Epieikeia & the Liberation of the Ecclesia Anglicana

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, The Ecclesia Anglicana: NOT Henry VIII’s Creation, we also saw that the Ecclesia Anglicana did not start with King Henry VIII but is actually an ancient church. 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,

You are sovereign in strength but you judge with mildness [ἐπιεικείᾳ], and with great forbearance you govern us; for you have power to act whenever you choose.

Wis. 12:18

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.

St. 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):

  1. The dating of Easter that developed was a modern derivation from a more ancient practice.
  2. The Roman dating of Easter is what most of the Catholic Church uses.
  3. 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. St. Bede sets up the third reason as the one which clinches it for King Oswiu. Whether that argument was a good one is a discussed in Solus Petrus Theology. However, it shows that the Ecclesia Anglicana, in the Seventh Century, accepted Roman practice for the good of the Catholic Church and at least the king was persuaded by Scripture of Rome’s authority (though, not her supreme authority, which will evolve later in time). 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. After it was clear that Rome would not abandon her errors, the bishops of England had a choice: do you maintain communion?

The Pope was acting as both the Patriarch of the Western Church (perhaps a legitimate title) but rejecting Scripture in ascribing additional titles to himself. The Ecclesia Anglicana put herself under his authority, but that situation was being abused.

The solution to this conundrum 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 have three harms:

  1. It would give the impression that the Ecclesia Anglicana shared the same faith, which would be a false witness.
  2. It would stifle necessary reform of the Catholic Church in England, grounded in the Scriptures.
  3. It would necessarily punish the orthodox for the sake of the heterodox.

Again, whether or not this is the case is the subject for other articles. For now, the purpose of this is to address the objection mentioned in the beginning: if it “was even right for the Ecclesia Anglicana to break communion with Rome, even if Rome was in error. Isn’t obedience a virtue?”

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.

Unity is not a good in itself. Unity is only good if it is unity in virtue.

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, Scriptural prayer book with a purified and orthodox liturgy 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.


3 thoughts on “Epieikeia & the Liberation of the Ecclesia Anglicana

  1. And yet Cardinal Newman felt the Anglican Church was a deviation from the primitive church. To be in history is to cease to be Protestant. He mounted many arguments for his leaving – not least the development of doctrine. How do you respond to the Newman critique of Anglicanism?


    1. It is telling that patristic research was spearheaded and maintained by Protestants. It is also telling that while Vatican I says that it was always believed that the Pope could not be judged, Constantinople II did just that, and everyone believed it to be according to the right order of the Church.


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