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Branch theory is an ecclesiological proposition within Anglicanism and Protestantism that the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church includes various Christian denominations whether in formal communion or not. Some Anglican proponents of the theory usually only include the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican Communion churches, while others may also include the Oriental Orthodox, Church of the East, Old Catholic and Lutheran churches. The theory is often incorporated in the Protestant notion of an invisible Christian Church structure binding them together.
The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines the 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…
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:
... the famous "branch theory", according to which each ecclesiastical tradition possesses only part of the truth, so that the true Church will come into being only when they all join together; such a belief encourages the "churches" to continue as they are, confirming in their fragmented state, and the final result is Christianity without the Church. 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.
William Palmer (1803–1885), an Oxford theologian, was the principal originator of the Branch Theory. His two-volume Treatise on the Church of Christ (1838) formulated the notion. The theory was then popularized during the Oxford Movement, particularly through the work of the Tractarians. Although the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission, an organization sponsored by the 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. The theory "has received mixed reception even within the Anglican Communion."
The Catholic Church does not accept that those churches separated by schism or heresy are fully 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". The Roman Catholic Church rejects the validity of Anglican Orders, defined formally in 1896 by Pope Leo XIII in the Papal Bull Apostolicae curae, which declares Anglican Orders "absolutely null and utterly void".
Soon after the formulation of the branch theory, in 1864, the Holy Office rejected the branch theory or 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". In 1870, English bishops attending the First Vatican Council raised objections to the expression Sancta Romana Catholica Ecclesia ("Holy Roman Catholic Church") which appeared in the schema (the draft) of the First Ecumenical Council of the Vatican's Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, Dei Filius. These bishops proposed that the word "Roman" be omitted or at least that commas be inserted between the adjectives, out of concern that use of the term "Roman Catholic" would lend support to proponents of the branch theory. While the council overwhelmingly rejected this proposal, the text was finally modified to read "Sancta Catholica Apostolica Romana Ecclesia" translated into English either as "the holy Catholic Apostolic Roman Church" or, by separating each adjective, as "the holy, catholic, apostolic, and Roman Church".
Non-acceptance of the branch theory by the Eastern Orthodox Church, 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.[need quotation to verify] 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". 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!
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 Orthodox Catholic 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. 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)". The Eastern Orthodox Church doesn't regard Catholics or Protestants as branches of the "One True Church".
The Eastern Orthodox Church is a part of several ecumenical efforts on international, national, and regional levels, such as the World Council of Churches. With respect to branch theory, some conservative Eastern Orthodox, however, take a decidedly anti-ecumenical stand. For example, in 1983 Metropolitan Philaret (Voznesensky) and the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia stated:
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!
It is considered by many that the Chalcedonian Schism resulted from a difference in semantics rather than actual doctrine, stating that both non-Chalcedonian and Chalcedonian Christianity share a similar Christology despite choosing to express it in different (Cyrillian vs. Chalcedonian) terms, and theological dialogue has resulted in formal statements of agreement on that issue, which have been officially accepted by groups on both sides. The Orthodoxy Cognate PAGE Society (Society for Orthodox Christian Unity and Faith), which is headquartered in India declares the Society's firm belief that, although "the two groups are not in communion with each other", "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."
Not shown: non-Nicene, nontrinitarian, and some restorationist denominations. Additionally, the diagram above is simplified without depiction of crypto-Protestants within Catholicism, crypto-Catholics and Protestant Eastern Christianity in Protestantism, or interdenominational movements such as Pietism and the Charismatic Movement.
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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." Fortescue states that "this theory is common among all Protestant bodies, although each one generally holds that it is the purest 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."
In Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth, defined the "Evangelical Church" as having three branches: Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican. The "Evangelical Church" was to be distinguished from what he termed the "three heresies of Neoprotestantism, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy".
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 Michael A. Fahey, and others. 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.Most Eastern Orthodox theologians also reject it.
A writer in the United States publication Orthodox Life says that ecumenism promotes the idea of a Church comprising all baptized Christians and within which the different confessions are "sister churches".
The metaphor of Christianity compared to one body breathing with two lungs was coined by the Russian poet and philosopher Vyacheslav Ivanov, inspired by the worldview of the 19th century Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov. Solovyov "felt that eastern Christians could learn from the Western church's relatively active presence in the world."
Ivanov accepted "the idea of 'Unia'", according to Robert Bird, the "combination of traditional rite and papal authority explains why Ivanov felt he was now breathing with both lungs." Pope John Paul II, according to Bird, "adopted Ivanov's imagery of the two 'lungs' of the universal Church" but John Paul II's "image of the full Church seems to presume their equal coexistence, supposedly without the submission of the East to papal authority."
John Paul II used the two lungs of a single body metaphor in the context of "the different forms of the Church's great tradition" in Redemptoris Mater (1987). John Paul II used 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 the Catholic Church must avail itself of the traditions of both Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity. The Catholic Church uses this metaphor to compare the Latin Church's tradition to the Eastern Orthodox Churches' traditions and also Eastern Catholic Churches' traditions, as emphasized in the Second Vatican Council's Orientalium ecclesiarum, the decree on Eastern Catholic Churches. John Paul II elaborated the metaphor, in Sacri Canones (1990), "the Church itself, gathered in the one Spirit, breathes as though with two lungs – of the East and of the West – and that it burns with the love of Christ in one heart having two ventricles."
An anonymous author wrote, in Orthodox Life magazine, that the metaphor comparing the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church to two lungs of one body was "shaped and influenced by" the branch theory and developed by "Orthodox ecumenists and Papists". Eastern Orthodox reject as incompatible[contradictory] 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", according to Archpriest Andrew Phillips.[dubious ] Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople "rejects the opinion" that "there would be an 'incompatibility between Orthodox tradition and the European cultural way', which would be antinomic" and points out that idea "is against the principle of equality and respect of peoples and cultural traditions on our continent."
Ion Bria wrote in 1991 that the metaphor "may be attractive as an aid for understanding the formation of two distinctive traditions in Christianity after A.D. 1054." In 2005, Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, chairman of the Representation of the Russian Orthodox Church to the European Institutions, told the 6th Gniezno Convention that the metaphor is "particularly relevant" when he "proposed to form a European Catholic-Orthodox Alliance" and said "nothing should prevent us from uniting our efforts in order to defend Christian tradition, without waiting for the restoration of full unity between the two lungs of European Christianity."
This "branch" theory (i.e. one Catholic Church with three branches of Anglican, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic) has received mixed reception even within the Anglican Communion.
The Eastern Orthodox Church (Russian, Greek, Serbian, etc.) considered itself the One True Church. The Catholic Church to the west was a heresy, and Protestants were a heresy of a heresy.
WCC was instrumental in promoting ecumenical consciousness at various international, regional and national levels, in countries of many Orthodox Churches. It was in this spirit during meetings of the WCC that Eastern Orthodox Churches and Oriental Churches have entered into an informal theological dialogue.
Today, it is recognized that the issues that divide Oriental Orthodox from Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox over Christology are largely verbal
Whereas the Russian Methodist Church typically holds some variation of the 'branch theory' ecclesiology, advocating that Christianity is represented by three branches: Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant, Russian Orthodox theologians of all kinds staunchly reject the branch theory and insist that the Orthodox Church represents the Church of Christ on earth the entire fullness of the church that Christ established. These questions are important because they lay the ground for understanding in what way the United Methodist Church belongs to the church that Christ established on earth from the Orthodox point of view.
According to this theory, as Fortescue explains it, Christ's Church has no visible unity but is instead portioned into numerous denominations that are somehow invisibly connected. He asserts that this theory is common among all Protestant bodies, although each one generally holds that it is the purest branch. Fortescue considers the Anglican version unique, however, for it divides the Church into only three branches: the Eastern branch (Eastern Orthodoxy), the continental Westen branch (Roman Catholicism), and the British branch (Anglicanism).
Vatican II (1962-1965) was a key turning point that marked the beginning of Catholic ecumenism, paved the way for the current dialogue, and hammered out seminal ideas ("sister Churches" and "two lungs") about the nature and shape of that relationship within a new framework of mutuality. While the road to Catholic-Orthodox understanding has not always been smooth and numerous challenges still remain, the author argues that further ecumenical progress stands to gain from a new understanding of each church as diverse and multifaceted in its own right.
Christianity must breathe with two lungs, Eastern and Western. This metaphor, which belongs to the Russian poet Vyacheslav Ivanov and derives from the worldview of Vladimir Soloviev, is very popular in Catholic circles. It was used by Pope John Paul II in his public addresses. Today, Ivanov's metaphor is often used with regard to Europe and European Christianity, as well as within the context of the dialogue between the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches.
Using Pope John Paul II's analogy, the left lung represents the Latin Rite, and the right lung represents the Eastern Churches. (Note to Viewers: The Eastern Churches include all of the Eastern Rites in union with Rome, and the separated Orthodox Churches.)[self-published source]
In the context of Ut Unum Sint, it becomes clear that the Holy Father is claiming that the Catholic Church has been dominated primarily by the Latin tradition. He believes that a balance must be restored, in which both the Latin and Eastern traditions will contribute to the health of the Church.
For this reason the present Pope John Paul II has spoken rather of the 'two-lung theory', an idea which has much appeal to a Pope from Eastern Europe who lives in Western Europe. He seems to have used this expression for the first time in his Apostolic Letter Euntes in mundum in 1988 on the millennium of the Baptism of Ancient Russia: 'Europe has two lungs, it will never breathe easily until it uses both of them'. This metaphor has since often been used by his speechwriters, such as the French philosopher Olivier Clement, who frequents both Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. However attractive the idea of uniting East and West, Orthodoxy and Catholicism, just as two lungs are united in one body, this theory is unacceptable to the vast majority of Orthodox and also to more than a few Roman Catholics.Firstly, it is unacceptable because it presents the Church as having two parts, a Western part, Catholicism, and an Eastern part, Orthodoxy. It presents therefore a territorialist concept, that Orthodoxy is only for Easterners, and that Catholicism is only for Westerners. Church unity is all a mere matter of geography and culture. This is obviously not the case, since there are Easterners who at present find a spiritual home in Catholicism, and Westerners who find a spiritual home in Orthodoxy. Secondly, the metaphor is untrue because the Church is not composed of parts of a body, two lungs, but of a single body, in fact, the Church is the Body of Christ, as the Apostle Paul called it in the first century. If the Church were two lungs, what would the heart or the stomach or the legs or the brain or any other organs or members represent? Either the Church is Roman Catholicism or else it is Orthodoxy.
Emphasis on the spirit of catholicity or universality as communion in the Spirit questions the validity of the Roman Catholic theory of 'the two lungs'.