Progress in unity among Christians does not occur step by step. Communions of Christians do not stand still. They are constantly developing within themselves and forming new communions, sometimes adopting new structures and practices, at other times recovering ways that were once held in common. As in a marriage, the partner of 30 years ago is not the partner today. But having lived separately for centuries, Christians became accustomed to making even major decisions unilaterally. Time apart takes its toll. In the present ecumenical climate, the Anglican decision to ordain women to the priesthood and the episcopate or Catholic efforts to restore Eastern and Western jurisdictions in the former Soviet Union met with negative reactions that interrupted the pace of ongoing dialogues. Like vows, commitments need to be renewed. Better still, extraordinary breakthroughs need to occur, like the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification signed in October 1999. That breakthrough enabled ecumenical relationships to take a quantum leap into a new environment and a new commitment to one another.
The risks were very high when on the first Sunday of Advent in 1996 Pope John Paul II and Dr. George Carey, archbishop of Canterbury, proposed that it may be opportune at this stage in our journey to consult further about how the relationship between the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church is to progress. The ecumenical leadership of both communions agreed to convene a special consultation, scheduled initially for May 1999 but postponed for another year for more careful preparation.
Catholic episcopal conferences and Anglican provinces were surveyed, not once but twice, on the nature and agenda of the consultation, which took place near Toronto on May 14-20, 2000. In the end, the agenda was kept to a minimum, allowing a considerable amount of face-time. Had the meeting concluded by pleasantly acknowledging some progress in theological consensus and recognizing that certain major issues remain unresolved, the high-level consultation of Anglican and Roman Catholic leaders would have ultimately conveyed a negative message. As it was, the message was more positive.
To understand the progress that has been made, a little history is helpful. In 1968, a joint preparatory commission of Anglicans and Catholics swiftly concluded its work after three meetings in one year’s time. The Malta Report, which bears the name of the final meeting site, recommended a permanent Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, responsible for the oversight of Roman Catholic-Anglican relations and co-ordination of future work undertaken together by our two Communions. Among the preparatory commission’s other recommendations were: a common declaration of faith between Catholics and Anglicans, annual joint meetings in every region where each communion has a hierarchy, regular consultations on matters of mutual pastoral, evangelistic and liturgical concern, and cooperation in theological education and formation.
Those were heady days for Anglicans and Catholics stirred by Pope John XXIII, who called the Second Vatican Council and seeded ecumenical relations into its agenda. The Decree on Ecumenism asserted that among the divisions that arose from the Reformation the Anglican Communion occupies a special place in relation to the Catholic Church. In 1966, Pope Paul VI and Dr. Michael Ramsey, the archbishop of Canterbury, issued a common declaration from the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls thanking Almighty God for a new atmosphere of Christian fellowship and inaugurating a serious dialogue to lead to that unity in truth for which Christ prayed. On that occasion, Paul VI removed the episcopal ring from his finger and presented it to Dr. Ramsey.
The Malta Report followed less than two years later, and by the end of summer 1968 both the See of Rome and the Anglican Communion (through the Lambeth Conference, a decennial gathering of Anglican bishops) had accepted the major recommendations of the report. ARCIC, the international theological commission for Anglican-Roman Catholic relations, began meeting in 1970 under the chairmanship of the Anglican archbishop of Dublin and the Catholic bishop of East Anglia. Already ARC-USA, the dialogue sponsored by the U.S. Catholic bishops’ conference and the Episcopal Church, had held its organizational meeting in 1965 and issued a joint statement on the Eucharist at its fourth meeting in 1967.
ARCIC has met almost annually since 1970, producing a series of agreed statements, reports, elucidations and clarifications on Eucharist, ministry and ordination, authority in the church, salvation, the nature of the church as communion and Christian morality. ARCIC’s most recent agreed statement, The Gift of Authority, issued in May 1999, suggests 11 advances in agreement, takes note of significant developments in each communion and calls attention to the troubling issues that Anglicans and Catholics still have to face. The final section of the text recommends that, as a step toward full communion, Anglicans and Catholics share in the re-reception of the exercise of the universal primacy of the bishop of Rome. ARC-USA holds its 50th meeting in September 2000 and has produced 14 agreed statements and reports in its 35-year history. Its most recent agreement is an Agreed Report on the Local/Universal Church, intended to be the first in a series of reports on the exercise of authority in the two churches.
With so much consensus already reached, why have Anglican-Catholic relations seemed lackluster? On ARC-USA, we refer to the elephants in the room that we seem either reluctant or unable to tame: the condemnation of Anglican orders by Leo XIII and, linked with it, lack of reciprocity in eucharistic sharing, the ordination of women and differences and uncertainties on how to address pastoral questions that involve ethical and moral decisions. To resolve some of these questions might be a lengthy and circuitous undertakingfor example, examining all aspects of how churches exercise authority and how church authority is perceived. Such studies take time, scholarship and careful attention to detail.
Indeed, the pace of the dialogue had been slowed, at least until the appearance of The Gift of Authority a year ago sparked a new round of discussion. Certain jubilee year activities involving Catholics and Anglicans have added more excitement to relations. Then came the special appeals in the early months of the Jubilee Year 2000 to Catholics and Anglicans around the world to pray for the success of the special high-level consultation at Queen of Apostles Renewal Centre in Mississauga, near Toronto, Canada.
They have borne fruit. The Toronto meeting gathered Anglican and Catholic bishops from 13 countries and was convened by Archbishop Carey and Cardinal Edward Cassidy. The resulting statements, Communion in Mission and its accompanying Action Plan, could represent a genuine breakthrough. The statements remind us that ecumenical progress spirals back to recover previous commitments and forward to incorporate developing situations. Communion in Mission occupies less than two single-spaced pages with 14 points. The Action Plan is even shorter. Both were made public with a joint press release at the close of the meeting on May 19.
Some of the 14 suggestions carry us back to the Malta Report: an appreciation of the impressive degree of agreement in faith already existing; recognition that Anglicans and Catholics are at a significantly new stage in relations; preparing and signing a joint declaration of agreement; dealing generously and pastorally with Anglican-Roman Catholic marriages; encouraging national dialogues; where they don’t exist, joint meetings of bishops; formal consultation prior to one church making decisions on matters of faith and morals; and cooperation on clergy formation, education and other pastoral matters. ARC-US made similar recommendations in a Twelve-Year Report, issued in 1977, and the recommendations at Mississauga also echo the Final Recommendations from the Anglican/Roman Catholic Leaders Conference, co-sponsored by the Episcopal Church and the U.S. Catholic bishops’ conference in 1981.
The breakthrough may be in the Toronto meeting’s recommendation for a Joint Unity Commission, which will exercise oversight on Anglican-Catholic relations, reporting to the Holy See’s Council for Unity and the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Ecumenical Relations, established at the 1998 Lambeth conference. In sum, the new Joint Unity Commission will implement reception in the churches of the theological consensus already achieved through nearly four decades of dialogue. It will prepare a Joint Declaration of Agreement to be signed and celebrated, prioritize ongoing work, commission studies and materials and take whatever steps are necessary to promote greater visible unity in service to our mutual efforts to preach and live the Gospel in the world.
These suggestions are also forward-looking, because the Joint Unity Commission will superintend the other bilateral dialogues in which Anglicans and Catholics are involved. The proposed commission will work to coordinate the already existing structures between the communions: for example, ARCIC, the national ARC’s and the annual informal talks among the staff of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, the Anglican Communion Office, Lambeth Palace, the Anglican Centre in Rome and the ARCIC co-chairmen.
Anglicans and Catholics share much, not only theologically but also traditionally. As the Toronto meeting demonstrated, liturgical prayer occupies a fair amount of the time when ARCIC and ARC-USA meet. Archbishop Alexander J. Brunett of Seattle, the recently appointed co-chair of ARCIC with Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold of the Episcopal Church, attested that they spent almost two hours a day praying together. From that and the hours of open conversation, there emerged a greater sense of sharing and commonality. In the words of Communion in Mission, We have been able to discern that our communion together is not just formally established by our common baptism into Christ, but is even now a rich and life-giving, multifaceted communion.
In a sermon delivered at St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Toronto during the special consultation, Dr. Carey mentioned his delight in joining Pope John Paul II in January 2000 for the opening of the Holy Door at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. Together with the representative of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the three of them pushed open the door, which Dr. Carey observed was not a well-oiled piece of furniture. He said that the three of them had to go to some effort to get it open. It was also reported that when the door was flung open John Paul II exclaimed: Christian unity now!
The significant recommendations of the Mississauga meeting may not give us full unity immediately, but collectively they could create a new and far more positive environment for Anglican-Catholic relations. To implement them will require an even greater push than we have been giving thus far. Unresolved differences and challenges which affect both Communions remain, but the participants in the special consultation agreed that these challenges are not to be compared with all that we hold in common and the new stage of evangelical fellowship and communion they experienced together. The fruits of more visible unity are not easily achieved, but by renewing commitments, working with new structures, praying together more and more and incorporating into our separate lives greater theological consensus, we open ourselves to new possibilities. Communion in Mission concludes with these words, constituting the final and 14th point:
[T]he shape of full visible unity is beyond our capacity to put into words. God will always surprise us, as we were reminded in a meditation shared with us: God cannot be understood through our human system or correspond to our positive or negative predictions for the future.... In our ecumenical efforts we should keep in mind that one day we will rub our eyes and be surprised by the new things that God has achieved in his Church.