Halting Ecumenism

John Hind reflects on the ecumenical conclusions to be draw from some recent events

The ecumenical fall-out of Gene Robinson’s consecration as Bishop coadjutor of New Hampshire has been considerable. Some churches have reacted negatively to the action itself, while some have expressed their concern over the confusion it has revealed about the integrity of the Anglican Communion. It is one thing for separated churches to discuss the issues which divide them, it is something quite different to discover that you are no longer sure of the identity of a dialogue partner!

This was clearly expressed by Crispian Hollis, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth: ‘In such conversations we need to know, on the level of Church, who we are talking to and the Anglicans themselves need to be able to speak in such a way that they are confident of being representative of the whole Anglican Communion.’

No common approach

Anglicans have long been aware of this problem and are reminded acutely of it whenever people stress that because Lambeth Conferences have only ‘moral’ and no ‘juridical’ authority, their resolutions are ‘non-binding’. Even if Anglicans reject on principle the idea that any decision is ultimately authoritative apart from its reception by the Church as a whole, one should not, in an episcopal church, so lightly disregard the moral authority of the world-wide episcopate. Our continued failure to agree what authorities bind us as Anglicans has led to the present confusion.

All this highlights the extent to which the Anglican Communion lacks a common approach to faith and morals. This is where the ecumenical impact of these events strikes most sharply and the current impaired communion between member churches of the Anglican Communion is already a serious compromising of our own ecclesiological principles.

More positively, acknowledging this led to the Virginia Report on the instruments of communion and to the Lambeth 1998 resolution proposing a commission to advise the Archbishop of Canterbury on the circumstances in which, exceptionally, he should intervene directly in the affairs of a province other than his own. It is, however, to be regretted that the Conference did not give more attention to the Virginia Report and that it is only belatedly that the recommended commission has, in changed circumstances, been instituted.

‘Provincial autonomy’ has at last been exposed for the ecclesial nonsense it is, and some ecumenical partners have decided enough is enough. The Oriental Orthodox churches have postponed the next meeting of their dialogue with the Anglican Communion and the Patriarchate of Moscow has suspended its contacts with ECUSA, noting however its desire to ‘maintain contacts and co-operation with the members of the Episcopal Church in the USA who clearly declared their loyalty to the moral teaching of the Holy Gospel and the Ancient Undivided Church.’

Nuanced response

The reaction of the Roman Catholic Church is obviously of particular significance. The Vatican’s response has been nuanced and, despite some early reports, the immediate effects for ARCIC have not been as bad as some people feared. Although Frank Griswold’s resignation as Anglican Co-chair of ARCIC was inevitable from the moment he consented to the election of Gene Robinson, the speedy appointment of a successor (Peter Carnley) means that the work of the Commission need not be unduly delayed. Indeed, discussions will begin in 2004 about the next phase of the life of the Commission.

 

The present crisis has come as the present commission is apparently close to finalizing the text of the latest ‘agreed statement’ – on the place of Mary in Christian life, doctrine and devotion. Both Roman Catholic and Anglican churches are committed to the continuation of the doctrinal discussions which have already led to such increased mutual understanding over the past 30 years. Although common faith is only one element in the quest for the full visible unity of the church, it is a central element, which is why the ARCIC agenda has been determined by those areas in which Anglicans and Roman Catholics have historically disagreed or have been thought to disagree.

Responses from members of both churches to the various agreed statements of ARCIC have been varied, but even critics have recognized that they have achieved a great deal in terms of clarifying old misunderstandings and preparing the way for further rapprochement.

IARCCUM

In the late nineties it was felt that the time had come to move beyond the theological dialogue and to begin considering the practical aspects of the growing fellowship between Anglicans and Roman Catholics in many parts of the world. This was the background to the Mississauga meeting of bishops from thirteen areas representing very different levels of mutual knowledge and collaboration. The result was the International Anglican–Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission, one of whose central tasks was to work on a common statement expressing the extent of agreement.

It is, not surprisingly, on the work of IARCCUM that the effects of New Hampshire are felt most acutely. The ARCIC theological dialogue can continue of course. But whether that theological dialogue can be translated into changed ecclesial relationships is another question, and that of course is the focus of IARCCUM. It is a tribute to how much has been achieved over the years that the work of IARCCUM as a whole has not been suspended or even terminated.

Danger and opportunity

Nevertheless, the next projected plenary meeting and its work towards the publication and reception of a common statement of Faith has been ‘put on hold,’ while most of the work of the subcommittees continues. More than that, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the President of PCPCU have set up to a new group ‘to reflect jointly on the ecclesiological issues raised by recent developments within the Anglican Communion in the light of the relevant Agreed Statements of ARCIC.’ If, as suggested in the Tablet, this new subgroup arises from the Archbishop’s request to ‘enlist the Roman Catholic Church to help [the Anglican Communion] determine its future shape,’ we might detect a pleasing symmetry with Pope John Paul’s appeal in Ut unum sint! to other churches to help him discern the way in which he should exercise his ministry, so that it ‘may accomplish a service of love recognized by all concerned.’ At least it shows we are all in the same boat!

As the Tablet further observed, this is ‘a moment rich in danger and opportunity in equal measure’. Anglicans and Roman Catholics alike now have the opportunity to reflect together on the way in which culture and modernity affect the life and practice of Christians and on the implications of this for church unity. Please God this may be just the opportunity we both need not only to advance what we need for unity, but, even more importantly, what we need for our common mission in a complex and confusing modern world.

 

John Hind is Chairman of Faith and Order Advisory Group of the Church of England and a member of the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Ecumenical Relations and of the Faith and Order Commission of World Council of Churches. He is also Bishop of Chichester.

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