Apologia: Anglican Ecclesiology and the Patristic Conception of the Church.  

The patristic teachings discussed here are, as the title suggests, concerned with ecclesiology. They accord with the patristic conception, manifest in its Trinitarian and Christological doctrines. Central to the apologia is the premise that: ‘Each local church is the Catholic Church by virtue of the fact that it manifests the body of Christ in the Eucharist,’ and that: ‘It is with the whole body of the faithful, expressed through the bishop, that responsibility ultimately rests in answer to the question of who or what in the Christian church is to decide where the truth lies.’

“Anglicanism has no specific teaching other than that of Scripture interpreted by the primitive church with which it has continuity, historical and doctrinal” (Lancelot Andrewes, 1555-1626). There can be no question that, subject always to the supreme authority of Scripture, the Anglican Church appeals in defence of her doctrines and ceremonies to the ancient Fathers and to catholic antiquity (1559 Elizabethan Settlement). Herein is an expression of true Catholicism, the Catholicism of the primitive church owned by the local Anglican Church and in which is delineated the limits of toleration in doctrine and manners. Those limits are bound by the Creeds sanctioned by the Ecumenical Councils. Anglican catholicity is indissolubly bound up with the phronema or mind of the Fathers, which in essence was a scriptural mind, and it was this ecclesiastical mind that was appropriated by Anglicanism and made the basis of Christian living and the context of Christian thinking. Seventeenth-century Caroline writing was concerned to state a method in theology rather than to outline a system. What is distinctively Anglican is then not a theology but a theological method.

What then can be said about the constitution of the Church on earth? The catholicity of the Church on earth does not reside essentially in the fact that the Church has a worldwide diffusion, or is ecumenical. Catholicity is not to be identified with ecumenicity, which has precisely this worldwide geographical connotation. Nor does the fact, that each local church is part of a larger assembly or organization or corporation of local churches, confer on it its catholicity. Again, catholicity is not a collective or quantitative reality. On the contrary, the catholicity and the apostolicity of the local church, is constituted through the fact that it embodies and manifests in a dynamic manner that fullness of the truth which is in Christ. Each local church is not part of a larger whole. It is the manifestation of the whole. The local church, as its name denotes, ‘localizes’ and manifests theKingdomofGodin time and place. The Holy Spirit, for in the local church God is manifest in and through the Spirit, constitutes theChurchofGodin each particular place. That is whySt. Paul, for example, refers to “theChurchofGodwhich is atCorinth” (I Cor. 1:2; II Cor. 1:1) and why he can speak of the localchurchofGodas constituting “the whole Church” (I Cor. 14:23). From this it will be clear that each properly constituted local church is as much the Church as any other local church. As much as any other local church it is a visible centre of the Church’s catholicity, apostolicity and unity. Through the nature of the constitution of the local church, there cannot be one particular local church which can claim to be more the visible centre or expression of the Church’s catholicity, apostolicity and unity than any other local church.

Of this catholicity, apostolicity and unity of the local church, the bishop is not merely the outward sign but their living expression. By virtue of his office in the local church, where he stands as the image of God and as the representative of the congregation, he embodies the plenitude of those powers, magisterial, priestly and governmental, which Christ conferred on the apostles. He embodies this plenitude not simply because he is the successor of the apostles, and each bishop singularly is the successor of the apostles, but because in his church he fulfils those functions which have their principle in Christ. They constitute his office. From this it will also be clear that just as one particular local church cannot claim to embody the catholicity, apostolicity and unity of the Church to a greater degree than any other, so one particular bishop cannot claim to embody the various powers and functions, sacramental or jurisdictional, vested in his office to a greater degree than any other bishop. Through the nature of the constitution of his office, each bishop must be essentially equal in powers with every other bishop. It is through manifesting an identical mystery and faith that each bishop is fully catholic and apostolic, just as each local church is fully catholic and apostolic for the same reason. It is also for the same reason that each bishop embodies equally with every other bishop the principle of the Church’s unity and is its visible expression on earth.

It follows from this that the identity in unity, apostolicity and catholicity of each local church and its bishop, through the possession of an identical mystery and faith, will constitute the criterion regulating the relationships between the various local churches and their bishops. It will constitute the criterion of their unity with each other in one catholic and apostolic Church. In other words, encountered here are the principles lying behind the institution of the Church Councils, those assemblies of bishops called to ascertain whether all possess an identical mystery and faith or, indeed, to determine what they are and how they can most adequately be formulated.

What is intended through a council is that the identity of the faith manifest in each local church and vested, therefore, in each bishop, should be affirmed and confirmed through the mutual witness of all the bishops. It is the fact that its pronouncements affirm and confirm the unity and catholicity of the truth established a priori in the Church, and through the act itself of the Church’s foundation, that makes a council an authoritative organ in the Church. The pronouncements of councils are not and cannot be the criteria of the authenticity of the claim of a local church to be the Church of Christ. It is the whole body of the Church that is the criterion of orthodoxy. It is the Church, clergy and laity alike, recognizing and accepting the pronouncements as authoritative, which determines the councils, not the councils that determine the Church. That is why the pronouncements of councils, even of ecumenical councils, cannot ipso facto have an infallible character. Infallibility resides solely in Christ.

The patristic conception of the Church and its organic structure is that of an understanding common to the whole of Christendom. It is that of the Anglican Classical tradition, indissolubly bound up with the mind of the Fathers, recognizing and accepting as authoritative the pronouncements of the Ecumenical Councils of theUndividedChurch and manifesting theKingdom ofGod locally and distinctively by its theological method. It is still as valid today as it was when the Apostles founded the local churches in the Greco-Roman world. Consequently, in spite of abuses, it is always capable of being reaffirmed and revitalized. As patristic Trinitarian and Christological doctrines have kept the form given them by the Fathers of the Church, so patristic ecclesiology, which derives from these doctrines has, likewise, kept and must continue to keep its integrity so long as these principal doctrines are still recognized and accepted.


Cf. Richard Field, DD; Dean of Gloucester: Of the Church, Book V, Chapters, 48-52 (in part), 1606, 1610, in: More & Cross: Anglicanism, James Clarke & Co. Ltd., 2008, pp. 96-105.


                                                                                                The Rev’d. Geoffrey E. Andow 

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