Dispensing With the Branch Theory

With all the hiccups, mistranslations and confusion surrounding the three bishops in the ACA who've chosen not to accept Anglicanorum Coetibus for themselves, as well as many other bishops of the "high-church" sort in other Anglican jurisdictions, there is one common thread among all of them theologically speaking: the Branch Theory.  I've noticed traces and hints of it in all of the various statements by clergy, parishes and bishops who've rejected it, but nothing quite as clear as Bishop Strawn's latest piece.  There understandably is a lot of finger pointing and blame going on right now as many people feel betrayed or lost. As much as I disagree with the actions of the three bishops, I think it is best that we keep cool heads and pray for them and let them know that if they change their minds and want to enter into the Catholic Church later, we will be as friends waiting with open arms to support and help them in their transition. It breaks my heart to see these decisions being made, but it equally breaks my heart to read some of the venom being said about these men. Let us pray for them and befriend them.

One of the ways I have tried to understand their rationale is from a theological perspective. One thing stuck out very clearly to me: those who are eager, excited, and optimistic about a future in the Anglican Ordinariates have dispensed with the Branch Theory.  Those who are hesitant or who are outright opposed have not.  This is strikingly evident in the two prevailing interpretations of the Portsmouth Statement (from which Bp Strawn quotes selections) and Anglicanorum Coetibus and its Complementary Norms.  Those who still hold to some form of Branch Theory interpret it as Bishop Strawn did.  Those who have rejected the Branch Theory interpret these documents understanding that there is no separating submission to the See of Peter from being in communion with the See of Peter.  Thus key words and phrases like "absorption," "in communion," "Catholic," "Roman Catholic," etc., mean different things to the two parties.

For instance, when Bishop Strawn discusses Anglicanorum Coetibus' use of the term "Catholic Church" he believes it to mean "Roman Catholic Church."  Is he correct?  Yes and no.  Yes, he is correct in the sense that no other Church has the fullness of the Catholic faith and that is centered in the chief See of Peter (Rome).  But where he is incorrect is that there are other churches and sees in communion with Rome who are not "Roman" liturgically. Other rites. But since he holds the Branch Theory to be true, he sees all these other rites--since they are in communion with Rome--as still Roman Catholic, and sees himself and presumably the Orthodox as being equally Catholic just not being in communion with Rome.  So from his perspective, unity is good and proper, but not of the esse of the Church.  However, from the Catholic perspective, it is.  And the Orthodox have a similar ecclesiology, though for them Rome has erred in some serious ways and so that See and those sees with her must repent to come into communion with those Orthodox sees who have not.  Either way, the Orthodox and Catholics take schism very seriously as a breach of catholicity.  The Branch Theory simply does not adequately account for schism.

Ironically, the Branch Theory is supported by its advocates by the Vincentian Canon. St Vincent of Lerins in 434 A.D. wrote in his Commitorium,
Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all. That is truly and properly 'Catholic,' as is shown by the very force and meaning of the word, which comprehends everything almost universally. We shall hold to this rule if we follow universality [i.e. oecumenicity], antiquity, and consent. We shall follow universality if we acknowledge that one Faith to be true which the whole Church throughout the world confesses. [Emphasis added upon the key line used for support]
But it must be realized that St. Vincent of Lerins did not use this to support sees and groups of Christians who are separated from the Apostolic sees, Rome being chief among them. He was writing in a time when the Church was united. What the supporters of the Branch Theory refuse to acknowledge is that the Church, sacramentally and juridically speaking, still is united today, and that they are outside of it.  So, in reality, the Vincentian Canon is also supported by the Branch Theory.  The logic is a vicious circle.  It is, in reality, based on an assumption of it being true.  Further evidence to support it being circular logic comes when a Branch Theorist is asked how they determine what exactly "has been believed everywhere, always and by all."  They almost invariably appeal to what both East (the Orthodox) and West (Catholics) agree upon, as the "Roman Church" (as they tend to refer to the Catholic Church, the implication being that the Anglican Church is another equal alongside her) has recognized dogmas unlawfully due to the Great Schism from the East.  This sounds nice at first glance, however things get sticky when Branch Theorists are informed that the East and West, while disagreeing on those later dogmas, do agree that the Branch Theory is false and that Anglicans are not a part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.  This forces a choice: either dispense with the Branch Theory or dig in further to insist that it's still true even though the others might not realize it (yet?).

Anglicanorum Coetibus.  This was not a response chiefly to those within the Church of England any more than it was to the request by the Traditional Anglican Communion bishops at Portsmouth.  It is to bring all of us back home into the fold of the Catholic Church.

Yes, we will be Roman Catholics in the sense that we will be in communion with Rome.  Yes, we will be Roman Catholics in the sense that Anglicans have a particular Use of the Roman Rite, not a separate Rite altogether.  But no, we won't be Roman Catholics in the sense that we will have to give up our Anglican identity and patrimony, just as the Byzantine Rite Catholics are not Roman Catholics.

But like the Byzantine Catholics had to dispense with their former ecclesiological theory developed by Orthodox theologians after the Great Schism, Anglicans must also dispense with the Branch Theory which William Palmer developed in 1839 to justify a non-papal Anglo-Catholicism.


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