Sunday, 17 July 2016

William Palmer's Annotated Russian Catechism

William Palmer (1811-1879) was an Anglican deacon and theologian, of the High Church party. He advocated the Branch Theory of the Church, seeing both the Anglican and the Eastern Orthodox churches as branches of the one catholic church. He therefore sought to demonstrate this by asking to receive communion in the Orthodox Church. Palmer's quest to receive communion in Orthodoxy had a slightly farcical quality. At one point he was asked to anathematize parts of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. When his colleagues expressed concern about this, Palmer claimed he had not repudiated the articles, only interpretations of them. In the end, he was unsuccessful in his quest. The Russian Orthodox Church was willing to receive him, but the Greek Orthodox Church insisted that he be re-baptized. Palmer thought it an unsatisfactory state of affairs to be received in one Orthodox jurisdiction, but not another. In the end, he decided to be received into the Roman Catholic Church, while still harboring a deep love for Orthodoxy.

I think there is an important apologetic point to be made in Palmer's failed quest for reception to Orthodoxy and subsequent conversion to Catholicism. Palmer's quest for catholicity in Orthodoxy showed his discomfort at its apparent lack in Anglicanism. He failed to find the catholicity he was looking for in Orthodoxy and so he turned to the one place he could find it- in the Roman Catholic Church. I am reminded of Vladimir Soloviev, the great Russian thinker, who was dissatisfied with what he saw in Orthodoxy and embraced true catholicity in communion with the Pope as a Byzantine Catholic.

This book is Palmer's translation of the Russian Catechism, together with an extensive set of annotations that attempt to argue that the Orthodox doctrine is in essential harmony with that of Anglicanism. The Russian Catechism had been written at a time when the Russian Orthodox Church was under heavy westernizing influence, both Catholic and Protestant. This is reflected in some of the western terminology and emphases of this catechism.

In this book, Palmer was engaged in a very similar project to Blessed John Henry Newman in Tract 90, in which Newman had attempted to harmonize the 39 Articles with the doctrine of the Council of Trent. Palmer assembled a remarkable collection of quotations of Anglican bishops and divines that appear to support some of the Orthodox practices and teachings, such as invocation of saints, prayers for the dead and the Eucharistic sacrifice. I wonder if perhaps these quotations were a little selective? I am not quite convinced that many Anglicans would have been convinced by Palmer's harmonization.

This book will be of interest to readers in Orthodoxy and Anglicanism and may be seen as a foundational text in the establishment of a Western-rite Orthodoxy. For us Catholics, we can read it and feel smug that Palmer made the right choice in the end.

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