Brad has a post up responding the rash of discussion about the latest development between Rome and Canterbury regarding the future of Anglo-Catholics. The question he raises is whether or not Protestants have good reasons for desiring the perpetual existence of their denominational and institutional structures at all.
Certainly a worthy point. However, I think all of this hints towards a bigger ecclesiological question: Is the desire for perpetual institutional perdurance something that is theologically acceptable for any ecclesial tradition?
As Brad notes, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communions make the strongest claims for the necessity of their own institutional perdurance, but I don’t think that matters too much in regard to the actual theological question. Clearly any institutional structure will find its own perpetuation supremely important, so we should expect this, especially from institutions that have a very long history. It should come as no surprise to us that the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox are the most vocal proponents of the absolute theological necessity of their institutional propagation. However, the theological question is if this survivalist and protectionist mentality is what the gospel calls out and seeks to create in the scope God’s own work, in Christ and the Spirit, of transforming the world into the kingdom of God.
Obviously one could make the argument that simply by virtue of their prolonged existence, God has validated the claims of churches that make such arguments, but clearly that rests on major historiographical assumptions about the nature of God’s work in the world. This argument simply proceeds by identifying God’s work with the historical outcomes that have led to things as they currently are. In short, it rests on the assumption that God is behind the survival of a given institution simply by virtue of the fact that it has historically come to exist and remain in existence. Clearly there are some ideological problems that inhere in such a historiography, at least from my own perspective on the issue.
None of this is meant to argue that Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox are simply a bunch of survival-obsessed ecclesial bureaucrats (a very different argument would be needed to substantiate that notion). Rather it is just to say that any argument for the necessity of ecclesial institutional perdurance ought to be made from within the logic of the gospel itself, indeed, if one cannot show how the gospel requires a specific form institutional self-propagation to be required by the gospel, it seems to me that we should view all such claims with suspicion given the way in which all institutions inevitably seek self-propagation and survival.