for New Directions
from the Archbishop of Canterbury
I realise that it is practically impossible to say anything about the future of the Catholic witness within the Church of England at the moment without touching on the major subject of discussion in the coming year. But rather than foreclose or anticipate any of that, I thought I might simply set down a few thoughts about why it matters to defend this characteristic of our Anglican life. I offer three ideas about this.
Catholic theology provides a firm connection between what we think or believe and what we do. The doctrine that God is Trinity, and that the eternal Son is incarnate, are not abstract propositions; they are what makes sense of baptism and the eucharist, what makes sense of all the disciplines by which we try to conform to Christ; they are what makes sense of the shape of our prayer, moving into deeper and more and more mysterious identity with Christ’s prayer to the Father – the prayer we enter in baptism and echo in the Mass.
Catholic theology reminds us that the Church of God does not exist because of us but because of Christ. So it is not a vague network of local spiritual enterprises but a Body, whose coherence has to be enough like that of a human body – interdependent, conscious of its whole life – to make the analogy credible. The Church in history is, of course, incoherent in various ways, and Catholic Christians disagree as to just how much coherence is needed for a credible life in one Body – along a spectrum ranging from those who think that this life must be in visible communion with the See of Rome through to those who can envisage it even surviving the uneven levels of mutual recognition that can be found in the Anglican family after the last couple of decades. But the real divide, I think, is between those for whom this isn’t even a question, and those who are still praying for the highest level possible of interdependence.
Catholic theology insists that we do our thinking and praying in company – in the fullest imaginable company, the Church on earth and the Church in glory. It affirms that we pray together with the company of heaven, with all Christ’s companions and servants from his Mother onwards. And so it affirms that we are never in a position to start out on our praying or thinking as if no one had passed this way before. We read the Bible in the light of all our brothers and sisters who have read it already: that is what tradition really means. And we seek to ‘think with’ – not against – the holy wisdom of those who have gone before us; and we do so not out of blind conservatism but out of the willingness to be questioned and re-shaped by their discipleship in their day.
Without these things, we risk becoming what I think is ultimately a rather boring affair – an endless improvisation rather than the performance of a great and transforming classic.
Catholic faith and practice establish us in what the psalmist calls a ‘large room’. It introduces us to the depth and richness of the whole reality that is renewed in Christ. I suspect our debates in the Church of England would be very different if we started from a vision such as this. And I hope that those who call themselves catholic in the Church of England, wherever exactly they find themselves on the spectrum I mentioned, can at least express something of the joy and gratitude that the vision should bring to birth in us.
New Directions has sought to hold this vision up as a challenge to our Church in all kinds of ways. So I am very happy to send birthday greetings for its two-hundredth edition, and to promise my prayers for its readers, contributors and editors.
+ Rowan Cantuar:
From Lambeth Palace
Conception of the BV Mary,
8 December 2011 ND