Committing Unity to Print
  • Friday, April 29, 2011

Our Unity in Christ
In Support of the Anglican Covenant
An Apologetic Series

By David Richardson

The Second Vatican Council’s “Decree on Ecumenism” (1964) marked a clear sign, a written sign, from a church which likes things clearly written down, that the Roman Catholic Church had bounded into the ecumenical arena from which in the past it had remained separate and aloof. Earlier documents such as the 1928 encyclical of Pope Pius XI, Mortalium Animos, and the 1944 encyclical of Pius XII, Mystici Corporis Christi, had been clear: the only road to unity recognized by the Holy See for all those not in communion with Rome was to admit their error and return.

For the churches of the Anglican Communion the Decree on Ecumenism was particularly heart-warming because it mentioned us by name in the text:

Other divisions arose more than four centuries later in the West, stemming from the events which are usually referred to as “The Reformation.” As a result, many Communions, national or confessional, were separated from the Roman See. Among those in which Catholic traditions and institutions in part continue to exist, the Anglican Communion occupies a special place. (para. 13)

On the heels of this advance, Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Michael Ramsey, the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, were able, on March 24, 1966, to sign a common declaration to “inaugurate between the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion a serious dialogue which, founded on the Gospels and the ancient common traditions, may lead to that unity in truth for which Christ prayed.”

True, the ecumenical train was not the only one running in those years, but its importance was recognized because the goal of unity is there in Scripture — not an optional extra for the ecumenically minded so much as an imperative from the Lord about the ordering of the Church’s life. The dialogue instituted that morning by the pope and the archbishop led to statements published over a period exceeding 20 years in which agreement was reached on issues which previously had been seen as insurmountable barriers of division. These included eucharistic doctrine, ministry, ethics, authority and much else.

But a cloud had appeared in the ecumenical blue sky. Notwithstanding the agreements that had been reached, our Roman Catholic interlocutors were unclear what “Anglicanism” was and who, if anyone, spoke for it. What was the glue, or bond, that held it together, described as “affection”? It seemed to have lost its power to hold.

The consecration of Gene Robinson may have raised eyebrows about the question of where Anglicanism stands on homosexual practice; it may have been a triumph for honesty in morality over dissimulation; but it raised the question about ecclesiology and authority for our Roman Catholic interlocutors in quite a new way, as they felt they had been misled about how Anglicanism works at the universal level.

Enter the Covenant, whose role and goal is to help the churches of the Anglican Communion face the challenges of living out the principle of autonomy in communion by committing them to mutual accountability, consultation and the achievement of consensus. It may indeed have been brought to birth in a particular set of circumstances, but the Covenant represents not a revolution so much as one small step in an evolution of developments which, since the mid-19th century, have formed the Anglican Communion. As Archbishop Rowan expressed it in his 2009 reflections, “Communion, Covenant and our Anglican Future”:

The Covenant proposals of recent years have been a serious attempt to do justice to that aspect of Anglican history that has resisted mere federation. They seek structures that will express the need for mutual recognisability, mutual consultation and some shared processes of decision-making. They are emphatically not about centralization but about mutual responsibility. They look to the possibility of a freely chosen commitment to sharing discernment (and also to mutual respect for the integrity of each province, which is the point of the current appeal for a moratorium on cross-provincial pastoral interventions). They remain the only proposals we are likely to see that address some of the risks and confusions already detailed, encouraging us to act and decide in ways that are not simply local.

Our Roman Catholic ecumenical partners have always liked the idea of the Covenant, and it is that last sentence, about acting and deciding in ways that are not simply local, that probably helps to explain their affection. However, as mentioned earlier, the Roman Catholic Church likes things written down, codified. A body of written canon law is essential for the pastoral good practice of the Church, and certainly they preferred the earlier drafts of the Covenant in which Section 4 was fiercer, seeming to have a juridical tone lacking from the final text.

What the Covenant has to offer the churches of the Communion is an instrument of unity and mission which, in good Anglican fashion, steers a middle path between centralism and juridical structures on the one hand and unfettered license and mutual irresponsibility on the other. But it does more.

In a paper given at the Lambeth Conference in 2008, Cormac Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor reflected on the ecumenical progress made between Anglicans and Roman Catholics in the past 40 years. “Is the ecumenical dream dead in the water or are the agreements that have been reached money in the bank?” he asked. He believed it was the latter. This year in May the ARCIC dialogue resumes and firmly on its agenda are these topics: “Church as Communion — Local and Universal” and “How in communion the Local and Universal Church comes to discern right ethical teaching.”

The Covenant, with its commitment to an internal unity and mutual accountability, offers some hope that as the dialogue between the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church goes forward it may yet be that “serious dialogue which, founded on the Gospels and on the ancient common traditions, may lead to that unity in truth, for which Christ prayed.”

The Very Rev. Canon David Richardson, dean emeritus of Melbourne and honorary provincial canon of Canterbury, is the director of the Anglican Centre in Rome and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Representative to the Holy See.

The Living Church launched Our Unity in Christ, a series of essays supporting the proposed Anglican Covenant, in February 2011. An introduction and complete index to the series are available here.

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