Roger Greenacre on the ARCIC document
‘The Gift of Authority’

I AM GRATEFUL for the invitation to write something about ARCIC II’s latest Agreed Statement on The Gift of Authority. This in some way fills the gap between your initial editorial comment last month and the weightier and more detailed analysis you have commissioned from the Bishop of Basingstoke, which is to appear later this summer. I would like to structure my own remarks around three Old Testament quotations.

1. “Lo, the winter is past ….the flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come” – Song of Solomon 2; 11-12

While I respect (and indeed share) that recognition of the overriding need for honesty, lucidity and realism which dictated the sceptical tone of last month’s editorial comments, I do regret that they were not more welcoming to the Statement. After all, we have for years been lamenting the long “winter of ecumenism” and deploring the fact that the ARCIC process had been – as many put it graphically – “relegated to the back burner”. Optimism may be irreconcilable with pessimism, but hope is not the enemy of realism. Were we all perhaps in danger of overlooking the Holy Spirit’s unnerving capacity for springing surprises on us and turning the tables? Is it mere coincidence that it was during the Pentecost novena – that period in the Church’s year between Ascension and Pentecost devoted to eager, prayerful, expectant waiting upon the Holy Spirit – and in the final months of this millennium (unless, that is, that we still hold to the view that the Third Millennium begins in 2001) that two extraordinary signs of promise (perhaps even of a Second Spring) were revealed to us?

There was, first of all, the visit of Pope John Paul II to Romania. Roman Catholic-Orthodox relations have been suffering in recent years from the same kind of winter as Roman Catholic-Anglican relations; yet on that May Sunday in Bucharest, when the Pope and the Patriarch of Romania appeared together they were given an emotional welcome, with a quarter of a million people roaring out, “Unitate, unitate!” And, secondly, on that same weekend the religious press was reporting the “bombshell” of an ARCIC Agreed Statement on authority, a statement which included agreement on the primacy and magisterial authority of the Bishop of Rome.

There were many immediate reactions, mostly hostile and mostly from the guts rather than the mind, from people who had perhaps read the text but had given themselves little time to mark, learn or inwardly digest it. A visceral hostility from some liberal and some conservative evangelical Anglicans is understandable, but such people need to remember that very few of our own members of ARCIC II could be described as card-carrying Catholic Anglicans and they also need to remember that the published Agreed Statement represents the end (not a full stop, more a semi-colon) of many years of searching and rigorous dialogue, an intellectual pilgrimage that also demands conversion of heart and mind. As I was drafting this response I came across this plea (in The Tablet of 12th June) from Anglicanism’s soundest and weightiest theologian, Henry Chadwick: “The Gift of Authority is on any showing a deeply serious and impressive document which does not deserve a hasty reaction”. From us it surely deserves a warm and positive – if not uncritical – welcome.

2. “And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” – Esther 4, 14.

I know that I am not the only Catholic-minded Anglican who could not in conscience accept the November 1 992 decision of the General Synod of the Church of England and who for years has been constantly asking himself the agonising question whether he should stay in the Church of England or become a Roman Catholic. There was no point in staying in the Church of England if it only meant shutting oneself up in a resentful, bitter and defiant inward-looking ghetto; one could only stay if one could throw what little weight one had into the ongoing process of reception to which the Church of England was officially committed. Our argument all along was not outright rejection of the possibility (I put it no higher than that) that one day Catholic Christendom might reach a universal consensus which saw the ordination of women to the priesthood as a legitimate development of Catholic tradition and that this consensus might be confirmed by those with the highest teaching authority in East and West; it was rather a considered and principled rejection of the claim that either the Church of England or the Anglican Communion, which claims to be no more than a part of the Catholic Church, had the authority to make a unilateral decision in this matter in the face of the opposition from Rome or Orthodoxy.

A year ago, in reviewing the Response of the House of Bishops to the Papal Encyclical Ut Unum Sint, I drew your readers’ attention to the damaging but promising admission by the Bishops that the Churches “have sometimes taken decisions which have further deepened their divisions” and that “other Churches, including the Church of England, have also made unilateral decisions on questions which many consider central matters of faith and order” (New Directions, March 1998). This seemed to me at the time to be an implicit recognition of the validity of our stand. This is considerably reinforced in The Gift of Authority; to take but one example, in paragraph 37 it is stated: “The maintenance of communion requires that at every level there is a capacity to take decisions appropriate to that level. When those decisions raise serious questions for the wider communion of churches, synodality must find a wider expression”. What else can one say to that than a very fervent Amen? One might also be tempted to add: “We told you so” – thinking, for example, of the pamphlet Lost in the Fog: The Lesson for Ecumenism of Lambeth 1988, published by the Church Union Theological Committee in 1989, and the warnings it conveyed about the dangers of unlimited “provincial autonomy” in the Anglican Communion. There is clearly something of a retreat now from this principle among Anglicans (but has it come too late?) and this is reflected very clearly in the summary of Issues Facing Anglicans in paragraph 56 of the Statement. Could it possibly be the case that growing awareness of the increasing incoherence of Anglicanism and the serious impairment of communion within and between its member-churches is leading Anglicans to open their eyes to the imperative need in the Universal Church for a ministry dedicated to the maintenance in unity and truth of all the churches in one visible communion?

The tragedy is that so many of our fellow Anglicans who shared this fundamental conviction with us have felt impelled to leave our Communion and that the constituency most likely to welcome this Agreed Statement has thereby been weakened. For those of us who remain, the question put by Mordecai to Esther – at least in this slightly modified form – remains acutely pertinent. Who knows whether we have remained in the Church of England “for such a time as this?” We must mobilise all our energies to respond to the challenge.

3. ‘Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse: the blessing if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you this day, and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God. You shall set the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Ebal” – Deuteronomy 11 26-29.

In one sense we must be careful not to exaggerate the importance or completeness of this Statement. It clearly represents a significant confirmation of, and advance upon, the statements on Authority in the Church in the Final Report of ARCIC I, but it does leave a number of key questions not only unresolved but scarcely even articulated – presumably because they belong to the next stage of the process. In particular, when it is affirmed in paragraph 47 that it is “the wholly reliable teaching of the whole Church that is operative in the judgement of the universal primate”, it is not made clear what is meant by “the whole Church”. It leaves open both the degree of authority to be accorded to papal definitions made since the time of separation between East and West and since the 16th century divisions in the West and also the question of what relation bishops (acknowledged as such by Rome) of Churches separated from Rome have to the college of the successors of the Apostles. These issues have been raised in Rome’s dialogues with the Eastern Churches, both Chalcedonian and non-Chaldedonian, and notably in that most promising of “pilot schemes” for Roman Catholic – Eastern Orthodox unity between the two Byzantine-rite Patriarchates of Antioch (Orthodox and Catholic). In this, Catholic Melkite partners in the dialogue have argued (so far unrebuked) that doctrinal definitions made in the West during the Second Millennium should not be considered binding on the Orthodox.

But I digress! For in another sense it would be hard to exaggerate the importance of this Statement. It surely confronts the Anglican Communion – and, more particularly at this point, the Church of England – with a crucial and irreversible turning point (although I am not suggesting that it does not also challenge the Roman Catholic Church). For us the road ahead now leads to a decisive T-junction marked by a signpost. It points in one direction to Mount Gerizim and in the other to Mount Ebal. Can even Anglicans take refuge in fudge at this juncture? The road to Mount Gerizim represents a clear choice for The Gift of Authority and for all that will follow from making such a choice. The road to Mount Ebal represents a choice for revoking the Act of Synod and introducing legislation for the ordination of women to the episcopate. That Act of Synod made it possible for many of us to remain in the Church of England in the immediate aftermath of the 1992 vote; its withdrawal will remove that possibility.

The new situation created by the present set of choices may however involve Catholic Anglicans in something of a reshuffle of alliances. Some who have so far been co-belligerents, if not allies, may see this issue as a parting of the ways, while some others whom we have seen as adversaries may come to realise that affirming Catholicism must mean affirming this latest Agreed Statement. It will be a difficult and confusing time, but for those of us who from the beginning have seen the reception and confirmation of the ARCIC process as our theological priority our present duty will be clear. A rejection of this Statement would be as grave a blow for the Catholic cause in Anglicanism as the 1992 vote, and would we this time have any coherent or honourable excuse for staying where we are? The trumpet is giving a sound that is anything but uncertain and we must prepare ourselves for battle.

Roger Greenacre is Canon Precentor of Chichester Cathedral and has been involved in Anglican – Roman Catholic dialogue in this country and on the Continent for most of his ministry.