Ecumenism on a road to nowhere?

When the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, met Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican on 23 November, there were no great surprises in what came out of the two leaders’ discussions. They greeted each other warmly and spoke about their close bonds of friendship and faith, but references were also made to the ‘serious obstacles’ which exist to a full reunion and the problems caused by ‘dissent’ within the Anglican communion itself. Faced with these problems, the importance of continuing ‘dialogue’ was stressed, as it always is. In fact, dialogue is now no longer regarded as a means to an end, but the end in itself.

But will anything actually change as a result of the meeting? Will the two denominations be any closer to unity? Will Anglicans and Catholics in the pews feel any more warmth towards each other than they do already? Of course not. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor has persisted in describing ecumenism as a ‘road with no exit’, but it now seems to be a road leading nowhere.

Forty years ago, it all seemed so different. After the Second Vatican Council had embraced the so-called ecumenical movement, anything appeared possible. The visit by Michael Ramsay, then Archbishop of Canterbury, to Pope Paul VI in 1966 was regarded as a watershed and, in the heady idealistic spirit of the 1960s, some commentators spoke of when, not if, a full reunion between Rome and Canterbury would be achieved. Indeed, when the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) began its first phase of deliberations in 1970, the participants hoped and even expected that their work would result in full communion being established between the two before the end of the century – a bold and ambitious goal which today sounds simply absurd.

One problem is that Catholics and those denominations which arose from the Reformation see the end purpose of ecumenism very differently. Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, who served as the Catholic co-chairman of the second phase of ARCIC, and other ecumenical enthusiasts within the Catholic Church have always seen Church unity in institutional terms. According to this model, full unity would be like a merger, with Anglicans accepting the full jurisdictional authority of the Pope while retaining their own characteristics – much like the Eastern Rite churches already in communion with Rome.

On the other hand, the Anglicans and other ‘Reformed’ Christians see unity happening almost exclusively at a local level. According to this model, union would mean sharing in each other’s eucharistic services, praying together and pooling church resources – but certainly not accepting ‘difficult’ Catholic dogmas such as papal infallibility. The most that would ever be acceptable to most Anglicans would be a vague recognition of the Pope as first among equals, a primacy of honour but not of jurisdiction, and in any case there seems to be a far greater desire among Anglicans to achieve union with the Methodists and others than to come back to the Roman fold.

For all the dialogue and the touchy-feely ecumenical gatherings, the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church are further apart now than at any time since the ecumenical movement began. While paying lip service to ecumenism and the desire to foster closer unity, the Anglicans have unilaterally moved further away from Catholicism and erected a series of obstacles to real unity which will almost certainly prove insurmountable.

The decision by the Church of England’s General Synod to admit women to its priesthood in 1992 is the classic example of this. By making a unilateral decision to change the nature of its priesthood, the Church of England was declaring that it had the right to do what it wanted with its own structures, including the priesthood, and that, therefore, its understanding of the priesthood differed in some fundamental respects to the Catholic or Orthodox understanding. Now the General Synod has affirmed its support for women bishops, a move which will destroy any hopes that might still linger of institutional union between Canterbury and Rome , and the creeping acceptance of homosexual unions will cause further problems.

The real problem with Catholic-Anglican dialogue is that, while some Anglicans and Catholics might still see unity between the two as achievable, the two churches have fundamentally different notions of what it means to be ‘catholic’. Their clergy might wear similar vestments, and their liturgies might resemble each other’s remarkably, but these apparent similarities are for the most part only skin-deep. When Pope Leo XIII declared Anglican orders “absolutely null and utterly void” in 1896, he did so because the Anglican understanding of ordained ministry had been fundamentally different to the Catholic belief in a sacrificial priesthood from the very first years of the Church of England’s break from Rome.

So, forty years after the ecumenical movement began with such enthusiasm and hope, it is now time to reassess and ask the question – what exactly is it for? In short, where is the ecumenical road heading? Is the final destination still meant to be an institutional union of all Christians in one church and, if so, what kind of church would that be? If ecumenism in this sense could only ever succeed by stripping away everything distinctively Catholic to create a kind of ‘Church of the Lowest Common Denominator’, then it’s time to say enough is enough!

Of course, not all ecumenism is like this. It is very important to draw a distinction between ‘authentic ecumenism’ on the one hand, and ‘false ecumenism’ on the other.

Authentic ecumenism has achieved a great deal. Gone are the days when Catholics could not pray with other Christians because they were spurned as heretics. Today, authentic ecumenism recognises and respects the differences between Christian denominations and seeks to build on what unites us for furthering common objectives – such as the pursuit of justice and the recognition of Christian values in politics and society. Christians can work together, and even pool resources where appropriate, to build a better and more just society.

However, the trouble with false, or dishonest, ecumenism – perhaps especially the well-intentioned but ultimately doomed attempts to reunite with the Anglicans – is that it tries to paper over the many cracks which exist between us to create only an illusion of unity. Such dishonest ecumenism does no service to real unity. It gives rise, instead, to abuses like shared communion services and the downgrading of distinctively Catholic elements at ecumenical gatherings. These abuses confuse believers of all denominations and give the impression that those things which separate us – such as the Mass, devotion to Our Lady and the role of the Pope – are simply add-on extras and ‘stumbling blocks to unity’ rather than fundamental and non-negotiable pillars of our faith.

Such is often the implication when Catholics refer to themselves as Christians ‘of the Catholic tradition’, as if all Christians were basically the same but simply demarked by incidental outward characteristics or ‘traditions’. The Catholic Church is unique, and ecumenism is not served by denying this. When truth is compromised, the plot has been lost.

Efforts at real, institutional union should be focused instead on the Eastern Orthodox Churches, union with which is not only achievable but, with God’s grace, absolutely imperative. Pope Benedict’s meeting in Istanbul on 29-30 November with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, spiritual leader of Orthodoxy, was arguably far more significant for the unity of Christ’s Church than was his meeting a week earlier with Archbishop Williams. Unlike the Church of England, the Orthodox Church retains the valid priesthood and all the sacraments. There has been much hurt and offence caused on both sides in the course of a schism between Rome and Constantinople which has lasted for nearly 1,000 years, and the journey to reunion will be a difficult and rocky ride, but the basis for full unity still remains. Once East and West are reunited, and only then, can a genuine search for full union with the post-Reformation ecclesial communities begin.

Of course the ecumenical movement in the West cannot, and should not, be stopped. Through dialogue, respect and an acknowledgement that Christians share a common baptism, we can continue to develop new ways and forms of working together to provide a stronger, more united witness to the Gospel in the modern world. However, the analogy of an ecumenical road with no exit is no longer appropriate, and an obstinate refusal to admit this helps no-one.

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3 thoughts on “Ecumenism on a road to nowhere?

  1. Excellent distillation of the conundrum that is the so-called Roman-Anglican ecumenism!

    I believe that the controversies currently engulfing the Anglican Communion is a harbinger is better things to come; in short, the Body is undergoing a cleansing (a purging, if you will), of those entities and influences that are, in essence, parasitical in nature.

    We are all familiar with the popular expression ‘tough love.’ The implosion rocking the Episcopal Church, for example, is an example of the Body rejecting the grafted heresy. While that Body may convulse, the ‘demons’ will indeed be exorcised, returning the Body to a true state of grace. The healing process may be long and arduous, but an authentic ecumenical process will have been returned to its Godly course.

  2. Thanks for your positive comments about my article! In answer to your question, the word ‘catholic’ simply means ‘universal’. It was in wide usage as early as the second century to describe the one true Church in contrast to the various heretical sects (such as the Gnostics). It also described the bishops around the world who shared the one faith and were in communion with each other and the Bishop of Rome. St Ignatius of Antioch, for example, who was martyred in AD 117, wrote in AD 110 (just about within living memory of Jesus’ resurrection): “Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful to baptize or give communion without the consent of the bishop.”

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