and deserve separate responses. I feel a quick clarification on papal infallibility, since it is often grossly misunderstood, might be helpful, especially for our conversation partners further removed from the Roman Church than Mr. Balmer. The pope is only considered ‘infallible’ when speaking ex cathedra (Latin for from the chair). This is reserved only for speaking on issues of faith and morals, and it occurs extremely rarely. Since papal infallibility was formally defined by the First Vatican Council (1869-70), it has only been invoked *once*: in 1950 to declare Mary’s Assumption into heaven. Some argue that the statement on Mary’s Immaculate Conception, (which took place 16 years before this official definition of papal infallibility), also has the character of an ex cathedra statement. These ex cathedra statements are only used to define and defend long held dogma when it is under attack, and where clarification for the universal church is needed. It is not ever used to invent new theology, but rather to put language around what the Church has taught and believed through the ages. It in no way means that everything a sitting pope teaches, preaches or implies is infallible. It has absolutely nothing to do with how full of virtue or vice a particular pope may be. It is merely the belief that God would protect Holy Mother Church from error in the most formal statements she makes on faith and morals. Protestants of all stripes confess that Holy Scripture was, in a mysterious way, protected from error by God, even though many fallible humans partnered with God along the way to bring it into being. Why is it such a stretch that God would also protect his Church from error through the living voice of a pope when he speaks in his most formal capacity?
Balmer also raises the question of Peter as first among equals, that is, as the ‘head’ of the Apostles as the body of the Church took shape after Christ’s passion. Interestingly, the scripture Mr. Balmer cites regarding St. Peter (Matthew 16) seems to ignore other important pieces of the Petrine puzzle. Balmer writes: “Peter, as we know, was anything but solid. He was dithering and spineless, insisting that he would never disavow Jesus but caving to pressure from a young girl. And when Peter tried to walk on the Sea of Galilee, he took his eyes off Jesus and sank beneath the waves—like a rock.” I can certainly appreciate the humor Balmer sees here, and don’t doubt it’s there. But what about the next verse, when Christ follows Simon’s name-change to Peter (name-changes in the Bible usually mean something big, no?) with “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven: whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:20). I find it difficult to see this verse as anything but an appointing of St. Peter to an office with real responsibility, and paired with “on this rock I shall build my church” only a verse before, it surely reads as more than only a joke.
Finally, while Balmer points to St. Peter’s denial of our Lord to the young girl pestering him after Christ’s arrest, how can we leave off our study of this apostle without a look at the very end of the Gospel of John? Here, St. Peter’s threefold denial is countered by Christ inviting a threefold assurance that St. Peter loves Jesus, on the shores of that very same sea he had sunk like a rock in. Each of the three statements ‘Yes, Lord, you know I love you’ is then followed by a command from Christ to feed and look after his sheep. Why single St. Peter out in this way? Why this effort to undo his triple denial with a triple confession of love, coupled with a triply emphasized statement of his role to care for the flock? My understanding is that anything showing up in threes is not to be ignored. This majestic Gospel ends with Christ telling St. Peter about the martyrdom he will face. In the context of all the Gospels, St. Peter is singled out by our Lord more than once, and it is undeniable that some extra measure of responsibility is laid on him. Perhaps the choice of St. Peter looks like folly from our human perspective, but God’s choices often elude our human sensibilities and vantage points. While I can see room for humor in the mix, the Petrine office cannot be reduced to a pun.
I was only a wee lass when the ”Faustian bargain [Evangelicals] made with the far-right reaches of the Republican Party” occurred, as Mr. Balmer describes it. I’ve been interested since Mr. Balmer’s first postings, including his response to my own on Roman Catholicism, about his penchant for including the political realm in his contributions here. Surely the nature of his work as a historian invites this, and indeed I do believe faith must inform our participation in the public square. Mr. Balmer reduced my migration to Catholicism and to the Latin Mass as one based on “reactionary politics.” I sincerely ask, is having a political stance on a given issue that is rooted in the theology that informs your life reactionary? Perhaps contrary to Mr. Balmer’s suspicions, as a Christian, I’m happy to be registered as an undeclared voter, as my allegiance is to Christ and not to political parties. I certainly treasure and exercise my right to vote, and I do my best to vote with the conscience God gave me. It is a conscience at this point which is most certainly formed by the theology anyone can read about in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
I incorrectly assumed at first, Mr. Balmer, that the Faustian bargain you refer to had something to do with Evangelicals aligning themselves with the Pro-Life movement, and eventually the Republican Party. In researching your work a bit to make sure, I now understand your interest is more complex, as you aim to point out that the rise of the ‘Religious Right’ which glommed onto the Pro-Life issue in about 1980, had its origins in a much less laudable motive: that of keeping schools segregated. I certainly find this an interesting bit of history, though I think minimal digging will reveal problematic beliefs and practices regarding race from all sides of the political aisle. I find the discovery you assert unfortunate, that when Evangelicals joined Catholics in caring about Pro-Life issues it may have been with impure motives, but I will judge this tree by its fruit.
I ask for clarification only because my own faith journey brought me through the Anglican Church, and at that stopping place (and surrounded by those thinkers), I can actually recall feeling a sense of disdain for the ‘simplistic arguments’ on abortion that I had ascribed to in my Evangelical days. The Anglicans seemed so much more interested in nuance, and the complexity that each woman faces when the question of abortion becomes a reality for her. I am pleased to say, that having washed in the Tiber, I can now repent of those feelings, and that one of the places I feel most delighted to stand with my orthodox Evangelical brothers and sisters is in the Pro-Life cause. I can now unequivocally see that every child conceived (even in incest, even in rape, even in grave circumstances) has the right to life, and that no government worth its salt should fail to protect these most vulnerable in society. Every ‘bundle of cells’ formed in conception is also an eternal soul created in God’s image. While Pro-Choice advocates began their work by asking ‘to make abortion safe, legal and rare,’ we have witnessed a genocide of 62 million babies in this country. Women who ‘shout their abortions’ and take abortion pills on the sidewalk in public protest of movements toward Pro-Life policies are labeled by some as heroic. Faust trades his soul to the devil for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. To use the term ‘Faustian bargain’ anywhere near the topic of abortion seems unwise if it doesn’t refer directly to the literal blood sacrifice that has been offered in exchange for ‘consequence free’ copulation.
Mr. Balmer may consider that opinion ‘reactionary politics,’ but I see it as following Jesus in my tradition. While Mr. Balmer asserts that my journey of faith was informed by my politics, I would argue conversely that as my understanding of theology solidified and clarified, my politics followed suit.
The notable Anglican convert to Catholicism, St. John Henry Newman, famously said, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” He was speaking here about the early Church Fathers, and how there is simply not a case for the tenets of Protestantism in these early writings. History at its best should teach a kind of humility, whereby we can see any human progress we’ve made in light of the wisdom held in the past. As Christians, those generations who followed Christ’s life on earth most nearly may have much to teach on some of the issues Mr. Balmer raises from the Canterbury Trail.
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