'Catholic' means, 'of the whole', 'covering the whole world', 'embracing the fullness of Faith and Gospel'. Clearly the Roman Church does not do this. It did not do so when 'the whole' was confined to the inhabited Mediterranean. Its coverage was doubtful from the earliest days but restriction to the West became final in a formal sense at the great schism between East and West. At that time 'Catholic' and 'Orthodox' became schismatic claims to sole catholicity or orthodoxy. From the time of the Reformation 'Catholic' has become even more sectarian; either in rejecting all Protestants from the 'true' church - although, lately, squeezing many of them back into the (nearly true) faith - or as a party name in a body like the Church of England.
The Roman Church and its model of authority grew out of the Roman Empire; the Orthodox Church grew out of the Byzantine Empire; the Church of England grew out of the circumstances of the English State from the 16th century onwards, while the Anglican communion has some vestige of echoes of the British Empire. Why do we get trapped in these empires, past and gone? Why are we not freed by the past, present and future of the Kingdom of God which, as the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus has shown, is very unlike a worldly empire? Probably because religion as practised (especially in its institutional forms) is more about our security than about the mystery of God's creative and redeeming enterprise.
In the 16th century, the Church of England, while carefully maintaining its commitment to the full biblical and apostolic faith in God and His Gospel as revealed in Jesus Christ through the Spirit, decisively rejected the papal claims to exclusive and definitive authority as evidently dangerous, divisive and corrupting. Even so, despite pressure from Puritans and Presbyterians, the apologists and theologians of the Church of England (most notably Richard Hooker, but with much wider support) maintained that despite its errors the Roman Church had not ceased to be a part of the true Church seeking to be faithful to God in Christ. Anglican divines were obliged, by the sheer facts of church behaviour and history, to work out an understanding of the church's nature and life which reckoned with a much more fallible and erring church than Catholic claims implied.
This more realistic and open understanding of the Church developed by the classical Anglican divines enabled them also fully to acknowledge the great Protestant communions, while continuing in controversy with them about many important doctrinal, ecclesiastical and moral matters. The present attempt by a group in the Church of England to insist that Anglican Catholicity is necessarily related to the papal interpretation of Roman Catholic claims is inconsistent with central Anglican theology and understanding of the Church and with the relationships which the central Anglican tradition has always maintained with churches in the Protestant and Reformed traditions.
The present polemics of the self-styled defenders of 'Catholicity' in the Church of England, besides being disgracefully ungracious to women, are also deeply ungracious to Christians in other than the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches (to the discomfort, I am sure, of not a few ecumenically minded Roman Catholics). Thus at a time when the central challenge to Christian Faith, Church and Discipleship is plainly to do with the credibility of our Gospel and our faith in God having any realistic saving relevance to the miseries of our planet, we are expending a great deal of energy and anxiety on internal quarrels about who should submit to whom. All in the interests of a catholicity which is a fantasy as it is conceived and in danger of being a tyranny as it is practised. This must look to outsiders like the typical displacement activities of an organism which can no longer cope with a sane, hopeful and effective mission in its threatening environment, and so turns its anxieties and energies inward to internecine strife.
It is surely a fundamental Christian mistake to turn our backs on 16th- and 17th-century Reformation, and 20th-century attempts at ecumenism, to regress to a medieval model of catholicity which never really lived up to its claims even at its peak of power and influence. We need to be looking forward to some 21st-century form of collaborative catholicity and federal ecumenism which will have a chance of presenting a common, shared and universal Christian Faith and Gospel to a highly pluralistic, grievously divided and deeply threatened world. Christianity needs diversity of form, openness in its explorations and unity of fellowship. From this unity in diversity we may develop a multiplicity of ways of worshipping the one Universal God we believe in, of presenting the one Universal Gospel we are inspired by, and of showing the one all-embracing Grace that we seek to live and die by.
Perhaps we might find inspiration for such a forward-looking and world-engaging catholicity from Paul's hymn about Jesus in Chapter II of his letter to the Philippians.
Let your bearing towards one another arise out of your life in Christ Jesus. For the divine nature was His from the first; but He did not think to snatch at equality with God, but made Himself nothing, assuming the nature of a slave. Bearing the human likeness, revealed in human shape, he humbled himself, and in obedience accepted even death - death on a Cross.
We do not need a powerful, protective and exclusive church. We need empowerment through recognition of our mutual faith, hope and love, in a fellowship of worship and grace, pilgrimage and service. Only in this way will we move towards a catholicity which is as universal as the Gospel we preach, the Kingdom we serve and the God we believe in.Reuse content