The Story of the Woman Who Everyone Thought Was a Christian But Was Not

Dr Kendall Harmon has Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones’ story:

It was my pleasure and privilege to preach for nine Sundays in Canada, in Toronto, in 1932. I well remember being welcomed on the first Sunday morning by the minister of the church who, though on vacation, was still not out of town. He introduced me, and in responding to the welcome I thought it would be wise for me to indicate to the congregation my method as a preacher. I told the congregation that my method was to assume generally on Sunday morning that I was speaking to believers, to the saints, and that I would try to edify them; but that at night I would be preaching on the assumption that I was speaking to non-Christians as undoubtedly there would be many such there. In a sense I just said that in passing. We went through that morning service, and at the close the minister asked if I would stand at the door with him to shake hands with people as they went out. I did so. We had shaken hands with a number of people when he suddenly whispered to me saying, ‘You see that old lady who is coming along slowly. She-is the most important member of this church. She is a very wealthy woman and the greatest supporter of the work.’ He was, in other words, telling me to exercise what little charm I might possess to the maximum. I need not explain any further! Well, the old lady came along and we spoke to her, and I shall never forget what happened. It taught me a great lesson which I have never forgotten.

The old lady said, ‘Did I understand you to say that in the evening you would preach on the assumption that the people ljstening are not Christians and in the morning on the assumption that they are Christians?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘having heard you this morning I have decided to come tonight.’ She had never been known to attend the evening service; never. She only attended in the morning. She said, ‘I am coming tonight.’ I cannot describe the embarrassment of the situation. I sensed that the minister standing by my side felt that I was ruining his ministry and bitterly regretted inviting me to occupy his pulpit! But the fact was that the old lady did come that Sunday night, and every Sunday night while I was there. I met her in her house in private conversation and found that she was most unhappy about her spiritual condition, that she did not know where she stood. She was a fine and most generous character, living an exemplary life. Everybody assumed-not only the minister but everybody else-that she was an exceptionally fine Christian; but she was not a Christian. This idea that because people are members of the church and attend regularly that they must be Christian is one of the most fatal assumptions, and I suggest that it mainly accounts for the state of the Church today.

–Martyn Lloyd Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), pp.147-149 (emphasis mine)


Can there be Salvation Outside of the Church?

Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith writes:

What happens to someone who is a good person but not a practising Christian? That was the second question put by my former parishioner, which I mentioned in the last post.

This is a huge question, and one that has vexed theologians for a long time. It is also the one question that always commands immense attention whenever it comes up in discussions about the faith in a parish setting.

I do not want to go into the history of the question, or get into a footnote heavy discussion, but rather to provide a useful answer for the here and now.

First of all, there are a lot of good people about, people who never go to Church, and who seem to be able to live without religion, but who are nevertheless good people. It would be a mistake to deny that they are good, or to claim that their goodness is an illusion. But it would be true, I think, to say that their lives lack something.

Their lives lack an explicit spiritual dimension, though, in conversation with them, one might find that they do have some spiritual awareness, though this may be rather unfocussed. What we as Christians should try to do is to engage with them on this wavelength and see if we can find something explicit in this implicit spirituality.

Their lives clearly lack an explicit faith in God, and this, though they may not realise it, means that they lack something important, namely God’s approval. Ignorance is never pleasing to God (how could it be?) and God wants to be known and loved by all; therefore if someone does not know God, this is a serious lack in their life. Yet, even though God does not approve of their ignorance of Him, we cannot say that God does not love them. God is love. Moreover, God loves human goodness, and therefore he looks kindly on all those who live good lives. Their goodness is not illusory: God, looking at their good deeds sees and loves in them what he sees and loves in Jesus Christ His Son, the Virgin Mary and all the Saints.

And yet we are told in the Scriptures and in the constant tradition of the Church that salvation is of Christ the Lord and that all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved. Outside Christ there is no salvation. This cannot be denied. I could quote numerous verses of Scripture to back this up – but I would rather just point to the whole of Scripture as bearing witness to Christ and salvation through Him.

Could these good people who do not know Christ explicitly, or who may have heard of Him but not responded to Him (at least not explicitly), could they somehow be people who belong to Christ without really knowing it themselves?

This is the usual answer to the question, one associated with the theology of Karl Rahner and his theory about what he calls “anonymous Christians”.

But I would prefer not to get stuck into Rahner, much as I think he was onto something of importance in his theory, even though it has its difficulties. I would rather go with the idea I once heard advanced in a sermon on Our Lord’s words about the vine and the branches. Some branches are clearly and visibly grafted onto the vine; other branches may be hanging onto the vine despite the fact that they have seemingly been broken off, yet they are part of the vine still.

Thus there may be baptised Christians fully participating in the life of the Church; and baptised Christians who seemingly are cut off, but are hanging by a thread or two, and receiving the grace of Christ. But it goes further: the grace of Christ in its operations transcends the physical structures of the Church. There may be those who participate in the grace of Christ without having any visible connection with his Church at all. Nevertheless that connexion may be real and effective.

I may have dug myself into a terrible hole over this, but I would stress one last thing. If someone, like my questioner’s son-in-law, is a good person who never goes to Church, and who seemingly has no need for or interest in religion, we should view this state of affairs as a challenge. We should not think he should be left as he is, but try our best to engage with him and to bring him into the Church. That must be the will of God, who, after all, founded the church to be the Ark of Salvation and a house of prayer for all nations.


Coming to a Point

On my desk is an old Anglo-Catholic Prayerbook, published sometime in the 1920s by the Church Literature Association, and bearing the signature “Evan R. Williams, Oxford, 1951.” Acquired in a second-hand store, it would not be too surprising to find out that it had belonged to the late Fr. Williams, sometime rector of St. Nicholas, Encino, whom I knew slightly. He had quite a wild background, had known T.S. Eliot while at Oxford, and had the rare ability to use the Missale Romanum at the Anglican Mass, translating from the Latin as he went.

Both the book and the man who may have owned it summon up for me the Anglo-Catholicism of about 1880 to 1960, a time when it looked as though the entirety of the Anglican Communion might one day be Catholicised. This was the era that produced the great Anglican missionary and slum priests, the religious orders and devotional societies, and social and political theorists and writers ranging from Conrad Noel to T.S. Eliot. The Anglo-Catholic Congresses and groups of dioceses from South Africa to the Biretta Belt of the Midwest showed forth the power of the movement which, in America at any rate, had its high noon with the torpedoing of the union discussions with the Presbyterians in 1946. In England it was bound up with all sorts of sorts of exotic things: Young England, the Arts and Crafts Movement, Neo-Jacobitism, Anglo-Catholic Socialism, and the “Merry England” Ideology. For the more esoterically-minded, there were C.G. Harrison’s work, Charles Williams’ Order of the Co-Inherence, and Dom Robert Petitpierre’s work with exorcisms. In, with, and under conventional Anglicanism a whole Anglo-Catholic parallel universe had been carved out; if some of its denizens seemed a trifle bizarre, there could be no arguing with the solid doctrinal foundations of the Advent Papers and the American Congress Booklets, the fervour of apologists like C.S. Lewis and such philosophers as George Grant, or solid architectural masterpieces like Nashdom Abbey (to which went the myrrh offered by the Queen at Epiphany to be mixed with the incense the monks prepared) and the renewed shrine at Walsingham.

To-day, of course, unless one is a part of the Affirming Catholicism crowd, it all seems in retrospect no more solid than a soap-bubble. The implosions of Nashdom Abbey and the formerly world-wide reach of the Cowley and Mirfield Fathers pale in comparison not only to the failure to Catholicise Anglicanism as a whole, but for the latter to retain adherence to any sort of “mere Christianity” at all – at least on the part of its leadership in the British Isles, North America, and Australasia.

Although there was always a certain amount of flummery in Anglo-Catholicism, there was an awful lot of real good in it – indeed, that very “Anglican patrimony” of which Pope Benedict XVI speaks. I believe that Anglo-Catholicism has not failed, for all that its concrete expressions and its influence have withered. Rather, it seems to me that a process is moving, in a way well expressed by C.S. Lewis’ Dr. Dimble in That Hideous Strength: “…if you dip into any college, or school, or parish – anything you like – at a given point in its history, you always find there was a time before that point when there was more elbow-room and contrasts weren’t so sharp; and there’s going to be a time after that point when there is even less room for indecision and choices are more momentous. Good is always getting better and bad getting worse: the possibilities of neutrality are always diminishing. The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder.”

In the novel, of course, this referred to there being ever less room for “neutral” magic in the world. For our purposes, however, it is a fine description of what has been happening to Anglo-Catholicism over the past six decades. Again, unless one cares to “Affirm Catholicism,” then bit by bit there has been ever less room within the official structures for the Anglo-Catholic. By the same token, resistance groups within the Canterbury Communion and the Continuum become ever more Evangelical; the ecclesiology of the alphabet soup bodies in the latter becomes progressively more incomprehensible and Episcopi Vagantes-like. In the midst of this dilemma has burst Anglicanorum coetibus.

The birth of the Ordinariates here and in Great Britain has been accompanied with a great deal of pain; Australia’s is just aborning, and South Africa and elsewhere are further off. The attempt to mesh quasi-congregationalist Anglo-Catholics with Roman local hierarchy is often fraught with misunderstandings and missed communications. It seems to have everything, humanly speaking, against it. Yet, in the long-term, the Ordinariates appear to be the only available formula for Anglo-Catholicism to survive – and more than that, to thrive, to return to its once and proper place in evangelisation.

Moreover, on the Roman side, this development comes at a critical time. Sixty years ago, when Anglo-Catholicism was at its most confident – and many Anglo-Catholics were as convinced that they did not need Rome any more than they did their local Broad – or Low-Church Bishop – so too was the Catholic Church. But that same period has been a humiliating one for us as well. It is not merely the growth and flowering of the pedophile scandals, awful as they have been. Far greater has been the near universal “Hermeneutic of Rupture,” denounced by Benedict XVI in his message to the Curia of December 2005. In his letter to the bishops accompanying the 2007 motu proprioSummorum Pontificum which “liberated” the Tridentine Mass, the Pope declared that “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.” But as a practical matter it has been – not only in liturgy, but in catechetics and popular devotions – in the greater part of the Latin Rite. To fight this, he has, among other things, strengthened the motu proprio with a hard-hitting clarification; but documents are not sufficient. This is why he has worked so hard to make a settlement with the Society of S. Pius X – a pre-existing and world-wide network of traditional Catholic communities – and why he sees the Anglican patrimony as so important for English-speaking lands. The current situation against which he and like-minded clergy and laity are struggling is a terrible scandal, to be sure: as I have said, a terrible humiliation. But without humiliation there is no humility, and without humility, no holiness. Six decades ago, both sides would have been too proud to come together.

It may well be that the same can be said for the Polish National and European Old Catholics of the Union of Utrecht – the latter proud to reject the supposed “innovations” of Vatican I, only to fall prey to so many liturgical and doctrinal alterations as to become unrecognizable to their 19th century forebears. The PNCC and the small Scandinavian Lutheran and German Old Catholic groups who have joined with her in the Union of Scranton may one day be more amenable to union with Rome in the light of that humiliation – and Rome may thusly be better able to deal with and for them.

So too with the East. To be sure, Communism and the horrors in the Near East (which latter have sent so many Christians – Catholics and Orthodox alike – fleeing west) were and are horrible things. But Constantinople, Moscow, and the rest have begun to see that Rome is their only real ally in the struggle against secularism, and certainly the Holy See is very much aware of this. The humiliations all have suffered may well be a catalyst to becoming aware that it is no longer possible to be separate and yet triumph over the enemies of Christ. We have lost the luxury of indifference that has characterised so much of our joint history. It may be, despite the hurdles that remain, that Benedict’s vision of restoring the kind of unity between East and West that prevailed during the First Millennium may come to pass in a shorter time then could have been imagined 60 years ago.

Those outside the visible communion of Rome who nevertheless love the Sacraments and wish to struggle for the Kingship of Christ are, through the course of events, being forced ever closer to her; those within that visible bond who do not are similarly being leached out. The Anglo-Catholics who enter the Ordinariates will be able to be truly the same sort of Anglicans as were Alfred the Great, S. Bede the Venerable, Julian of Norwich, and indeed, Ss. John Fisher and Thomas More, and the English recusants. By the same token, however, the heritage of Charles I and Bishop Ken, Cram and Eliot, Sayers and Lewis and all the rest will be made available to the entire Latin Rite, and indeed the Church as a whole. In this way, the ability of Catholics to re-evangelise the English-speaking world will be immeasurably strengthened. Indeed, all history is coming to a point.