Greenbelt Interfaith News

    January 1998

    Church of England Bishops Respond to Pope's Ecumenical Overture
    By Glyn Paflin
    Church Times

    The ban on Roman Catholics' receiving the sacraments from Anglican priests requires "urgent and serious consideration", the Church of England's House of Bishops says in a new and detailed response to the papal encyclical Ut Unum Sint.

    Ut Unum Sint ("That They May Be One"), published in May 1995 and addressed to all Christians, stressed the Pope's hopes of unity with the Orthodox Churches, and the shared RC-Orthodox insistence on the mystery of the Church, the bond between faith and sacraments, and the apostolic succession.

    The House of Bishops has now followed up a brief initial statement made by Lambeth Palace and the Council for Christian Unity with a fuller response, May They All Be One, published December 9. It is the work of the Council's Faith and Order Advisory Group.

    It argues that Rome's understanding of baptism and of its relations with the Orthodox ought to open the way to closer relations on other fronts, specifically with Anglicans; it reasserts the Anglican claim to catholicity, notably in having maintained the historic episcopate, and urges that developments since Apostolicae Curae, the papal bull of 1896 which declared Anglican orders invalid, necessitate reconsideration of RC sacramental discipline. Among other points raised, it deals with the papal claims to universal primacy and jurisdiction and to infallibility.

    The bishops, after an introduction and welcoming the encyclical, draw attention to "our shared ecumenical methodology", based on the notion that "the same truths have been variously expressed in differing Times and cultures", and that history has led to the use of "emotive and polarised language".

    In a discussion of the teaching office of the Church, the Bishops focus on three areas of "particular and immediate concern".

    The first is what constitutes the RC Magisterium (teaching office). "This involves issues concerning the relation of the Bishop of Rome to the collegiality of all the bishops, to the sensus fidelium and to the particular relationship of the Pope to the Curia. A second, and closely related, area concerns how the Magisterium is exercised. . . [The] matter of ordinary and universal Magisterium needs consideration."

    A third question is the understanding of the deposit of faith, say the Bishops. Expressions of faith must always be seen to be consonant with the deposit; the Church cannot add to the revelation already given; teaching will often be expressed in words different from scripture, without being alien to its meaning.

    "In practice all churches work with an understanding of Scripture and Tradition and some principle of discrimination between those elements in the Tradition which are fundamental and which are secondary. Some clarification is needed, however, if divided churches are to be confident that they are confessing the faith of the Church through the ages, notwithstanding differences in formulation."

    In the next section, on decision-making in separated Churches, the Bishops say that "responsibility for church-dividing actions is widely shared". "A closely associated question concerns the criteria and organs by which, when churches are separated, matters are deemed to be part of the deposit of faith, for example the 1994 declaration by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the reservation of priestly ordination to men alone."

    The principle and process of reception is still relevant to decisions taken by separated Churches.

    In the next section, the Bishops draw attention to different ways of presenting the "dimensions of visible unity" and welcome the encyclical's list of areas for further study (the relationship between scripture and tradition; the eucharist; ordination; the Magisterium, and the Virgin Mary).

    In a section on the Magisterium, the Bishops put forward the Anglican model of "bishop-in-synod". "It is to be regretted that the Encyclical makes so little reference to Ecumenical Councils and other conciliar forms of consultation and discernment in the Church."

    In a section on the place of Mary, the Bishops warn of Anglican reservations about treating as essentials "truths, beliefs or devotional practices that many believers do not see to be demanded by Holy Scripture or required by the biblically rooted tradition inherited from the ancient Church". They welcome the Pope's injunction "not to impose any burden beyond that which is strictly necessary", and "believe that his authority could be enhanced if this principle were seen to be applicable to this question".

    In a section on "Implications of our common baptism", the Bishops ask: "If baptism is an act of God in his Church, and if people are baptised in divided churches, what does that say about the ecclesial status of the communities through which they are admitted to the community of salvation?"

    This issue must be considered in relation to RC teaching about orders and the eucharist in Reformation communities; and though the Bishops "share Pope John Paul's joy" at the extent to which RCs may offer the sacraments to other Christians, they observe that practice varies from place to place.

    The Bishops "note with sadness that the discipline of the Roman Catholic Church does not allow its members to receive the sacraments from Anglican priests". The Anglican encyclical Saepius Officio addressed the historical and theological issues raised by Apostolicae Curae. "Moreover, The Final Report of ARCIC I and the official responses of our two churches set the arguments of the Bull in a new context."

    In a section on "Apostolicity and succession", the Bishops note that Ut Unum Sint locates the "kinship" between the RC Church and the Orthodox Church (a "sister Church") in the fact of common possession of the sacraments through the apostolic succession. The Bishops say: "The work of ARCIC and the official responses to The Final Report of ARCIC I reveal a similar 'kinship' between the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches."

    Agreement at ARCIC on apostolic succession has been underlined by the Bishops' report Apostolicity and Succession, they say. "The House of Bishops . . . is clear that its understanding is not different from the one expressed by the Roman Catholic Church, as that is set out in its official response to [the WCC Faith and Order paper Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry]."

    On "The role of the Bishop of Rome", the Bishops say that Anglicans are "by no means opposed to the principle and practice of a personal ministry at the world level in the service of unity", and that this must have doctrinal and disciplinary elements. They refer to the Bishops' response to ARCIC I for a view on papal infallibility, then go on:

    "In matters of discipline and the oversight of the communion of the Church we should not minimise the serious obstacles that still exist because of the present Roman Catholic understanding of the jurisdiction attributed to the primacy of the Bishop of Rome."

    But they are confident of reaching "a proper common understanding and practice", and suggest that Rome would be helped to become a centre of visible communion if there were a "common exploration of the way in which the Church of the first millennium maintained her unity".

    In a section on "Real but imperfect communion", the Bishops reassert: "Our own church has always been careful to continue the ancient orders of the Church 'from the Apostles' time' and insists that the eucharist be celebrated only by those episcopally ordained priest."

    In a discussion of the Second Vatican Council's statement that the unique Church of Jesus Christ "subsists in" the RC Church, the Bishops say that there needs to be "common agreement between us on how it is to be understood". "If an exclusive interpretation of the phrase 'subsistit in' is in fact the intention of the Council then a major ecumenical obstacle remains."

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    © 1997 Church Times
    This article was republished with permission.