By George van Popta
Calvin, Henry, and Benedict
In AD 1509, two significant church-historical events took place. In France, John Calvin, the great Reformer and church ecumenist, was born. Across the channel, in England, Henry VIII, the man who would tear the Church of England away from the Roman Church, ascended to the throne.
Since no male heir was forthcoming from Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, which put the dynastic legitimacy of the House of Tudor at stake, Henry sought an annulment from the pope in order to marry Anne Boleyn. Pope Clement VII, beholden to the Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and nephew of Catherine, refused to grant it. Henry divorced the Church of England from the Church of Rome in order to divorce Catherine. He summoned the British Parliament to declare the Act of Supremacy, 1534, by which Henry became the Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
Last year, in AD 2009, five-hundred years after the birth of Calvin and five-hundred years after Henry’s accession to the throne, again two significant church-historical events took place–events related to those of a half millennium earlier: Across the world, Reformed Christians celebrated the quincentennial of the birth of John Calvin; and, from the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI invited the Church of England to re-enter the Roman fold.
The Anglican Church has always been a big-tent church from “High Church” to “Low Church.” “High Church” parishes are those Anglican churches that use a number of ritual practices associated in the popular mind with Roman Catholicism. “Low Church” Anglicans have been influenced by Reformed thought, are evangelical in their beliefs and practices, reject the doctrine that the sacraments confer grace ex opere operato (e.g. baptismal regeneration) and lay stress on the Bible as the sole source of authority in matters of faith. They usually hold dear the Reformed Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England as their official doctrinal statement.
The Anglican Church (“Episcopalian” in the USA) has gone from being a big-tent church to a church in crisis. It is losing members by the thousands. Any growth is among conservatives in Asia and Africa. The faithful are outraged by the liberalism, secularism, and slide to relativism by the leadership of the church. The liberal trends culminated in the election of an openly homosexual wife-abandoning bishop, the blessing of same-sex “marriages”, and the questioning of basic Christian dogma.
Two conservative movements have emerged within the Anglican Church. The split generally falls along the old High Church / Low Church divide.
The one wants to hold on to the Anglo-Catholic teachings, practices and liturgy. It rejects same-sex marriage and the ordination of women. The other is evangelical. It rejects same-sex “marriage,” is divided on the ordination of women, and wants to hold on to fundamental Reformed doctrine. In Canada, this conservative movement is represented by the Anglican Network in Canada (ANiC). It is part of the worldwide Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans.
Benedict thought that five centuries of separation are long enough. He has invited the Anglican Church back into the fold. Not wanting to make it difficult, and in the typical Roman Catholic fashion of accommodating local practices, he has told the Anglicans the Roman Catholic practice of a celibate priesthood need not apply to them and they may keep their prayer books and liturgy. The only real demand is that they acknowledge him as the head of the Church.
Benedict’s offer will not appeal to the Low Church parishes, but it will be attractive to the conservative High Church, Anglo-Catholic, parishes. The liberal, mainstream Anglican Church will continue to lose members and swirl into irrelevance. One almost feels sorry for the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, the supreme religious leader of the Anglican Church. His comment on the pope’s invitation was that he did not think it was a “commentary on Anglican problems.” Such a response beggars belief.
Did Benedict intentionally wait until the quincentenary of Henry’s accession to the throne? One can hardly believe he did not. The irony is too delicious. Did Benedict notice his invitation was made in the quincentenary of Calvin’s birth? As Joseph Ratzinger (the pope’s birth name) was born and bred among the Protestants of Germany, and is known to have read Calvin’s Institutes, one can hardly imagine he did not.
Where does John Calvin fit into all of this? From Geneva, Calvin wrote Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury of his time. In that letter, Calvin showed himself to be a true ecumenist. Among other things, he wrote:
I wish it might be effected, that learned and stable men, from the principal churches, might assemble in some place, and, after discussing with care each article of faith, deliver to posterity, from their general opinion of them all, the clear doctrines of the Scriptures. It is to be numbered among the evils of our day, that the churches are so divided one from another…. Respecting myself, if it should appear that I could render any service, I should with pleasure cross ten seas, if necessary, to accomplish that object.
We see here two streams of ecumenical thought and methods of church consolidation: Benedict’s which is opportunistic; Calvin’s which is principled. Benedict’s way is one of merely overturing disaffected Anglican’s; Calvin’s overture to the Anglicans was based upon reaching consensus upon the articles of the Christian faith and the clear doctrines of Scripture.
We prefer Calvin.