Ernest Skublics analyses some of the arguments used by the Archbishop of York in his General Synod Presidential Address responding to cardinal Kasper’s speech to the House of Bishops

With fond memories of my Münster days, where Walter Kasper was then Professor of Ecclesiology, I savoured the familiar care, balance and consummate German scholarship of the Cardinal’s address to the Bishops of the Church of England. Nobody could state the Catholic position on the matter at hand in a more competent and irenic fashion, and anybody with a clear Catholic mind would have to say, ‘That settles it.’

However, this was not a colloquium of equally clear Catholic minds; it was an encounter between the clearly stated faith and order of the Church ‘always and everywhere’ on the one hand, and a Protestant fragment that does not quite understand nor care about catholicity, on the other. It was about the choice Cardinal Kasper put before the Church of England: ‘Is the so-called via media a viable path?’

More than baptism

The time for fence-sitting is over. It cannot work, because the entire language of universal koininia and episcopal collegiality is not acceptable to the schismatic mind grown accustomed to autonomous decisions in isolation. The Cyprianic dictum that ‘the Catholic Church is not split or divided but united and held together by the glue of the mutual cohesion of the bishops’ cannot make sense to a segment of the Church that has accepted every degree of ‘impaired communion’ and which still fancies itself to be a ‘church’.

Archbishop Sentamu, who replied to the Cardinal in his Presidential Speech at the July Synod satisfied himself with the Vatican II statement that ‘as long as there are communities of baptized believers on both sides, the partial communion…will continue to exist.’ That statement was meant to cover the most distant sects, with whom virtually nothing but a valid baptism was held in common. Thus the Archbishop answers the Cardinal’s question by willingly accepting a retreat from Catholicism, placing Anglicanism in the same category as a non-episcopal community with valid baptism. This is the explicit abandonment of the formerly expressed goal of ecumenism, full eucharistic communion based on a shared apostolic ministry.

But perhaps the heart of this disagreement lies in our understanding of ecumenism. For the Protestant mind-set ecumenism – or the unity of the Church – seems to be a secondary consequence of the truth.

What is ecumenism?

In other words, there are other criteria by which we must establish the truth – such as our interpretation of Scripture – and then we can be joined to those who come to the same conclusions. Catholic unity, on the other hand, is an ontological given and criterion of the truth: it is the Holy Spirit, of Unity and Truth, that leads the Church to discern the truth in and through consensus. For this reason, Catholic theology gives church unity a higher and more fundamental priority. It is constitutive of the being – and truth – of the Church.

And so, if the Archbishop rightly stresses that the bishop is ‘the focus of unity for the sake of the Gospel,’ this does not mean that a fragment group’s interpretation of the Gospel can displace unity as less important if there is disagreement, but precisely the reverse, that the correct preaching and implementation of the Gospel depends on and requires the Church’s unity and consensus.

Listing Roman errors

It seems as if the Archbishop takes this point on board, only to justify ignoring it by selecting a few random instances in which the Roman Catholic Church appears to have done the same, as well as citing the entirely irrelevant disciplinary issue of Orthodox bishops being unmarried. The items chosen for rebuttal deserve a brief look.

Papal infallibility is clearly the most challenging example. It has been a matter of extensive ecumenical study and discussion in the last several decades, and is not as extensive and unqualified as it appears on the surface. In essence, there is increasing agreement that the Bishop of Rome, in koinonia with the other members of the Episcopal College, has a role in articulating the Faith of the Church – not in designing new doctrine.

While the overwhelming majority of the Roman Catholic episcopate received the definition of infallibility as consonant with the Faith of the Church through the ages, the Eastern Churches, regarded as valid ‘sister Churches,’ were not part of that articulation. Many may be surprised to learn that the present Pope, in an earlier writing, expressed the view that, in restoring sacramental communion with the Orthodox churches, nothing should be imposed on them that had not been common teaching in the undivided Church.

The teaching on artificial birth control, another suggested example of Roman disregard for ‘large consensus,’ was never regarded as infallible and is, furthermore, a matter of moral teaching, not of dogma or sacramental order.

Credal amendment

For those of us convinced that the most pressing item on the Universal Church’s agenda is the restoration of communion between Orthodoxy and Rome, raising the issue of the filioque is admittedly a hit below the water line. Mind you, despite the Lambeth Conference of 1978 recommending that the churches of the Anglican Communion consider removing the offending word, that recommendation has been mostly honoured in the breach; so this argument is perhaps less than impressive on Anglican lips. It is also worth noting that the filioque was resisted by the popes for almost half a millennium (!), before it acquired a general enough consensus to be included in the creed.

Raising the issue of the filioque should, if anything, stand as a warning against the devastating long-term effects of introducing changes without overwhelming ecumenical consensus. For this unintentional warning we must thank Archbishop Sentamu! And, we may add that Orthodoxy agrees with the Catholic Church that the Apostolic Ministry of bishops and priests as understood by the Church is reserved for men.

The unequal exchange between the Cardinal, representing the faith and order of the Universal Church, and the Archbishop, representing a fragment wishing unilaterally to change this, opens up a large subject for us, going far beyond the particular issue of women bishops. It presses us to come to terms with what we understand the Church to be.