Anglican Decline and Its Biblical Remedy

For years, I thought I was called to be an Anglican priest. My wife and I wanted to plant an Anglican church in Minneapolis. To that end, I attended a beautiful Anglican seminary couched in the forests of Wisconsin. There, surrounded by men and women much holier than myself, I was challenged to grow up in Christ. During the course of my studies and discernment, I came to believe that Christ intended his Church to be apostolic—and also that Rome had greatly exaggerated Peter’s role in the apostolic college. I had many opinions about the papacy, most of them clouded by exaggeration and fabrication, and considered myself to be more Catholic than the Catholics.

“Are you Episcopalian?” people asked.

“No, I am Anglican,” I said.

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“But aren’t Episcopalians Anglican?” they asked.

And I would try my best to explain how the Anglican communion is full of national churches and independent provinces that are out of communion with one another. By my senior year, I was tongue-tied.

Schism—however sincerely felt, conventional, or culturally imperative—remains schism. Anglicanism has not essentially changed since the moment King Henry VIII had, in the most frightening sense of the phrase, an original idea. Time and habit—together with popular acceptance and the enduring appeal of fresh breaks (I was in the ACNA, a break-off from TEC)—do not transform the Church of England into a “branch” of the Catholic Church. Time’s passage does not a Catholic Church make. In fact, just the opposite happens: the longer Anglicans remain out of communion with Peter’s successor, the pope, the longer the principle of decay can take effect. As in the moment of the original break, the result of schism is something schismatic every single second.

We should not mistake the gradual numbing of our awareness of schism with its disappearance or release from our ongoing responsibility for it; much less should we excuse such visible disunity by appealing to an invisible “unity in Christ”—at least not while we’re praying “on earth as it is in heaven.” The Church is more than a surface-level illusion.

It was the scariest moment of my life. My wife and I were expecting our first child, I had just passed my canonicals, our plans to plant a church were lining up, and I had no alternate career options. Yet I could no longer honestly say that Anglicanism was what Christ had in mind when he gathered the tribes of Israel and established what he called “my Church” (Matt. 16:18). Newman was right: “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” Even more, when I opened my Bible, Peter’s apostolic role began to make sense. It came alive in a way that made the story more Christ-exulting and soul-nourishing.

Christ foresaw that there would be quarrels and divisions, and, as I hope to illustrate, he took steps to make sure that there would be a solution to the problem. At the time it shocked even my “high church” sensibilities: the pope’s deepest identity as St. Peter’s successor, his special role among the other bishops in apostolic succession, ultimately rests in the same Lord who prayed “that they may be one” (John 17:1).

King Jesus
Thomas Tallis plays softy on an iPod, the repartee has only lightly bruised a few egos, and through the haze of pipe smoke my Anglican friends agree with their newly converted Catholic brother: Jesus is King. We want to do more than pay him homage and tribute: we want to live a life of total obedience to our King.

A Bible lies open on the table. The way Matthew shows us that Jesus is King is by calling him the “son of David” (1:1). David was “the king” (1:6), and Jesus is called the Christ, the “anointed one” (1:16), a title given to a Davidic king anointed at his coronation. God had promised that David’s would be an everlasting dynasty: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Sam. 7:16). In Jesus, that promise is kept.

“The New Testament lies hidden in the Old,” wrote St. Augustine, “and the Old is unveiled in the New.” It could also be said that the Church lies hidden in Israel and Israel is unveiled in the Church. Raymond Brown says: “The kingdom established by David was a political institution to be sure, but one with enormous religious attachments (priesthood, temple, sacrifice, prophecy)…. It is the closest Old Testament parallel to the Church.”

God planned to bless the world through the twelve tribes of Israel, but they had scattered and failed. The chapter break between Matthew 9 and 10 makes it easy to miss what’s happening: Jesus grieved to see his people “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36-38), so in the very next verse he turned to his disciples and singled out twelve men to be the special leaders of his new Kingdom (Matt. 10:1). This was a watershed moment in his ministry. By choosing twelve men to be his apostles Jesus, “the Root and the Offspring of David” (Rev. 22:16), gathered the twelve tribes of Israel. The significance of the Twelve, Richard Bauckham suggests, “undoubtedly related to the Jewish hopes for the restoration of all twelve tribes in the messianic age.” The Twelve “correspond symbolically to the twelve princes of the tribes of Israel in the wilderness (Num. 1:4-16).” He concludes: “Jesus’ appointment of the Twelve symbolized the claim that in his own ministry this messianic restoration of Israel had already begun in nucleus.”

David and his lineage, the anointed kings of Judah, did not govern alone. As king Solomon appointed twelve officers to rule his kingdom (1 Kings 4:7), so also Jesus appoints twelve apostles to rule his Kingdom after his ascension (Matt. 19:28). The Twelve are his royal cabinet, the body of men authorized to do the King’s will, entrusted with vice-royal authority to represent him in his New Israel, the Church: “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me” (Luke 10:16; cf. John 20:21-23). As God planned to bless the world through Israel, he now plans to bless the world through these twelve apostles, “through their message” (John 17:20).

Jesus took the Davidic kingdom to the umpteenth degree. In the Old Testament the Kingdom of David was a manifestation of God’s own Kingdom (2 Chron. 13:8), but now God is Emmanuel (Matt. 1:23), now the Kingdom is “at hand” (Matt. 3:2; 4:17; 10:7). Inaugurated in the present, the Kingdom of God will be consummated when the Son of Man returns—but until then, it remains present. It’s really here. The Church follows inevitably from the incarnation. You could literally touch the body of Jesus, and you can literally touch the Church. Like the Davidic Covenant, but now open to gentiles, this New Covenant is a social reality—a Kingdom, what Jesus calls “my Church” (Matt. 16:18).

The Twelve knew that Christ had appointed them to an office, and that an office left vacant must be filled. After the death of Judas, Peter says to the others: “Let another take his office” (Acts 1:20). There was no debate. And Matthias was chosen to be numbered among them.

Anglicans and Catholics agree: the Lord intended his Church to be governed through the apostolic succession. The apostles and their successors—the bishops—are empowered by the Holy Spirit “to care for the church of God” (Acts 20:28). To submit to their authority is to submit to Christ: “He who receives any one whom I send receives me” (John 13:20). Even after Christ’s ascension, the Kingdom was to remain a social reality. It retains a royal administration. Jesus has gathered the tribes.

So far, my Anglican friends and I agree. But where in Scripture, they ask, do Catholics get the pope? And so as we refill our pint glasses, I turn the Bible on the table to Isaiah 22.

All the King’s Men
The apostolic ministry of the Church runs deep into Israel’s history, to Jerusalem and her kings, and to the ministers of the kingdom. And the most important minister of the king was called ’asher ‘al-habayith (LXX: tamias), the royal vizier, or the “Master of the Palace,” (literally the “one over the house”). He was the na‘ar or soken (LXX: archon), the steward or chamberlain of the king’s house (2 Sam. 9:9; 13:17; 19:18; Est. 2:2). This was the office given to Joseph by the Pharaoh (Gen. 41:40; 45:8). He was the highest ranking official in the kings royal court, not unlike a medieval maires du palais or a prime minister, appointed to manage the day-to-day affairs of the kingdom. Continued in Solomon’s reign (e.g. 1 Kings 4:6;18:1-5), the office was second only to the king in authority. He was not the king himself, but he was the king’s mouthpiece, the amicus regis, the king’s right-hand man, his confidant and counselor, the court of final appeal.

Employing Old Testament messianic symbolism, J.R.R. Tolkien presents three Christ figures in The Lord of the Rings: Gandalf (Prophet), Frodo (Priest), and Aragorn (King). As Jesus is the true heir to the throne of David, Aragorn is the true heir to the throne of Gondor. The popular story of Middle Earth provides a helpful metaphor for understanding the Kingdom of God. When you think of the steward, John Bergsma suggests, think of Denethor, the Lord of Gondor, in “The Return of the King”: the man in authority second only to the one true king. During the lifetime of the prophet Isaiah, a man named Shebna was the prime minister of king Hezekiah sometime between 715 and 701 BC. But he prepared a tomb for himself in the special place reserved for the royal sons of David. Like Denethor, he confused his role with that of the king and was no longer worthy of his office. So God sent Isaiah to Shebna with news that he would be replaced by a more righteous man, Eliakim the son of Hilkiah:

Thus says the LORD to Shebna, master of the palace:
“I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station.
In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah;
I will clothe him with your robe, and gird him with your girdle,
and give over to him your authority.
He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah.
I will place on Eliakim’s shoulder the key of the House of David;
he shall open, and none shall shut;
and he shall shut and none shall open.
I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot,
to be a throne of honor to his father’s house” (Isa. 22:19-23).

Although this chamberlain is mentioned elsewhere in Scripture (e.g. 1 Kings 4:1-6; 18:3; 2 Kings 15:5; 18:18, 37; 19:2), here we learn so much about this unique office. Notice, for example, that the symbol of the prime minister’s authority was the keys of the royal establishment, as he had the power to open doors as well as to close doors to those who sought the king’s presence. He wore special robes of honor and a girdle, a traditional priestly garment (Lev. 8:7). His office did not cease with his death: it was a chair to be filled by one man succeeding another. He was a “father” to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. While many of the king’s ministers had power to bind and loose, the prime minister could bind what the others had loosed and loose what the others had bound. He had plenary authority, total veto power. He was someone who you can hang a lot of weight on, like a peg in a sure spot.

The Old is Unveiled in the New…
By now my friends—most of them wiser and more learned than myself—are raising their eyebrows. I nervously tap my tobacco pipe and press on. The Davidic kingdom is the closest Old Testament parallel to the Church. It’s no surprise, then, that while Christ appointed twelve ministers to govern his Kingdom, only one of them was made “prime minister.” Only one could bind what the others loose and loose what the other bound.

In Matthew 16:17-19 we read: “When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples: ‘Who do people say that the Son of man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’” The text continues:

Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona!
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church,
and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.
I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven,
And whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Jesus just held something like the first ecumenical council. He gathered together the bishops-in-training of his Church to discern his identity. As a council, however, they are unable to say. But Simon steps forward with a revelation given to him from the Father: “You are the son of God!” By this, Simon does not mean, “You are the Second Person of the Trinity.” Rather, he is acknowledging that God has fulfilled his promise to David: “I will raise up your offspring after you … and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son” (2 Sam. 7:12-14).

Simon shines a light on the dynastic identity of Christ. So, in turn, Christ shines a light on the dynastic identity of Simon. In the presence of the other ministers, Jesus then appoints him to the office of the ’asher ‘al-habayith by paraphrasing Isaiah 22:19-23. The thematic parallels are strong: “what he opens, none shall shut” and “what you bind on earth will be bound in heaven,” the “sure peg” and the “rock,” the “key of the House of David” and the “keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.” Jesus appointed Peter as the new “master of the palace” in his Kingdom so that he could shepherd the people in his name.

Peter’s modern-day successor—the pope—serves as the current prime minister in Christ’s Kingdom. Like Eliakim, who was a “father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem,” the pope leads as the “Holy Father” of the Church. As in the Davidic kingdom of old, the pope is the King’s premier representative. Until the return of the king, there was a steward over Gondor. Until the return of Christ, there will be a steward over the Church.

Until the Return of the King
At this point, my Anglican brothers draw the line. They concede that Jesus gave Peter, together with the other apostles, an important role in the establishment of his Church. As the representative and spokesperson for the apostles, the rock and the keeper of the keys, Peter would open the door of the gospel to Jews and Gentiles alike (Acts 2, 8. 10). But, they say, Matthew 16:17-19 says nothing about papal or apostolic succession. Peter fulfilled the promised role as a leader in the church, and that role ended with his death. They insist that Jesus never intended Peter’s office to have successors.

But why the dynastic reference to Eliakim? Why the “rock” and “keys”? For the rock represents permanence, and the keys symbolize succession. They are an office of authority (Luke 11:52; Rev. 3:7), and an office left vacant must be filled. Has not Christ made it plain that his Church is as Petrine as it is apostolic? On what ground or principle should those appointed to apostolic ministry have successors but the appointed office of “prime minister” not?

In his commentary on Matthew 16:17-19, W.F. Albright says: “Isa. 22:15ff undoubtedly lies behind this saying. The keys are the symbol of authority … the same authority as that vested in the vizier, the master of the house, the chamberlain, of the royal household of Israel…. In other contexts, when the disciplinary affairs of the community are being discussed (Matt. 18:18; John 20:23) the symbol of keys is absent, since the sayings apply in those instances to the wider circle.” Vladimir Soloviev reflects beautifully on Jesus giving Peter the keys:

Our Lord expressly connected the permanence and stability of his Church in its future struggle against the powers of evil. If the power of binding and loosing conferred on the apostles is not a mere metaphor or a purely personal and temporary attribute, if it is, on the contrary, the actual living seed of a universal, permanent institution comprising the Church’s whole existence, how can Peter’s own special prerogatives, announced in such explicit and solemn terms, be regarded as barren metaphors or as personal and transitory privileges? Ought not they also to refer to some fundamental and permanent institution, of which the historic personality of Simon Bar-Jona is but the outstanding and typical representative?

The God-Man did not establish ephemeral institutions. In his chosen disciples he saw, through and beyond all that was mortal and individual, the enduring principles and types of his work. What he said to the college of the apostles included the whole priestly order, the teaching Church in its entirety.

The sublime words which he addressed to Peter alone created in the person of this one apostle the undivided, sovereign authority possessed by the universal Church throughout the whole of its life and development in future ages. That Christ did not see fit to make the formal foundation of his Church and the guarantee of its permanence dependent on the common authority of all the apostles (for he did not say to the apostolic college: “On you I will build my church”) surely shows that our Lord did not regard the episcopal and priestly order, represented by the apostles in common, as sufficient in itself to form the impregnable foundation of the universal Church, in her inevitable struggle against Hades.

In founding his visible Church, Jesus was thinking primarily of the struggle against evil; and in order to ensure for his creation that unity which is strength, he crowned the hierarchy with a single, central institution, absolutely indivisible and independent, possessing its own right the fullness of authority and promise: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).”

Christ is the foundation of the Church (1 Cor. 3:11). Yet the Church is built on the foundation of the apostles (Eph. 2:20). In Revelation 21:14 we read, “The wall of the City had twelve foundations, and on them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” Christ is the firm foundation of the Church … yet so are the apostles. Christ is the solid rock on which we stand, yet in Matthew 16:17-19 the Lord says that Simon is the “Rock” (in Aramaic, Cephas).

Jesus literally invented this name. To translate it into Greek, Matthew did something practical: he took a feminine word, petra, and “masculinized” it so that it could be for the first time a man’s name, Petros, or Peter. Naming Simon “Rock” may be a reference to Abraham (Isa. 51:1-2). It may also be a reference to Solomon, who built the temple on a large foundation stone (Isa. 28:16). Regardless, the only other men God personally re-names are Abram and Jacob, and every new name represents covenant, headship, fatherhood, and authority.

The “keys” and “rock” are the premiere symbols of succession and permanence. Contrary to popular Anglican opinion, they do not suggest that the Petrine office would die with Peter, but rather that it would be, like its Old Testament parallel, an office filled by successors. Christ did not intend his Church ever to be apostolic apart from Peter. Like a rock, the Petrine office is not going anywhere.

Peter and the Fledgling Church
God keeps a good thing going. The pope’s leadership throughout Church history is just a continuation of Peter’s leadership throughout the New Testament. There are little hints of it everywhere. For example, Matthew writes: “These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, who is called Peter,” (10:2). Paul says that Christ “appeared to Cephas and then to the twelve” (1 Cor. 15:3-5). But there are really big examples too. Peter announces that Judas’ office must be filled (Acts 1), Peter preaches the first sermon (Acts 2), Peter performs the first miracle (Acts 3), Peter speaks in Solomon’s portico, Peter speaks before the Council (Acts 4), and it is Peter who Paul must see when he visits Jerusalem (Gal. 1:18). Peter decides to confirm the first Samaritans (Acts 8) and to baptize the first Gentiles (Acts 10). He alone could have stood up and announced the final decision of the first council (Acts 15). Peter alone is the holy father of the new family of God, the keeper of the keys, the rock, the vicar of Christ. And despite all of this, he remains nothing compared to his King.

So it is that the Church Fathers acknowledged the leadership and prerogatives of Peter’s office as the keys were passed on to Linus, Cletus, Clement, down through the ages. Dionysius of Corinth, the twelfth pope, wrote in AD 170: “You have also, by your very admonition, brought together the planting that was made by Peter and Paul at Rome.” In AD 200, Tertullian says with joy: “Was anything withheld from the knowledge of Peter, who is called ‘the rock on which the Church would be built’ with the power of ‘loosing and binding in heaven and on earth’?” Cyprian of Carthage wrote in 256: “Would heretics dare to come to the very seat of Peter whence Apostolic faith is derived and whither no errors come?” Augustine of Hippo summed up the ancient faith succinctly: “Rome has spoken; the case is closed.”

The papacy has undergone development through the centuries, but it has not departed from the essential components given it by the Lord, acknowledged by his contemporaries, and accepted by the early Church. The papacy was God’s original idea, established for the good of his Church, for the glory of the Trinity’s great name. For Peter’s successor is still what Christ said he would be: a rock. When the pope solemnly defines an issue, we can join the fathers of the Council of Chalcedon with joy: “This is the faith of the fathers! This is the faith of the apostles! Peter has spoken!”

Obey the King
So we got to the bottom of it—our pint glasses, that is. Although the mood had change considerably in the room, no one looked like they were about to swim the Tiber. But this is my contention: in order to achieve Anglican ecclesiology, you are forced either to relegate many passages of Scripture, or to contradict the very hermeneutic by which you determined the Church ought to have bishops. The same hermeneutic that proves to Anglicans that they should have bishops also proves the papacy.

King Jesus deserves our total obedience. If the Kingdom of God is nothing less than the gathered tribes of Israel then I don’t see how we can justify being out of communion with Christ’s appointed “prime minister,” the keeper of the keys, Peter and his successors. King Jesus deserves our total allegiance. Schism is sin, no matter how eloquent our excuses. To those scattered national churches and independent provinces who remain out of communion with the pope, St. Paul’s question is a challenge: “Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor. 1:13).

The stairway out of the Catholic Church leads up into an ivory tower. The “Kingdom” is vaporized into something ethereal. “Catholicism” is warped into a cafeteria of cool traditions you can purchase to suit your opinion. “Apostolic” is reduced to mean only that the Church has a mission—with total disregard for the successors of the missionary leaders Jesus commissioned and invested with authority. The “Church” is reduced to a proposition—not of this world, but not in it either. As this “global church” proclaims a thousand contradictory truths and is scattered into a thousand quarreling fractions you have no choice but to grip your Bible tighter as you leave one denomination and start yet another. Out of communion with the pope, Christianity becomes by degrees just another philosophy. Cardinal John Henry Newman, put it this way:

Turn away from the Catholic Church, and to whom will you go? It is your only chance of peace and assurance in this turbulent, changing world. There is nothing between it and skepticism, when men exert their reason freely. Private creeds, fancy religions, may be showy and imposing to the many in their day; national religions may lie huge and lifeless, and cumber the ground for centuries, and distract the attention or confuse the judgment of the learned; but on the long run it will found that either the Catholic Religion is verily and indeed the coming in of the unseen world into this, or that there is nothing positive, nothing dogmatic, nothing real in any one of our notions as to whence we come and whither we are going. Unlearn Catholicism, and you become Protestant, Unitarian, Deist, Pantheist, Sceptic, in a dreadful, but infallible succession.

At first I was frightened by what the Bible had to say about the papacy. But I was also invited to follow and obey Jesus Christ, to strive to honor and adore the Father in the loving bond of the Holy Spirit through obedience to his Church. The biblical remedy for Anglican entropy, and the problem of division in general, is the pope. To leave the rock on which Christ built his Church is to build on sand. Only the Catholic Church, filled with the Holy Spirit and the promise of Christ to Peter, is capable of perpetual unity and renewal. Ultimately, Christ established the Petrine office so that his Church may be truly one for the glory of the most adorable Trinity.

Meanwhile, time passes. As the salt of the earth, we are called to be scattered but also to keep Christ’s savor and not be trampled underfoot. Before we start worrying about the alleged perils of too much authority, we might first look at how much energy and sophisticated thought continues to go into rationalizing too little authority and what exactly that says about us. Trying to have a Church without the pope is like trying to square what in the Kingdom will always be a circle with many orbits but only one center. Like water, time and convention will not move the rock on which Christ built his Church.

Editor’s note: The image above titled “Communion of the Apostles” was painted by Luca Signorelli in 1512.


  • Tyler Blanski

    Tyler Blanski, a Catholic convert, is the author of When Donkeys Talk: Rediscovering the Mystery and Wonder of Christianity (Zondervan, 2012) and Mud & Poetry: Love, Sex, and the Sacred (Upper Room Books, 2010).

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