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Rome, Ecclesiological Realism, and the Voice of the Church

By Fr. Mark Perkins

Dear _____,

Apologies for how slow I’ve been in answering your excellent questions on the unity of the Church and her living voice! I knew a short answer would not suffice.

Let me start by saying that I do not care for the term “branch theory” — not because the underlying claim is wrong, but because the metaphor can be misleading. A healthy tree has branches, just as a healthy Church has a diversity of local traditions. But the “branches” of branch theory refer not to diverse traditions as such but rather to jurisdictions in broken or impaired intercommunion. A healthy Church would not have these kinds of “branches.”

But we do, and so I prefer to speak of “ecclesiological realism” (a phrase coined, so far as I know, by Fr. Wesley Walker). The reality is that the various instantations of Christ’s One True Church are not in communion. Roman and Eastern attempts to resolve that by dechurching everyone else are insupportable and sometimes ridiculous. I recommend E. L. Mascall’s discussion of the unity of the Church in Corpus Christi. He begins by assuming, based on the Creed and the Scriptures (e.g. John 17 & Ephesians 4) that the Church is ontologically and ultimately One. Yet she does not, at a glance, appear to be One, so how can she be? The source of her unity is of course Jesus Christ, but how is it manifested in the life of the Church?

The Roman Catholic answer is that Peter is the instrument of unity — we are in union with the Church if we are in union with Peter. But this is a strange claim, because Peter — while foremost among the apostles — has no sacramental office other than apostle. His supremacy, such as it is, is jurisdictional and administrative and practical, not sacramental. The election and elevation of a pope is an act of ecclesiastical politics not sacramentology. The making of a pope is not a sacrament. And if the Church is indeed a sacramental organism, then her instrument of unity must be a sacramental organ. Hence, to say that the union of the Church consists in submission to Peter is to misunderstand the nature of the Church.

(I am rather less familiar with Eastern claims. My sense is that they are less developed, less uniform, and a bit more vague — but I do not see how the East can escape the same dilemma if she identifies the organ of unity as anything other than a sacrament — for instance, submission to or union with an ancient See).

The sacraments effect our unity with one another. Baptism grafts us into the Church; the Eucharist maintains and deepens our unity. Mascall, however, identifies Holy Orders and specifically the episcopacy as the practical, sacramental instrument of unity — because all of the sacraments, save baptism, depend upon apostolic hands for their validity; because the episcopacy inherited the authoritative witness of the apostles and bears the same burden of apostolic collegiality and union; because confirmation puts us into a concrete relation with an episcopal father-in-God and, through him, with the Church down the ages all the way back to the apostles. The bishops are, as it were, the vascular or circulatory system of the Church, bringing the sacramental life of Christ to the various instantiations of the Body and, in their office, expressing the visible unity of the Church.

With this in mind, we can redeem branch theory — so long as we do not view it as a justification for disunity but rather a description of the true, though hidden, unity of the Church. The various jurisdictions of the Church are One, and bishops in apostolic succession constitute the circulatory system carrying the sacramental life of the “vine,” Christ, to the branches.

Of course, when bishops are not in universal communion, that unity is impaired. We could pretend that the unity therefore does not in fact exist, as do many Protestants and many Anglicans. Or we could turn to alternative, non-sacramental, supposed instruments of unity to explain why the Church is in fact unified — and those other jurisdictions are simply not in the Church. But ecclesiological realism demands that we reject these pretenses. The unity of the Church remains an ontological fact — all bishops truly are united ultimately — but this unity is nevertheless impaired experientially or existentially.

This is quite similar, in my mind, to the problem of a baptized Christian living in apostasy or even just habitual sin. That person is, in ontological fact, a Christian. Nothing he does can undo his baptism, which is why we never re-baptize — but he is not living out the truth of his baptism. The Church has not fully lived out the truth of her unity since A.D. 1054 (at latest), but that is no reason to pretend her unity doesn’t exist, or to come up with some arbitrary rationale to dechurch either East or West (your Roman Catholic friend can only succeed in converting you if he dechurches the entire East along with Anglicans) — anymore than the practical apostasy of baptized Christians undoes the reality of baptism. (Nor, for that matter, do I find Roman or Eastern claims of internal unity particularly persuasive, given the extreme state of disunity and chaos which characterizes all Christian traditions, very much including Rome and the East.)

Your friend suggests that Anglicans have “no living voice of the church which possesses the power to bind and loose authoritatively,” whereas the East and Rome have grounds to claim that “the living voice of the church can, and at times still does speak authoritatively.” But the claim to speak dogmatically for the whole Church only matters if the voice in question does in fact speak for the whole Church — and I view Roman claims to that effect as purely fantastic.

In Roman, Orthodox, and Anglo-Catholic theology, the Church retains the power (potentia, potentiality) to speak ecumenically. Neither the frequency with which she does so, nor the likelihood of her doing so in the near future, has anything whatsoever to do with the existence of that power. A woman who does not get pregnant retains the potential for motherhood. Even if she becomes infertile through age, act, or accident, she remains a potential mother by her very nature, the same as every other woman and girl on the planet.

The question, in other words, is not “Does the Church have, by her nature, the power to speak ecumenically?” She does, no less in the Anglican view than in the Roman. Rather, the question is, “How does the Church exercise her power to speak ecumenically?” The Roman view makes the exercise of (supposed) dogmatic authority easier to accomplish, but that is entirely irrelevant to the legitimacy or coherence of the claim. To speak ecumenically requires an ecumenical voice. The Church’s practical inability to speak with such a voice at the moment is simply a regrettable fact, and attempts to imagine otherwise are only so much whistling in the wind.

It seems to me, moreover, that your friend has a superficial understanding of authority and obedience. For one thing, the power to bind and to loose is most literally and concretely the authority to absolve sins in confession. And, when it comes to this most consequential expression of that power, a freshly minted, validly ordained junior priest in the smallest parish of the saddest diocese of the unhealthiest jurisdiction of Christ’s Church is exactly as authoritative as Pope Francis.

As you note, “our bishops can guide and speak with authority.” That is quite right, and the bishop’s authority does not in any way require him to be infallible. The godly counsel and admonition of a bishop needn’t be dogmatic in order for it to be authoritative. In fact, your Roman Catholic friend seems to be falling into a very different version of the same error made by River Devereux in the recent conversation about ecumenical authority and images. In my view, Mr. Devereux’s perspective makes obedience to legitimate authority depend upon our agreement with that authority. Likewise, your Roman friend seems to think that obedience to authority depends upon the infallibility of the authority.

But that’s not how authority works (as I argued in my final entry in conversation with Mr. Devereux). The living voice of the Church is expressed with final authority in every priestly absolution and indeed in every sacrament, in every public proclamation of Scripture, and every time the Creed is recited. The living voice of the Church is heard, in a derivative and non-infallible but nonetheless authoritative way, every time a bishop or priest exercises his legitimate spiritual authority in diocese or parish. These, and not ecumenical pronouncement, constitute the normal means through which the living voice of the Church is heard in every jurisdiction, Rome included.

I have to wonder what is really missing from that picture — what pressing need is being filled by the ease of making ongoing dogmatic declarations. The East, for instance, may theoretically claim a power to speak ecumenically, absent Roman or Anglican participation, but she is not going to be able to do so in her current state of division, nor has she done so in a thousand years.

Your friend’s claims remind me of a conversation I had some years back with Bill Witt (author of Icons of Christ, reviewed here) over women’s ordination. I told him that I did not understand how anyone with a robust ecclesiology could justify making such a radical change, absent ecumenical consensus. He said something to the effect that the Church will never progress if we have to wait for ecumenical consensus. This was in a class, and the conversation moved on, but I remember thinking incredulously, “Progress where?” Where are we trying to go? And what are we trying to get away from?

If I were dissatisfied with the Church’s doctrine and discipline as we have received it — if I wanted to innovate, as do those who presume to ordain women — then, yes, the unlikelihood of an Ecumenical Council occurring anytime soon would be a terrible problem. Sure, it might be convenient for an Ecumenical Council to make a final declaration on issues like women’s ordination or same-sex marriage, but it is only necessary if the Church’s historic practices or teachings are deemed insufficient.

By no means do I think that all of Rome’s post-1054 “Ecumenical Councils” were errant in their conclusions, nor must Anglicans disagree with the papacy’s ex cathedra declarations in the past century or so. But I do not think that making these theological conclusions dogmatically binding has been a boon to the Church. It seems to me that Rome’s extra dogmas have only deepened the existential and experiential disunity of the Church — the Church’s scandalous failure to live up to her ontological unity.

I began by apologizing for my lateness. Now I better apologize for my verbosity. Thanks again for writing.


Fr. Mark Perkins

Fr. Mark Perkins is Curate at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida and Executive Editor of Earth & Altar.


Matthew Gray
Matthew Gray
Dec 01, 2022

"I am rather less familiar with Eastern claims. My sense is that they are less developed, less uniform, and a bit more vague — but I do not see how the East can escape the same dilemma if she identifies the organ of unity as anything other than a sacrament — for instance, submission to or union with an ancient See"

The Eastern Orthodox churches do place their unity on the Eucharist. It is a sacramental unity. You can find it in many many writings of both ancient and modern treatises. That is our unity. If we commune together then everything else falls into place and is assumed shared(traditions, councils, synodal decisions, hymnography etc.)


Oct 30, 2022

I am not deeply steeped in either theology or church history, but it seems to me that Christians are now living through a period similar to that of the Arian Heresy, when some church leaders denied the divinity of Christ, just as others today argue for recognition of same-sex marriage and women's ordination. Athanasius of Alexandria (also known as 'Athanasius Against the World), fought against the Arian heresy and finally brought the church back to its true faith, though the controversy raged for over 50 years.

It's striking to me how much Archbishop Justin Welby's campaign to "unify" and "reconcile" the factions of the present Anglican Communion resembles Emperor Constantine's efforts to force unity on Arian and Athanasian factions, not…


Gene Godbold
Gene Godbold
Oct 27, 2022

Anybody at ease with the 19th century infallibility claims of the Roman Pontiff should peruse Gertrude Himmelfarb's book on Lord Acton:

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