Views of CCJR Members

Give and take: what the Catholic and Anglican Churches can learn from each other



Arcic III: Walking Together on the Way

An awful lot of ink has already been spilled on the first statement from phase three of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (Arcic). Walking Together on the Way: Learning to be the Church – Local, Regional, Universal is a groundbreaking document that fully deserves this degree of attention, as much for its radically different approach and refreshing tone as for any direct conclusions or concrete steps that it anticipates.

Arcic began its work in the late-1960s as a result, as much as anything, of the genuinely good relationship between the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, and Pope Paul VI. Phase Three began in 2011, charged to reflect on the idea of communion and apply it to the challenging issue of discerning right ethical teaching.

WTW is an effort to examine “instruments of communion” in both the Anglican and Catholic traditions. The four central chapters of the 34,000-word statement look first at the enduring tension between local autonomy and attention to the global Church, before turning to local, regional and universal dimensions, in order to see what they are, what their weaknesses might be, and what each might learn from the other tradition.

The statement recognises that the Catholic tradition has a strong sense of global unity but might lack some appropriate exercise of subsidiarity, while the Anglican emphasis on the autonomy of the member churches leaves it with a lot of ground to cover to embrace a vigorous understanding of the universal Church. The rhythm of give and take at work here is the hallmark of WTW, and represents the clearest indication yet of the acceptance of what has come to be called “receptive ecumenism,” that is, an emphasis on learning from one another rather than adjudicating more or less serious differences in doctrine, law or practice between the Anglican and Catholic traditions.

There is an initial expository moment in all three key chapters, where each tradition explains simply how the “instruments of communion” (which Catholic parlance would more commonly refer to as institutional elements) achieve their effects. However, this step is only preliminary to a second one in which each tradition is honest about the dysfunctional elements in its own modus operandi, and a third subsection in which the signatories to the statement show how the strengths of each can work to the benefit of the other.

An interesting and frankly helpful development is to place the descriptions and reflections in parallel columns. Stick to the left of the page and you can see where the Anglican churches are, what their issues are and what they think they can learn from the Catholics. On the right, you can see the same from the Catholic point of view. Read across at any point and you have an immediate opportunity to see how different the structures often are, how similar the problems are, and how much each has to learn from the other.

My immediate reaction was: “Pope Francis is all over this statement.” The way that the document embraces “explicit ecclesial self-critique”, synodality, the role of the laity, subsidiarity and the decentralisation of responsibility, transparency and regional diversity – and its humble recognition of institutional sinfulness – is all pure Francis. And, although it is not specifically mentioned in the document, we should probably add WTW’s strong preference for dialogue over ideology, which is, of course, central to the dynamics of receptive ecumenism.

Francis’ immediate predecessors spoke fervently about the need for better ecumenical relations. But it would not be wrong to see this statement evincing a degree of relaxation that might not have been there before. It looks very much as though the Catholic members of the commission have been given their head. The reins are not held as tightly, and it might even be that there has been a flick or two of the papal whip encouraging them onward.

Chapter four, on the local church, parish and diocese, has the Catholics looking enviously at the way in which the Anglican structure allows for a deliberative voice in decision-making by bishops, clergy and laity. If the parliamentary style can sometimes lead to factionalism, to the Catholic eye it offers an avenue to an expanded role for lay leadership and a rebalancing away from top-down governance. It also reveals the sore need in the Catholic Church for fora in which all can meet and have a voice. Aside from diocesan synods – which meet only when the bishop thinks it appropriate – this does not happen, and even these synods allow no deliberative voice for the laity at all, and little enough for the clergy.

When the statement turns to the regional church, the contrasts are again apparent. Anglican provinces have regular synods, the Catholic Church has episcopal conferences. There is no role for laity in the latter, though again Pope Francis’ attitude to bishops’ conferences shows a wish to cut through the thicket of thorny authority issues he inherited.

That Francis wants to elevate the role of these conferences is evident in the way in which he quotes them in his encyclical letters. Perhaps emboldened by the practice, the Catholics on Arcic press for more clarity on how bishops’ conferences might adjudicate a range of issues for their particular region. We need, they write, “a formal theological basis for the nature and extent of the teaching authority of episcopal conferences” (116).

Considering the universal or global Church, while the Anglicans look longingly at the benefits of the Catholic focus on unity, the Catholics in turn seem to wish for something more than episcopal collegiality. Anglicanism is untidy at the global level, although there are new efforts to promote a kind of internal receptive ecumenism, to which they give the name indaba, an African concept that looks for the kind of mutuality that overcomes polarisations. The problem with collegiality in the Catholic context, the statement implies, is that while there is a level of affective merit to it, there is little effective episcopal collegiality. And even if there were, once again it clearly clings to an ecclesial vision in which most of the Church’s members have no deliberative role.

So what difference does WTW make in the Catholic Church and what difference might it make? Like all Arcic documents, it will await reflection from the institutional Church; implementation may or may not happen, in particular detail, or at all. The statement talks of the possibility of a wider role for lay preaching, the female diaconate and the ordination of mature married men to the priesthood, the so-called viri probati. We shall see.

Its strongest wishes clearly centre around a more representative structure at local, regional and global levels, akin to the Anglican system of synods. Again, Pope Francis is probably looking benignly on this development. He probably also likes the less prominent but perhaps more important stress that the document places on the need to recognise an element of provisionality in church structures and practices. Some things, it points out, are not essential and might be changed. Some things have fallen out of favour but might be revisited, or open to “re-reception”.

While both “sides” contributing to this document show an honest assessment of their own weaknesses and a real willingness to learn from the other, one cannot help contrasting the adulthood of the Anglican approach with the infantilisation still so evident in Catholic ecclesial practice. That the Anglican approach is open to the danger of factionalism that goes with its parliamentary organisation is obviously something Anglicans themselves deplore. But this weakness is a weakness endemic to a sinful people honestly struggling for the good of the church they love. With honest discernment, this problem can be addressed.

In the Catholic context, WTW seems ready to live with that danger in exchange for an understanding of the Church that recognises the adulthood of the whole community. Synodality, frankness, provisionality, transparency and subsidiarity cannot become effective in a Church that excludes most of its members from a deliberative voice. The very title of the statement implies all this. Walking Together on the Way is an application of what Francis would call caminando. We walk together, perhaps arm in arm or shoulder to shoulder, with our bishops, to quote Francis again, among the sheep, sometimes teaching and sometimes learning from them.

It will be fascinating to see how the members of Arcic III negotiate these complexities when they turn in the next phase of their discussions to questions of ethics. Here, more than anywhere else in the Catholic tradition, the voice of the laity is essential.

Paul Lakeland is president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. He teaches at Fairfield University in Connecticut.