At the centre of Norse mythology is the great tree Yggdrasil, the Ash Tree which supports the nine worlds and at the roots of which, the great dragon Níðhöggr lurks gnawing away at the Great Tree. Does this cosmic dragon living at the bottom of the world not chime with popular views of Hell being "down there" somewhere? Even in English Churches and Cathedrals we still see the remains of Norse Theology, woodwoses and Green men, runic writing and Saxon windows. The images are very green, very mossy, and even very English.
Also unique to the English Church is the notion of the Branch theory of Anglicanism's relationship with other Apostolic Churches as a branch from the great undivided Church. The idea is that, though there is schism between Churches, one may still be part of the Catholic Church provided that there is conformity with the undivided Church. Now, this is not accepted by the Orthodox Church who see that can only be Schism from the Church and not within it. It is certainly not accepted by the Roman Catholic Church since the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith states in Dominus Jesus:
there exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him.These two Churches certainly agree that the Anglican Church is not part of the Catholic Church. But they do not really recognise each other in their claims to be the One True Church! There are clear doctrinal differences between the Churches and these differences need to be assessed as to whether they do indeed result in endangering the souls of the people within.
Not to accept the Authority of the Pope as Supreme Monarch of the Church is clearly a heresy to the Roman Catholic Church, but to accept it is indeed a heresy for the Orthodox Church and for many Anglicans. The Anglicans are excluded from Communion with the Orthodox Church for precisely the same reason that Roman Catholics are. Indeed, to the Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church is just as Protestant as Baptists and Methodists, Apostolic Succession or no.
There is clear division between the Churches today who hold to the Apostolic Succession, these being Romans, Anglicans and the Orthodox, all claiming that they hold fast to the roots of the Undivided Church. If the larger two Churches hold that Branch Theory is false, does this mean that it is indeed false?
To check on what is Catholic, we do need to go back to the great Vincentian Canon which is part of the Undivided Church, St Vincent of Lerins himself dying in the 5th Century.
Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all. That is truly and properly 'Catholic,' as is shown by the very force and meaning of the word, which comprehends everything almost universally. We shall hold to this rule if we follow universality, antiquity, and consent. We shall follow universality if we acknowledge that one Faith to be true which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is clear that our ancestors and fathers proclaimed; consent, if in antiquity itself we keep following the definitions and opinions of all, or certainly nearly all, bishops and doctors alike. (Commonitorium Cap ii)The Canon was written after the Council of Ephesus and before the death of St Cyril of Alexandria and this places it in about 434AD before Pope St Leo the Great.
So what needs to be established for Branch theory to be true? What do we need to do to show that one can be part of the Catholic Church, despite being in schism, provided that one holds to the doctrine of the Universal Church and preserves Apostolic Succession?
Well, there is a principle of continuity: holding to the Catholic Doctrines and consecrating Bishops with the same consecration as the Holy Apostles in principle guarantee true doctrine and valid sacraments no matter what the age. All is passed on securely. The sticking point is the state of being "in schism". If it can be shown that the origin of the schism is due to the difference between accepting and rejecting a truly Catholic dogma, then those who reject the Catholic dogma are schisming themselves out of the Church and are necessarily heretical. If the dogma is not Catholic, then the schism is over issues of piety which are insisted upon. While this should not be the cause of schism, human nature is fallen and still both parties could be described legitimately as branches until an eventual reconciliation exists.
Now the Schism between East and West is apparently over the West adopting the filioque, the double procession of the Holy Ghost. However, the person of the Pope as Patriarch or Supreme Pontiff is in doubt. One will have it as Catholic Dogma, the other will not. Both sides appeal to the Vincentian Canon here to prove their point. Thus, we now have another factor entering into the mix - doubt!
The issue cannot be proved absolutely to be black or white. I, like my Bishop and my dear colleagues in the Anglican Catholic Church, are convinced by the historical evidence which shows the Pope to be the Patriarch of the West and Successor of St Peter as Bishop of Rome, being worthy of much honour, respect and deep affection in this Office. However, we are unconvinced by (in my case, I grew to doubt) the evidence for the claims to universal jurisdiction which constitutes the Supremacy of the Pope.
Doubt is not the enemy of Faith here. It is an admission that we do not have Divine Knowledge. The Body of Christ is not the Head for that is Jesus Our Lord. We are not complete without Him. While the Holy Spirit does inspire us, there is still room for doubt as to whether things are as they appear.
There is recognition between many Orthodox Churchmen and Roman Churchmen that they are hewn from the same rock, that they have a commonality as Christians which they share deeply. They see in their worship something which they agree is common and they feel the sense of God’s presence. The same is true of Roman and Orthodox visitors to the Anglican Catholic Church who recognise that same numinous sense. While all three might be in schism, there is still the recognition that there is the same stuff at our roots. This is not doubt in Christ, nor doubt in the Doctrine of His Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, this is doubt about the truth of the separation of Christians who share an understanding of what it means to be Holy Catholic and Apostolic. It is certainly doubt that the other is truly condemned to the utter sterility and eventual damnation of those who wilfully reject the Love of God.
It is this very doubt that reinforces the idea of Branch Theory. If we cannot prove absolutely that the schismatic parties are indeed outside the Church – a judgement that is surely reserved for God alone on the Day of Days) – then, out of simple charity, we must regard them as part of Christ’s body and treat them accordingly.
True English Catholicism holds to its claims that it is apostolic and subscribes to the Undivided Church. These assertions are disagreed by the Romans and the Orthodox, who themselves mutually disagree about the other. Yet, there is a growing recognition and respect between these three that there is something fundamentally common as truly Catholic. With no absolute decree on the nature of our schisms, save in the mind of God Himself, the idea of branches still holds, though perhaps not in the eyes of those who stick to the letter of Canon Law.
Rather than allowing Níðhöggr to gnaw at the Church and at the roots of our Charity, let’s just keep praying for each other, administering the sacraments, and holding fast to the Faith of Christ. Perhaps the branches join at the End.