Dominic Foo has a very good essay on the way “high church” ecclesiologies always fall back into a sort of “invisible church” theology when forced to reckon with the actual historical record. Here’s a sample:
The point is that in the end nobody, at least nobody with a proper command of church history, believes that their church today, in visible outward terms, is the same as the apostolic church in terms of both belief or practice. The Eastern Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky condemns what he calls “a harmful primitivism” in the Vincentian Canon to believe only what has “always” been believed.
What does this discussion on the fact of change have to do with the visibility of the Church? It boils down to the incompatibility of two claims:
(1) My Church does not Change.
(2) My Church is Substantially Visible
However, if one accepts that in historical and empirical terms there is a difference between one’s church’s past and one’s church’s present, then the two claims are incompatible. One can maintain that one’s Church does not change, but must sacrifice the visibility of the Church and not identify the Church with every visible act or writing of the Church. The alternative is to maintain that the Church is substantially visible but deny that there has been any visible change. This alternative however is basically untenable in the light of what we know now about the writings of the early church and in the light of the historical facts and empirical differences.
Roman Catholicism has in fact always implicitly accepted the fact that the Church is not as visible as they would like it to be by the way they have attempted to account for their present day doctrines and practices. Following the tradition of Bossuet, who insisted that any admission of change was anathema, his tradition basically posited some “unwritten oral tradition” going back to the apostle’s time whereby all the present day unchanging Roman Catholic distinctives are transmitted. The “unwritten oral tradition” theory however, by virtue of being unwritten, saves the continuity of the Church at the expense of its visibility. Nobody obviously can discover or read these “unwritten oral tradition” simply because they are unwritten. The “unwritten oral tradition” theory has today virtually no supporters amongst Roman Catholics for it is as crazy as the “primitive baptist” theory that their denomination has always existed from the start and has survived under the radar of history, invisible to historical records after the Constantinian corruption, only to emerge into public view after the Reformation.
The “Church” of the high church advocate unfortunately simply “floats” in platonic space as it were. The historical narrative, which identifies the “true” Church, amidst the masses and masses of empirical facts, is essentially circular and self-justifying. It is tethered to no actual concrete foundation or standard of evaluation. Its plausibility is not derivative of any concrete fact but based on some vague “aesthetic sense” of which narrative “tells a better story”.
The problems of doing ecclesiology by narrative is manifest. It is even more invisible than Protestantism’s visible Church. Protestantism has a visibly discernible criteria for evaluating the legitimate visible church acts and writings among the masses of ecclesiastical phenomena, just search the Scriptures. The high church Christian has no such concrete visible criteria, the church literally exists only in tale. They cannot say, just listen to the Pope because popes has said many things and sometimes in contradiction of one another, they cannot say listen to the councils because there are many many many different councils also in contradiction of one another. They cannot say just listen to your priest because your priest might be of dubious “orthodoxy” even if he is canonically ordained. The criteria whereby they evaluate the legitimacy of various ecclesiastical phenomena is the narrative. But the boundaries of this narrative itself is nebulous, vague, and essentially open-ended.
To be sure this ideal platonic church of tale touches empirical ecclesiastical realities at certain points. However there is no visible foundation or criteria for determining when and where it so touches. It seems to merely float in and out of visible reality at random, otherwise it remains essentially invisible. The only way to “catch” the church is through the sheer existential human act of special narration for the narrative alone can identify the “true” visible Church. Without this narrative, no one would know where is the true visible Church. This is virtually gnosticism about the Church, known only to those with the special aesthetic nose to sniff it out in platonic space.
Amen. To be deep in history is to cease to make “high church” claims.