Anglicanism has historically been characterized by a theological temper which includes a tendency to emphasize most the most important matters and to worry less about less important matters. One would think that this tendency should be uncontroversial, but in fact there is a contrary theological tendency to emphasize most specific differences, namely the few matters that distinguish a given Church or theological position. The Anglican tendency emphasizes what is shared, while the other emphasizes what is not shared.
So, for instance, in Eucharistic theology a specific difference might be, say, the Eastern Orthodox use of leavened bread in the Divine Liturgy. An emphasis on that specific difference might treat as practically unimportant shared Eucharistic doctrines – say common belief in the Real Presence, the Eucharistic sacrifice, and the need for a Eucharistic fast – whenever someone else uses unleavened bread.
The emphasis on the specific difference may flow from a natural (fallen) human tendency, which we might call the sadism of small differences. But the same emphasis might also flow from a kind of Aristotelianism, with Thomistic support, that characterized many older Roman Catholic polemicists.
Anglo-Catholics used to be told that the huge body of common beliefs that they shared with Roman Catholics was irrelevant because Anglo-Catholics disbelieved in the papacy. Since Anglo-Catholics did not accept their correct beliefs with implicit faith in the teaching authority of the One True (papal) Church, those correct beliefs were merely true opinions, not matters held by faith. Implicit trust and humble acceptance of the teaching authority of the Petrine Office, as understood by the Roman Catholic Church, was an essential element in the formation of faith. If this Roman argument is sound, then in practical terms the one or few doctrines that distinguish Roman Catholics are effectively the most important, even if their intrinsic substance seems much less important than that of a larger body of shared doctrines and beliefs.
Anglicans in contrast have always emphasized more the body of common doctrine which various Christians share. This approach turns the emphasis from the often intrinsically secondary or tertiary matter of specific difference and towards the common and unifying matters of greatest importance. Participation in the larger body of shared belief matters most.
Modern Roman Catholic doctrinal development mainly has involved the dogmatization of three matters: the Vatican I understanding of the papal office itself; the Immaculate Conception of our Lady; and the Assumption. The Marian doctrines are good examples of the difference between the Roman and the Anglican approaches.
Most Anglicans, certainly Anglo-Catholics, accept the patristic ideas of Mary’s special graces and of her deliverance from sin in virtue of her role in the Incarnation. Likewise, most Anglicans, and certainly Anglo-Catholics, believe that our Lord’s mother is in heavenly glory. But these beliefs also, for classical Anglicans, matter far less than the patristic dogmas that our Lord was conceived virginally and that, as the Fathers taught against the Nestorians, Mary is the Theotokos, the God-bearer. These beliefs are part of small ‘o’ Christian orthodoxy and have a very broad consensus in Christian time and space. On these matters followers of the magisterial Reformers agree with the Great Church of the first millennium.
Going further, Anglo-Catholics would also say that our Lady’s perpetual virginity and her ongoing role as our intercessor before the throne of grace are more important than pinning down details about the very beginning and the very end of her earthly life. Does it matter how our Lady came to be before God? Surely that matters far less than what she does now that she is there.
So too different approaches to the Eucharist serve to illustrate the different temper of Anglicans and Romans. Richard Hooker observed long ago that
Sacramentes, by reason of theire mixt nature, are more diverslie interpreted and disputed of then anie other parte of religion besides, for that in so greate store of properties belonginge to the selfsame thinge, as everie mans witte hath taken hold of some especiall consideration above the rest, so they have accordinglie seemed one to crosse another as touchinge theire severall opinions about the necessitie of sacramentes. (Lawes, V.lvii.2)
By the ‘great store of properties’ belonging to sacraments, Hooker means that sacraments involve outward and visible signs, inward and spiritual graces, a particular minister, subjects or recipients and their subjective disposition and preparation, particular forms of words that may or may not be altered, and other elements concerning which people might differ and dispute. Then too Christians may differ even about the ‘necessity of sacraments’, or of some of them. The very number of matters involved increases the possibilities for disagreements about matters major, minor, and very minor.
In short, there are many, many things concerning the sacraments about which Christians might disagree. Often these matters of dispute, however, are less important than matters concerning which there is no dispute. Whether the Eucharistic bread is leavened or unleavened surely matters much less than whether it is really and truly Jesus or whether it is received with a pure conscience and loving heart or with indifference and a hateful heart. Reception of holy communion should include in the recipient a state of love and charity with his neighbor and an intention to lead a new life: these things are much more important than whether the recipient has been fasting for one hour or for three hours or since midnight.
Again, it is arguable that a person who receives communion with deep faith in the virtue and power of Christ, even while not believing in a Catholic understanding of the Real Presence, is better than a person who receives communion believing in, say, Lateran IV’s teaching while having no real intention to lead a new life. The difference in these two cases is, of course, a matter of subjective piety, but in communicants such piety is of major importance while subjective doctrinal clarity is of secondary, though not trivial, significance.
Since Vatican II the Roman Catholic position, particularly regarding ecclesiology, has moved somewhat away from emphasis on the specific difference and more towards emphasis on shared beliefs. This movement partially explains the fact that Pope Paul VI could refer famously to Anglicans as ‘our beloved sister Church’. I copy below an extract from Vatican II’s document Lumen Gentium. I believe this extract tends toward the Anglican position, though it obviously begins with and embraces Roman Catholic belief in the Petrine Office. Nonetheless, I think this extract, ‘On the People of God’, indicates an implicit movement away from overemphasis on specific differences.
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From Lumen Gentium. Chapter II, ‘On the People of God’
15. The Church recognizes that in many ways she is linked with those who, being baptized, are honored with the name of Christian, though they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter. For there are many who honor Sacred Scripture, taking it as a norm of belief and a pattern of life, and who show a sincere zeal. They lovingly believe in God the Father Almighty and in Christ, the Son of God and Saviour. They are consecrated by baptism, in which they are united with Christ. They also recognize and accept other sacraments within their own Churches or ecclesiastical communities. Many of them rejoice in the episcopate, celebrate the Holy Eucharist and cultivate devotion toward the Virgin Mother of God. They also share with us in prayer and other spiritual benefits. Likewise we can say that in some real way they are joined with us in the Holy Spirit, for to them too He gives His gifts and graces whereby He is operative among them with His sanctifying power. Some indeed He has strengthened to the extent of the shedding of their blood. In all of Christ’s disciples the Spirit arouses the desire to be peacefully united, in the manner determined by Christ, as one flock under one shepherd, and He prompts them to pursue this end. Mother Church never ceases to pray, hope and work that this may come about. She exhorts her children to purification and renewal so that the sign of Christ may shine more brightly over the face of the earth.
16. Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God. In the first place we must recall the people to whom the testament and the promises were given and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh. On account of their fathers this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues. But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Muslims, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind. Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Saviour wills that all men be saved. Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel. She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life. But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature”, the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.