Anglicans have recently acknowledged the Roman Primacy as a ‘gift’, says Ian Ker , but can they receive it as such?

SOME YEARS AGO, a Methodist minister told me that she would not like to be a Roman Catholic. ‘I know the feeling,’ I replied, ‘but may I ask why?’ ‘Because I would not like to belong to such a large Church,’ came the response. This surprised me very much, because, as I pointed out to her, she was an ecumaniac compared to me. ‘What has that got to do with it?’ she asked in a puzzled way.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘ecumenism is supposed to be about trying to get us all into one Church, which would certainly be bigger even than the Catholic Church.’

‘Oh, I’d never thought of that,’ she said.

I’ve never forgotten that little exchange because it explained to me a lot about ecumenism and especially about some of those who practise it with the keenest fervour. The truth is that a good deal of ecumenism has literally got nothing to do with Christian unity at all, indeed it may be quite opposed to it. It has to do with other things. It may be all about intercommunion; that is, trying to make sure that no one tries to be exclusivist (one of the modern deadly sins) when it comes to receiving Communion. This kind of ecumenist resembles the militant rambler who intends to prove that there is a right of way regardless of other people’s property and rights.

Then there is the kind of ecumenism which seeks to break down denominational barriers by replacing the existing Churches with a new ecumenical Church. Its favourite slogan is that no one should do anything separately that can be done together. This disapproval of one church community having its own ecumenically divisive Christmas party goes curiously hand-in-hand with a great insistence on the local church as opposed to centralising authorities.

The least aggressive form of the kind of ecumenism which has nothing really to do with Christian reunion at all is the ecumenism which delights in meetings, structures, committees, sub-committees. This is really nothing more than that churchiness which used to be peculiar to Protestants but which has now sadly infiltrated the Catholic Church and which merely looks for a larger sphere in which to spread its all-consuming tentacles. Of course there are good kinds of ecumenism as well as bad. Practical co-operation for the common good is obviously greatly to be welcomed – even if on moral issues we Catholics tend to find only the Evangelicals on our side.

And then there are the serious theological discussions, of which the most important is that with the Orthodox, even though the divisions there are probably more to do with psychological and historical than theological issues. I would imagine that a dialogue with the Pentecostals could be very illuminating for both sides. With Protestant Churches like the Lutheran with a clear confessional basis, again discussions can be very constructive. It has always seemed to me, however, that in spite of the privileged position accorded to the Anglican Communion among the Churches of the Reformation by the Vatican II decree on ecumenism, that particular dialogue was likely to prove ultimately the most disappointing of all.

The reason for this is the chameleon-like character of a Church which boasts it is both Catholic and Protestant, which solves a problem like the ordination of women with the so-called ‘two integrities’, and whose distinctive mark is precisely its much vaunted ‘comprehensiveness’, its capacious broadness capable of embracing the widest diversity of views. This is a Church which recently signed with its left hand the Porvoo Agreement accepting intercommunion with Lutheran Churches which do not claim to have retained the Apostolic succession, without which, on any Catholic understanding, there can be no valid orders and therefore no valid sacraments apart from baptism. With its right hand, the same Church’s representatives on the Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission (ARCIC) have now signed an agreed statement on the ‘gift of authority’, which has been hailed as a breakthrough, even as a bombshell. I strongly suspect it is nothing of the sort.

The commission has already produced two agreed statements on authority, but that did not stop its co-chairman, Bishop Mark Santer, from supporting the ordination of women at the 1992 General Synod in spite of the very serious warnings from the Roman Catholic Church about the ecumenical implications. The same bishop who caused a stir not long ago by marrying the divorced wife of one of his clergy has now signed a statement which recognises ‘the primacy of the Bishop of Rome’ as ‘a gift to be received by all the churches’. This primacy is not seen as merely honorific: no, the agreed statement has taken on board not just ‘indefectibility’ but the dreaded Roman Catholic concept of ‘infallibility’, by means of which the Pope can fulfil his ‘duty to discern and make explicit in certain circumstances’ the ‘faith’ of the Church.

But what would the Bishop of Birmingham say if ‘the universal primate’ told him that he could not receive Communion because he was married to a divorcee? Would Bishop Harries of Oxford ‘receive’ a papal condemnation of his speech in the House of Lords justifying ‘therapeutic human cloning’, or would Archbishop Habgood have been ready to say amen to a papal condemnation of his advocacy of destructive experiments on human embryos (see The Catholic Herald, 7 May)?

But Bishop Santer and his colleagues have an escape route: the provision in the statement which says that ‘since it is the faithfulness of the whole people of God that is at stake, reception of teaching is integral to the process’. That might mean no more than that the Pope cannot teach what is not the faith of the Church, or that the teachings of a pope who went mad would not be recognised as authentic. But when the statement goes on to speak of the people of God saying ‘amen to authoritative teaching’, this could very well mean that if the whole people don’t say amen to the Pope’s teaching, for example, that the impossibility of the ordination of women is to be held ‘definitively’, then the Pope would have to withdraw his teaching as binding on all.

It is important to understand that what may seem to outsiders to be bad faith is not necessarily so at all. Anglicanism is very English in its pragmatism, its dislike of logic, its suspicion of absolute truths, its endless capacity for compromise. Of course not all Anglicans possess the ‘Anglican mind’. There are genuinely Catholic-minded Anglicans. Then there are Protestant-minded Evangelicals who use the Church of England as a convenient boat to fish from; they will register their protest against this statement, but they will ignore it as an exercise in Anglican diplomacy which does not concern them.

The Anglican Communion knows which envoys to send to Porvoo and which to Palazzola, the delightful Alban town where this statement received its final shape. My impression is that ARCIC is good at choosing sunny spots where the wine flows. No doubt there will be many more convivial ARCIC meetings.

Meanwhile those of us who know that the vast majority of Anglicans don’t know the Hail Mary, think that the Holy Souls must be the old dears in the parish, have never been to confession in their lives, will regretfully conclude that, impeccable as the Scriptural theology underlying this statement is, the fact is it is totally unreal. I believe that one day these discussions will seem as academic as the old Christian-Marxist dialogues. Communism eventually withered away; the English settlement of the 16th century that is essentially Anglicanism will, in time, break up as the sentimental ties with England weaken and the various provinces go their own way and form new alliances.

Ian Ker is Roman Catholic parish priest of Witney in Oxfordshire and well known as the biographer of J.H. Newman. This article first appeared in The Catholic Herald