Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor’s address to the global summit of Anglican bishops meeting at Canterbury reminds them that the framework they are currently seeking has already been agreed to by the Anglican Church in decades of Catholic-Anglican dialogue aiming at unity between the two Churches.
The Archbishop of Westminster knows about this: he was co-chair of the official Anglican-Catholic unity commission (ARCIC) from 1982 to 1999 and has remained heavily involved since. After he retires early next year this is work he is likely to continue on behalf of the bishops of England and Wales -- if there is still an Anglican Church capable of responding to dialogue.
After recalling the heady days of the 1980s, when ARCIC was producing historic agreements on major questions dividing the two Churches, the Cardinal described the chilling effect of the 1992 Church of England decision to ordain women – not least because it has divided Anglicans themselves.
If our Church does not believe that it can ordain women, in what way is the issue of Anglican ordinations to be overcome? Or to put the matter another way, and this is not meant to be polemical, if Anglicans themselves disagree over this development, and find yourselves unable fully to recognise each other’s ministry, how could we?
As for homosexuality:
It doesn’t need me to enlarge upon the divisiveness of some issues of morality. If anybody ever thought that such questions concerned only the individual conscience and had little ecclesial (let alone ecumenical) consequence, events have shown otherwise.
The Cardinal then goes on to note how, “hidden in these shadows”, is a more fundamental question of ecclesiology.
How do we understand the Church? Where is the Church to be found? Is it a loose federation with a common history and family kinship? Is it a more closely-knit body with developed structures of authority? Moreover, with what instruments does the Spirit enable the Churches to reach binding decisions where necessary? – decisions which can provide clear and focussed guidance about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and about the moral decisions church members face as they try to follow the Gospel.
The ecclesiology of communion which now dominates the discussion within Anglicanism is also basic to the future of Anglican-Catholic relations, says the Cardinal – because there is no point in reaching agreement with a bunch of theologians whose views are not then accepted by the Anglican Church.
If we are to make progress through dialogue we must be able to reach a solemn and binding agreement with our dialogue partners. And we want to see a deepening not a lessening of communion in their own ecclesial life.
He quotes one of the ARCIC statements, The Church as Communion, noting pointedly that “those are words agreed by theologians officially commissioned to represent our two churches.”
‘Just as the church has to distinguish between tolerable and intolerable diversity in the expression of the apostolic faith, so in the area of life and practice the Church has to discover what is disruptive of its own communion’.
The quote ends:
‘Also constitutive of life in communion is acceptance of the same basic moral values …. For the nurture and growth of this communion, Christ the Lord has provided a ministry of oversight, the fullness of which is entrusted to the episcopate, which has the responsibility of maintaining and expressing the unity of the churches.’
“Our Church,” he says, “takes no pleasure at all to see the current strains in your communion – we have committed ourselves to a journey towards unity, so new tensions only slow the progress.”
And he ends with a familiar warning that future Anglican-Catholic dialogue depends on Anglicans working out who they are and what they believe.
These discussions are about the degree of unity in faith necessary for Christians to be in communion, not least so that they may be able to offer the Gospel confidently to the world. Our future dialogue will not be easy until such fundamental matters are resolved, with greater clarity.