Catholicity Reduced to Ashes: A Surrejoinder to James Merrick

I am grateful to James Merrick for his thoughtful and measured response to my piece on Lent and for providing me with an opportunity to address the matter further.  

Reading Merrick's response, I suspect one of my ecclesiological assumptions needs to be made explicit. Let me be clear: I have no objection to someone choosing individually to observe Lent. Indeed, if somebody at my church decided to go to another church on Wednesday to have ashes imposed, I would not discipline them, although I may ask them why they did so. I would, however, object to any church making it a normative requirement or even a highly desirable expectation. That would seem to me to go beyond the legitimate power of the church. 

That is an important point: While Merrick sees a concern about excessive penitential practices as driving the Reformed repudiation of Lent, I would argue that it was as much to do with a concern for the erosion of Christian liberty and the illicit binding of consciences in which the late medieval church indulged. That point, the issue of the nature and extent of church power, still applies today and underlies my concerns.

Merrick is worried about the matter of catholicity and the truncation of this concept by the Reformed. Indeed, he expresses the concern that the Reformed tradition "treats the 1500-1700s as a kind of moment of purity in the history of the church." Ironically, my own scholarly work has been devoted to proving the precise opposite: That Reformed Orthodoxy drew deeply and self-consciously on creedal, patristic and medieval theology in its attempt to formulate its confessions. For some of us, this Reformed catholicity is hardly a new discovery: see the subtitle of my 2007 monograph on the theology of John Owen, or indeed the subtext of my 1998 study of his Trinitarianism. Nor, one might add, is such historic Reformed catholicity so shallow as to be merely dependent upon following selected parts of the liturgical calendar.

The question of catholicity is, of course, more complicated than merely adopting a practice or a doctrine because it has deep historical and ecclesiastical roots. After all, Anglicans in the tradition of Hooker have rejected a large number of the elements of 'catholic' tradition. Roman supremacy, purgatory, transubstantiation, prayers for the dead, and the cult of the saints all have good claims to deep catholic roots. So why have Anglicans abandoned these? Presumably they have done so because they do not think that scripture gives grounds for retaining them. Well, once the scripture principle is allowed as an arbiter of true catholicity, the best we can say about Lent is that it might be a harmless, if biblically unjustifiable, personal preference with some historical roots - which is a point I never denied.   

Yet if this point about the scripture principle is unpersuasive to Anglicans, let me offer an observation on Anglicanism along the same lines of Merrick's critique of the Reformed. Anglicanism's own selective catholicity would seem to imply that Hookerites regard those same centuries, 1500-1700, as a kind of moment of purity for the decision as to which prior catholic traditions can stand and which should be cast aside.  

This is not a new problem for Anglicans. It was a significant part of what moved John Henry Newman Romeward. Of course, if the brilliant Newman could not persuade his friend, John Keble, Hooker's greatest editor, of the immense difficulties of Anglican claims to historic catholicity, it is unlikely that I will do so with Hooker's present disciples. Yet Newman's critique surely remains a major challenge to anyone who blithely assumes the straightforward catholicity of the Anglican tradition as embodied in the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Homilies, and the Book of Common Prayer. It is actually much more theologically complicated and historically contested than that.

All of this is, however, largely beside the point of my original article. My main purpose was not to point to problems in the Anglican tradition's claims to catholicity. It was to critique a recent cultural anomaly: The curious phenomenon of interest in Ash Wednesday and Lent among evangelicals whose ecclesiastical commitments do not theologically or historically sanction observance of such. 

Certainly, if these people are motivated by a desire for true catholicity, then I am wrong in my claims that this Lenten renaissance represents an eclectic, consumerist impulse. Yet I find it most odd that there might be those who observe Lent as an act of identification with the church catholic while repudiating a catholic practice such as infant baptism or a catholic doctrine such as eternal generation or any hint of catholic polity. I suppose that such confusion is not beyond the realms of possibility. But if such evangelicals really do think they are observing Lent out of a conscious desire for recovering historic catholicity, it would seem to prove precisely the point I am trying to make: The hold of eclectic consumerism on the evangelical imagination is such that the notion of historic catholicity itself has become just another eclectic consumerist construct. 

And, of course, it was that evangelical constituency, not the traditional Anglicans, who were the primary target of my original article.