Tuesday, August 9, 2016

THE BRANCH THEORY - Don't Bet Your (Eternal) Life On It

During Lent this year I was introduced to a Uniate priest who was visiting Omaha. He was well educated, articulate, and personable. After spending a few minutes getting acquainted and in pleasant conversation he said to me, “I am going to say something you are not going to like.” After pausing for a moment he said, “I consider myself an Eastern Orthodox who happens to be in communion with the Pope.” While I could not agree with his statement, I could understand it. It was the Branch Theory, and that is something that I sincerely believed in for most of my adult life. 


As an Anglican I had sincerely believed that my Church was a Western Orthodox Church that happened to out of visible communion with the broader Orthodox Church due to the accidents of history. I believed that Anglicanism, when true to itself, held essentially the same Faith as the Orthodox Church in the East. They were Eastern Orthodox and we were Western Orthodox, and one day everyone would come to see that and the outward divisions would end. I was very sincere, but I was also very wrong.

Anglicans imbibe on the Branch Theory with their mother’s milk, or at least they did in the days when the Anglican Communion professed to hold the Catholic Faith. Today only a remnant of Anglicans still profess to be Catholic Christians, and most of them are found in the Anglican Continuum, with a smaller number in the Anglican Church in North America. 

Historically, Anglicans have believed, according to the Branch Theory, that the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of the Nicene Creed and of the first millennium of Christianity has been divided into three branches: the Anglican, the Eastern Orthodox, and the Roman; and that these divisions constitute schisms within the Church rather than schisms from the Church. These schisms within the Church have been caused by the sins of men and by the accidents of history, but do not effect the essential Catholicity of any of the branches. Visible unity would be a good thing, and should be worked toward, but visible unity is of the bene esse (well being) rather than the esse (being) of the Church. Furthermore, unity could best be achieved through mutual recognition and intercommunion between the branches of the Church based on the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral or something like it.

I left the Episcopal Church in the late 1970s, after the 1976 Minneapolis General Convention approved the ordination of women and adopted a new Liturgy which was a clear break with Anglican liturgical tradition and was of dubious orthodoxy. I was of the St. Louis Generation, and was ordained to the Anglican ministry in 1984. The Anglican Branch Theory was what I was taught, and what I sincerely believed in and taught to others for many years.  


In recent years a form of the Branch Theory has been taught in the Roman Catholic Church as well, but it includes just the Roman and Orthodox Churches. Although Rome accepts the Orders of the Polish National Catholic Church and even has a limited intercommunion with the PNCC, exactly where this body fits in with Roman Catholic ecclesiology has never been fully articulated. A third lung, a branch, a twig?

Pope John Paul II described the Roman and Orthodox Churches as Sister Churches and two lungs of the Body of Christ, and both Benedict XVI and Francis have continued this teaching. Roman Catholics are willing to admit Orthodox Christians to receive communion in their churches, although the Orthodox Church not only does not reciprocate, but forbids its faithful to receive Holy Communion outside of the visible Orthodox Catholic Church.


Protestantism in general does not hold any form of recognizable ecclesiology, but holds a very loose form of the Branch Theory, which can best be described as the Invisible Church Theory. By far the predominant Protestant position is that the Christian Church is made up the thirty-thousand or so divided, disagreeing and competing denominations, plus the uncountable numbers of independent, interdenominational and nondenominational congregations, as well as those who profess belief in Jesus Christ but belong to no church and have little or no interest in “organized religion.” They see the “True Church” as invisible, made up of faithful believers in all denominations or none, and known only to God. In Protestantism the visible Church is of little or no importance as each believer feels free to believe and do whatever is right in his or her own eyes. Instead of removing a pope, the Protestant Reformation made millions of them and the result has been utter chaos.


With the collapse of the Anglican Communion into apostasy, traditional Anglicans have been forced by the necessity of circumstances to revise the Branch Theory downward in a Protestant direction until there is little or no difference in practice between the current Anglican view and the Protestant Invisible Church Theory.

In the generation since the St. Louis Church Congress launched the Continuing Anglican Movement in 1977, the Anglican Continuum has continued to divide and splinter until there are now dozens of small traditional Anglican jurisdictions in North America alone. A good history of the St. Louis Continuum is found in the book Divided We Stand, A History of the Continuing Anglican Movement, by Douglas Bess (Tractarian Press, 2002). Divided We Stand is a 314 page heartbreaking history of the movement from its beginning through 2001, chronicling its infighting, power struggles, and schisms.

Tragically, in the years that have followed the history recorded in Divided We Stand things have only gotten worse. The March 2014, edition of the Anglican Way (formerly Mandate), the magazine of the traditionalist Prayer Book Society, reported that “traditional Anglican parishes in North America belong to at least 45 separate jurisdictions, which may advertise only scant intercommunion arrangements... the ever changing landscape of churches of the Anglican continuum makes tracking via the Internet the most up-to-date, if not necessarily the most reliable means of locating active 1928 and 1962 BCP parishes in North America.” 

These “45 separate jurisdictions” are for all practical purposes separate denominations. Every bishop consecrated in these groups claims to be a bishop in the “one, holy catholic and apostolic church,” but such a claim can only fit with the Protestant notion of an invisible Church. By 2014, the three branches of the Anglican Branch Theory had become 47 branches: Orthodox, Roman, and 45 separate Anglican branches.

The Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), the largest extramural Anglican body in North America, recognizes this fact in its practice. The official practice of the ACNA is to admit all “baptized Christians” regardless of what their denominational affiliation is, if any, their belief about the Eucharist, or their preparation for its reception, to receive communion. 

With the collapse and splintering of the Anglican Communion the Anglican Branch Theory has become untenable, forcing Anglicans to accept essentially an Invisible Church Theory in practice while still sometimes using the term Branch Theory, though without its original meaning. Since most of the first generation of leaders of the St. Louis Continuum have passed from the seen and a generation has come of age that never knew the Anglican Communion in the days of its (little “o”) orthodoxy or a united Continuum, this essentially Protestant ecclesiology is all that they have ever known. Since the old Anglicanism that was united in the Anglican Communion and professed to hold the Catholic Faith is gone for ever, the Anglican Branch Theory has proven itself untenable and false.


So how does the Orthodox Church view the Branch Theory? The Orthodox Church sees the Branch Theory as untenable and a heresy. 

In Orthodox theology and ecclesiology there is a unity between Christ and His Church.  There is only one Christ so there can be only one Body of Christ, of which He is the head. Orthodox theology does not teach that it is possible for the Church to be visibly divided while invisibly one. The four marks of the Church are given in the Nicene Creed: One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic, and the Orthodox Church takes these four marks seriously and literally. The Church is one on earth, and in time and eternity. 

Unity is one of the essential marks of the Church, and with Christ’s promise that the gates of hell will never prevail against His Church the Church will forever retain its essential characteristics, and will always remain visibly one. There have been and can be schisms from the Church, but no schisms within the Church. Schisms do harm the Church, but they cannot affect the nature of the Church. Like limbs broken from a tree, schisms can sometimes be re-grafted, but if too much time passes the severed limb begins to decay and die, and schism quickly begets the rot of heresy. The Church has always been, is, and always will be One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.

The Roman Catholic teaching regarding the two lungs of the Body of Christ and that there are two Sister Churches is likewise impossible according to Orthodox Christian ecclesiology. In Orthodox ecclesiology the “branches” of the Church are the local autocephalous Orthodox Churches; and if one were to talk of two lungs of the Church,  Eastern and Western, the Western lung could only be the canonical Orthodox dioceses in the West in general and the Western Rite within the Orthodox Church in particular.

Today there are Western Rite congregations and monastic communities in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and on the Continent of Europe. In North America there are Western Rite communities in the Antiochian Orthodox Church and in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (Moscow Patriarchate). It was in Antioch where the disciples were first called Christians, and the Moscow Patriarchate is by far the world's largest autocephalous Orthodox Church. In Europe there are Western Rite communities in the Russian (ROCOR), Romanian and Serbian Orthodox Churches.

Orthodox bishop, Metropolitan Kallistos (Timothy) Ware writes, “The Orthodox Church in all humility believes itself to be the ‘one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’, of which the Creed speaks: such is the fundamental conviction which guides Orthodox in their relations with other Christians. There are divisions among Christians, but the Church itself is not divided nor can it ever be” (The Orthodox Church, New Edition, c. 2015, p. 300).


In his High Priestly Prayer offered just before he began his passion, our Lord Jesus Christ prayed that his disciples would all be one. 

“Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are” (John 17:11). Continuing he prayed, “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me. Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me” (John 17:20-25).

The Apostle Paul described the Church and its Faith this way: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Eph. 4:4-6). In these three short verses St. Paul uses the word “one” seven times.

“Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe's household, that there are contentions among you.  Now I say this, that each of you says, ‘I am of Paul,’ or ‘I am of Apollos,’ or ‘I am of Cephas,’ or ‘I am of Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? ” (I Cor. 1:10-13

The belief in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church is clearly taught in the Holy Scriptures.


Extra ecclesiam nulla salus, “There is no salvation outside the Church” has been a Christian teaching from the earliest times. The fact that this truth has been all but forgotten in the West since the Western Church was splintered into so many fragments does not make it any less true. In fact, it serves as a warning to those who have lost their understanding of the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, become desensitized to the great evil of heresy and schism, comfortable with divisions among Christians, and indifferent to the vital necessity of Christian unity.

St. Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258), writing about some schismatics of his day said, "Salus extra ecclesiam non est" — "there is no salvation out of the Church"(Letter LXXII).

St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202) wrote: “One should not seek among others the truth that can be easily gotten from the Church. For in her, as in a rich treasury, the apostles have placed all that pertains to truth, so that everyone can drink this beverage of life. She is the door of life.” (Against Heresies, III.4)

St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) said, “No man can find salvation except in the Catholic Church. Outside the Catholic Church one can have everything except salvation. One can have honor, one can have the sacraments, one can sing alleluia, one can answer amen, one can have faith in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and preach it too, but never can one find salvation except in the Catholic Church.” (Sermo ad Caesariensis Ecclesia plebem).

Does this mean that all who are outside of the visible Church are lost? No, it does not. 

In his book, The Church is One, Alexei Khomiakov, the great 19th century Orthodox theologian, considered by many to be a Doctor of the Church, wrote, “Inasmuch as the earthly and visible Church is not the fulness and completeness of the whole Church which the Lord has appointed to appear at the final judgment of all creation, she acts and knows only within her own limits; and (according to the words of Paul the Apostle, to the Corinthians, I Cor. 5:12) does not judge the rest of mankind, and only looks upon those as excluded, that is to say, not belonging to her, who exclude themselves. The rest of mankind, whether alien from the Church, or united to her by ties which God has not willed to reveal to her, she leaves to the judgment of the great day. The Church on earth judges for herself only, according to the grace of the Spirit, and the freedom granted her through Christ, inviting also the rest of mankind to the unity and adoption of God in Christ; but upon those who do not hear her appeal she pronounces no sentence, knowing the command of her Saviour and Head, ‘not to judge another man’s servant’ (Rom. 14.4).”

As St. Augustine of Hippo wisely remarked: "How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within!" (Homilies on John, 45, 12). Nevertheless, the sheep who are without are bidden to come within the sheepfold so that there is one flock and one shepherd; and those who knowingly chose to remain outside for whatever reason place themselves in a very precarious position for, Extra ecclesiam nulla salus.


Non-Orthodox Christians entering the Orthodox Church need not reject any of the good things found in the Christian traditions from which they come. Becoming Orthodox does not mean rejecting the past, but embracing the fullness of the Faith. It has often been said that while Orthodox Christianity has maintained the Faith of the undivided Church, the Roman Church has added to it and the Protestants have subtracted from it. 


Roman Catholics who become Orthodox do not reject any part of genuine Catholicism, but only those innovations in faith and practice which contributed to the Great Schism, or arose in the centuries following it. Roman Catholics converting to Orthodoxy should see themselves as returning to the Church from which their ancestors were torn away without their consent by the papal schism of 1054, and as embracing genuine Catholicism - Orthodox Catholicism.


The goal of the Protestant Reformers was to reform the Western Church of the abuses  and errors that had crept in after the Great Schism of 1054. In 1519, two years after the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, in a debate with the famous papal apologist Johann Eck, Dr. Martin Luther said, “The truth lies with the Greeks” (i.e., the Orthodox).

Protestants converting to Orthodox Christianity need only embrace what Luther said in 1519: “The truth lies with the Greeks.” Protestants who become Orthodox do not so much repudiate the Reformation as complete it by returning to the Faith and Order of the undivided Church and returning to unity with the historic Church.


The English Reformation that began in 1534, was very different from that on the continent of Europe. No new Church was formed, and it was the bishops themselves that carried out the Reformation of the Church with the goal of reforming the abuses and errors that had entered the Western Church and restoring the Faith of the undivided Church. Although much good was accomplished, the English Reformation was far from perfect and mistakes were made. The goal of the Reformation was advanced by the Caroline Divines of the 17th century, the Oxford Movement and subsequent Catholic Revival of the 19th and he first half of the 20th centuries, and the St. Louis Church Congress and Continuing Anglican Movement of the latter 20th century. 

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes, “Ever since the early seventeenth century there have always been Anglicans for whom the Reformation settlement under Queen Elizabeth I represented no more than an interim arrangement, and who appealed, like the Old Catholics, to the General Councils, the Fathers, and the tradition of the undivided Church. One thinks of Bishop John Pearson (1613-1686) with his plea, ‘Search how it was in the beginning; go to the fountainhead; look to antiquity.’ Or of Bishop Thomas Ken (1637-1711), the Non-Juror, who said, ‘I die in the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Faith, professed by the whole Church, before the disunion of East and West.’ This appeal to antiquity has led many Anglicans to look with sympathy and interest in the Orthodox Church, and equally has led many Orthodox to look with interest and sympathy at Anglicanism. As a result of pioneer work by Anglicans such as William Palmer (1811-79), J.M. Neale (1818-66), and W.J. Birkbeck (1859-1916), firm bonds of Anglo-Orthodox solidarity were established by the end of the nineteenth century” (ibid, The Orthodox Church, p. 311).

“There are individual Anglicans whose faith is virtually indistinguishable from that of an Orthodox,” writes Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, “but there are others... who openly repudiate fundamental elements in the doctrinal and moral teachings of Christianity” (ibid, The Orthodox Church, p. 314). Metropolitan Kallistos Ware is speaking here of the comprehensiveness of Anglicanism which holds people of widely differing theological views together in one body. Historically it was the Liturgy that united Anglicans and kept the comprehensiveness from becoming too broad, but with the abandonment of the traditional liturgies all restraint has been removed. 

Even among self-professed traditional Anglicans a widening comprehensiveness is observed. Within the Anglican Church in North America will be found self-identifying Catholics, Calvinists and even Zwinglians; opponents of women’s ordination and bishops who ordain women; believers in seven sacraments and believers in two; adherents of traditional liturgical practices and those who could best be described as semi-liturgical. In order to hold the organization together the ACNA has adopted a novel “three streams theology” uniting Protestants, Catholics and Pentecostals in one body. How a body with such conflicting theologies and internal contradictions can be called Anglican in the historical sense of the word is anyones guess.

Much the same is true of the Anglican Continuum. There are continuing Anglicans today who are theologically far removed from the Affirmation of St. Louis which was proclaimed at the great St. Louis Church Congress in 1977. There are continuing Anglicans who believe in seven sacraments, seven Oecumenical Councils, who study and venerate the Fathers of the Church, pray for the dead and ask the intercession of the Saints. But there are other continuing Anglicans today who believe in two Sacraments, condemn belief in the intercession of the Saints and who do not pray for the dead. While the majority see Apostolic Succession as of the esse (being) of the church, a minority see it merely as of the bene esse (well being) of the Church. These conflicting view points — and there are many more — are not just found among jurisdictions, but within them. In the Anglican Continuum the Anglican Catholic Church, an Anglo-Catholic jurisdiction, is in full communion with an Evangelical Protestant jurisdiction, the United Episcopal Church. This comprehensiveness has always been the Achilles heal of Anglicanism.

In Orthodoxy the Faith of the undivided Church is not merely one of the permissible options. It is simply De Fide. There is no doctrinal “comprehensiveness” in Orthodoxy, no “via media,” only “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).   

Speaking of the Anglican-Russian Orthodox Theological Conference in Moscow in 1956, Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey reported that the Orthodox said in effect, “The Tradition is a concrete fact. There it is in its totality. Do you Anglicans accept it or do you reject it?”

Many Anglicans have come to see The Tradition as a concrete fact, have embraced it in its totality, and have entered the Orthodox Church. Today, Anglicans make up the largest single group of converts to the Orthodox Church. Archpriest Josiah Trenham, a convert to the Orthodox Church from Anglicanism and a former clergyman of the Reformed Episcopal Church writes, “It is my estimate that there is no heterodox body in America from which more Orthodox clergy have come than the Anglican Communion. The number of Orthodox priests in this country [the USA] that were previously Episcopal clergy is certainly in the hundreds” (Rock and Sand, by Archpriest Josiah Trenham, Newrome Press, c. 2015, p. 193).

Orthodox priests who were formerly Anglicans can be found everywhere. In my own community of Omaha, Nebraska, there are nine Orthodox priests. Of the nine, six are converts; and of the six, five are former Anglicans. When I am asked, “Where have all of the traditional Anglicans gone?” My answer is always the same, “To the Orthodox Church!” In the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) alone, there are two bishops who are former Anglicans, as well as one bishop who is a former Roman Catholic.


The Orthodox Church is nothing of the ethnic, closed society that some mistakenly think it is. In fact, the Orthodox Church is far more diverse ethnically than Anglicanism or Lutheranism among others. Orthodox Christians come from every race, nation and ethnicity on earth. My own parish is white and black; European, Middle Eastern and African, native born and foreign born. 

The Orthodox Church is both Eastern and Western in culture and liturgy. While predominantly Eastern, the number of Western Rite congregations and monastic communities is growing. St. Tikhon of Moscow - the good friend of Anglican Bishop Charles Grafton of Fon du Lac, and St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, are the patrons of the Orthodox Western Rite. It was St. John who said, “Never, never, never let anyone tell you that, in order to be Orthodox you must be Eastern. The West was fully Orthodox or a thousand years.” 

While Anglicans now make up the largest single group of converts to the Orthodox Church in the United States there are also large numbers of Roman Catholics and Protestants who have come home. There are Orthodox priests who are former Roman Catholics, as well as priests who have come home to Orthodoxy from virtually every Protestant tradition. Everyone is welcome. 

The Orthodox Church is growing so rapidly that in many places it has become a Church of converts. In America, 23% — about one in four - Orthodox Christians are converts, as are 30% of the clergy and 43% of seminarians. Hardly an ethnic ghetto!


The Branch Theory? Don’t bet your eternal life on a mere theory, especially one that has proven itself to be untenable.

All Christians are invited to come home again, both laity and clergy. The door is open and the welcome mat is out. You will be treated with love and dignity, and welcomed with joy. What is required is accepting the Deposit of Faith without addition, diminution or change. As St. Mark of Ephesus said, “There can be no compromise in matters of the Orthodox Faith.” The gifts, talents and training of non-Orthodox clergy who become Orthodox are valued, and large numbers of former non-Orthodox clergy are now serving as Orthodox clergy. I am one of them. 

There is a place for everyone. Come and see. The Orthodox Church welcomes you!