Appeals to the Early Church and a “Hermeneutic of Continuity”

I have spent some time over the past year considering the appeal to the early church made by many modern Christians, particularly liberal ones. This is an appeal made with regards to a variety of elements of Christianity, from liturgy (1979 Prayer Book, Dix’s Shape of the Liturgy, anyone?) to ritual (ad orientem v. ad populum) to theology, Holy Orders, and more.

I think I can understand the desire to imitate and conform to the early church. Indeed, the rise in patristic studies is a reflection of this desire. But I think sometimes this can go too far, or be misused. And, I think, this can happen in ways either traditional or modernist. For example, I think that insisting that the Eucharist be celebrated according to the Didache (an exaggeration, but I think it gets my point across) denies the full development of Eucharistic doctrine and practice that has come about since the Didache’s writing. Likewise, however, I think that attempting to define a particular era of Anglican liturgy and ritual as the only valid form of Anglicanism and then freezing everything at that moment, is also mistaken, whether Sarum High Mass with Dove-Aumbry and apparelled amices on everyone or the 1662 Communion Service in Colonial South Carolina (which would have been pretty low indeed, when it was celebrated).

I tend to look at issues like this with a “hermeneutic of continuity” to borrow and oft used Ratzingerian phrase. Aside from the implicit issues of wanting to conform all praxis and belief to that of the early church, (ie. what does one do with the Trinity, Two natures of Christ, and Atonement, among others; and do we really want to follow every canon of Nicea?) I think that a certain development of doctrine and practice is not a bad thing, per se, so long as it does not contradict Christian orthodoxy. On some level, it is necessary for practice to change when the Gospel spreads. To impose Friday Meat Abstinence on a culture which does not eat meat, but eats large quantities of fish preserves the letter, though not the spirit of the custom, which I would argue is the more important element.

To use a liturgical example, the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is deficient, I think, in a number of ways. However, it has, outside of the Continuum, Reformed Episcopal Church, and a scattering of 1928/Missal parishes within TEC and ACNA replaced the 1928 BCP. Without going into arguments about whether or not the ’79 BCP is actually a Book of Common Prayer, it does have a much different feel and ethos. As a result, there are elements that have, for many people, “become Anglican.” I give as an example, the “Prayers of the People.” Likewise, the American and Anglican Missals have entered Anglican usage. I will agree that the “Anglican Missal” is more Tridentine than Sarum- a fact I regard as regrettable. However, they have entered the collective memory of High-Church Anglicans.

So, if we are to model our contemporary church on the early church, I think the caveat should be that we aren’t in fact the early church. And while we can model ourselves on the early church, we are in fact the church of the early Twenty-First Century.

There is an academic element to this. But I think there is also a pastoral element, which is very important.

These are just some rough thoughts. What do YOU think?