Ecumenical progress takes more than a day

Attempts to bridge the Catholic-Protestant divide still get media attention. And so they should: for the first two hundred years of white settlement, un-catholic and un-evangelical prejudice bedeviled Australian life. As Australia's largest religious bodies, the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches’ relationship is at the forefront of healing divisions in the nation.

Recent headlines arose from the ‘leak’ of an important Agreed Statement of the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity and Mission (IARCCUM). The Times’ headline described it as a ‘radical plan’ to re-unite the churches under the Pope (a line still guaranteed to provoke outcry in parts of Britain).

The Statement was immediately released: it was merely awaiting the usual official commentaries to be finalized. Forward-looking, it is somewhat less radical than the headline suggested. Yet the perception of being ‘leaked’ meant this 42-page document received attention which otherwise it may not. Coming just as the Anglican Primates were meeting to find a way beyond their own divisions over gay issues, the ‘leak’ also had the virtue of getting a visionary story on the news.

Anglican-Roman Catholic theological dialogue has been going on officially for nearly 40 years. A growing collection of ‘Agreed Statements’ has been issued by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), steadily clearing away the barriers between the churches, shifting the imagination about what is possible. But it is not enough for theologians to agree, however skilled they may be: only the churches can implement their findings

A decade back, ARCIC could see that its work was nearly done, and asked church authorities to make plans for change to happen. In May 2000, 13 pairs of Anglicans and Roman Catholic bishops from around the globe met for some 10 days, at Mississauga, Canada. It was a transformative time for those present – whisper the M word in former Australian Anglican Primate Dr Peter Carnley’s ear, and that sober scholar’s eyes light up, his body-language eases and his whole being comes alight. The bishops set up IARCCUM – four bishops, a theological consultant and secretary from each church, a dozen in all (and the RC co-chair is an Australian, Abp John Battersby, Brisbane).

But the path towards visible unity in Christ is rarely smooth. The consecration of a gay man as bishop in the USA led to the Vatican suspending IARCCUM, just months after it had got going. A year or two later, the Anglican response to the ordination – the Windsor Report – was seen as sufficiently robust by Rome for the group to resume.

IARCCUM’s Statement offers a tight, readable summary of ARCIC’s agreements, and its practical recommendations. In one way it breaks no new ground. Yet the fact that this body can harvest the fruits of 35 years’ dialogue, in the teeth of other difficulties, is itself a major step forward. If accepted by the churches, it would indeed bring radical changes – but centuries of warring will not be overcome in a day. Prejudice, and the sheer refusal to even consider the work of dialogue, continue to be a sin of which we all must repent, and often.

The divide remains, but has sharply lessened. Bishops commonly work together on social issues, for decades many priests have trained in partnership and (unless you are a theological expert) in most Anglican or Roman Catholic congregations it is difficult to see the differences between them in a average Sunday service, for example. IARCCUM’s Statement is a welcome step beyond such initiatives, aiming to put down markers in the ecumenical road on which we cannot go back.



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