There is something rather retro and quaint about the 10-day gathering of 17 Catholic and Anglican bishops and theologians which begins at a monastery in northern Italy today.
Bose is a community of both men and women, made up of both Anglicans and Catholics, founded in the 1970s, when there was talk of Anglican-Catholic unity within a generation.
Although the aim of the third phase of the official Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, or ARCIC (pron. AR-KICK), is, as it has always been, the full and visible unity between the Catholic and Anglican Churches, there is a new sober realism hanging over this gathering.
ARCIC was born after the Second Vatican Council, when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Michael Ramsey, visited Pope Paul VI in 1966, and the two leaders established an official dialogue that would examine the differences between the two traditions and seek agreement wherever possible. The first two phases -- ARCIC I (1970-1981) and ARCIC II (1983-2007) -- produced a series of inspiring and important documents on the Eucharist, Authority, Salvation, Mary, and so on.
But there were two big problems -- or rather, one major one, with two dimensions.
The first was the mechanism of accepting the documents. The Catholic dialogue partner, the Pontifical Council (formerly the Secretariat) for Christian Unity, represents the Holy See and therefore has the power to speak on behalf of the Church. The Anglican sponsor is the Anglican Consultative Council, one of the four "instruments" of the worldwide Anglican Communion, which has no comparable authority. The documents agreed in ARCIC have therefore needed to be voted on by synods of the Anglican member Churches of the Communion, who have often given them a rough ride. Agreement among delegate theologians, in other words, hasn't translated more widely.
The second has been that Anglican actions have often seemed to Catholics to contradict the stated Anglican desire for unity. The Church of England's 1992 decision to ordain women as priests dealt a mortal blow to the idea, while the consecration in 2004 by North American Episcopalians of the actively gay bishop Gene Robinson in defiance of the Anglican Primates worldwide, plunged the Communion into a crisis over authority which made ARCIC impossible: Pope John Paul II suspended the dialogue in 2003 on the grounds that there was little point in continuing while Anglicans were unable to move together as a single Church.
Since then, developments suggest that that crisis is deeper than ever. The Church of England has voted to proceed with the ordination of women as bishops, while rejecting a proposal for special episcopal oversight of those (so-called Anglo-Catholic) parishes which object. This, in turn, has led to Anglo-Catholic bishops petitioning Rome for a means of corporate reception of Anglicans, which Pope Benedict enabled in November 2009 in Anglicanorum coetibus. This led to the creation this year of the Personal Ordinariate of England and Wales by means of which close to 1,000 former Anglicans were received as Catholics at Easter.
The Ordinariate has been framed by Rome not as giving up on the goal of unity but as a means of furthering it -- by allowing for the "spiritual patrimony" of Anglicans to be officially recognised by the Catholic Church. It is an alternative - -some might say, far more realistic -- means of achieving the full, visible, organic unity which ARCIC aimed at.
All of which begs the question: what, now, is the point of an ARCIC III?
The answer is that, however distant the goal of unity remains, if the two Churches are to move in that direction they must honestly face the new challenges posed by these developments. The alternative would be to allow differences to harden.
Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham, England (pictured), the Catholic co-chair of ARCIC III, suggests as much when he says that ARCIC "must face the obstacles that make that journey [towards full visible unity] much more difficult." The next phase of ARCIC "will recognize the impact of the actions of some Anglican Provinces which have raised the issue of the nature of communion within the Church," he says, adding that ARCIC III "can make a contribution to resolving some of the issues that seem so intractable at present."
In that sense, the two themes for ARCIC III could not be more apt. The group will be studying "the Church as communion -- local and universal" and "how in communion the local and universal Church comes to discern right ethical teaching" -- precisely the issues, in other words, which the Anglican Communion has been facing.
At the same time, neither of these topics can avoid the role of the Magisterium and papal primacy, which for many Anglicans remain stumbling blocks. For many Anglican theologians, Rome is yet to make good on the offer made by Pope John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint that the exercise of papal primacy is capable of reform. The recent removal of Bishop Morris has been seen by some as symptomatic of an unreformed papacy. Yet, as the Archbishop of Canterbury's attempt to create greater doctrinal unity and coherence within the Anglican Church through the Covenant process shows, there is wide recognition among Anglicans that without some kind of Magisterium "communion" is a meaningless abstraction.
Far from being an irrelevant sideshow, therefore, ARCIC III promises to be a fascinating commentary on key issues facing both Churches -- inter as well as intra.
The members of the new teams, incidentally, are dominated by Britons: on the Catholic side, Archbishop Longley (co-chair); Msgr Mark Langham of the Vatican's Christian unity council; Prof Paul Murray of Durham University; and the Benedictine Bible translator Fr Henry Wansborough. The remaining members are: Bishop Arthur Kennedy of Boston and Sr Teresa Okure of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, Nigeria, as well as Prof Janet Smith, moral theologian; Fr Vimal Tirimanna, at the Alphonsianum University; and Fr Adelbert Denaux, dean of theology at Fribourg.
Although the Anglican co-chair is the Archbishop of New Zealand, David Moxon, his team is also British-dominated: Paula Gooder, canon theologian of Birmingham Cathedral; Bishop Christopher Hill of Guildford; Rev Mark McIntosh, canon professor at the University of Durham; Canon Nicholas Sagovsky, former canon theologian at Westminster Abbey; and Canon Peter Sedgwick, principal of St. Michael's College, Cardiff. That leaves just three non-Brits: Bishop Nkosinathi Ndwandwe of Natal, Southern Africa; Linda Nicholls, area bishop in the Diocese of Toronto; and Rev. Michael Poon of Trinity Theological College in Singapore.
Over the next ten days, in the delightful and prayerful setting of Bose, these men and women must develop some of the trust which will underpin a dialogue process expected to last many years. No one, it seems, is in much of a hurry.