In Oxford on October 15, 1555, Anglican Bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were burned as Protestant heretics under the reign of Queen Mary. Shortly before they were murdered, Ridley said to Latimer, “Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” And although this candle has indeed burned for over 450 years, many believe that this week’s Papal decision to allow for disaffected Anglicans to enter full communion with the Roman church, may reduce it to, at best, a smoldering wick.

Under the plan,writes Ruth Gledhill of the TimesUK, “the Pope will issue an apostolic constitution, a form of papal decree, that will lead to the creation of “personal ordinariates” for Anglicans who convert to Rome. These will provide a legal framework to allow Anglicans to enter full communion with the Catholic Church while preserving distinctive elements of their Anglican identity, such as liturgy. Clergy will have to be retrained and re-ordained, since Rome regards Anglican orders as “absolutely null and utterly void”, but they will be granted their own seminaries to train future priests for the new ordinariate.

How magnanimous:)

Although there have always been Anglican clergy who were sympathetic to Roman Catholic theology, it is only since the mid 19th century with the appearance of the Oxford Movement, that there has been a recognized stream within Anglicanism that has self-consciously considered itself more Roman than Protestant. And even though the patron saint of this movement, John Henry Newman, found it impossible to remain an Anglican and uphold his oath to the 39 Articles after trying to interpret them through the lens of Roman Catholic theology, many Anglicans from his day on have nevertheless opted for an uneasy Anglo-Catholic limbo; ironically, the Pope’s decreee allows for suspension of this limbo. Anglo-Catholics, it would seem, can now have their transubstantiation and eat it too:)

Now of course, we’ll quickly see objections made and reasons why comfortable Anglo-Catholics won’t “swim the Tiber,” as they say, issues like church governance, dogmas regarding the Blessed Virgin Mary and the nature of Holy Orders, but as important as these issues are, no reformer would have considered them church-dividing issues. None. Sure, what you think about Mary is important, and who among us likes to think that their ordination is invalid, but the historic fact remains that had the fundamental issue of the nature of Justification–the way God and humanity are related–been agreed upon, then these issues could have been resolved without splitting the church. The initial break and the continued reason for the divided church can be seen in the clear and unapologetic disagreement over what Luther called the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae–the article upon which the church stands or falls–the doctrine of Justification by Grace alone through Faith alone.

For many years, my standard response to the (oft posed) question, “Why aren’t you a Catholic?” was always that I wasn’t comfortable with the “fact” that the Pope had a solid gold bathroom. The sophistication and thoughtfulness of this response belied my genuine ignorance about Catholic doctrine and practice, because all I knew is that, really, they thought that the Pope could fly. Essentially, I viewed Catholicism—not unlike my own faith at the time—more as a social phenomenon than a theological category. I basked in this ignorance until the summer of 2001 when I was given a copy of First Things, and my life was turned upside down. In April 2002, I’ll never forget reading How I Became the Catholic I Was, by the late (great) Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, and being genuinely struck by the fact that many of my objections to Catholicism were, at best, misunderstandings and, at worst, completely wrong.

My introduction to First Things coincided with the rise of the movement called “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” and slowly, my objections to Roman Catholicism began to come down. Due, in addition, in no small part to having met during that time one of the most winsome and articulate defenders of Catholicism I had known, I was on my way to either swallowing the whole loaf and going Roman, or at least coming as close as possible by joining the more-socially-acceptable but consigned to limbo Anglo-Catholic fold. Then, one glorious and life-changing day, I heard the doctrine of Justification explained in historic law/gospel form, my heart was strangely warmed and well, now I know why I can never be the Catholic I almost was.

This understanding–that the very heart of the Gospel is protected by a clear articulation of the doctrine of Justification by Grace alone through Faith alone–was the catalyst for both the Continental and English Reformations, fidelity to it is why the early Anglican Protestants were martyred and it remains, IMNSHO, the only reason to not go to Rome.

Now, the arguments concerning the division between the Roman Catholics and the various Protestant groups over the doctrine of Justification are many, long and well-documented; nevertheless, Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, Reformed, Baptists, 7th Day Adventists, and 1st through 6th Day Adventists have always been defined in some way against the condemnations of the Roman Catholic Council of Trent and its condemnations of the “Protestant heresies.” This council, according to the encyclopedia Brittanica, “clarified virtually every doctrine contested by the Protestants.” With the clarifications came the requisite anathamas—or curses—from the Roman Church, among which are the following:

Canon 12: “If any one shall say that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in the divine mercy pardoning sins for Christ’s sake, or that it is that confidence alone by which we are justified … let him be anathema”

Canon 4: “If anyone says that man’s free will moved and aroused by God, by assenting to God’s call and action, in no way cooperates toward disposing and preparing itself to obtain the grace of justification. . . let him be anathema”

Canon 5: “If anyone says that after the sin of Adam man’s free will was lost and destroyed. . . let him be anathema.” (Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, tr. H.J Schroeder)

And before anyone is tempted to think that the aforementioned “anyone(s)” referred only to the more hot-headed Calvinists or Lutherans, or that Anglicans were somehow the reasonable (well dressed) via media between Rome and Geneva–the “catholic lite” idea–let us compare these canons to the 39 Articles, which are a collection of theological statements based on the theology of Thomas Cranmer that all Anglican clergy (at least in the Church of England, including yours truly) since 1571 must affirm as part of their ordination vows. (for a good summary of Cranmer’s thoughts on Justification, see this interview with our hero, Canon Dr. Ashley Null)

Article XI: Of the Justification of Man

We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.

The last paragraph of the aforementioned homily is :

Hitherto have we heard what we are of our selves: very sinful, wretched, and damnable. Again, wee have heard how that of our selves, and by our selves, wee are not able either to think a good thought, or work a good deed, so that wee can find in our selves no hope of salvation, but rather whatsoever maketh unto our destruction. Again, we have heard the tender kindness and great mercy of GOD the Father towards us, and how beneficial he is to us for Christ’s sake, without our merits or deserts, even of his own sheer mercy & tender goodness. . .

Article X: Of Free-Will

The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith, and calling upon God: Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.

Clearly, the anathema’s of the Council of Trent were intended to cover the “protestant heresies” of the Anglican church and it is only by the most dubious logic and almost complete devaluing of language itself that people have been able to reconcile the two (for instance, see Cardinal Newman’s (in)famous “Track 90” on Justification).

As for me, I’m glad that the Pope has made this decree, because now, perhaps, people will have to really examine the reasons that they are either Anglican or Catholic, and, in turn, they will hopefully be brought back face to face with what we here believe to be this “most wholesome doctrine” of Justification by Faith. And while it is my hope, and my life’s work for that matter, that Ridley and Latimer’s candle of the Anglican Church and its proclamation of the Gospel continues to shine, I am nevertheless comforted by God’s promise in Christ that, “a smoldering wick he will not extinguish,” and will remain steadfast and secure–despite the anathemas–resting wholly and completely with “confidence in the divine mercy pardoning sins for Christ’s sake.” Thanks be to God.