We deny to claim "any Superiority to ourself
to defyne, decyde, or determyn any Article or Poynt
of the Christian Fayth and Relligion,
or to chang any Ancient Ceremony of the Church
from the Forme before received and observed
by the Catholick and Apostolick Church."

Norman Simplicity

Norman Simplicity
Click image for original | © Vitrearum (Allan Barton)

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Gorham Case

The complainant in the last post wanted to use the Gorham case to show that since Anglicanism can tolerate anything, it stands for precisely nothing. But what that case shows is only that civil court would not refuse to institute a priest based only upon his very non-mainstream views. Those views concerned the meaning of baptism. If Gorham had denied baptism, the case would have been clear. For the creed says: "I acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins." So what did he do?

Look, here is one way of presenting what the Roman church teaches:

  1. While in John 3:5 Jesus himself affirms that baptism is necessary for salvation, and no one should refuse to be baptized, the effects of sacramental baptism are brought about also by "Baptism of blood" (dying for the sake of the faith) and "Baptism of desire", whether explicit, as in the case of catechumens, or implicit, as in the case of anyone who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it,
  2. As regards children who die without baptism, the Church entrusts them to the mercy of God.
  3. In Roman Catholic teaching, baptism, like all the sacraments, presupposes faith and by words and objects also nourishes, strengthens, and expresses it.
  4. Baptism is the sacrament of faith (cf. Mark 16:16). But faith needs the community of believers. It is only within the faith of the Church that each of the faithful can believe. The faith required for Baptism is not a perfect and mature faith, but a beginning that is called to develop.

What this says is that [1] baptism is utterly necessary, but it may be attained by different means, and there are circumstances where it may not be absolutely necessary [2]. [3] Baptism depends upon faith, which is to say the true belief and right actions of the individual but this very same radical dependence upon the individual is mitigated by the fact that it is also, most intimately, the shared work of a community of believers, the church [4].

Like almost all theology, this gives with one hand, what it secretly takes away with the other: it is x but, on the other hand, ~x. Yet Roman Catholicism is immune from a claim of incoherence because it can hold all of these contradictions together in a state of dynamic tension. It is its reliance on the complexio oppositorum that allows for this circumstance. What Anglicans are inclined to do, unfortunately, is to emphasize one of these things to the detriment of the others. They fall victim to the cold Northern logic of either/or when what they need to affirm is 'both/and'.

Gorham emphasized [3] to the sharp detriment of the rest. As a consequence, on his view, the baptism of infants was somewhat conditional upon the later adult 'making good' on those proxy promises. High churchers held to [1], those with a Calvinist bent to [3] and probably many other Evangelicals were focused almost exclusively on [4]. My uncle, a Presbyterian minister, once gave a sermon at a baptism that cast doubt on [1], in the opus operatum mode, and vested almost total significance in [4], informing us that baptism was little more than a rite of initiation into the visible church, where the onus, for this opus, was now completely on us. (I suspect that, in the end, he was little more than a functional Feuerbachian -- all this God-talk is really just a complicated way of talking about ourselves -- but I'm also quite sure that he would not have accepted my one-sided characterization, either.)

I bet a lot of Roman Catholic laity and even clergy believe something like this too. Or, more probably, they believe very little (i.e., even less). But they are totally off the hook while Anglican rigorists call down the wrath and condemnation of others.

I suspect that while we need consistency of practice, the notion of a univocal faith among Christians, even within a single denomination, is nothing but a pretty and soothing falsehood. If this is correct, then the question becomes: how do we go forward from here?

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