John Hunwicke on an Orthodox view of papal primacy

D o you want to become a Roman Catholic? I don’t, and I doubt whether many readers of New Directions do. And I suspect our main reason is that — given all the aggravation we’ve had since 1992 from our critics and from the church’s establishment — if we had wanted to leave our beloved church, we would have done so a long time ago. The fact that we are still here, to the immense annoyance of so many, is proof of our loyalty to and affection for our own faith-history as Catholic Anglicans. But there is a different question to which I am convinced there is a different answer. Do you want Christian unity? My own answer to that is a fervent and very heart-felt Yes. When I was a student in the 1960s, we were all keen on it, and I still am. Since the 1960s the ARCIC group has worked wonders in explaining and clearing away the problems between ourselves and Rome. Our Lord prayed that all his followers might be one, and so it is a duty anyway. I may not want to ‘be a Roman Catholic’, but I do want to be an Anglican who is full communion with Rome. After all, half of all the Christians in the world are Roman Catholics. Also, I long to be at one with the Orthodox Christians, who make up around half the non-Roman Catholics in the world. I know that is not the end of a quest for unity, but to be under the same umbrella as three quarters of our fellow Christians would be a whopping great start.

Cranks and Heretics

That is why I have read with growing enthusiasm a book by a distinguished Orthodox theologian, Olivier Clement, who teaches at the Institute of St Sergius in Paris (You are Peter An Orthodox Theologian’s Reflection on the Exercise of Papal Primacy). Not that I agree with everything it says — indeed, I think there are one or two howlers in it. But rather than picking on details, I want to celebrate so much that is positive in it, and commend it to fellow Anglicans who may perhaps still feel that there is a ‘problem’ about papal jurisdiction. Because I think there is a problem about the papacy, but not for Anglicans like us and not really for Orthodox like Clement. To be crude and brief: ARCIC recommends to us ‘a universal primacy [of the pope]

at the service of universal communion’. But when there are parts of the Anglican Communion prepared to smash anything in their determination to promote the ‘ordination of women’ and ‘gay marriages’, the thought that everybody would accept a pope who could say ‘such-and-such would fracture universal communion and so you can’t do it’ is a sheer fantasy. But we, surely, would welcome a papal authority which could restrain the

cranks and the heretics. And that is precisely how John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger (don’t believe the journalistic establishment, the ‘liberal’ Catholics, and their hysterical rantings) see the papal office; not inventing new doctrines but restraining error so as to preserve unity. So I welcome the attitude of Clement: ‘the role of Rome, its petrine charism, is therefore to keep watch over the communion of the local churches, to prevent them from breaking away, to intervene at the request of any one of them (as at Corinth in 96 or again around 170), to serve as a point of reference to anyone seeking insertion in one of the most prestigious of the apostolic traditions’. Exactly.

Greek fathers

Even those who need no convincing about our need for the sort of care and protection the Holy Father can give us will find fresh, and very beautiful, ways of looking at the papacy, collected by Clement from his deep knowledge of the Greek fathers and of early Christian history. For example: his association of the papal primacy with a profound and moving theology of martyrdom. ‘As Martyrs — seized that is to say, by the Resurrection — [Peter and Paul] are for ever present in Rome.

This is how the early church understood it, not as a question of succession to be discussed. Peter and Paul ‘live and preside’ in the church of Rome.’ Quoting one of the greatest of the Eastern fathers, St Maximus the Confessor, Clement writes, ‘Maximus affirmed that Rome was “the head and metropolis of the churches,” — the rock truly solid and unmoving … the greatest apostolic church. ‘The church of Rome’, he said, has the keys of the faith and of the orthodox confession.’ These texts were ‘confirmed by the martyrdom of Pope Martin I, who was taken from Rome by Byzantine troops, judged and condemned at Constantinople, and who died of his maltreatment like so many others on the road into exile.’

John Paul the Martyr

And ‘in the eyes of the Eastern churches the basis of Roman primacy remained for a long time almost entirely dependent on the presence of the tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul and of the “trophies” of theft martyrdom … Peter and Paul were in some sense personally present in Rome.’ And, at the end of the main part of his book, Clement refers to the attempted murder of John Paul II as the price to be paid for the Pope’s risky initiative in going to visit the patriarch of Constantinople, as ‘the sacrifice which gave to that visit a mystical dimension the importance of which will only gradually be revealed. For the blood then shed made, without any doubt, of the Pontifex Maximus [Sovereign Pontiff] the Servus servorum Dei [Servant of the servants of God].’

East and West

Clement demonstrates how real was the exercise of papal primacy in the East during the first millennium. The significance of this is that sometimes Cardinal Ratzinger’s suggestion (that union between East and West might be secured by going back to the first millennium) is misinterpreted as implying a reduction of the papal primacy to something merely honorary. You won’t be too sure about that if you read Clement. And he throws a wealth of light on the relationship between ecumenical councils and papal primacy. When Orthodoxy was a fragile plant in the East attempting to reassert itself against the iconoclast heresy, the patriarch of Constantinople had trouble getting replies from his fellow patriarchs, ‘it was certain monks, “pious men” of those patriarchates, who responded to him. When need dictated, they said, a council could be held in the absence of their patriarchs, on condition that, as was the case at the sixth ecumenical council, ‘the most holy and apostolic pope of Rome gave his approval and were present through his representatives.”

I have cherry-picked a very interesting book. I would like to put even more of its cherries before you. I would like to show how some of Clement’s points are uncannily like those made by our own Dom Gregory Dix when discussing the papacy. And how Dix does resolve some of the problems which Clement cannot. But take my word for it: this is a book which deserves to be taken seriously by anyone who is serious about Christian unity.

John Hunwicke is reviewing You Are Peter by Olivier Clement, published by the New City Press of New York, London and Manila.