An award winning and Cambridge-reared scholar in Patristics and Early Christianity, Dr. Allen Brent M.A., D.D., who is former Professor in Early Christian History and Iconography at the University of London, King’s College, and who is currently Professor at the Patristics Institute of the Lateran University (Augustinianum) , has made his way into the Catholic Church. He was simultaneously ordained to the Catholic priesthood at Norwhich Cathedral as part of the Anglican Ordinariate.
Now, this is old news by now since his conversion was back in 2011. However, I only recently became aware he was actually an Anglican convert. In my own reading of Dr. Brent, I had always thought he was only Catholic. And so, by coming to know of his conversion from the Church of England, my interest in his story are completely renewed and merited an article in itself. His brief testimony as to the “why” of his conversion from Canterbury to Rome, which can be read in this TABLET article, explains how he simply could not make sense of how the Church of England had the unity which the early Fathers of the Church understood when they said “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church”. The two matters which plagued the Anglican Church were female ordination and gay weddings. However, for Dr. Brent, this was not the heart of the crisis. For him, the origin of the crisis “are rather in the classical, Cyprianic ecclesiology that we have claimed from the last century and at the Lambeth Conference, which characterized the nature of the Anglican Communion“. In this Cyprianic Episcopalism, the Church is “spread throughout the world, with the sacramental sign of unity of the Body of Christ in the Bishops” who are in “fundamental agreement on matters of life and of faith mutually receiving one another into each other’s communion, and with them the clergy and laity in communion with them.” Although, Dr. Brent notes, the Anglican Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), the Anglicans were able to concede that the See of Rome has as special ministry “to foster koinonia [or fellowship] between the dioceses and thus maintain the unity of the Body of Christ“. However, he continues, “We did not believe…that such a papal ministry was absolutely necessary, but rather it was superfluous.” Rather, “The unity of the Church would be guaranteed by the mutual recognition and maintenance of intercommunion of diocesan bishops who would never wish to break that unity by doing apart what we could not do together: rather than act on the private judgment of their individual consciences, they would feel bound by their episcopal formation to submit to the consensus of the whole“. However, as beautiful as that sounds (it certainly echo’s Cyprian), the Church of England began to do precisely what it said it would not, namely, to go ahead and do apart what clearly she could not agree to do as a whole, namely, the introduction of Woman’s Ordination and gay unions in the United States Episcopal Church (TEC), where other dioceses went their own way. This, among many things, is clearly a break in that mystical union of the consensus working together and agreeing to only do what she agreed to do as aw hole. In conclusion, Dr. Brent writes, “My distress about the Anglican Communion is a distress about a narrative of unity of which I can make no sense.”
When it came time to write a formal letter to Catholic Bishop Alan Hopes seeking admission into the Catholic Church, his explicit basis for doing so echoes his Tablet article:
“As I have already stated, I am not moving on any particular substantive issue, but on the ARCIC principle of koinonia, and the conviction that in all fundamental matters of faith the whole Church must reach mature decisions, under the guidance of the successor of St. Peter who has the pastoral commission to secure that unity. On this ground, I submit to the Magisterium.”
Nearly a year after his ordination, Reverend Dr. Brent preached a homily at Blackfriars, Oxford on Wednesday, 30th May (Pentecost Octave Evensong) where he goes extensively into more of an apologetic for his conversion. I will give some snippets here.
“….the Catholic Church through her history has had a lesson to learn about how that unity can be preserved in the context of human passions and emotions, in which the individuals love to choose and see their own individual paths unaided by divine grace, and unsupported by the community of faith, the consensus of the world and of the ages. The Catholic Church as founded by Christ would require the grant of a special, Petrine ministry of a figure who would, exhort, challenge, argue, convince, and reconcile, by showing a shepherds love and care with which he would hold together the unity of Christ’s Temple and Body against all the human tendencies to divide and sunder his Body into so many schisms….Christ’s promise to Peter, to be the Church’s visible foundation, ‘the rock on which I will build my Church’ against which the gates of Hell would not prevail, was of a Peter pointing to Christ as the foundation of his Church. The foundation was not of a man alone, with all the temptations of power and autocracy, but a man who confessed ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God,’ a man to whom this revelation had been divinely given: ‘Blessed art thou Simon son of John, for flesh and blood had not revealed this to you but my Father in Heaven.'”
This is especially interesting given that Dr. Brent specialized in Cyprianic studies.
That partly reveals the fatal flaw of what Cyprian came to believe in his latter days in his controversy with Stephen, Pope of Rome. While the former was able to see that it was the Office of Peter which gave the Local Bishop his jurisdiction over the diocesan flock of Christ, he nevertheless could not see Rome’s unique position as “Chair of Peter” (which Cyprian no doubt accepted) also comes with binding and authoritative jurisdiction over and between the diocesans flocks of Christ. It was a terrible inconsistency (see my articles on Cyprian’s ecclesiology here and here)
Even more illuminating is a Book Review conducted by Dr. Brent,nearly 3 years before his entrance into Catholic communion, in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History (59) of Geoffrey D. Dunn’s “Cyprian and the Bishops of Rome. Questions of Papal Primacy in the Early Church”. I will post the snippets which summarize the whole.
“Dunn has written an interesting account of the relations between the Roman and other bishops at the time of St. Cyprian. He has clearly sought to enter the much discussed territory of the precise power of the Roman Pontiff at this time, and comes to the unremarkable conclusion that the Bishop of Rome did not possess jurisdiction in the later sense: each bishop as inviolable in his diocese with his authority resting on his intercommunion with other bishops”
When Dunn remarks on how Cyprian understood the Pope as merely an equal bishop to all others, Brent responds with the following:
“But the evidence of ep. lix.14.1 ought to be decisive against such a view since Cyprian describes to Cornelius how Fortunatus ‘the pseudo-bishop’ and Felicissimus he deacon had ‘dared to sail both to the chair of Peter and to the primordial (principalem) Church from where the unity of the sacred bishops (unitas sacerdotalis) derived its origin (exorta)’. Here, clearly, Cornelius is not being described as an individual bishop in his own church and equal to others”
When Dunn goes on to say, like many other scholars, that Cyprian’s language about he Roman See is merely flattery, Brent responds by saying that, while the fully developed concept of universal jurisdiction as would come later in the mind of Cyprian, such relegation to flattery is “disingenuous” and that, despite Cyprian’s failure to speak clearly to a universal Papal jurisdiction, that does “not mean that that Cyprian was not being moved by theological considerations, however embryonic and ill thought.”
Brent further expounds on his own view of Cyprian’s thought by delving into the meaning of the latin word exordium (when Cyprian says Rome is the “place from which priestly unity has its exordium, or source, or starting-point). For Brent, Dunn ignores this peculiar attribution of Cyprian to the Roman See. Taking from the Oxford Latin Dictionary, Brent takes the meaning of exordium as “‘the warp set up on a loom before the web is started’, “and by extension, the ‘weaving’ of fate”. Thus, Cyprian’s view of the Church’s government is that it is made up of a network of bishops bound the bonds of mutual recognition and inter-communion, yes, but the “logic of such an network is that it has, like the weaving of a piece of cloth, a starting point in the process”. This starting point in the weaving of a cloth, when compared to ecclesiology, is what Brent believes necessitates Cyprian to see Rome as the centre of the web, “holding its unity together”.
A fantastic final comment in this review is worth sharing in full: “Thus I believe that Cyprian, in his confrontation with Stephen, was wrestling with a problem of his own (and not, as Dunn believes, of Stephen’s own) making. How is the episcopal college to react when the exordium behaves differently from how the model predicted that it would and ought to behave?“. This concurs with my own observation that Cyprian ran into a conflict of his own ecclesiology, between being willing to admit a jurisdiction over local dioceses by the Petrine-inheritance of the local bishop, but not attributing the same to the one bishop of Rome whose Petrine-inheritance pertained to the supra-diocesan level.
To conclude, this all reminded me, as well, of what one Anglo-Catholic scholar, George D. Carleton, B.D., who was sometime Archdeacon of Modderpoort, O.F.S., and who, to my knowledge, never made it into the Roman communion, wrote in his “The King’s Highway” on the matter of Papal and Roman primacy. He wrote:
“Jesus Christ said to St. Peter: Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church; and, ‘When once thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren’. Our Lord in Holy Scripture is shown as placing St. Peter as the chief and leader of the Apostles, the first among his brethren. The history of the Catholic Church through the ages shows us Rome, the see of Peter, as the centre of the Church’s organization, and the Bishop of Rome as the Primate of the Church’s episcopate. If we of the English Church cannot conscientiously grant him greater honour than this, can we, dare we, grant him less, when we look at the history of the Church, and see in it the working out of God’s providence and the indication of his will? We English are the more bound to desire reunion with Rome, since it was to the missionary zeal of Rome that we mainly owed our Christianity, and it was to the spiritual primacy of Rome that our fathers of old were willing to submit, to their great benefit. The Church cannot be an organized whole on earth without a visible head as its chief authority and the centre of its administration. Who is there, except the Bishop of Rome, who claims to be, or has any justification from the Church’s tradition to claim to be, that head? Who would refuse submission to his jurisdiction, if he on his side were known to stand in just the same relation to other bishops as st. Peter stood to the other Apostles? There is clear proof of the primacy of Peter and of the See of Rome — as clear as there is of any other fact or doctrine of the Catholic Church.” (Page 140-141)