This is the concluding part of a paper delivered at the conference “Anglo-Catholicism: Uncovering Roots,” Church of the Advent, Boston, November 15-16. Part one is here.

III. Francis à Sancta Clara:
The “Anglican Catholic” Case for the Episcopacy in the 17th Century

Having unearthed both the Cyprianic and Augustinian principles at work in the Anglican Catholic case for the episcopacy in the 20th century, how is one to adjudicate between these twin impulses? The path that I have proposed in this paper is to dig deeper along the rootline of the tradition and recover a relatively understudied figure who is both an Anglican and a Catholic: the English convert to Roman Catholicism, Francis à Sancta Clara. As Anne Ashley Davenport writes in her delightfully titled recent study, Suspicious Moderate, Francis à Sancta Clara was “born into a Protestant family of Coventry … attended Oxford from 1613 to 1615, then converted to Roman Catholicism, ran off to the English College of Douay, and joined the Franciscan Order in 1617.”[15] Despite his conversion, Sancta Clara remained closely connected to many of the major players during the upheavals and transformation of Anglicanism during the 17th century. A half-brother of John Davenport, the founder of New Haven, Connecticut,[16] Sancta Clara had familial ties with the dissenters in the American colonies to complicate his new allegiance with the Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps because of this diverse web of personal connections, Sancta Clara emerges as a champion of neither the Jesuits nor the Puritans, decrying both the extremes of Protestant “anarchy” on the one hand and “Anglo-Papalism” on the other.

The work of Sancta Clara’s that most interests us is his Apologia episcoporum, or “A Defense of Bishops.” It was composed while Sancta Clara had regular contact with Archbishop William Laud. Anne Davenport’s introduction to the work merits quoting at some length:


There is a hidden grit to Sancta Clara’s Apologia episcoporum. Dedicated to all Christian bishops—“to the illustrious and most revered fathers of the world’s Christian episcopacy”—rather than to the Roman Catholic hierarchy as such, Sancta Clara’s treatise attempts to refute “new voices” that reduce the episcopal status down to the level of the presbytery and thus “destroy the sublimity of bishops.”[17]

I have not had time to read Sancta Clara’s Apologia in the original Latin, nor do I have the space to walk through its entire argument. Those interested in Sancta Clara’s treatise, his other works, and his life are commended to peruse Anne Davenport’s book. In what follows, I draw on Davenport’s ninth chapter, highlighting those aspects of Sancta Clara’s apology that map most closely onto the defenses of Ramsey and O’Donovan.

The first point that deserves to be made is that Sancta Clara’s defense of bishops stems not from an impulse to defend all hierarchies, but from the conviction that Presbyterianism results “not in some new state of freedom in which individuals are empowered to flourish according to their own conscience. Rather, the result is a far more rigid authoritarian control wielded by an opinionated faction of sectarians.”[18] It is a liberal rather than a conservative instinct that Sancta Clara embraces in his apology. Relatedly, Sancta Clara suggests that only an episcopacy independent from the papacy can actually support the primacy of the latter. As evidence, Sancta Clara adduces the Council of Arles in 314.[19]

As to Sancta Clara’s views of the episcopacy, we find him at times aligning more closely with the posture of O’Donovan, and at other times even more closely with that of Ramsey. Sancta Clara begins by admitting the ambiguity of the term episcopus. As Davenport writes, “the term … does not tell us how episcopacy was instituted, by whom, or with what jurisdiction.”[20] Sancta Clara further admits that the origin of the mandate for bishops does not unambiguously arise from Scripture, nor is its divine origin universally held by the church fathers (St. Jerome is a major dissenter).[21] On the other hand, Sancta Clara notes that Cyprian, Augustine, and the Revelation of St. John all attest to a mandate for bishops jure divino.[22] In light of such conflicting evidence, Sancta Clara’s defense of bishops is strikingly moderate. In the words of Davenport: “Sancta Clara interprets Trent (session 23, canon 7) to tolerate the opinion that episcopacy is not jure divino as long as the opposite view is not excluded.”

Several features of Sancta Clara’s analysis here echo of O’Donovan’s judgments. First, like O’Donovan and to a certain degree contrary to Ramsey in The Gospel and the Catholic Church, Sancta Clara admits that Scripture is not clear about precisely what form the episcopacy should take. Unlike Ramsey, who wishes to construct a kind of scriptural mandate in his synthesis of the evangelical and Anglo-Catholic theologies, Sancta Clara, like O’Donovan, admits the need to reckon with something like the development of doctrine as well as the ability of human custom to form the Church. So long as papalism and Erastianism are excluded, Sancta Clara like O’Donovan holds that a number of forms or conceptions of the episcopacy would be tolerable and conform with the gospel.[23]

Despite this Augustinian Catholic “flexibility,”[24] Sancta Clara does not eschew the opportunity to indicate his personal position (ut mihi videtur) on bishops, which he holds “piously” if not “firmly.”[25] Sancta Clara follows Duns Scotus in understanding the episcopacy as “a special degree of the priesthood” that is “more probably of divine origin.”[26] Above all, Sancta Clara’s positive views about the episcopate are shaped by Cyprian, for whom there exists “a single episcopacy that belongs wholly and firmly to each bishop.”[27] “Implicitly,” Davenport argues, according to Sancta Clara, “English bishops such as Laud, Cosin, Potter, and Montagu are also free to affirm jure divino episcopacy” in defense of their own orders.[28] Here, the Cyprianic model of the episcopate is constructively coordinated with the Augustinian one.

IV. Two Case Studies and a Constructive Suggestion

There are a number of additional questions that we might take up with interest if time were to permit, such as Sancta Clara’s construction of the relationship between bishops and the temporal state, his thoughts on the possibility of women bishops, as well as his typically moderate assessment of the Calvinist position that the laity should have a role in episcopal elections.[29] At present, however, it must suffice to say that in Sancta Clara’s Apologia we find elements of both Ramsey’s Cyprianic and O’Donovan’s Augustinian ecclesiologies at work, in a bid to defend both “Catholic truth and catholic flexibility” simultaneously. Perhaps the most basic counsel to be drawn from this 17th-century reconsideration of our two 20th-century theologians is that Anglican Catholicism must continue to “breathe with both lungs,” the Augustinian and Cyprianic, when it comes to the matter of developments in the episcopate. As evidence of this, I wish to offer in this final section two case studies of how such a coordination of the Augustinian and Cyprianic ecclesiologies has been invoked in more contemporary Anglican disputes. I will conclude with a constructive proposal regarding the future of the episcopacy within Anglicanism.

First, it was just such an Augustinian-Cyprianic polarity that one of our own current Episcopal Church bishops, John C. Bauerschmidt of the Diocese of Tennessee, saw operative in the Report of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Communion and Women in the Episcopate, written in response to the consecration of Barbara Harris in the Diocese of Massachusetts in 1989. In his 1991 article “Cyprian, Augustine, and the Pars Domini: Reflections on the Eames Commission and the Fort Worth Synod,” Bauerschmidt notes that the commission explicitly quotes Cyprian in its call to Anglican Communion bishops to live with disagreement on the issue of women’s consecration to the episcopacy. The irony, according to Bauerschmidt, is that Cyprian believed “that neither baptism nor the gift of the Holy Spirit can be given outside the Church through the laying on of schismatic hands.”[30] The consecration of women to the episcopate is not, in a Cyprianic lens, a matter of mere custom but of the grace of the Holy Spirit. Were the Eames Commission to seek more than a “prooftext” for its position, Bauerschmidt suggests, it ought instead to have looked to Augustine’s more flexible understanding of the work of the Spirit — catholicity as O’Donovan defines it pneumatologically rather than strictly in terms of order.

In fact, Bauerschmidt concludes, the Church ought to continue to draw on both Cyprian and Augustine. There is space, in Cyprian’s ecclesiology, to “live with ambiguity over an essential mystery of faith.” Turning then to Augustine, Bauerschmidt consigns the conveners of the Fort Worth Synod — those who immediately declared their broken communion with Barbara Harris and threatened to set up alternative altars without diocesan consent — to the position of Donatists redivivi, guilty of violating the Church’s fundamental law of charity. He also reminds us that Catholics, in their reactions to the Donatists, “were the innovators, breaking new ground in adjusting the legacy of Cyprian.”[31]

One does well to remember that neo-Donatism is evident not only in ultra-conservative circles, but also among progressives. As a second case study, one may recall that many of the strongest voices opposing the Anglican Covenant and its clarification of episcopal order in the Instruments of Communion objected on the grounds that the Covenant represented an “innovation” and that Anglicanism had never looked like this before. One hears in these arguments a kind of Donatist discourse not wholly dissimilar from that of the Fort Worth synod, one grounded in an unwillingness even to entertain whether the Spirit might be leading the Church beyond its current order.

An important conclusion to be drawn from these two case studies is that Augustine’s ecclesiology favors a priori neither the contemporary right or left. Nevertheless, the call to retrieve Augustine as well as Cyprian need not be heard as a counsel of ecclesiological relativism. As Bauerschmidt reminds us, Augustine is the champion of “truth over custom”; but sometimes custom has truth. Every innovation beyond the sealed order must be tested in the process of conciliar reception.

In keeping with this Augustinian principle, I would like to suggest an innovation that the House of Bishops or various elective subgroups of bishops in the Episcopal Church might consider. It has long been known that the presiding bishop’s status as a domestic metropolitan is something of a “common law” accident, retrospectively recognized rather than intentionally designed. Recent complexities within the Episcopal Church have demonstrated that a single metropolitan, while perhaps helpful at the international level, is ill-equipped for governing a territory as large as the United States, not to mention the international churches under the Episcopal Church’s umbrella. I wonder what would happen if various groups of American bishops, with their standing committees consenting, elected among themselves, on a rotating democratic basis, a metropolitan bishop who might serve as a stronger symbol of their shared values as a smaller unit? As York is to Canterbury, so might these metropolitan(s) speak with a kind of secundus inter pares authority, even if they possessed no new juridical status at General Convention. Such groupings could be geographical, but would not need to be. For example, the Communion Partner dioceses might decide to organize under a single metropolitan. In the latter case, theological blocks of dioceses might band together for the sake of clarifying their witness to a given form of order. This kind of episcopal ordering would also allow larger and smaller dioceses committed to similar forms of order to support each other financially and with other charisms.

I end with this constructive suggestion because, however one thinks about the “historic episcopate,” whether as Cyprian or as Augustine, its role in the church remains for the present, not the past. The deep roots of Anglican Catholicism draw upon the wellspring of the Apostolic and episcopal ministries. May God guide our bishops and reveal their right order, and may the episcopate continue to seal and guard both the Anglican Communion and the Church Catholic.


[15] Anne Ashley Davenport, Suspicious Moderate: The Life and Writings of Francis à Sancta Clara (1598–1660), ed. Danielle M. Peters (University of Notre Dame Press, 2017), p. ix.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Suspicious Moderate, p. 214.

[18] Suspicious Moderate, p. 217.

[19] Suspicious Moderate, p. 222. The First Council of Arles was convened by Constantine I to deal, among other things, with the Donatist controversy.

[20] Suspicious Moderate, p. 221.

[21] Suspicious Moderate, p. 227.

[22] Suspicious Moderate, p. 223.

[23] For more on Sancta Clara’s Christian skepticism, see Davenport, Suspicious Moderate, p. 227, which quotes Sancta Clara on the episcopacy: “Thus among opinions, we must concede that some will remain probable forever and never reach the level of faith.”

[24] Throughout this chapter, Davenport traces the way Sancta Clara “discusses the general problem of how to preserve both (immutable) Catholic truth and Catholic flexibility” (Suspicious Moderate, p. 225).

[25] Suspicious Moderate, p. 226.

[26] Suspicious Moderate, pp. 222, 226.

[27] Suspicious Moderate, p. 240; see also p. 216.

[28] Suspicious Moderate, pp. 227, 245.

[29] Suspicious Moderate, p. 245.

[30] John C. Bauerschmidt, “Cyprian, Augustine, and the Pars Donati: Reflections on the Eames Commission and the Fort Worth Synod,” Saint Luke’s Journal of Theology 34 (1991): p. 1–16, esp. p. 3.

[31] “Cyprian, Augustine, and the Pars Donati,” p. 15.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Michael Cover is associate professor of theology at Marquette University. A graduate of Harvard, Yale, and the University of Notre Dame, he was ordained a priest in the Diocese of Dallas in 2010, and has served in multiple parishes in Indiana and Wisconsin.

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One Response

  1. John Bauerschmidt

    Thanks Michael for referring to this article, the fruit of a lot of reading of Augustine back when I was a doctoral student, working on a wholly different topic. Augustine led me to Cyprian, and that led to the article. You’ve done a wonderful job of making my work more intelligible. What allowed Cyprian to tolerate differences in practice was his robust doctrine of the church held together by the episcopate. This in turn created vulnerabilities for his position when the integrity of the episcopate was threatened by compromise. The Donatists were holding to this part of his legacy. Cyprian, viewed from one angle, looks like a “liberal,” but from another like a rigorist. Augustine is reclaiming the Cyprian who holds to unity, to the “ecclesiam transmarinam” (as Augustine at one point calls that body he elsewhere simply calls the “catholica”), giving charity the priority over the rigorist part of the Cyprianic legacy. I cannot account for Ramsay’s characterization of either Cyprian or Augustine in this instance: it seems off base to me. Thanks again for giving North African ecclesiology prominence in your paper: it’s important for Anglicans!


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