Roger Greenacre commends the reply to Ut Unum Sint of the Bishops of the Church of England

I FIRST BECAME aware of Pope John Paul II’s Encyclical of May 1995 on Commitment to Ecumenism – Ut Unum Sint – when I received a telephone call from a Dominican on the staff of the French Catholic daily newspaper La Croix, asking me for a response. At that point an English language text was not available and I had to work to a very short and non-negotiable deadline on a French text faxed to me from Paris. I began by referring to the negative currents which were so strongly represented in all our traditions and which had caused the news that an Encyclical on ecumenism was about to appear to be greeted with some apprehension. “It was therefore with some anxiety”, I wrote, “that I began my first (and rapid) reading of the text but with considerable relief that I finished it. For there is one thing of which there can be no doubt whatsoever: the authenticity, the depth, even the passion, of John Paul II’s ecumenical commitment”. I ended my response by paying tribute to the way in which the Pope had invited “Church leaders and their theologians” to engage with him in a dialogue on the nature of his own ministry about new and more acceptable ways in which it might be exercised. “Does there exist today”, I concluded, “a theological and ecumenical task more urgent and more important than this?”

Five days after the publication of the Encyclical, the Church of England’s Initial Response “issued on behalf of Lambeth Palace and the Council for Christian Unity” appeared. It welcomed the Encyclical warmly and “looked forward” to two things – i) “to exploring more deeply the ministry of unity which belongs to the Bishop of Rome” and ii) “to making a considered response to the Encyclical”.

That “considered response” has now appeared in the shape of May They All Be One – A Response to the House of Bishops of the Church of England to Ut Unum Sint (GS Misc 495, Church House Publishing, 1997). It poses us with a double challenge. The more obvious one is to study carefully and critically its content and, in particular, to look for any signs of encouragement it gives to our own particular and difficult witness. But equally important is the challenge to see that this text is not ignored and that the dialogue about authority in the Church and the role of the Bishop of Rome is actively and wholeheartedly pursued.

It is no secret that one of the key figures in drafting this response was John Hind, Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe and Chairman of the Faith and Order Advisory Group (FOAG); his positive influence on it is clear, although obviously he cannot be held personally responsible for its final form.

After a more general Introduction and Welcome the Response sets out its comments under a number of headings. It begins with The faith and its formulations and sees in the Encyclical (especially in paragraph 38) a reaffirmation of a shared ecumenical methodology. This “works with the notion that the same truths have been variously expressed in differing times and cultures; it recognises both that our histories have given birth to emotive and polarised language, which has often played a large part in the continuing separation of our churches, and that our future lies in a generosity which willingly leaves behind the language of past polemics in the search for a common understanding of the faith”. Though the Bishops tactfully make no explicit reference to this, it is clear that the Encyclical marks a heartening return to a methodology which had been seriously undermined in the official Roman Response to the Final Report of ARCIC I. This document, published in 1991, was perceived as requiring not just the “consonance” of ecumenical texts with the faith of the Catholic Church but their “identity” with it. It seemed at the time that Rome was making demands of Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue that were much more rigorous than those demanded in dialogue with the Eastern Orthodox Church and with the non-Chalcedonian Oriental Churches.

The second heading of the Bishops’ Response is The teaching office of the Church and they begin with a robust affirmation that “the Church needs to speak authoritatively and with one voice, especially in areas where faith cannot admit divergence”. They go on to reflect on the nature and exercise of the Church’s teaching exercise and its competent organs and find “some unclarity” about this in both traditions – an interesting comment in view of the widespread feeling that Anglicans suffer from too little clarity and Roman Catholics from too much. In an irenic way some hard and necessary questions are put to Rome in an effort to dispel the perceived lack of clarity in her thinking about the Church’s magisterium and to suggest avenues for further exploration.

The third heading is Decision making when churches are separated. Space allows me to make only two comments on this section. Paragraph 23 is so important that it deserves to be quoted in full:

In this process separated churches have sometimes taken decisions which have further deepened their divisions, and responsibility for churchdividing actions is widely shared. Examples can be seen in dogmatic definitions made by the Roman Catholic Church. Other churches, including the Church of England, have also made unilateral decisions on questions which many consider central matters of faith and order.

If only, one is tempted to add, the House of Bishops had been more aware of the content and force of this revealing admission in the years leading up to November 1992!

My second comment on this section refers to the use of the phrase ‘Sister Churches’. A footnote (no 35) of the Bishops’ Response draws attention to “Pope Paul Vl’s application of the term to the Churches of the Anglican Communion”. It is not quite as clear as that. He did not in fact use the exact term ‘Sister Church’ in his famous reference to the Anglican Church in 1970, although Archbishop Basil Hume did so in Westminster Abbey on the day of his episcopal ordination in 1976. Paul VI did refer to the Anglican Church as the ‘ever-beloved sister” of the Roman Catholic Church, but we have no right to treat as a mean and ungenerous quibble the view expressed by ecumenists of the quality of Yves Congar and Emmanuel Lanne that they saw a sisterly relation between the two Communions as a future possibility rather than as a present reality. In view of what has happened since then it is not totally surprising that the present Pope in his Encyclical applies the term ‘Sister Churches’ exclusively to the separated churches of the East.

There then follow two short sections on Full visible unity and Areas requiring further study before some of those areas are explored more deeply. The first is that of The Magisterium and begins with a clear acknowledgement that the House of Bishops considers “a living teaching authority witnessing to and interpreting the faith ‘uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds’ to be essential for the authentic proclamation of the gospel to each generation”. Clearly such authority “belongs to the body of the Church as a whole” (there is no disagreement on that point), but getting the right balance in its exercise between the synodal or conciliar principle and the primatial principle is a more difficult question. None of the churches can claim to have got this balance right in their present practice, but Anglicans and Roman Catholics are at opposite poles of imbalance.

The place of Mary is next studied and there is a welcome statement that “in continuity with the faith of the ancient Church, and with the support of the Third Ecumenical Council, Anglicans acclaim Mary as Theotokos … ” The Pope, however, had asked for a consensus on the Virgin Mary not only as “Mother of God and Icon of the Church” but also as “the Spiritual Mother who intercedes for Christ’s disciples and for all humanity”; this last point is rather sidestepped by the House of Bishops’ Response, which somewhat unconvincingly describes the variety in devotion to Mary as “a strength within Anglican devotion”. Even, one is tempted to ask, when some deny the full. reality of the Incarnation and others would hotly refuse to call Mary Theotokos once the word had been translated for them? More helpfully, it is in this particular context that the Bishops remind the Pope of his own statement (cf. para 78 of the Encyclical and Acts 15: 28) that “one must not impose any burden beyond that which is strictly necessary”. No doubt the Pope has this firmly in mind when faced with demands for further Marian definitions.

Two sections follow on Implications of our common baptism and Apostolicity and succession. They contain important material as do the final section on Real but imperfect communion and the Conclusion, but the demands of space require me to devote my remaining comments to the section on The role of the Bishop of Rome.

In his Encyclical the Pope took the courageous but very risky step of inviting the help of the other churches in finding a way of exercising the Primacy which, “while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation”. “This is an immense task”, he continued, and one “which I cannot carry out by myself” (paras 95 & 96). Has the Pope’s initiative elicited an equally courageous and risky response from the Bishops? Yes and no. To 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” (para 44) is a quintessentially cautious statement. It is clearly more equivocal than the statement in The Final Report of ARCIC I that we believe that the primacy of the bishop of Rome can be affirmed as part of God’s design for the universal koinonia …” (Authority II, para 15). On the other hand, the Bishops do admit that the Petrine ministry must contain “both doctrinal and disciplinary elements” (para 45) and they appear to accept that the Roman primacy cannot be “a primacy of honour only”, that it must have “the authority necessary for a world-wide ministry in the service of unity” (para 47), and that in finding appropriate structures for its exercise in the future we cannot simply re-create the structures of the first millennium (para 50). They also indicate a real awareness of the dangers of the notion of provincial autonomy for the unity of the Anglican Communion. It is in this overall context that they call for continuing dialogue on the issues of papal infallibility and papal jurisdiction.

Readers of New Directions should welcome this report wholeheartedly, for they will know, as well as – or better than – other Anglicans, that the issue of authority is at the heart of our church’s problems at the present time. Could it even prove to be the case that by some providential irony (“God writes straight with crooked lines”) the crisis which we have been living through in recent years will open minds, formerly closed, to consider more positively the urgent need to accept the ministry of vigilance and unity in the Church at the universal level?

But a ritual welcome for this Response is not enough. The worst thing that could happen to it is to be ignored. It needs to be bought (£2.50 a copy is not expensive) and read alongside the Encyclical. It needs to be studied; more than that, it needs to be ‘received’ and ‘owned’ (though not uncritically) by the Church of England as a whole and so commended to the other churches of the Anglican Communion. In May 1995 the Church of England’s Initial Response to the Encyclical encouraged “members of the Church of England to explore the text with their Roman Catholic brothers and sisters”. I know that this has figured on the agenda of the English Anglican-Roman Catholic Committee (English ARC), a body on which I sat for 15 years, but, now that this fuller Response has appeared, it would be good to know precisely how the Committee proposes to encourage and facilitate this most important of dialogues.

Roger Greenacre has been a Canon Residentiary of Chichester Cathedral since 1975 and has been involved in Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue in this country and on the Continent for most of his ministry.