Where Anglicanism sits in the relationship between Catholic and Protestant Christianity is a matter of endless conversation and myriad opinions. I am among those Anglicans who identify as a Catholic, full stop. No hyphens or asterisks or footnotes or any other qualifiers. But I am not utterly without sympathy for the insights of the Reformation. Having been reared in free-church evangelicalism, and come to Anglicanism (via the Episcopal Church) as a young adult nearly five decades ago, this is not an abstraction for me. When I came under the hands of the Bishop of Los Angeles in confirmation in 1975, I did not feel myself to be eschewing my ecclesial heritage so much as subsuming it into something much larger.
It’s been said that Christians should pray as if everything depends on God and work as if everything depends on us. At the risk of gross oversimplification to the point of caricature, this may actually be a helpful handle by which to grasp how the Catholic and Reformed strands of Christian thought and practice are mutually illuminating.
In my Baptist youth, I cut my theological teeth on such snippets of scripture as Romans 5:8 (“But God commendeth his love toward us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”), and Ephesians 2:8-9 (“For by grace are ye saved, and this is not of yourselves; it is the gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast”), and 1 John 1:9 (“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”), and Titus 3:5 (“Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost”). These quotations are all in the King James Version, which, in these latter days, is a translation I look at so rarely that it seems exotic to my eyes and ears. Yet, that’s how I originally committed these passages to memory, and that’s how they remain in my brain!
I eventually came to see, of course, that my early experience of Scripture was highly curated. Verses like these are marshaled to support a Reformation-driven polemical narrative that eschews the sort of “works righteousness” that various reformers accused the Roman Catholic Church of embracing. This corresponds to the “it all depends on God” end of the dichotomy in the saying quoted above. Whether one paints with a Calvinist brush (“a sovereign and gracious God elects those who will be saved and then sees to their salvation”) or an Arminian one (“God in Christ will reach out and rescue any soul who turns to him in faith”), the emphasis is on God’s initiative and action. Those who are saved contribute nothing to their salvation but the sin that makes it necessary.
Of course, a richer and more nuanced view exists. Pushing back on the caricature label of “works righteousness,” the Catholic tradition doesn’t so much offer a different answer as ask a different question, a larger question. Instead of “What must I do to be saved?” (as the Philippian jailer queried Paul and Silas in Acts 16), it asks, “What kind of person do I need to become in order to look on God and not be pulverized?” The answer is simple: A holy person. A person who looks like Jesus.
This is what underlies the panoply of Catholic ascetical practices: in Anglican terms — Eucharist on Sundays and Holy Days, daily Morning and Evening Prayer, a habit of recollective prayer throughout the day, self-examination and sacramental confession, corporal and spiritual works of mercy, almsgiving, fasting. By the daily discipline of such practices, we offer our souls to God to become his “workmanship” (per Ephesians 2:10), to be transformed — gradually, over a lifetime — into the likeness and character of Christ. We engage these practices, in faith, yet “as if it all depends on us.”
In a small way, I have experienced this. While I would make no claim to anything resembling saintliness, after 45 years of regularly praying all 150 Psalms as they are found in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, I have discovered that they have wormed their way into my heart such that, in times of stress and crisis, they come to me spontaneously. This does not make the Holy Spirit any more or less sovereign and free. Rather, my practice has created a runway on which the Holy Spirit can land in my soul and minister to me effectively.
So, as a matter of personal experience, I am an evangelist for, in Martin Thornton’s language, “Christian proficiency.” “Practice” is an eminently helpful notion. I am grateful beyond telling to the Catholic spiritual tradition for the tools it has made available to me for the perfection of my holiness, for setting me on the path that will culminate, I pray, in the Beatific Vision, the unfiltered presence of God.
Yet, my evangelical roots do tug at me at certain times. There are moments when the best I can do is, well, the best I can do. A few months ago, I was in a particularly vulnerable state, and a YouTube video of a choir singing the old Methodist hymn “I need thee every hour” melted me to tears. It’s not any sort of profound poetry or theology, and the tune is not that great, but it was just so existentially true for me in that moment. I do, indeed, “need thee every hour.” From the classic (Calvinist Anglican) evangelical hymn “Rock of Ages”: “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.” Or, I could adduce “Leaning on the everlasting arms” or “Jesus, I am resting, resting in the joy of what thou art.”
Yes, that’s it — resting. For as long as I’ve been making my confession as an act of spiritual discipline, I can’t deny that the same sins keep coming up. Am I making no progress? Will my time in purgatory be a long one? (Did I mention I’m a Catholic, full stop?) What of those mornings when the lure of a cup of hot tea and my recliner and Facebook (of all things!) distracts me from my wonted daily office and round of intercessions? What if I fail in my “practice”? That’s when there’s nothing so soothing as being able to rest in God’s love, in knowing that “it’s all up to God.”
And the material that I encounter in my practice actually supports me in this confidence! This past Advent, I was gripped in a fresh way by how our prayer book tradition puts the onus on God: We are not able to “cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” unless God is first there to “give us grace.” Grace is similarly necessary for us to heed the warnings of the prophets and “forsake our sins” (Advent II). We are, in fact, “sorely hindered by our sins” and rely utterly on God’s “bountiful grace and mercy” for speedy help and deliverance (Advent III). Yes, we need desperately to repent, yet the ability to do so is beyond our reach.
I’ve known this my whole life, but this particular trip through the liturgical calendar is making it fresh for me. And it continues now in Lent: “Create and make in us new and contrite hearts.” I cannot confect my own contrition. It has to be a creative act of God. We prayed on the First Sunday in Lent that God would “come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations” and be “mighty to save” each of us in our unique weaknesses. The line from the hymn “Come, thou fount …”: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it” echoes the petition from the collect for Lent II: “Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith …” Lent III drives the point home: ” … you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.”
I shall continue the practices that have sustained me over virtually my whole adult life. They are balm to my soul. They will help make me a saint. The Catholic vision of actual sanctification, not mere forensic justification, is bracing and appealing and motivating. It banishes complacency of the sort that can lead quite easily to the deadly sin of sloth. But in so doing I will ever remember to rest in what the grace of God accomplishes on my behalf even without my knowing it. “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.”
The Rt. Rev. Daniel Martins is the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Springfield.