Epieikeia & the Independence of the Anglican Church
While it is easy to simply accuse the Anglican Church of being disobedient in the Reformation, she actually understood the needs of her times and the demands of virtue.
Through the past few articles, especially in the Papal Supremacy Series, we have seen the false and contradictory underpinnings of the error of papal supremacy. In the previous article, An Episcopal Rejection of Rome, Not a Royal Creation, we also saw that the Ecclesia Anglicana did not merely start with King Henry VIII. However, some Roman Catholics will argue that even if Rome had abuses and errors, it was sinful disobedience for the Ecclesia Anglicana to break communion with Rome. They argue that the Roman Church had a real jurisdiction, even if there is disagreement over its extent. On this point, we should understand that obedience is a virtue, but obedience is not absolute. Instead, virtues are firm and stable dispositions to do the good, regardless of what commands a human gives. This is best seen in the virtue of epieikeia.
What is Epieikeia?
Epieikeia is a transliteration of the Greek ἐπιείκεια, which can mean ‘feeling of fairness, fair-mindedness...fairness of conduct, reasonableness, decency’ (The Cambridge Greek Lexicon). It is used in the Scriptures to denote this idea, including in the context of law. For example, Tertullus appeals to Felix saying, ‘I beg you in your kindness [ἐπιεικείᾳ] to hear us briefly’ (Acts 24:4). This same kind of appeal is made to the Judge of All, such as saying,
But although you master by strength, you judge in gentleness [ἐπιεικείᾳ], and you manage us with much forbearance; for the power to act is there for you whenever you want.
So, if a judge is going to decide a case properly, he must consider fairness and equity. This is going to require a special attention to the spirit of the law.
Thomas articulates this when he explains epikeia as a virtue. He shows what it is with practical application:
Rather, lawmakers look to what happens in most cases and produce the law accordingly. Yet in certain cases observing this law is contrary to the balance of justice and to the common good, which is what the law intends. For instance, the law establishes that things that have been left in deposit should be returned, since this is what is just in most cases. And yet it sometimes happens that it is harmful do this—as it would be, for instance, if a mad man were to deposit his sword and then demand it back when he was in a fury, or if someone were to demand his deposit back in order to fight against his fatherland. In these and other similar cases it would be bad to follow the law as handed down, whereas it is good, with the letter of the law set aside, to follow what the nature of justice and the common advantage demand. And this is what epieikeia, known among us as fairness (aequitas), is ordered toward.
Summa Theologiae, Second Part of the Second Part, Question 120, Freddoso Translation
The virtue of epieikeia pays special attention not simply to ‘so and so said this’ or ‘this or that person has the authority.’ Instead, it looks to (1) the purpose or spirit of the particular law and (2) the common good, which is the purpose and spirit of all just law. So, let's apply epieikeia to the Ecclesia Anglicana.
Council of Whitby
In the early church, the Ecclesia Anglicana was not under the jurisdiction of Rome (for more information on the early English church, I highly recommend Moorman's A History of the Church in England). Roughly speaking, there were two strands of English Catholicism: Celtic and Roman. Similar to the churches in Asia in time of Pope Victor and Bishop Polycrates (2nd century), the Ecclesia Anglicana had its own traditional (Celtic) method for dating Easter, which differed from the Roman method. And, like the Asian bishops, there was a reluctance to being forced by Rome to change its practice. However, unlike the Asian bishops, that change happened, at the Council of Whitby.
St. Bede the Venerable records this council in his History of the English Church and People. The change was advocated for three main reasons (History III.25):
The dating of Easter that developed was a modern derivation from a more ancient practice.
The Roman dating of Easter is what most of the Catholic Church uses.
The Roman method should be given priority, because Peter was given the keys of the kingdom by Jesus.
It is important to keep in mind why this is an important issue. When different parts of the Church, that live relatively near each other, celebrate Easter at different times, some will be fasting for Lent while others are celebrating. It also can become a point of pride or division. To create peace, the main brunt of the argument is for the Ecclesia Anglicana to conform to the rest of the Catholic Church for the common good. Therefore, for the sake of the good of the Catholic Church, and under obedience, he brought the Ecclesia Anglicana into Roman practice. Let's see what this means for the Ecclesia Anglicana during the Reformation.
The Liberation of the Ecclesia Anglicana
In the midst of the Reformation, the error of papal supremacy had flowered. Due to the corruption of the papal office, the neglect of Scripture, and the rampant superstition in the Catholic Church (each of which deserves its own article), the People of God were being afflicted by the Bishop of Rome. And what became abundantly clear was that the Bishop of Rome, by abandoning the faith of St. Peter had lost the keys of St. Peter. And after it was clear that Rome would not abandon her errors, the bishops of England had a choice: do you maintain communion?
Due to the Ecclesia Anglicana having fallen into heresy and schism with Rome some centuries prior, and refusing resort to a true Church from whom it could receive the faith, the last solution to this conundum is epieikeia. Looking back, it was for the unity of the Catholic Church and the testimony of the Scriptures that the Ecclesia Anglicana submitted to Rome. It was for the communion of the Catholic Church in the same faith. However, those very goods were no longer being promoted but harmed by the Ecclesia Anglicana maintaining communion with Rome. Maintaining communion would give the impression that the Ecclesia Anglicana shared the same faith, which would be a false witness.
The original arrangement of Whitby no longer served its purpose. The arrangement was perverted into undermining the Scriptures and the common good of the Catholic Church, so it became necessary, by the virtue of epieikeia, to separate and break communion from Rome.
Keep in mind that unity is not a good in itself. The devils are united in promoting error. Unity is only good if it is unity in virtue. This principle is clearly seen, for example, in the Constantinople Council II. The ecumenical council excommunicated Pope Vigilius for the sake of unity, since he was deviating from the faith and harming the unity of the Church: that's the purpose of discipline (read more on this in Session 7). While ‘unity’ in the absolute sense was lost, the benefit was a beautiful: a Scriptural prayer book (albeit flawed and insufficient) which countered the errors of the time.
When the Ecclesia Anglicana liberated herself from Rome, by the demands of virtue, she did not become a ‘new church’. She did not change her mission or stray from her charter. Instead, she lived out the virtue of epieikeia and continued the mission of Christ, with the same light of the apostles and the early church. Sadly, that required a separation. A separation made necessary by the presumptions of Rome which made the Bishop of Rome fallible yet uncorrectable: a law unto himself.