R.H. Benson, “Non-Catholic Denominations”

In 1910, Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson published an interesting but under-rated book, Non Catholic Denominations (Longmans, Green and Co., London). This text is available at https://archive.org/stream/tnoncatholicdenom00bensuoft/tnoncatholicdenom00bensuoft_djvu.txt

I think that people may think the only value of this book is what they can learn about non-Catholic denominations from it, and they are not very interested in that topic. However, Benson’s way of thinking is of abiding interest: he has the knack of getting straight to the heart of the matter. The way he thinks about these denominations is a way we can use to look at the Catholic Church. At this stage in the Church’s history, a comparative perspective can be very enlightening. You will see for yourself how some of his analyses of them can be applied to contemporary Catholicism.

Benson pointed out that the Catholics of England, in 1910, knew little about non-Catholic denominations, except that the real question which differentiated denominations was that of authority (ix). But it is important that Catholics know about them, because: “Each group of Christians has watchwords of its own, a selection of dogmas, a principle of interpretation, an aspect of the faith that has made it what it is … And in every one of these there is a modicum of truth” (x-xi).

Benson states, I think correctly, that the most effective way of converting the world is not to attack the opinions of others, but rather to present the Catholic faith in her truth. However, he adds, in order to do so one needs “a certain measure of understanding of the religious theories of those to whom it is made” (xi). Further, it must be an impartial, accurate, and fair understanding. Hence Benson aimed: “To set forth as sympathetically as possible the broad outlines of the various religious systems that for the most part flourish in England to-day outside the borders of the Catholic Church; to lay stress upon what is true in them, rather than on what is false; and, finally, to indicate as far as possible in each instance the corrective Catholic principle that is lacking” (xii-xiii).

Part 1 deals with “Episcopalianism,” chapter 1, of which is about the Established Church of England. His first point is an important one: the so-called “reformers” did not intend to allow that private judgment would be the believer’s authority. Rather they intended to “substitute a national authority. This national authority was to consist, practically, of Convocation with the sovereign at its head, who should give to the spiritual decisions of a more or less spiritual body, the same kind of royal assent as was given to the decisions of Parliament in temporal matters” (1). But what has happened, to some extent, is that the Church of England has come under Parliament and politicians who need not belong to it (2).

The original idea, says Benson, was far better than that of private judgment (which we know to have been Luther’s idea). The king or sovereign was to serve as “the link between Church and State” (2). However, it was open to the searching question: “by what right (had) a national authority been set up in matters of religion” (3). The system had to break down, because a nation is no solid basis for a church. After all, asks Benson, what is a nation?

If it was necessary for each nation, owing to its own character and temperament, to have a Church of its own, it was equally a fact that no nation is completely of one character and temperament; but that a nation consists of groups exactly as in a parallel manner the world consists of nations. Congregationalism, therefore, came into existence within fifty years of the establishment of this new national authority. And, ever since, the principle has been extended both within and without the Establishment. Sect after sect has sprung into existence outside its borders ; school of thought after school of thought within. The piece of rock, so to speak, detached from its position in the Rock of Peter, has crumbled into fragments, and even into grains ; until one can see at the present time tens of thousands of individuals adhering to the State Church for reasons of association, convenience and even agreement with many of its principles, who acknowledge, for all that, not the smallest inherent weight in its decisions bearing upon their own conscience” (3-4)

This well-written passage is still quite true, I believe, of the Church of England. Any three Anglicans, no matter how learned and pious, can completely disagree about the foundation of their Church. The idea of any national authority over the Church, part of the original idea, has “practically vanished” (4). Interestingly, he traces this to Queen Elizabeth’s desire that all English, from Catholics to Calvinists, could find a place within her Church. The result is that: “It is easy to determine which views are tolerated; it is impossible to determine which are authorized” (6). This is a tremendously well framed statement.

This has the result that: “… there is no established body of authorized Anglican doctrine to which appeal can be made ; and there is, in the Catholic sense, no proper theological course for candidates for the ministry” (7-8). This has had the effect that when they come to consider the New Testament, they do so primarily from a historical critical or ethical point of view (9). But moral theology finds no place, and this limits how they can consider Scripture. I would add that this has been a factor in the acceptance throughout the English speaking world of an approach to Scripture which treats it as if it were ordinary literature. Any status of scripture as inspired is effectively a polite fiction.

Next comes a poignant passage. I doubt that Benson ever imagined that the same might be said, even if it is not fair to say so, about the Catholic Church: “…we notice first that there is no actual living Voice to day within her borders or, if there is, it has not yet been identified at whose word the theologians must be silent … The bishop, generally speaking, is supposed to be the censor of doctrine in his diocese, yet those of his clergy who differ from him in dogma have no hesitation in disregarding his directions.” (9-10). That concluded his general overview of the Church of England.

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