R.H. Benson’s “Non-Catholic Denominations” (Pt III)

{The full text of this book is available at https://archive.org/stream/tnoncatholicdenom00bensuoft/tnoncatholicdenom00bensuoft_djvu.txt}

Chapter 3 of R.H. Benson’s Non-Catholic Denominations is applied to a certain type of Anglican which he calls, collectively, the “Ritualists.” It opens with a critical point: many new questions arise both as to what to do, how to interpret scripture, and the best means of approaching new problems. But in the absence of a living voice such as the Catholics have, what are they to do? No book, whether the Bible or even the Anglican Book of Common Prayer suffices, because that needs to be interpreted. The example of the Early Church is of limited value when questions and controversies which did not arise in the Early Church now appear. Neither were the Anglican bishops capable of providing any answer, for they disagreed among themselves, and often gave answers which contradicted the practice of the Early Church or the terms of Scripture (29-31). This same confusion extends even to doctrines such as the Mass, veneration of the saints, and the sacrament of penance. Therefore, says Benson:

There is no essential difference between an appeal to the Prayer Book as a summary of Christian doctrine contained in the Scriptures, and the appeal to the Scriptures only, such as is made on the part of extreme Protestants. If religion is to be definite and practical, it must have an authority always capable of applying its principles and answering new questions. (39)

When the Ritualist looks to those in authority in the Church of England, he finds he cannot always agree with them, and hence ends up making himself the true authority, especially in matters of doctrine and ritual, and this comes down to the same as the Protestant position on Private Judgment (40). At this point Benson touches a point which is not very well understood, and not well mentioned, which he calls “the principle of desuetude”, that is, of falling into disuse. He describes it thus:

When a written rule is disregarded, practically from the time of its formulation, by the persons whom it is supposed to bind, with the tacit consent of the authorities whose business it should be to enforce it, and that for a considerable period, it is always assumed that the rule no longer binds, and cannot be suddenly revived by private or public personages. (40)

This disposes of the Ritualist position, which often appeals to what is known as the “Ornaments Rubric” (but we shall not go into that). This not only undercuts church ceremony but also practices like morning and evening prayer which were never taken seriously by Anglicans. (41) Ultimately, the history of the Anglican Church tells against the Ritualists. The best one can say for them at the end of the day is that:

It is a conceivable position that the Church of England largely permits them, as judged by her written formularies, to hold a considerable number of Catholic doctrines ; but this is a very different thing from claiming, as these men do, her actual authority for them. (42)

Chapter 4 deals with what Benson calls “The Extreme Party” of the Church of England. These people deplore the separation of the Church of England from the rest of Christianity, and perhaps especially from Rome, but they do not return to Rome because, they say:

The Church of England … in spite of appearances, has retained all things absolutely necessary for Catholic life: she has retained the Sacred Ministry, the Sacraments and the Creeds ; Communion with the Roman Pontiff (and point to) the Sacramental life of the Eastern separated Churches. Since then this is so as assumed it is plainly by Divine permission that the separation took place ; and it would therefore appear to be part of the Divine Plan that England should for a time … have as a spiritual guide a Church which, though externally separated from the rest of Christendom, retained sufficient of the means of grace to sanctify her children and sustain in them the supernatural life; … and that the efforts of all “Catholic-minded” persons must be directed towards retaining the confidence of England on the one side and of healing the breach with Rome on the other. There can be no ultimate peace or security, they say, until that breach is healed; but, meanwhile, individual conversions hinder rather than help that Corporate Reunion which in God’s  time will come about. (44-45)

To work out what should be believed and done, that is, when one seeks the “Living Voice” of the Church, one considers what all the major branches of Christianity teach. So, as both the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches teach the Real Objective Presence in the Eucharist, and the Anglican position can accommodate it, then it is to be believed. (47) Where the Catholic and Orthodox Churches cannot agree (e.g. on indulgences) then this is a matter of speculative rather than dogmatic theology. (48)

The great flaw in the argument that the truth of Christianity can be found by taking the teachings of the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican Churches is that those very authorities repudiate this idea. (55-56) This is so basic an issue for the Ritualists, that they have a tendency to either join the Catholic (or Orthodox) Church, or return to another form of Anglicanism. (57) But those who remain as Ritualists are good and decent people, who do wonderful work not least because:

… they are distinguished among all the parties of the Church of England for their faithful orthodoxy on most of the fundamental doctrines of the Christian Creed, for their fearlessness in preaching them, and for their devoted and self-denying lives. It is from among these that the most devoted slum-clergy are drawn men who live in all respects according to the true priestly and apostolic standard and from these that the three or four Anglican “Religious Orders” of men, that can be taken seriously, are recruited. It is among these that the ideals of celibate life, of real self-sacrifice, and of unwavering faithfulness to truth, as they understand it, are sustained; and it is to these that Catholics must look to do the work from which the Church herself is so largely precluded by the prejudice and misunderstanding of the world that is, for the gradual re-Catholicising of England. (58)

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