Shattered Dreams and Broken Promises

Until recently the reception area of our parish office was dominated by two things: a copy of the Forward in Faith Mission Statement, and a photograph of Archbishop Robert Runcie kneeling in prayer with Pope John Paul II in Canterbury Cathedral back in 1982. Superimposed on the latter were the words Jesus prayed, ‘May they all be one’. At the base was an extract from the statement jointly signed by Runcie and the Holy Father committing our churches to full ecclesial reunion.

A couple of months ago somebody accidentally knocked the photograph of Runcie and the Pope to the floor, shattering the glass and breaking the frame – an awful symbol of what has happened to the great Anglo-Catholic dream of reunion with Rome.

Anglicans who go back to the aftermath of Vatican II, which affirmed the ‘special place’ occupied by the churches of the Anglican Communion, will remember the sense of expectancy shared by both sides during the production of the ARCIC I documents. Even those who disapproved were more or less resigned to the fact that progress was being made. Indeed, this caused distress for some groups of Evangelicals who even flagged the possibility of leaving the Anglican Communion if things went much further.

The documents on the Eucharist and the Ministry represented broad agreement between most Roman Catholics and most Anglicans. The document on Authority was more controversial. Nevertheless, the Pope’s visit to Canterbury was a powerful sign of the real expectation of serious ecumenists that some momentous step on the road to reunion was just around the corner – perhaps full sacramental sharing within mixed marriages and for small communities in remote areas of rural dioceses such as we have in Australia.

Vision for unity

All over the world, ecumenical working groups were set up to examine the ARCIC documents and work out their implications at the local level. In 1977 the Anglican and Roman Catholic Bishops of Ballarat established their ‘Joint Diocesan Commission’ to ‘discuss matters pertaining to the advancement of Christian reunion’. Fr Graham Walden and Fr George Pell (who both later become bishops) were the first co-chairmen.

Very early on, the Commission reached the view that an immediate consequence of the agreements in the areas of the Eucharist and Ministry should be a reconsideration of the Anglican claim to possess valid orders in the full Catholic sense. It wanted this matter settled in the affirmative, not just for the sake of a unified Christian witness, but also to prepare the way for shared communion for isolated communities. So the Commission presented a letter to the Anglican and Roman Catholic Bishops of Ballarat on 19th April, 1979, declaring that

We believe that the relationship between the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches is already a special one, and that the movement for Christian unity is God’s work. Obstacles on this path should be examined constantly by official and expert groups to see whether they are insurmountable, surmountable, or can be by-passed. The validity of Anglican orders is one such issue.

The letter outlined the historical background to the present discussions, and asked for a serious reconsideration of Anglican Orders.

The Ballarat Commission was regarded as having made ‘an enormous step forward’, to quote the Roman Catholic Bishop of Ballarat, the Most Revd Ronald Mulkearns. Its two page joint statement on Anglican orders was endorsed by the Australian Roman Catholic Bishops Conference and forwarded to the Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity in Rome. The Vice President of the Secretariat responded warmly in a letter of 22nd August, 1979. However, the letter went on to explain why it was not possible to proceed as the Commission had asked:

. . . there is no doubt that discussion of this issue (Anglican Orders) is further complicated by the fact of the ordination of women to the priesthood in several Churches of the Anglican Communion: the question is technically distinct from that of Anglican orders, but the link is an evident one.

The Ballarat Commission was disappointed but not completely discouraged. Throughout the 1980s it did some good scholarly work, believing that the ecumenical journey was still basically on course, and that women priests, although existing in the USA, Canada and New Zealand were an aberration that would not be accepted in most provinces of the Anglican Communion. At the same time, the nearby vigorous and growing Anglican Province of Papua New Guinea was engaged in dialogue with the Roman Catholics at a far more serious level than any other Anglican church. At least some involved in that dialogue thought that in PNG inter-communion could be achieved soon, regardless of how long it might take elsewhere.


The seriousness with which Rome regarded this process accounts for the passionate plea of Pope John Paul to the Church of England not to pass legislation for the ordination of women. He saw this as a new obstacle in the way of reunion. But, as we know, his voice fell on deaf ears. The 11th November 1992 decision of the English General Synod in favour of women priests directly influenced the handful of swinging voters in the Australian General Synod which less than two weeks later passed legislation for women priests in this country. We knew then that the ecumenical dream to which many of us had committed ourselves had already begun to recede into the background.

To make matters worse, rather than accept responsibility for what they had done, most Australian liberals began to rewrite history, denying that any real ecumenical progress had been made, and in some cases, even denying that reunion was ever a practical possibility. More disturbing was the jettisoning of Archbishop Fisher’s notion that there is no such thing as ‘Anglican doctrine’ (a claim that arises from our historic formularies) or even, with the advent of George Carey et al, Robert Runcie’s conviction that the ‘radical provisionality’ of Anglicanism made reunion with the wider Catholic Church a fundamental imperative. In contrast to the humility of these positions, liberal Anglicanism has been remaking itself into a kind of alternative universal Church.

Seasoned Roman Catholic ecumenists, such as the mildly liberal Bishop Michael Putney of Townsville in Queensland, are now saying that the official shift in what Anglican churches mean by apostolic ministry and succession (as evidenced by Porvoo and relationships of inter-communion with Lutherans and other Protestant bodies lacking the historic episcopate) now poses as great an obstacle to reunion as the ordination of women. Obviously the new-look dialogue between groups of Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops must include a revisiting of the original ARCIC statements to see if they still represent the kind of agreement celebrated in the 1970s.

In this context it is surely possible to envision the vocation of orthodox provinces, ‘free provinces’ and ‘continuing churches’ to evolve into an ecclesial communion able to take up the ecumenical journey where ‘official’ Anglicanism left off.

David Chislett is Rector of All Saints Wickham Terrace, Brisbane.