National Catholic Register


Vatican Dialogues With Lutherans and Anglicans

Advances, both small and ‘remarkable,’mark quest for Christian unity

BY Gabriel Meyer

September 27-October 3, 1998 Issue | Posted 9/27/98 at 1:00 PM


LOS ANGELES—Long-running disputes have a way of coming full circle. With the millennium fast approaching, many of Christianity's historic divisions have done just that: A generation or more of intensive ecumenical dialogues between Roman Catholics and their “separated brethren” have dispelled clouds of misunderstanding only to find themselves face to face with the issues that occasioned the separation in the first place.

That's certainly the case with the 30-year process of theological dialogue between the Vatican and various Lutheran bodies which has produced a remarkable accord on “justification by faith” — the theological dispute that launched the Protestant Reformation half a millennium ago. The accord will be signed next year by officials from the Holy See and the World Lutheran Federation.

But that's also true of the rockier course of the official dialogue between the churches of the worldwide Anglican communion and the Vatican which has capped a generation of progress on issues like the sacraments and ministry with a new, yet-to-be-released statement on how authority, including papal authority, should be exercised in the Church.

Entitled “The Gift of Authority,” the paper was approved at an Aug. 25-Sept. 3 meeting of the 18-member Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) which convened near Rome, and according to a recent Catholic News Service (CNS) report, won't be published until sometime next year, after Vatican and Anglican officials have reviewed it.

Catholic participants called the document nothing less than a breakthrough in one of the thorniest issues in the Anglican-Catholic dialogue.

“The paper … examine[s] the primacy of Peter in relationship with collegiality and the whole people of God, and as such we think we've made some significant progress on this issue,” Bishop Cormac Murphy-O'Connor said in a Sept. 3 CNS interview. Declaring that the paper makes demands on both sides, Murphy-O'Connor, head of the Catholic diocese of Arundel and Brighton, England, called the new document “one of the most important ARCIC has produced.”

In part, the document is a response to Pope John Paul II's 1995 encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, in which he asked the leaders of other churches to offer suggestions on how the papacy might serve as a source of unity in the context of worldwide Christianity.

But Catholic participants in the ARCIC meeting noted that the document registers a broader consensus on the issue of Church authority than Anglicans have been able to agree on before.

Father Timothy Galligan, a member of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, who attended the sessions, said that the document placed in context the various levels of authority in the Church, and saw the exercise of universal papal primacy, including the need to teach infallibly under certain circumstances, in the light of the collegiality of bishops and “the sense of the faithful,” the historic consensus of the Church in matters of belief.

As Dr. John Borelli, associate director of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' [NCCB] secretariat for ecumenical and interreligious affairs, told the Register: “What's gone on in the Anglican community in the last decade is an examination” of the importance of authority “in serving unity,” and among Catholics, “a [parallel] development in our understanding of Church as communion.”

The Holy See “has great interest in Anglicanism's growing exploration of the relationship of local and universal Church,” he said.

Early reports indicate that while the ARCIC paper hardly amounts to confluence between Anglican views and historic Catholic teaching on papal authority, it bodes well for a more open discussion of the issue that, more than any other, lay at the heart of the dispute between Rome and Canterbury, titular seat of world Anglicanism.

Whereas the Lutheran crisis was based on core questions of theology, Anglicanism began with a tussle between the British crown and papal authority.

In 1534, some 17 years after Martin Luther had pinned his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg University church, the English Church separated itself from the jurisdiction of the pope over his refusal to grant King Henry VIII an annulment from Queen Catherine of Aragon, and Parliament named the king “the only supreme head of the Church of England.”

As most historians insist, the initial Anglican split was over jurisdictional issues, and, at first, was not meant to constitute a break with Rome over faith and practice. Later on, however, the Anglican Church took on more and more Reformation features, while maintaining an episcopal form of church government.

By the end of the 16th century, Anglicans had, in addition to Scripture and the classic Christian creeds, adopted the so-called Thirty-Nine Articles as a loose creedal framework, and developed their own liturgical forms in the Book of Common Prayer.

Although the British monarch remains the head of the Church of England, the spiritual and administrative leader of the church is the archbishop of Canterbury, who also functions as the titular head of the Anglican Communion, a “family” of nearly 30 autonomous, or independent, churches in countries as far flung as Brazil, Uganda, and Japan, with 400 dioceses worldwide and nearly 70 million members. The Episcopal Church in the United States boasts more than 2 million adherents.

While expectations were high for Anglican-Roman Catholic rapprochement in the years immediately after Vatican II, the decision by U.S. Anglican bishops to ordain women to the priesthood in 1976, followed by the Church of England in 1994, sowed new tensions in relations between Catholic and Anglican officials and sparked fears about the internal cohesiveness of Anglican institutions — concerns which, despite signs of progress, remain.

In turn, Anglican sensibilities were jostled recently by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's (CDF) commentary on John Paul's apostolic letter Ad Tuendam Fidem, released last summer, which mentioned Pope Leo XIII's 1896 ruling against the validity of Anglican holy orders as an example of Catholic teaching which required definitive assent.

Nevertheless, significant gains continue to be made in the theological realm.

“It's taken three decades, but there's real consensus [between Anglican and Catholic ecumenists] on the Eucharist and the theology of ministry,” said Borelli, the NCCB official.

Reports on the two areas had been submitted by 1981, he told the Register, and the Vatican issued an official reply in the early 1990s — progress so solid, said Borelli, that “Cardinal [Edward] Cassidy, [president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity] noted that no further clarifications in these areas are needed now.”

The big issue now is authority, Borelli said. In the Episcopal Church, for example, he noted, authority is exercised on three levels: bishops, clergy, and laity. “They're all involved in the decision-making process; it's a kind of national process,” he said. Whereas, for Catholics, he said, “we tend to see things in terms of the local Church and the local bishop's relationship to the college of bishops which is in union with the bishop of Rome. It's a very different model.”

The governing structure of the U.S. Episcopal Church was deeply marked by its origins in the American Revolutionary period when American Anglicans sought independence from the control of Britain's state church. Policy decisions are made by a bicameral church legislature — the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops which convenes a general convention every three years.

For the Anglican Communion as a whole, the Lambeth Conference, first convened in 1867, and held about every 10 years, usually at the archbishop of Canterbury's London residence, serves as a forum for the issues facing the church as a whole. The most recent Lambeth Conference took place last July where, among other non-binding resolutions, attempts to get the conference to endorse same-sex unions was defeated by an African and Third World bishops, and a conscience clause was adopted for Anglican bishops who oppose ordaining women to the priesthood.

Borelli noted that there were signs at the recent Lambeth Conference that “there's a real examination going on of how to get church structures to serve the communion of the various provinces.”

Resolutions were passed “strengthening the Consultative Council [one of the Communion central administrative organs since the late 1960s],” he said. “In representing the thinking of the whole Communion, a stronger role's been given to the archbishop of Canterbury to intervene where there's no consensus — it'll be interesting to see how all this sorts itself out.”

For ecumenist Father Thomas Rausch, chair of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, there are two hopeful signs in Anglican-Catholic relations today.

“First of all, that with all the obstacles that temper the enthusiasm that Anglican-Catholic ties enjoyed in the 1960s, the thing hasn't come to a halt,” he said. “We're still taking the steps that we can take together, we're still seeking reconciliation.

“We should notice that the Anglicans are the first ones to officially respond to the pope's invitation to give input on the exercise of papal primacy [issued in Ut Unum Sint], the first ones to officially explore with us how the papal ministry can be of service to all. What that means is that there's a real relationship there.”

(World Council of Churches general secretary Konrad Reiser and Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople made comments on John Paul II's proposal, but these were informal reactions rather than official responses representing their organizations.)

Reflecting on the progress Catholics and Anglicans have made in dialogue, Cardinal Cassidy, in a July 20 Vespers address at this year's Lambeth Conference, warned attendees against complacency in the search for unity.

“The ecumenical movement has taught us not to be complacent any longer about the effects on mission and evangelization of our disunity and conflicting voices,” he said. “Our divisions may have contributed to the growth in society of a do-it-yourself, a la carte attitude toward what should be believed and which decisions are important. In obedience to Christ we have to address the world sympathetically, but with clarity and conviction.”

Gabriel Meyer writes from Los Angeles.