Ashes to Ashes: What About Constantinople?

The question, now a thousand years old, of the Roman Catholic Church and the Or­thodox Church crops up fairly regu­larly in conversation. At least it does for me. Having myself been received into the Church from evangelical Protestantism, and having taught in college, seminary, and boys’ schools for 40 years, I find my former students and others who have caught wind of my conversion knocking at my door with the news that their spiritual pil­grimage has landed them at a fork in the road. Which shall it be? Rome or Constantinople?

This fork presents a prickly ques­tion for such a pilgrim. He finds him­self here, en route away from Geneva, Amsterdam, and Edinburgh—the holy sees (so to speak) of the various con­servative Presbyterian and Dutch Re­formed denominations. Or from Can­terbury: These are the Episcopalians who, having enjoyed the splendors of Anglican liturgy, hymnody, architec­ture, and ceremony, wake up unhappily one fine morning wondering where on earth a trustworthy magisterial and ap­ostolic voice is to be found. Or it may be that such a pilgrim has been formed in the heady atmosphere of the inde­pendent churches that very often are dynamos of spiritual enterprise.

In every case that has come to my door, it is the question, finally, “But what is the Church?” that has bundled our pilgrim along to the fork. The Re­formed churches have dignity, titanic theology, weighty preaching, and cir­cumspect government. The Anglicans have everything noted previously. The independent churches have zeal, ardent fidelity to the Person of Jesus Christ Himself, and quite breathtaking energy and creativity when it comes both to the spiritual nurturing of their congregations and to their outreach to the “unsaved.”

But this nettlesome question: What, then, is the Church? The Re­formed churches believe that they rediscovered, in the 16th century, the proper form of church government and preaching, jettisoning all sacra­ment, liturgy, and apostolic authority. The Anglicans (in the States, these are the Episcopalians) are divided. Tradi­tionally they have understood them­selves to be a Protestant Church. They have Elizabeth I to thank for having settled the matter with the power of the Crown. But, as for some of the “Caroline divines” (17th century), and, more familiarly, as for John Hen­ry Cardinal Newman, many Anglicans understand themselves to be “fully catholic.” The independent churches are not interested in the Church, if by that we mean the mystery of Christ’s Body existing in history—visibly, un­interruptedly, and apostolically—un­ der the authority with which the Lord vested Peter. For these churches, the matter is referred to a category known as “the invisible church,” by which they mean simply the aggregate of individual believers in Jesus Christ, wherever they might be encountered, all over the world, in any century, un­der whatever ensign (there are 40,000 separate Protestant denominations as of this writing).

There is one immense exception to all of this: the Orthodox Church. Certainly the See of Rome has no doubt that what we have in Ortho­doxy is a fully apostolic Church. John Paul II referred to Rome and Con­stantinople as “the two lungs” of the Church. And pope after pope has at­tempted—almost with tears, we might say—to find a way to restore the an­cient unity.

The Orthodox have grave reasons for holding aloof from the Petrine See, and also the vexed question of the fili­oque (the Holy Ghost as proceeding from the Father and the Son). A most helpful current treatment of the topic is Eastern Orthodoxy and the See of Peter, by James Likoudis. Catholics will find here virtually all that need be said.


  • Tom Howard

    Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.

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