Catholic-Anglican Dialogue: Cordial, but No Unity in Sight

Relations between the two new Christian leaders are warm, continuing the ongoing bridge-building between the two Churches.

LONDON — When Pope Francis met June 14 with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, it was evident that relations between the two new Christian leaders were warm, continuing the ongoing bridge-building between the two Churches.

Yet, for all that warmth, a number of issues are bubbling under the outwardly cordial relations. Proposals by the Church of England to create women bishops, the ordination of two actively homosexual bishops in the U.S. Episcopal Church, and the recent creation of the personal ordinariates to accommodate former Anglicans coming as groups into the Catholic Church all challenge the continuing dialogue.

Taking the issue of women bishops, Msgr. Mark Langham, outgoing secretary to the Anglican and Methodist dialogues at the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, tells the Register that the situation already has been taken into account because women bishops have existed within the Anglican Communion for a number of years.

Nevertheless, he says, "the development in England does raise the profile of the issue and the huge problems it raises as regards progress. Effectively, it rules out any chance of recognition of Anglican ministries by Rome. For me, this is the major problem in our ecumenical dialogue."

Women bishops have been ordained in some churches belonging to the Anglican Communion — notably including the Episcopal Church, which is led by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori — and last fall, the Church of England was widely expected to approve the ordination of women.

The drive for women bishops was stalled last November, when the Church of England’s body of lay representatives, one of three ecclesial bodies required to approve the change, narrowly failed to approve the move by the required two-thirds majority. The Church of England’s clergy representatives and bishops, including Archbishop Welby, both voted overwhelmingly in support of ordaining women bishops.

It was initially believed that this outcome would shelve the issue for at least 10 years, as this is the usual period required before such a change can be reconsidered.

But a working group to push women bishops forward on the Anglican agenda was set up immediately following the November vote, and a synod scheduled for early July was to dedicate a day of private consultation over a plan to introduce new legislation to approve women bishops by 2015, The Guardian reported June 14.


Archbishop Longley

Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham, England, Catholic co-chairman of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission III (ARCIC III), also sees the issue as "an obstacle and a challenge."

Speaking to the Register, he said, "For the Catholic Church, there is a particular significance to decisions that are taken by the Church of England as the originating or mother church of most of the other provinces of the Anglican Communion. Hence, the current moves towards the episcopal ordination of women in the Church of England are being carefully noted."

Indeed, Cardinal Walter Kasper, during his time as president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, commented in 2006 on the issue of ordaining women for the episcopacy in the Church of England, saying that such a move would "call into question what was recognized by the Second Vatican Council, that the Anglican Communion occupied ‘a special place’ among churches and ecclesial communities of the West."

In an address he delivered subsequently to the Anglican Communion’s 2008 Lambeth Conference, Cardinal Kasper was more definitive regarding the irrevocable harm that women bishops inflict to any prospect of institutional unity for the Catholic and Anglican Churches. "While our dialogue has led to significant agreement on the understanding of ministry, the ordination of women to the episcopate effectively and definitively blocks a possible recognition of Anglican orders by the Catholic Church," he stated.

Another issue is the ordination of actively homosexual bishops in the Episcopal Church, which is part of the Anglican Communion. As Msgr. Langham notes, "This, for us, is not merely a matter of [ecclesial] order, but a moral issue, meaning that, while we will sit down and talk with women bishops — there is one on ARCIC — we cannot do so with an active homosexual bishop or those who have endorsed his or her ministry."

Such developments make dialogue increasingly difficult, he added, for the simple fact that they create division within the Anglican Communion itself.

This leaves Catholic representatives with the problem of having to discern who is the authentic voice of Anglicanism.

Indeed, it raises the question of whether the nature of the Anglican Communion is changing to the point where it is becoming a loosely connected group of national churches, though that still leaves the issue of who sets the boundaries of what is and what is not part of this more informal setup.


The Ordinariates

Another recent development has been the creation of the personal ordinariates.

At the time of the establishment of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham — the first of the ordinariates — by Pope Benedict XVI, some media outlets sought to portray it as a deathblow to Catholic-Anglican relations, with the Catholic Church portrayed as "stealing" Anglican clergy.

When asked whether he thinks the ordinariates have helped or hindered the path to unity, Father James Bradley, communications officer for the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, suggests this is a wrong way of thinking about the development.

"The establishment of personal ordinariates is a great move forward in the understanding of each tradition — Anglican and Catholic — within the undivided Tradition of the Catholic Church," he told the Register. "It is an embodiment of the idea of receptive ecumenism. Our hope is that the ordinariate in the U.K. will enable a greater understanding of Anglicanism within the Catholic Church and a greater sense of the need for full communion with the universal Church within the life of the Church of England."

Elaborated Father Bradley, "The decision to proceed with the ordination of women to the episcopate in the Church of England will change, indefinitely, the relationship between the structure of the Church of England and the Catholic Church."

He said that the personal ordinariates "provide a means of continuing the dialogue and achieving unity with those groups of Anglicans who wish to remain true to the call to unity, which has been the driving force behind many Anglicans of a ‘Catholic mindset.’"


Dialogue Will Continue

So, unquestionably, there are difficult issues. Yet, as Pope Francis pointed out when meeting with Archbishop Welby, there are many areas where Catholics and Anglicans can work together, such as in the field of social justice.

However, professor Paul Murray, director of Durham University’s Centre for Catholic Studies and an authority on receptive ecumenism, says that such developments "have led to an appreciation that the ecumenical journey is going to be a longer one than once imagined."

"Sober realism about long-term deep differences has rightly displaced misguided optimism as to the term of the ecumenical journey, but this represents an appropriate recalibration of ecumenical hope and strategy, not its dissolution," he said.

Archbishop Longley concurs, stating, "The long-term goal of our dialogue, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, remains our full, visible unity, but historic circumstances and developments in recent years have changed the shape and direction of the pathway that will lead us there."

Added ARCIC’s Catholic co-chairman, "Despite all the challenges and obstacles to formal unity, it is inconceivable that the Catholic Church would now hesitate to continue and deepen our dialogue with the Anglican Communion."

The overwhelming feeling is that the search for such unity is wholly necessary, but strewn with many obstacles along the way — as Msgr. Langham comments, it is "painstaking but important work."

Concluded Msgr. Langham, "We stay hopeful because of what we have already achieved and because unity is the work of the Spirit, not of human hands."

James Kelly writes from London