The Epistle. 2 Corinthians III. 4.
Such trust we have through Christ to God-ward: not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not steadfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away: how shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious? For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory.
I sometimes find it ironic that there are so many similarities between the experience of the early Church and what we Christians encounter more than two thousand years later on almost a daily basis. Through the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles, we see how the early Christians had so many things to work out. Where they still Jews? Should they require Gentile converts to be circumcised? Should they still be keeping the Jewish Law, or just parts of the Law? They even had to work out for themselves who Jesus was and what his life on earth really meant. Sadly, that question continues to plague the world even today.
Of course, there are also the more negative parallels. The Apostles tried to maintain some semblance of order, but they really just wanted to spend their time preaching the Gospel. St. Peter tried to make some definitive statements; but, being Peter, he often stumbled about, even as he steadfastly maintained the Faith. Then, of course, he had this upstart Paul being all deferential on one hand, then taking Peter to task for his blunders.
Left on their own, the early Christians would likewise blunder about. They challenged the authority of the Apostles. They went about spouting doctrinal errors that would later “evolve” into heresies. And in the absence of the Apostles personal direction, they would try to maintain order by insisting on strict observance of the Jewish Law. And this is where St. Paul would jump in. This is also where we really need to pay attention.
“for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” This is what I have often referred to as the “sin of the Pharisees”. We get so caught up in making sure that people are following the rules to a “T”, that we forget the reason why we have rules in the first place.
The danger for Anglican Catholics lies in the very reasons why our Church exists today. We insist that the priesthood is strictly reserved for males, but can we articulate why? We insist only on the 1928 Prayer Book and the Anglican Missal and dismiss the 1979 work that TEC uses, but can we list the reasons for this? We maintain that abortion is murder, and that Jesus Christ is Really and Truly Present at the Mass, but can we give the evidence for each of these points? If the answer to any of those questions is “no”, then we risk becoming like the Pharisees; more interested in the letter of the Law than the Spirit.
This has been particularly important for us in the last fifteen years or so. During this time our Church, the ACC, has seen an influx of people who have grown tired of the turmoil and heresy going on in their current ecclesial bodies. And when they come to us, they come as a people who have likely known only that 1979 book; who have never seen a priest turn his back on the congregation during the mass; even some who have had nothing but women as priests for a number of years. They may come here as a people who possibly recognize us a Church with a firm moral and doctrinal foundation, but they have a slightly different perspective on some things. So how do we answer them?
The early Church was faced with a similar dilemma; converts to Christianity came from various backgrounds: Jew, Gentile, pagan. They all brought their different perspectives and ideas to the Church and tried to make sense of this “Jesus Christ thing” using their previous experiences as a guide.
Jesus and the Apostles were all Jews, so it made sense that they should continue to respect at least some parts of the Jewish Law; but why not also incorporate some of what they thought worked or made them feel good in their Gentile or pagan experience? Jews were the dominant group in the early Church, and they were indignant that anyone would suggest that Gentiles and pagans should not also be subject to their Law; indeed they even objected at the very idea that these converts should have equal status in the Church.
You can see the dilemma here; to utterly reject any convert meant pushing people away from the Church or, even worse, causing division within the Church. St. Paul saw that and simply expounded on what Christ himself had pointed out to the Pharisees; it’s not about making sure the “I’s” are dotted and the “t’s” are crossed; it’s about the Gospel. It’s about the Faith.
Likewise for us, it’s about the Faith as well. St. Paul points out the reasons for the Law; “for the letter killeth”. Much of The written Law was meant primarily to describe the punishment for sinners. But the Spirit of the Law, as fulfilled in the Gospel, was meant to bring sinners to God; to show them the way to Salvation. Our Church exists not simply because of priestesses or prayer books or even our belief in the sanctity of life; but rather because our Faith, our doctrine and discipline, our liturgy and worship, expresses the Spirit of God’s Law; that way to Salvation.
Of course, St. Paul also presents us with something of a balancing act; “But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious…”. Paul admits that the “ministration of death”, God’s written Law, was glorious. How could it be otherwise? For the ultimate purpose of the Law was to bring people to God. And so, while keeping the written Law was not necessarily a bad thing, keeping it without remembering the Spirit of the Law was.
There is no less of a balancing act required of us in the ACC today. I recall reading an article in an issue of the Trinitarian where a recent convert to our Church asked why we couldn’t update the Prayer Book language, or have lay Eucharistic ministers. And boy, did people let him have it in the editorial section of next issue. The content of most of those responses spoke derisively about how “modern language”, and “LEM’s” led to the heresies that overwhelmed TEC. And the message was clear; “how dare you suggest a violation of the letter of our law”?
How would we respond to that person? Would we help them to see the beauty of the language in the 1928 BCP and how it expresses the Catholic Faith? Would we talk about the reverence with which we hold the Blessed Sacrament and why we allow only ordained clergy to act in its administration? Would we talk about the Spirit of our doctrine, discipline and worship? Or would we only talk about the letter of the law?
Of course both are important. In our case, the letter of the law means the Affirmation of St. Louis. The letter of the law means keeping that traditional Anglican Catholic liturgy that we practice every week. And the letter of the law means holding up any proposed idea or thought or changes to doctrine, to the standards established by the early Church; as defined by the seven Ecumenical Councils.
But the Spirit of the law resides in our hearts. It’s in knowing that what Christ ordained two thousand years ago is still relevant and true today. It’s in understanding the nature of the Faith and in the fullness of its Truth. It’s in making sure that everything we do, our worship, our liturgy, our daily lives, expresses our belief in the Gospel; and in the way to Salvation.
Like that early Church, we Anglican Catholics are blessed with a written law that describes our Faith and governs our actions. Like that early Church, we are also blessed with the Holy Gospel, the Spirit of the Law, which completes and fulfills that written law. And like that early Church, we hold these two in balance and maintain that what we believe in our hearts and profess with our mouths, in keeping with the Spirit of God’s Law and in union with His Holy Catholic Church, is the way to Salvation.
Let us be sure that as we witness our Faith to a world that continues to be beset by turmoil and heresy, that we do not commit the “sin of the Pharisees”; forsaking the message of God’s Love and our Salvation for the glorification of our “works”. And even as we maintain our traditional and glorious worship here in this Church, let us be sure that we are ever ready to explain how our liturgy and doctrine proclaim the True Faith in all righteousness, and in keeping with the Spirit of the Holy Gospel of Our Lord.
For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory.