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Anglican-Catholic commission reaches agreement on authority

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission has been at work for 30 years. Its method has been to try to get behind the Maginot lines of doctrinal formulas of the past so as to breathe more freely in open country. In this way it has achieved agreement on disputed questions of ministry and the Eucharist, which would have seemed inconceivable before it started out.

On authority -- most difficult of all -- there has been convergence, with a request from the churches for more work. Hence the commission’s latest document, “The Gift of Authority,” which takes the further step of accepting papal primacy (NCR, May 28). A number of evangelical Anglicans are protesting in alarm that the heritage of the Reformation is being dismantled, but the text poses many questions for Roman Catholics as well.

The theological method used to reach agreement is fertile and creative. The document turns on a scriptural passage, Second Corinthians 1:19 and 1:20, where St Paul writes of our “amen” to God’s “yes” to us. So authority is a “gift” because it aids our reception of God’s assurances -- our “amen.” The document also introduces the crucial concept of “re-reception,” necessary when some elements of the apostolic tradition have been “neglected” or some formulations of it are perceived to be “inadequate or even misleading in a new context.” The whole people of God are involved in this process of reception and re-reception, at every step, right up to the stage of solemn definitions pronounced “from the chair of Peter in the Church of Peter and Paul.” These definitions may “express only the faith of the church.”

Where previous commission documents drew back, this one then takes the jump of commending the primacy of the bishop of Rome as “a gift to be received by all the churches.” There has been a steady and unprecedented movement within Anglicanism toward acceptance of the idea that some form of authority is needed that is able to take precedence. Otherwise there is nothing to stop church provinces from getting into incompatible positions and rupturing communion. So why not go for the option that is available -- the traditional primacy of the bishop of Rome? But only on the basis that each church learns from the other, sharing its strengths while correcting its weaknesses. The document clearly assumes that the papacy has to be reformed, as the Catholic church has been reformed.

Nor is this simply a surrender by the Anglicans. Far from it. The text claims that “forms of primacy exist in both churches” -- thus Anglican provinces have a primate, there is a primates’ meeting that serves the whole Anglican Communion, and the archbishop of Canterbury has a primatial role within the Anglican Communion. So it is here being claimed that Anglican bishops share in the teaching authority of the college of bishops, which underlies the bishop of Rome’s universal primacy.

The document then drops a further bombshell -- “dynamite,” the Jesuit ecumenist Fr. Ted Yarnold has called it. Members of the commission are of the opinion, they say, that they have now reached sufficient agreement to allow a universal primacy to be offered and received “even before our churches are in full communion.” Unity under a universal primate before the roadblock of women’s ordination is removed? “On this peak of Darien,” remarks Yarnold lyrically, “we gaze at the possibilities with wild surmise.”

Such are the proposals the Roman Catholic church and the Anglican Communion are now to evaluate. Obviously the skeptics, both conservative and progressive, will have a field day.

The former will note that it is not long since Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was putting his name to a statement of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which he heads, reasserting that Leo XIII’s bull Apostolicae Curae is infallible. According to Leo, Anglican orders are null and void, and Anglican bishops are not bishops at all.

The progressive skeptics will say that this is not the moment at which Anglicans should concede to a papacy that, under John Paul II, has reasserted so strongly its centralized power.

In the short run, the skeptics are right. The document envisages that the bishops of the two churches could now cooperate in a variety of ways: international, regional and local collaboration; joint teaching and witness; joint ad limina visits to Rome; and so on. Not much of this is likely to happen. But the commission has produced a landmark text, all the same. The “Gift of Authority” now joins the other documents developed by this commission as an agenda in waiting. The commission’s work is like a deposit in a bank. Its value will be evident when the time comes for it to be withdrawn for use.

John Wilkins is editor of The Tablet, a Catholic weekly published in London.

National Catholic Reporter, June 4, 1999