What does the future hold for ecumenical relations?

(A warning of the consequences of ‘de-centralisation’ much talked about in Rome)

from:  The Catholic Herald.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, addresses the media during a press conference in Canterbury last week (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

(AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

The fault lines in Anglicanism revealed at last week’s primates meeting will not simply disappear

It is almost five years since I resigned my post in the Church of England and sought to be received into full communion with the Catholic Church. My decision was a difficult one which involved leaving behind much that I loved and was familiar with. Often people assumed that I was running away from issues developing within the Church of England but this was not the case. My journey commenced because of a growing understanding that the Church of England and Anglican Communion were not what I thought they were.

The 1930 Lambeth Conference asserted that the Anglican Communion was a “fellowship, within the one holy catholic and apostolic church, of those duly constituted dioceses, provinces or regional churches in communion with the see of Canterbury.” Developments within Anglicanism led me to the personal realisation that it was communion with the see of Rome and not the see of Canterbury that guaranteed catholicity.

Last week’s Anglican primates meeting and the unfounded speculations about a breakdown of relationships between the different worldwide Anglican churches has confirmed my decision and understanding of Catholicity. It also highlights broader issues which will be faced by the Anglican Communion in its relationship with the Catholic Church. Questions are posed about how we continue to work in ecumenical conversation.

While a resolution has been reached the whole affair highlights fault lines in Anglicanism that will not simply disappear.

What will the future of ecumenical discussions be?

ARCIC remains the principle organisation which seeks to make ecumenical progress between the Anglican Communion and Catholic Church. Relations have already become strained because of the ordination of woman within the Anglican Communion and the opening session of the third phase of ARCIC in 2011 recognised tension caused over the erection of Personal Ordinariates for former Anglicans.

While the global south has been represented in ARCIC there has remained a dominance of theologians from the northern hemisphere. The outcome of last week’s primates meeting demonstrates clearly that the balance of power has shifted in Anglicanism. The African Anglican primate’s voice was obviously strong and will only grow stronger as the western forms of Anglicanism continue to steadily decline.

One of the suggested outcomes initially last week was that future bonds within the Anglican Communion should be reliant on a common relationship with the Archbishop of Canterbury rather that communion between diocese and provinces. While this did not happen, it may only be a matter of time before issues resurface again and the primates will be back at this point again. If Anglicanism were to no longer function as a communion, different parts would only relate to each other because of historic affection for Canterbury rather than the mutual recognition. Anglicanism would no longer be bound together by confessional unity. This would certainly undermine Anglicanism’s claims of catholicity.

At present the Anglican partner in ARCIC is The Anglican Consultative Council. But in the future, if the Anglican Communion were to be at best a looser federation, who would provide the authentic Anglican voice in ecumenical discussions? It could all become very complicated.

The focus of the third and present phase of ARCIC is to consider questions relating to, “The Church as Communion, local and universal, and how in Communion the local and Universal Church come to discern right ethical teaching” (ARCIC III 2015). The first meeting of ARCIC III discussed at length a draft document which examined the structures of both the Anglican Communion and Catholic Church and how such structures facilitate communion within and among the local and universal dimensions of the church. It will be virtually impossible to have such a discussion in the future as relationships within Anglicanism will become so complicated and nuanced. X will be in communion with Y but not with Z, and so on. The difficulty will be that one partner in ARCIC has a largely coherent understanding of communion and the ecclesiology and the other has a wide and diverse understanding which will become further confused by fragmentation.

Potentially as Catholics we would have to enter into conversations with several different expressions of Anglicanism, if ecumenical talks were to still be meaningful. Certainly ARCIC’s focus, composition and efforts may need to radically shift.

Also how can we make progress in terms of unity with an ecclesial community that doesn’t seem at unity in itself?

What of the Church of England’s national voice?

Despite falling attendances and general decline, he Church of England still has an important national voice, especially on international issues such as persecuted Christians, climate change and the developing world. Being the focus of a global communion of 85 million people (a figure which changes depending on your source) certainly helps in giving credence to statements from the Archbishop of Canterbury and others. If this global dimension is diminished what effect will that have on our national church’s ability to speak with credibility? Realistically Anglicanism ceases to be such a global entity. The death knell of international Anglicanism could leave a vacuum.

It is an obvious statement that the Catholic Church in England and Wales exists within a global context, with full communion with brothers and sisters throughout the world. However, would our bishops be in a position (or have the desire) to fill the vacuum that Anglicanism leaves? One of the consequences of leaving a vacuum unfilled is the further creeping in of secularism into our national life.

A warning to those who seek decentralisation within the Catholic Church

Those who seek decentralisation within the Catholic Church can gain a glimpse in last week’s primates meeting of what the future may hold if they were to be granted their wishes. A compromise was reached by the primates last week but this decision was not without its sacrifices. Anglicans in America who have been placed under sanctions will surely not keep quiet for long. The danger is that last week’s resolution will be merely a surface dressing and therefore the inevitable is only prolonged. Good will can only stretch so far.

The Anglican Church in North America was founded in 2009 by former members of The Episcopal Church who were dissatisfied and disaffected. This group already claims 29 dioceses and looks to the African Bishops for oversight. This sort of arrangement is only likely to grow as Africa becomes stronger and northern Anglicanism shrinks. In all this the weaknesses of decentralised authority is clearly demonstrated. Do will really want to follow in this way? If we are honest are there similar fault lines closer to home?

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4 Responses to What does the future hold for ecumenical relations?

  1. “Those who seek decentralisation within the Catholic Church can gain a glimpse in last week’s primates meeting of what the future may hold if they were to be granted their wishes,” writes Father Pittam. Many of us hope that the Pope and the Kasperites, especially those here in Germany, are reading or listening to those words. We fear, though, that they are not.

  2. Robert says:

    The spirit of Assisi 1986 stalks the Vatican.

  3. Michael says:

    A splendid article, and a good exposition of what happens when you try to hold together a worldwide organisation of any kind without any real strictures or structure. To be fair to the Anglicans though, their ecclesiology was incoherent from the beginning – when the Church of England broke from Rome, it insisted on being ‘Catholic and Reformed’ and thus holding to the concept of a visible, institutional church (and that they were a local expression of this), yet also insisting that there was no real division or disunion in the Protestant world because the church is not to be found in institutional expressions. There is of course also the perennial problem that authority has no definitive voice or location within Anglicanism*.

    Furthermore, the problem of engaging in ecumenical discussions with Anglicans, whilst intensified with the present tensions, was always a difficult one insofar as it is such a ‘broad church’ that you never know what kind of Anglican you’re talking to – there are those, now few in number, who hold to virtually all that a Catholic does, but still insists that the CofE has retained catholicity and reunion is possible (and gets all their direction from papal encyclicals); there are ‘moderate’ types who appreciate the sacramental emphasis within Anglicanism but would not consider themselves too ‘high’ in their doctrine; there are those (who have the same ordination and are in communion with Anglo-catholics) who have more in common with Presbyterians or Congregationalists than anyone else, and who would baulk at the term ‘priest’; finally there are those who are best categorised as believing and preaching a kind of therapeutic pantheism, with a soupçon of moral guidance (just so long as it’s the nice bits, not the kind that might make people feel ‘judged’).

    Most of these divisions have existed since day one, with those believing virtually all the Church teaches (and not thinking that breaking with Rome would affect things – c.f.; Stephen Gardiner)** jostling along side Calvinists, Lutherans and Zwinglians and still managing to say with a straight face that they ‘essentially’ stood for the same thing. Add the ordination of women into the equation and you have a baffling divergence of opinion coupled with departure from historic teaching and practice – how is anyone meant to ‘dialogue’ with that, with any reasonable sense that reunion might be possible on such terms?

    *See this excellent lecture by Fr. Edward Norman, former canon of York Minster, received into the Church via the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. It’s long but worth it if enough time becomes available:

    **Another important point to note is that, after the Henrician period, these dwindled in number fairly quickly. It is easy for modern Anglicans to convince themselves, post Oxford-Movement, that the CofE (and other parts of the AC) have always been spread evenly between the catholic-leaning elements and the more overtly Protestant ones, but the reality is that when Newman et al began their project of rehabilitating the CofE, a fully Protestant mentality had been dominant for a good couple of centuries, with catholic elements representing a minority voice – still one worth retrieving, as Pope Benedict saw, but a minority one nonetheless.


  4. Michael says:

    Also, when considering the claims of Anglicanism at any point in its history, but particularly now, I think it is worthing asking the same sort of question Blessed John Henry Newman did:

    The truth is, I believe, I was always asking myself what would the Fathers have done, what would those whose works were around my room, whose names were ever meeting my eyes, whose authority was ever influencing my judgment, what would these men have said, how would they have acted in my position? I had made a good case on paper, but what judgment would be passed on it by Athanasius, Basil, Gregory, Hilary, and Ambrose? The more I considered the matter, the more I thought that these Fathers, if they examined the antagonist pleas, would give it against me.

    I expressed this feeling in my Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. “Did St. Athanasius, or St. Ambrose, come suddenly to life, it cannot be doubted,” I said ironically, “what communion they would mistake for their own. All surely will agree that these Fathers, with whatever differences of opinion, whatever protests, if we will, would find themselves more at home with such men as St. Bernard, or St. Ignatius Loyola, or with the lonely priest in his lodgings, or the holy sisterhood of Charity, or the unlettered crowd before the altar, than with the rulers or members of any other religious community.

    And may we not add, that were the two Saints, who once sojourned in exile or on embassage at Treves, to come more northward still, and to travel until they reached another fair city, seated among groves, green meadows, and calm streams, the holy brothers would turn from many a high aisle and solemn cloister which they found there, and ask the way to some small chapel, where mass was said, in the populous alley or the forlorn suburb? And, on the other hand, can any one who has but heard his name, and cursorily read his history, doubt for one instant, how the people of England, in turn, ‘we, our princes, our priests, and our prophets,’ Lords and Commons, Universities, Ecclesiastical Courts, marts of commerce, great towns, country parishes, would deal with Athanasius,—Athanasius, who spent his long years in fighting against kings for a theological term?”


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