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Branch Theory

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Branch Theory

The branch theory is a theological hypothesis within Anglicanism, holding that the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Anglican Communion are the three principal branches of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Some Anglican theologians also include the Oriental Orthodox churches, the Church of the East, the Old Catholic Church, and the Lutheran Church of Sweden.[1]

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines the branch theory as:

…the theory that, though the Church may have fallen into schism within itself and its several provinces or groups of provinces be out of communion with each other, each may yet be a branch of the one Church of Christ, provided that it continues to hold the faith of the original undivided Church and to maintain the Apostolic Succession of its bishops. Such, it is contended by many Anglican theologians, is the condition of the Church at the present time, there being now three main branches…[2]



Anglican Consultative Council and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, seeks to make ecumenical progress between the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion, it has made no statement on the topic, and no support for the branch theory has been expressed anywhere outside Anglicanism itself. The branch theory "has received mixed reception even within the Anglican Communion."[3]

Roman Catholic

Soon after the formulation of the branch theory, the Catholic Church rejected the idea that "the three Christian communions, Roman Catholic, Greek schismatic, and Anglican, however separated and divided from one another, nevertheless with equal right claim for themselves the name Catholic" and "together now constitute the Catholic Church".[4] The Catholic Church does not accept that those separated by schism or heresy are part of the one church, maintaining that "there exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him".[5] It considers Anglican orders invalid in general and holds that, though individual Anglicans may have orthodox faith, the Anglican churches have not maintained the fulness of ancient Christian teachings, most notably on the sacraments.[6] It insists that "the Church of Christ, despite the divisions which exist among Christians, continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church".[5]

It does not see acceptance of the branch theory or similar ideas as a requisite for ecumenical relations with other Christians, as witnessed in the wide-ranging activity of its Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.[7]

Eastern Orthodox

Non-acceptance of the branch theory by the Eastern Orthodox Church,[8] was in 1853 called unfortunate by the theory's founder, William Palmer, who wished the Eastern Church to claim to be no more than a part of the whole, not the whole of the true Church.[9] Bishop Kallistos Ware says that "Orthodox writers sometimes speak as if they accepted the 'Branch Theory', once popular among High Church Anglicans" but explains that this opinion "cannot be reconciled with traditional Orthodox theology";[10] and Western Orthodox cleric Julian Joseph Overbeck writes:

But what do we see in the Anglican Church? Heresies are not only tolerated and publicly preached from the pulpits, and the schismatical and heretical Church of Rome is by a great many fondled and looked up to, but a theory has sprung up, the so called Branch-Church theory, maintaining that the Catholic Church consists of three branches: the Roman, Greek, and Anglican Churches. Only fancy! the Roman and Greek Churches contradicting and anathematising each other, and the Anglican Church (in its Articles) contradicting both, and besides full of heretical teaching-these are the component parts of the One Catholic Church, the abode of the Spirit of Truth!!! And on this theory rests the "Corporate Reunion of Christendom," which entirely ignores all Apostolic teaching concerning schism and heresy![11]

In its official declarations, the Eastern Orthodox Church states that the one true church founded by Jesus Christ is a real identifiable entity and that it is singularly the Eastern Orthodox Church. It has identified itself as the "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church" in, for instance, synods held in 1836 and 1838 and in its correspondence with Pope Pius IX and Pope Leo XIII.[12] Adrian Fortescue wrote of the Eastern Orthodox: "The idea of a church made up of mutually excommunicate bodies that teach different articles of faith and yet altogether form one Church is as inconceivable to them as it is to us (Catholics)".[13] The Eastern Orthodox Church does not consider Catholics or Protestants to be branches of the "One True Church".[14]

The Eastern Orthodox Church is a part of several ecumenical efforts on international, national, and regional levels, such as the World Council of Churches.[15] With respect to branch theory, some conservative Eastern Orthodox, however, take a decidedly anti-ecumenical terms. An example is a statement by the 1983 Holy Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia:

Those who attack the Church of Christ by teaching that Christ's Church is divided into so-called "branches" which differ in doctrine and way of life, or that the Church does not exist visibly, but will be formed in the future when all "branches" or sects or denominations, and even religions will be united into one body; and who do not distinguish the priesthood and mysteries of the Church from those of the heretics, but say that the baptism and eucharist of heretics is effectual for salvation; therefore, to those who knowingly have communion with these aforementioned heretics or who advocate, disseminate, or defend their new heresy of Ecumenism under the pretext of brotherly love or the supposed unification of separated Christians, Anathema![16]

Oriental Orthodoxy

It is generally recognized that the Chalcedonian Schism resulted from a difference in semantics rather than actual doctrine, since both non-Chalcedonian and Chalcedonian Christianity share a similar Christology despite choosing to express it in different (Cyrillian vs. Chalcedonian) terms,[17] and theological dialogue has resulted in formal statements of agreement on that issue, which have been officially accepted by churches on both sides.[18][19] The Orthodoxy Cognate PAGE Society (Society for Orthodox Christian Unity and Faith), which is headquartered in Alappuzha declares the Society's firm belief that, although "the two groups are not in communion with each other",[20] "both the Byzantine (Eastern) Orthodox Churches and the Oriental Orthodox Churches are the true heirs to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of Christ, which was the Church of the apostles and the holy fathers. We also believe these Churches teach the true faith and morals of the Church established by Christ for which the ancient martyrs gave their lives."[21]


The Methodist Church holds to a variation of the branch theory ecclesiology, "advocating that Christianity is represented by three branches: Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant."[22]

Other Protestant Christians generally reject the Anglican version of the branch theory as originally formulated and hold a theory in which the Christian Church "has no visible unity" but contains numerous denominations that are "invisibly connected."[23] Fortescue states that "this theory is common among all Protestant bodies, although each one generally holds that it is the purest branch."[23]

In expounding upon branch theory, theologian Paul Evdokimov states that some view each distinct Christian tradition as contributing something special to the whole of Christendom: "Each church, in its more pronounced form, displays, according to its own native spirit, a particular version of the unique revelation. So, for example, Roman Christianity is characterized by filial love and obedience expressed towards the fatherly authority hypostatized in the first Person of the Trinity: the Church is there to teach and to obey. For the Reformed Churches the vital thing is sacramental reverence for the Word; it is the Church's duty to listen and reform itself. The Orthodox treasure the liberty of the children of God that flowers in liturgical communion, while the Church hymns the love of God for the human race."[24]

Analogous theories

Protestantism as a branch

Some Protestant traditions, such as the Methodist Church, advocate a version of branch theory ecclesiology that holds that "Christianity is represented by three branches: Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant."[22] A writer in the United States publication Orthodox Life likewise says that ecumenism promotes the idea of a Church comprising all baptized Christians and within which the different confessions are "sister churches".[25]

Sister churches theory

What has been called another version of the branch theory was propounded in the wake of the Second Vatican Council by some Roman Catholic theologians, such as Robert F. Taft[26][27] Michael A. Fahey,[28][29] and others.[30][31] In this theory, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church are two "sister churches". This theory was rejected outright by the Catholic Church, which applies the term "sister Churches" only to the relations between particular Churches, such as the sees of Constantinople and Rome.[32] Eastern Orthodox also reject it.[25]

Two lungs theory

The metaphor of "Christianity" or "Christendom" (not "the Church") breathing with "two lungs" was first used by the Russian poet and philosopher Vyacheslav Ivanov, drawing inspiration from the worldview of Russian intellectual Vladimir Solovyov.[33][34] Pope John Paul II applied the metaphor to "the Church", which for him was not some amalgam of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church, but the Catholic Church itself, thus indicating that it must avail itself of the traditions of both Eastern Christianity and Latin Christianity.[35][36] The Catholic Church thus applies this metaphor not to its relationship with the Eastern Orthodox Church but to its own Eastern and Western elements,[37][38] as emphasized by the decree of the Second Vatican Council on the Eastern Catholic Churches.[39]

Application of the metaphor instead to the relations existing between the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church has been called a variant of the branch theory, developed by "Orthodox ecumenists and Papists".[40] Eastern Orthodox reject as incompatible with the Orthodox faith any such use of the "two lungs" expression to imply that the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches are two parts of a single Church and "that Orthodoxy is only for Easterners, and that Catholicism is only for Westerners".[41][42][43]



  1. ^ See The Christian Faith: An Introduction to Dogmatic Theology, by Claude Beaufort Moss, SPCK, 1943, p. 279, available online at
  2. ^ The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford University Press 2005 ISBN 978-0-19-280290-3, article "branch theory of the Church"
  3. ^
  4. ^ Letter of 16 September 1864 from the Holy Office to the Bishops of England (Denzinger, 1685 (old numbering)
  5. ^ a b , 17Dominus Iesus
  6. ^ Apostolicae curae of 1896
  7. ^ Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity
  8. ^
  9. ^ Quoted in
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^ "Today, it is recognized that the issues that divide Oriental Orthodox from Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox over Christology are largely verbal" ( (Scarecrow Press 2012 ISBN 978-0-81087979-9), p. 322Historical Dictionary of CatholicismWilliam J. Collinge, ).
  18. ^ (Scarecrow Press 2010 ISBN 978-1-46166403-1), p. 245The A to Z of the Orthodox ChurchMichael Prokurat, Michael D. Peterson, Alexander Golitzin,
  19. ^ "Second Agreed Statement and Recommendations to the Churches" (Chambésy, Geneva, Switzerland, 28 September 1990`)
  20. ^ WCC, "Orthodox churches (Oriental)"
  21. ^ The OCP Society, "The OCP Mission"
  22. ^ a b
  23. ^ a b
  24. ^
  25. ^ a b , Volumes 57-58, 2006, p. 26 ("sister churches")Orthodox LifeArticle "Orthodox-Roman Catholic dialogue and of the ideas of 'Sister Churches' or of the Churches as 'two lungs' of the Body as contemporary expressions of the despised 'branch theory' of ecclesiology" in
  26. ^ Robert F. Taft, "Perceptions and Realities in Orthodox–Catholic Relations Today"
  27. ^ Jesuit Calls on Catholic and Orthodox Churches to Restore Communion"
  28. ^
  29. ^ , 28 October 2000AmericaMichael A. Fahey, "Am I My Sister's Keeper?" in
  30. ^
  31. ^
  32. ^ Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "Note on the expression 'Sister Churches'", 30 June 2000
  33. ^
  34. ^ B.C., "Orthodox Christians and Catholics, One lung or two"
  35. ^
  36. ^
  37. ^ (Cambridge University Press 2009 ISBN 978-0-52184607-3), p. 15An Introduction to CatholicismLawrence Cunningham,
  38. ^ (Paulist Press 2000 ISBN 978-0-80914066-4), p. 27New Commentary on the Code of Canon LawJohn P. Beal,
  39. ^ (Liturgy Training Publications 2006 ISBN 978-1-56854597-4), p. 39Reliving Vatican IIJustin Rigali,
  40. ^ , Volumes 57-58, 2006, p. 26 ("two lungs")Orthodox LifeArticle "Orthodox-Roman Catholic dialogue and of the ideas of 'Sister Churches' or of the Churches as 'two lungs' of the Body as contemporary expressions of the despised 'branch theory' of ecclesiology" in
  41. ^
  42. ^
  43. ^

External links

  • Anglo-Orthodox perspective
  • Another Orthodox perspective
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