Where to now for Anglicans and Rome


Archbishops Rowan Williams (Canterbury, Anglican) and Vincent Nichols (Westminster, Roman Catholic) made a rare Joint Statement in London on Tuesday 20 October, making headlines.

It concerned a forthcoming Apostolic Constitution approved by Pope Benedict XVI. This sets outs a structure for 'groups of Anglicans' to come into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, while 'preserving elements of distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony'. Available details are in a note from the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).

Why the media interest? Individual Anglicans have been moving to Rome for years. Each is treated personally: male Anglican clergy (which have included married ones) have to accept being (re)ordained as priests. Rome is not interested merely in those who cannot accept women as priests, but looks for a genuine sense of vocation to ministry in communion with the Bishop of Rome.

This new Apostolic Constitution shifts the ground from individuals to groups. A few one-off groups have moved (e.g. the Anglican diocese of Amritsar, India). But now a 'single canonical model' is to apply across the board.

This is probably the most significant Anglican-Vatican event since the visit of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, to Rome in 1966, which inaugurated formal dialogue. This time, however, it seems that Rowan Williams was caught by surprise, having only a fortnight's notice, and with no opportunity to respond before the Constitution was finalised in Rome.

The three 'flying bishops' of the Church of England, who have pastoral charge of those who cannot accept women as priests, welcomed the news. Groups such as the (officially non-Anglican) Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC) have been 'nurturing hopes of new ways of embracing unity with the Catholic Church', as the archbishops acknowledge.

CDF describes this as a 'world-wide phenomenon', and presents it as 'another step toward the realisation of the aspiration for full, visible union in the Church of Christ'.

It is now up to such groups to 'respond to the Apostolic Constitution'. Forward in Faith (UK) suggests that interested English parishes look to 18  January 2010 (the Roman feast 'Chair of St Peter' — 'Confession of Peter' for Australian Anglicans) as a suitable date to decide to apply.

Some questions

Each ex-Anglican group will be governed by a 'Personal Ordinariat' (usually a bishop, who must be unmarried), akin to the 'Military Ordinariates', which cross diocesan lines. A raft of questions arise.

Will these Ordinariats be a permanent element in the Roman Catholic Church (such as the Maronites)? Could this be a way in which a whole diocese (The Murray?) or Province (Nigeria?) might move to Rome?

The Ordinariats may establish 'a house of formation' to train ordinands, who will be 'prepared alongside other Catholic seminarians', states the CDF: this envisages ongoing long-term institutions. Will such 'Anglican Ordinariat' seminarians be able to marry, before (as with Eastern rite Catholics) or after ordination? What effect will the presence of 'conservative' married clergy in significant numbers have on 'liberal' celibate clergy?

How might the Anglican Communion be affected? In North America, most interested groups have already left: the horse has bolted, and change would just shut the door. In Australia, the TAC has maintained a presence in the Torres Strait since the 1998 schism, but is also outside the Communion. On the other hand, the deep unhappiness in Ballarat and The Murray is unlikely to be resolved by corporate defections, which would put those dioceses in peril. Might some participants in the 2008 alternative-Lambeth GAFCON move to Rome?

It is the Church of England which is most likely to feel the consequences of the Apostolic Constitution. 'Conservatives' have a distinctive structural place in that Church, to the level of parallel episcopal structures. If many Forward in Faith parishes (or 'flying dioceses') moved, the make-up of the CofE would shift. The Anglo-catholic stream in the national, established Church would be diminished and 'liberalised', while 'reform'-minded Evangelicals might consider leaving, if not for Rome then for Orthodoxy or non-conformity.

Large-scale moves in the Church of England could alter the shape of Anglican Communion — and possibly liberate it. But would the Anglican Communion which remains be trusted by Rome to continue in active dialogue? Or would the dialogue be reduced to the 'let's be friends' level, rather than its 'work towards visible unity' heritage?

Which is where this matter becomes personal.

ARCIC — betrayed, fulfilled or side-stepped?

Since 1971, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) has worked hard to produce Agreed Statements on all matters dividing the two traditions — eucharist, ministry, church, morals, authority, Mary. This body of work is described by the CDF as providing the 'framework' within which 'this new provision should be seen'. Further, Cardinal Levada (Prefect of the CDF) says that:

'It is the hope of the Holy Father, Benedict XVI, that the Anglican clergy and faithful who desire union with the Catholic Church will find in this canonical structure the opportunity to preserve those Anglican traditions precious to them and consistent with the Catholic faith.'

I am such an Anglican — or I would not have accepted the invitation to be part of ARCIC.

I welcome the significant use by Benedict XVI of the word 'clergy' in this context. I am also glad to read the archbishops' intention to continue 'shared meetings and close co-operation' between Church of England and Roman Catholic bishops in England, whatever happens.

Yet the archbishops state that 'without the dialogues of the past 40 years, the recognition [of such groups by Rome] would not have been possible'. And they claim that ARCIC's agreements 'make clear the path we will follow together'.

But, as a member of ARCIC since 1991, involved deeply in its work, I find myself struggling with these claims.

It is good that an ecclesial approach is being taken. That the new Constitution steps beyond individuals is welcome: a more formal sense of the nature of the Anglican tradition as a communion of churches is taken, even if implicitly. Yet many of the bodies under discussion are not in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, or have chosen to live in impaired communion with those who are (e.g. Forward in Faith, or the emerging body in the US)!

Does the Constitution imply that the 'real' Anglican Communion is less part of the Church Catholic than ARCIC (at least its Anglican members) has presumed?

And what are the 'elements of distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony'? I'd love to see all Anglicans using their authorised rites (with spiritual creativity). But this does not happen now, and such rites are commonly not well-regarded by the groups likely to be interested in moving to Rome.

As Archbishop Michael Ramsey emphasised often, Anglicans do not see themselves as having a 'distinctive' identity, but living with a sense of the provisional (of which more below).

The Anglican churches I know continue to struggle with how best to respond to receiving, celebrating, living out and passing on the catholic faith, according to the scriptures, in the diverse contexts within which God sets us. My spiritual pilgrimage has been one of 'even joy' rather than major ups and downs: yet my life embodies some of the issues involved — I am, after all, married to my parish priest. Perhaps I am learning that the very real struggles which take place privately in dialogues such as ARCIC are now having to be lived out in public.

One thing I have learnt is that theology is best done from the future backwards rather than only from the past forwards. (I recognise, of course, that how the future in Christ is envisaged is to be shaped according to the scriptures.)

That such an ethos pervades the last ARCIC Agreed Statement — Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ — delights me. I gave this text my glad and full assent, in the hope that it might help all who are in Christ open to one another more fully.

The spirit of openness to the future, lived out in the present on the basis of what God has given in the past, is an ethos to be treasured. It can be found in many Christian traditions, but it is the air which Anglicans are used to breathing, and must not be let go lightly.

Such an orientation underscores the importance of living pro-visionally — 'for the vision', in energetic Christian hope, yet with humility, open to shifts of perspective, to repentance, and above all living by faith rather than sight.

A personal hope

In view of this hope, could the Apostolic Constitution be seen as an act of provisionality? A lot will depend on its tone and wording.

Phrased in overly-confident 'Romanista' style ('Mother Church teaches her children ...') it will communicate an institutional, bureaucratic message about unity. It will reinforce the suspicion that ecumenical endeavour means 'return to Rome', rather than the vision of every Christian tradition being converted to the unity which Christ wills.

Written with humility, on the other hand, open to further developments, it may just be a sign of the provisional which ecumenical endeavour, and this aching world, so desperately needs.

Post script: Could those groups who want to act on the Apostolic Constitution please read through the whole body of ARCIC's work? It is more biblical, care-full and challenging than many seem to presume. The same hope applies to the CDF and other authorities in Rome, not least the appeal for reform of the papal office made in The Gift of Authority.

Charles SherlockCharles Sherlock, an Anglican theologian, is assitant curate to the Bishop of Bendigo. He is involved with a range of educational/pastoral ministries, based in Bendigo. He was an ARCIC member from 1991–2005. 

Topic tags: Rowan Williams, Vincent Nichols, Apostolic Constitution, Personal OrdinariatesAnglican, Catholic



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Existing comments

Sounds rather like the members of the Traditional Anglican Communion want to have their cake and eat it too.

Paul Arnott | 23 October 2009  

Why do you all go on so? Christianity is failing to fulfil its mission as I perceive it. More than ever I wonder what Jesus would have thought of all this? I am tempted to quote a couple of passages, said to be his statements, but what would be the point? You are all so bogged down, in the politics, economics and power struggles, the wood has definitely been lost because of the trees.

Jennifer Raper | 12 October 2010  

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