Christian Unity: What Are the Prospects? January 2001

Where are we going now?

Bishop John Hind and and Archbishop Cormac Murphy-O'Connor

After more than 30 years of work by the theological commission set up by ARCIC, the Roman Catholic and Anglican bishops decided to take stock of what had been achieved and to consider the two Churches' relations from a specifically pastoral standpoint. Thirteen pairs of bishops from different parts of the world met for a week in May last year at Mississauga in Canada. Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, and John Hind, bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, represented England and Wales. We publish here a slightly adapted version of the article written by Bishop Hind for Unity Digest, in which he gives an account of the meeting of bishops. Archbishop Murphy-O'Connor, who gave one of the presentations at the meeting, then adds a comment on that report.

Bishop John Hind:

The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission has pursued a theological and doctrinal agenda for more than 30 years and has produced an impressive series of agreed statements (‘agreed’, that is, by the Commission itself).

Of these agreed statements, only the first series, in the so-called Final Report, received official responses. So there is a question about what to do with the rest. There is also a question, given the high degree of common faith recorded in the responses to Final Report, including the Vatican’s ambiguous response, about the translation of theological agreements into changed relationships.

Over the years there has been some misunderstanding (and criticism) of the method adopted by ARCIC of trying to ‘get behind’ the hostile language of the past. At the time of the Reformation many hard things were said in the heat of controversy. The issues at stake were vital because they touched on the central questions of salvation, but the way things were then expressed, and even more importantly the later reasons Christians found to justify their separation, hardened opposition. This is one of the reasons why even today some people find it necessary not so much to explain their own position as to show why others are wrong!

The ARCIC method, which is in fact the increasingly common method in all ecumenical dialogue, seeks to get behind the point of conflict and to ask whether, particularly in the light of the way the Churches actually live and teach today, the language of opposition and rejection is always necessary or justified. This approach does not try to judge the past but to understand it, and it wants more than anything to allow separated Christians to ‘get under each other’s skin’ and to try to see the gospel through their eyes.

One of the interesting experiences to which ecumenists have consistently testified is the way in which by living together, praying together and learning to understand each other as (Christian) persons during the course of dialogue they have discovered the possibility of truth in the way other people see things without having to betray their own deeply held convictions.

Seeking to understand

The Final Report of ARCIC I is an eloquent testimony to what can happen when people adopt a different mindset, and seek to understand rather than condemn each other. The paper from the Faith and Order Advisory Group which led to the General Synod’s positive vote on BEM and ARCIC drew explicit attention to the importance of this ecumenical method.

It was, in the light of this, all the more disappointing to hear a number of voices, both Anglican and Roman Catholic, insisting on measuring the Final Report not against Scripture and our actual experience of living the Christian life, but against the sixteenth-century formularies, which were precisely drawn up in order to define one position over against another. Nevertheless that is what happened, and, in retrospect, it may not be difficult to understand why. The Malta Report of 1968 recommended a number of measures, including some practical pastoral and educational steps. In the event the only permanent instrument that was established was a theological commission. Because this commission was charged to look precisely at the areas of historic disagreement between the Churches it is perhaps not surprising that some people in both Churches would scrutinise these findings in the hope of finding victory over the other side.

Salutary experience

By no means everyone reacted like this of course, but the experience was salutary. The members of ecumenical commissions have an opportunity to get to know, like and understand each other, and in the process to appreciate the religious seriousness of each other’s experience, which is not shared by other members of their Churches. It is then difficult if not impossible for such commissions to communicate the agreement they have found to the wider membership of their respective Churches, who have not shared the same experience.

Agreement in faith is, after all, essential for unity, but it is not the only thing. In this connection it is important to recall that in responding to Final Report we were not only asked ‘whether the Agreed Statements on Eucharistic Doctrine, Ministry and Ordination and Authority in the Church I and II, together with the Elucidations are consonant in substance with the faith of Anglicans’, but also ‘whether the Final Report offers a sufficient basis for taking the next concrete step towards the reconciliation of our Churches grounded in agreement in faith’. While this reflected the conviction of the Malta Report that theology and practical steps towards unity must be held together, in the event attention was almost exclusively given to the doctrinal question.

It was the recognition of this phenomenon that led the authorities of both Churches to think that it was important for those with pastoral responsibility in the Churches to ‘reclaim’ the process and set it in a more holistic ecclesial context. There was a sense that the time had come to take stock of where we had got to, and to look more widely than the theological agenda.

Of course, ‘looking more widely’ is a possible translation of oversight/episkopé and is certainly an obligation of bishops, so when the idea for this consultation was first mooted it was clear that it should be an episcopal meeting, that is to say an attempt to look at the ARCIC process in the context of Anglican-Roman Catholic relations as a whole, and from a specifically pastoral standpoint.

The project was crystallised during a conversation between the Archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal Cassidy (President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity) following the celebration of the visionary but possibly premature ‘Malines conversations’. The discussion centred mainly on the fact that despite remarkable convergence by ARCIC in a number of difficult theological areas and the efforts of national ARCs (Anglican-Roman Catholic Committees) in several countries, the daily lives of Anglicans and Roman Catholics in their separated Churches did not after 30 years seem very much closer together.

Not the whole story

It was recognised that one of the reasons for this apparent lack of practical progress was that while the vision of Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Michael Ramsey in 1966 and the Malta Report of 1968 had been for the full visible unity of the Church, the only part of that agenda to be taken up had been the need for theological and doctrinal agreement. Agreement in these areas was obviously vital, but was not the whole story.

This was not therefore a meeting of ARCIC, despite some misleading reports.

Process

Under the chairmanship of the Archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal Cassidy, thirteen pairs of Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops from different parts of the world met for the inside of a week, supported by staff and expert advisers.

The bishops came from:

Australia, Ireland, South Africa, Brazil, Nigeria, Uganda, Canada, New Zealand, United States, England, Papua New Guinea, West Indies, India*

Some were familiar with the ARCIC process and had much experience of Anglican-Roman Catholic collaboration and/or tensions. Others had hardly even heard of ARCIC or met a member of the other Church!

The meeting began with a half-day retreat leading to renewal of baptismal commitment at which the participants signed each other with the cross. The whole week was structured around the Eucharist and the divine office, celebrated alternately, according to Anglican and Roman Catholic rites, and meditation. At the Eucharist the usual ARCIC practice was adopted of each participant respecting the eucharistic discipline both of his own and the other Church, with those not communicating on alternate days receiving a blessing from the celebrant. The extent of the common liturgical tradition of the Churches was very apparent (to the surprise of some), as also was the very real discomfiture several people felt at not being able to receive the sacrament at each other’s Eucharists.

The work of the week involved sharing information on actual relations and difficulties, looking at the extent of shared faith as revealed by ARCIC and the official responses. We heard from bishops in the developing world about the problems disunity causes for mission. Needless to say, the Irish pair gave very poignant testimony to the price of disunity. This varied but integrated programme enabled the consultation to draw up a comprehensive global map of Anglican-Roman Catholic relations at the levels of faith and practice, of theory and experience. In many parts of the world the unity of Christians is an imperative if the Church is to engage seriously with the concrete social, cultural and economic problems of their own areas.

There had been a minimum of preparatory papers. The major ‘set-piece’ presentation was a paper by Fr J.-M. Tillard OP,* already very sick, on the goal of full visible unity, especially in the light of what currently appear to be insurmountable obstacles. His lecture was notable for its realism about the difficulties (to which recent decisions and current practices in both Churches have contributed) and its optimism about the extent to which ‘communion in/for mission’ can anticipate sacramental fellowship. Archbishop Cormac Murphy-O’Connor gave a paper on ‘What we agree in faith according to ARCIC’ and the author of this article responded with a short paper on ‘What we agree in faith according to the official responses to Final Report’.

The experience

The week was remarkable as an experience of mutual discovery, including the very important matter of discovering something of the ‘insides’ of each other’s ways of being the Church. For many it was a process of ‘catching up’ with what ARCIC had been through.

In the safety of growing friendship we were able to identify and then look together at difficult issues in pastoral matters such as inter-church families and eucharistic discipline, the implications of different approaches to some moral questions and above all at stereotypes of how authority is exercised and its relationship to power. It is important also to notice how dominated Anglicans around the world seem to be by Anglo-Saxon views of law, and Roman Catholics by the Roman tradition of jurisprudence. This has significant implications for different emphases in moral theological method.

It was recognised that there is a mismatch in both Churches between the ideals and theories of authority and the actual exercise and experience of it. Bishops of both Churches were able to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of their own tradition and to recognise something of what they might have to learn from others. Several participants have reflected on their delight at membership of a consultation whose method was carefully prepared but whose actual process was left to the guidance of the Spirit and the interaction of those present. What I found especially interesting was to experience the way in which this group of Christians from widely different experience and background grew together during the course of the week. We discovered of course that in many cases the divisions were within the Churches and not between them. (I was not alone in finding the principal issue to be that of authority, and this was clearly an example of where alliances were not always where they might have been expected!) Above all however we were able to recognise each other as fellow disciples and to appreciate rather better the commission the Lord has given to each of us.

Outcome

The immediate results have already been given wide publicity. The main thing is to recognise realistically where we are. Many aspects of the governance of the Roman Catholic Church remain deeply problematic for other Christians, including Anglicans and Orthodox. Anglicans for their part should not ignore the hugeness of the obstacle posed by the ordination of women or the uncertainty many Roman Catholics say they feel about the actual beliefs and practices of Anglicans.

This meeting was to take stock, consolidate existing achievements and set a track for the future. It was concerned not to push actuality beyond what can sensibly be claimed or achieved. Its long-term consequences are likely to be the stronger and more solid as a result.

The outcome of the consultation was therefore modest but exciting. It was agreed that we needed an overarching commission to oversee Anglican-Roman Catholic relations as a whole. The work of ARCIC must continue; it should both present in a comprehensive way the progress made to date and continue its work on the areas of remaining disagreement, especially that of authority and everything that follows from problems in this area. Local ARCs should be set up where they do not already exist. Work should be done towards a joint declaration to be prepared and celebrated. Attention must be given to the mission implications of disunity and to its pastoral consequences, especially in matters such as the needs of inter-church families. Steps are to be taken to strengthen communion in mission and life, and to ensure better mutual consultation, especially where one Church is contemplating decisions which might have implications for the other.

All in all, this bishops’ meeting gave a resounding endorsement to the recommendations of the Malta Report and wondered, somewhat wistfully, where we might have been today had that agenda been picked up in its entirety thirty years ago.

Archbishop Cormac Murphy-O’Connor:

I am glad to give a comment on Bishop John Hind’s article on the Mississauga meeting of Anglican and Catholic bishops held in May 2000. As one who was present at the meeting, there were two thoughts which constantly came to my mind during those days together.

The first thought was of the well-known words from the Vatican II document on ecumenism: ‘There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without interior conversion, newness of attitudes and unstinted love.’ Time and time again, it is when Anglicans and Catholics pray together, meet together, speak of what exactly they can do together in mission and witness to the Lord, that thoughts and actions towards full unity are most fruitful. I do not think I have ever been to an ecumenical gathering where there has not been a common desire to grow together, to work more closely together, and thoughts and a longing for greater unity are not manifest. Spiritual ecumenism is at the heart of all ecumenism and we are already united in our common baptism and our love of Jesus Christ. When we focus and turn to him together then his Spirit evokes newness of attitudes and unstinted love that are the prerequisite of any growth in communion. These are very simple thoughts but it seems to me that Anglicans and Catholics must reassure themselves that common prayer and witness are in themselves vital steps to the greater unity that we seek. In our meeting together, especially during our common prayer, those thoughts and profound desires for fuller unity were always in my mind and in my heart. So it should be for everyone who wishes to fulfil the will of the Lord, ‘that all may be one’.

One other thought and aspect of our meeting was the spirit of confidence and hope for the future. The fact is that the shape of full visible unity is beyond our capacity to put into words. We were reminded in a meditation that ‘God will always surprise us’; God cannot be understood through our human systems or correspond to our positive or negative predictions for the future. In our ecumenical efforts we should keep in mind that one day we will rub our eyes and be surprised by the new things that God has achieved in his Church.

These should not be gloomy times for ecumenism. Our God is a God of surprises and will constantly fulfil more than we can even imagine. Surely our task is to be faithful to the ecumenical endeavour to which we have been called: the will of Christ expressed through his Churches constantly promoted by Pope John Paul, together with all the bishops. The Mississauga meeting was a reminder to the bishops that there is more to be done to develop the communion that we already share and that we should not shirk from fulfilling it.

I am glad that Bishop John Hind, soon to be Bishop of Chichester, has given such a good and realistic overview of the meeting, which revealed a deeper communion and sense of hope for Anglicans and Catholics than many would would have deemed possible.




More by Bishop John Hind and and Archbishop Cormac Murphy-O'Connor
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