By Austen Ivereigh
When the head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, met Pope Benedict XVI late last month in Rome, it surprised many commentators that it was the occasion for the launch of the next stage of the official dialogue process between the Anglican and Catholic Churches. Surely this was a moment of crisis in relations, with the pope’s bombshell announcement of special structures to receive disaffected Anglicans appearing to dampen that dialogue. What was going on?
They missed the bigger picture, as well as failed to take into account the intensity and warmth of relations between Archbishop Williams and the Vatican. True, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s announcement of the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum coetibus (“Groups of Anglicans”) a month earlier had been a shock; neither the Catholic bishops of England and Wales or the Anglicans had much warning of it.
Before leaving for Rome, Archbishop Williams told a newspaper it had left him with a “bruised ego,” and once there he complained to Pope Benedict (he told Vatican Radio afterward) that the doctrinal congregation’s way of proceeding had put him in an “awkward position.”
But Archbishop Williams is too big to let such slights interfere with the historic task of Christian unity, and, as he stressed in more than one interview, the content of the pope’s plan for the corporate reception of Anglicans was not in itself a barrier to that task. Anglicans wanting to become Catholics did so out of conscience, he told Vatican Radio; the apostolic constitution simply smoothed that path, and was not a “dawn raid” on Anglicanism.
The day before meeting Pope Benedict, in a lecture at Jesuit-run Gregorian University in Rome, he dug in his heels over the recommencement of the official Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue, or ARCIC, which since the 1970s has resulted in remarkable levels of agreement over issues that date back to the 16th century: the Eucharist, Mary, the exercise of authority and so on.
The subject of the next stage of that dialogue, known asARCIC III, is the relationship of the universal and the local Church; and in his lecture at the Gregorian, Archbishop Williams had some surprising and challenging questions regarding the way Church authority is exercised, the nature of papal primacy and the nature of the universal Church.
These three questions have been at the heart of debates within the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council. The disagreements came to the fore in a public theological disagreement between two German cardinals, Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, and Walter Kasper, now head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, back in 2001. Their friendly dispute was over which came first, or was “ontologically prior,” in theologian-speak: the universal Church, as Cardinal Ratzinger maintained, or the local Church, as Cardinal Kasper insisted.
The answer to that question has direct significance for the way the council’s doctrine of collegiality is to be understood: Is it the bishops, “with and under Peter,” who govern the Church, or is it the pope through his bishops? In practice, that question has been resolved in favor of a more centralized model: The bishops’ synods that meet every few years are largely toothless, and national bishops’ conferences have very limited authority.
But the question is a burning one for Anglicans because they are opposed to the idea of the pope having “executive” authority, seeing him more as a “focus of unity.” In fact, Archbishop Williams said, it should be asked whether the exercise of papacy actually inhibits Christian unity.
He raised a concrete example of this difference: the ordination of women as priests and bishops. Is this, he asked, a “first-order” question, one that was of such theological significance as to constitute an insuperable barrier to unity, or a matter on which there could be legitimate theological disagreement — and, therefore, that could be left to the local Church, in its cultural context, to resolve?
The decision to ordain women by the Church of England in the early 1990s was presented by Catholics as proof of Anglicans acting outside the Catholic Church. But he said Catholics had yet to demonstrate that “the prohibition against ordaining women so ‘enhances the life of communion,’ reinforcing the essential character of filial and communal holiness as set out in Scripture and tradition and ecumenical agreement, that its breach would compromise the purposes of the Church as so defined.”
Boldly, Archbishop Williams proposed the “Covenant” process now underway within the Anglican Communion as a model for how the various Christian Churches could seek closer bonds. The Covenant is a set of principles and procedures agreed on by the Churches of the Anglican Communion at last year’s Lambeth Conference, which is due to be finalized in early December and sent to the Anglican bishops worldwide for signature.
The Covenant was “an effort to create not a centralized decision-making executive but a ‘community of communities’ that can manage to sustain a mutually nourishing and mutually critical life, with all consenting to certain protocols of decision-making together,” Archbishop Williams said in his lecture, cleverly deploying a term, “community of communities” used by the Catholic bishops’ 1987 synod on the laity. He acknowledged the degree of disagreement within the Anglican Communion was profound; yet “if it can be managed within the Anglican family, is this a possible model for the wider ecumenical scene?”
Rome, of course, is unlikely to be persuaded by the Covenant idea, which has yet to prove capable of uniting his fragmented Communion; but the idea that the archbishop of Canterbury is proposing a path to unity at all shows what a strangely exciting time this is for Anglican-Catholic relations.
The negotiations over what will be allowed in the new Anglican ordinariates — due to begin next Easter, when applications to create them will be made by disaffected Anglicans to Catholic bishops’ conferences — are themselves practical workings-out of the balance between the local and the universal. Meanwhile, Pope Benedict’s visit to the United Kingdom next fall will be focused on the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, one of the great Anglican luminaries of the 19th century, who became a Catholic late in life after wrestling with precisely these questions. Bruised egos and disagreements along the road there may be, but leaving the road is not an option; and, as Archbishop Williams’ meeting with Pope Benedict illustrated, each crisis seems only to open up fresh routes ahead.
Austen Ivereigh writes from England.
The third round of ARCIC, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, is expected to start next year.
ARCIC I met from 1970-82 and reached agreements on baptism, the Eucharist and ministry, and developed common understanding on some issues related to authority in the Church.
ARCIC II met from 1983-2005 and reached agreements on papal authority, salvation and the Church, the Church as communion and a variety of beliefs about Mary.