With whom are we in communion?

Bishop Peter Elliott clarifies some issues for members of Forward in Faith Australia

The Holy Father’s offer of the Ordinariate will take concrete form in 2011. In light of this impending reality, it is a matter of some urgency to clarify the options that confront traditional Anglo Catholics at this time. At first sight there seem to be four options: 1. Rome, via the Ordinariate or by personal reconciliation 2. Eastern Orthodoxy. 3. the Continuing Anglicans and 4. remaining in communion with Canterbury.

However these options fall into two groups. If you take either of the first two options, you are entering communion with traditional apostolic Churches which understand the Church in terms of communion. In the second two options you are either joining some form of independent association of continuing Anglicans or you are choosing to remain part of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

The key word is “communion”. On that we can all agree. Across the four options, in varying degrees, this is a shared understanding of what it means to be a member of the Church. But communion as a visible reality depends on bishops.

In the apostolic tradition we have received from Saint Paul, Saint Ignatius of Antioch and the Fathers of East and West, we understand the Church in terms of the episcope of the successors of the apostles. The bishop is the centre of each “particular Church”, later known as a diocese.

However, in an “Episcopalian” understanding of the nature of the Church on earth, no bishop exists in isolation. He has to be in communion with other bishops, a communion of shared faith and order. He is part of an apostolic college that across the ages reproduces the original community of the twelve. Within the particular church where the bishop presides, his clergy and people are in communion with him. Yet his Church is meant to be in communion with other Churches, particularly apostolic patriarchates.

The communion of a college of bishops is visibly maintained in the Catholic Church (in its Roman and Eastern Rites) and in the venerable Orthodox Churches of the EaSt From the East we receive a beautiful and concrete understanding of the sacramental meaning of this communion, in terms of whether a bishop can share the same chalice with another bishop. Eucharistic communion with Jesus Christ, organic union with his Body, is communal, ecclesial. It flows from the Eucharist, summit and source of the life of the Church on earth. It is celebrated and perfected in the EuchariSt “Communion” in Anglicanorum Coetibus

However, to understand communion we turn to God, the Holy Trinity, source of unity and communion. Communion is expressed in a God-centred way in the concise opening paragraphs of Pope Benedict’s Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus, establishing a distinctive ecclesial community for former Anglicans within the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church. Let us listen to the words of Pope Benedict:

“The Church, a people gathered into the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,1 was instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ, as “a sacrament – a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all people.”2 Every division among the baptized in Jesus Christ wounds that which the Church is and that for which the Church exists; in fact, “such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages that most holy cause, the preaching the Gospel to every creature.”3 Precisely for this reason, before shedding his blood for the salvation of the world, the Lord Jesus prayed to the Father for the unity of his disciples.4”

Then the Holy Father focuses on the Holy Spirit source of communion, emphasizing that the Church is visible: “It is the Holy Spirit, the principle of unity, which establishes the Church as a communion.5 He is the principle of the unity of the faithful in the teaching of the Apostles, in the breaking of the bread and in prayer.6 The Church, however, analogous to the mystery of the Incarnate Word, is not only an invisible spiritual communion, but is also visible;7 in fact, “the society structured with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ, the visible society and the spiritual community, the earthly Church and the Church endowed with heavenly riches, are not to be thought of as two realities. On the contrary, they form one complex reality formed from a two-fold element, human and divine.”8 The communion of the baptized in the teaching of the Apostles and in the breaking of the eucharistic bread is visibly manifested in the bonds of the profession of the faith in its entirety, of the celebration of all of the sacraments instituted by Christ, and of the governance of the College of Bishops united with its head, the Roman Pontiff.” 9

Having set out the sacramental (baptismal, Eucharistic) and Petrine principles, the Holy Father goes on to identify the visible Church as the Catholic Church. He repeats the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that recognizes the working of Grace beyond visible unity with Rome:

“This single Church of Christ, which we profess in the Creed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic “subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him. Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside her visible confines. Since these are gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, they are forces impelling towards Catholic unity.”10

In the light of these teachings, we can re-interpret the question some perplexed Anglo Catholics are asking “Where do we go?” Once you grasp what communion means, agonising about “going” somewhere is unreal. The geographical metaphor is too narrow. The organic metaphor is Scriptural (Pauline) and Patristic and it focuses us on communion with God and through God communion with other people. With whom are we in communion? That is the question. It clarifies the future.


An ecclesiology of communion also throws light on the last option, that is, when some Anglo Catholics choose, even reluctantly, to remain in communion with Canterbury, “come what may” as they say. Note that I only refer to convinced traditional Anglo-Catholics. I do not include those Anglicans who, in conscience, do not hold to the necessity of apostolic order as taught by the Tractarians and their successors, that is, that bishops are of the esse of the Church.

Hard questions can be asked. Could it be said that Anglo Catholics who choose “to remain” have embraced congregationalism? Do they contradict their own Tractarian insistence on “our apostolic descent”? Are they now saying that the Church is a collection of local congregations of those who maintain Catholic doctrine and sacramental practices? In this perspective, each parish becomes a Church in itself. But how can that be? What would St Paul, Saint Ignatius of Antioch and all the Fathers of East and West, say about this?

The vicar and parishioners can dig in and hold on, but others may ask whether they in “the trenches” – or just down a bunker? They can ignore the bishop and persistently regard their parish as a Church in itself, but whether they like it or not, official Anglicanism carefully maintains the forms of apostolic order. Inevitably the day will come when empirical reality conquers. The vicar will retire or die and. because this is pretend congregationalism, the parishioners know that they have no authority to provide a successor. Then the bishop they pretended did not exist, will act. He or she will send them a vicar not of their choosing or even close their church. Do not these sad projections expose the unreality of the fourth option – when chosen by traditional Anglo Catholics?

I need to add something that Anglicans have brought to my attention – the temptations of “building worship” and “ancestor worship”. This is a painful matter, entering an Ordinariate and having to let go and sacrifice a familiar, much loved, place of worship with so many family memories. We hope and pray that arrangements can be made to keep this to a minimum. In Australia we do not know to what extent that will be possible. Yet this mentality is not unrelated to the congregationalist tendency. The church is not buildings, rather it is that Holy Temple of living stones, a communion of people, united to Christ the Lord, one in faith, one in grace.

The Incarnation and Catholicism

Moreover, in the future, Anglo Catholics who remain in communion with any bishop of the official Anglican Communion are morally bound to respect and accept the duly established order he represents. That now includes the ordination of women as bishops and priests and whatever may be enacted through synodical government. Either they assent to that new order or else their communion with the bishop seems meaningless and their friends may tell them that they should admit that they are “Affirming Catholics”, no matter how many mental reservations they may store in their heads.

Here we confront a difference between apostolic Christianity and Protestantism. Religion is not simply “what I hold in my head and my heart”. Indeed personal faith is essential and unity in the faith is vital, but Catholicism involves much more. It goes beyond what is within us to what exists in material reality around us, a community of persons who are in communion with one another through the bishops. It integrates body and soul, matter and spirit, visible and invisible, avoiding a tendency towards dualism, old or new.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The Word did not send us some doctrines or a philosophy of life. The Faith revealed in Jesus Christ is incarnational – a visible Church, tangible sacraments, human beings born again, new creatures through grace in Baptism and Confirmation. Gathered by God for eucharistic worship around the successors of the apostles, they are “in communion” with one another as the organic working Body of Christ in this world.

Therefore choosing options involving communion with other people cannot coexist with mental reservations, such as were made in times past over the words of the Thirty Nine Articles. There can be no evasion of the visible structure of the Church, an empirical reality before our eyes. To retreat from this structure into congregationalism may indicate a shift to privatised pietistic Protestant individualism. But it might even descend to an apocalyptic mentality; “we are the last ones….the faithful remnant as the end draws nigh”. Such unbalanced stoic spirituality wiped out the Catholic Apostolic Church (the Irvingites}. Convinced that the end was nigh, they simply ceased ordaining clergy.

I have heard pious pessimism such as “The last one out please snuff the sanctuary lamp”. That is miserable nonsense when set against the visible reality of millions of people just getting on with being Christians in communion with one another. Anyone can see this in the largest community who live in full communion with the Successor of Saint Peter and the college of Catholic bishops. Australians saw it vividly when our first saint was canonized, Saint Mary of the Cross MacKillop. The saints are witnesses to the reality of communion, for “the communion of saints” we profess in the creed begins here in the visible Church.

I warn of illusory congregationalism, because I am trying to respond to the pain and sorrow that some clergy and laity have shared with me. They are perplexed by the options that face them. They tell me that they “are not ready for the Ordinariate yet” and I can understand that, at least in 2010 when we cannot see the visible structure. We cannot open a church door and say “welcome!” Soon, pray God, that will happen.

However it is not my brief to outline or suggest any other option except the Ordinariate generously offered to them by the Holy Father. I point them towards this offer because it is hope beyond sadness and self-pity. It is freedom from nostalgic slavery to dead issues and lost causes. It is reconciliation with God and His People, hence a step into unity and inner peace.

The Ordinariate Process Begins

The steps towards establishing Ordinariates in the United Kingdom, the US, Canada and Australia are well under way. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has recently approved programs of preparation for the laity and formation for the clergy who intend to be reconciled through the Ordinariate. Here the key resource is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Clergy will also need to familiarise themselves with the magisterial sources for systematic and moral theology and the Code of Canon Law. The “magisterium at your finger tips” may be found in an excellent series of paperback volumes, Precis of Official Catholic Teaching obtainable from the United States.11 These handy books take us into the living teaching voice of the Popes and Councils. I also recommend the new United States

Catholic Catechism for Adults.

To establish the Ordinariates, two stages are envisaged next year: 1. the reconciliation and ordination of clergy who have applied for Orders in the Ordinariate and been accepted, then 2. at a later date, the first reconciliations of the lay faithful. The clergy will therefore be in place to welcome and minister to former Anglicans in a community that maintains the familiar Anglican patrimony of worship, spirituality, scholarship and pastoral care. We saw how that patrimony has enriched English Catholicism during the magnificent papal visit to Scotland and England, particularly during the beatification of Blessed John Henry Newman.

More concrete details will appear soon. I believe the model will be set by what proceeds in the United Kingdom in terms of a clear time line built around the two stages. However, at present it is important to keep informed, for example through circles such as the Friends of the Ordinariate.

What to do now? Those who believe that God is calling them to full communion should take practical steps, obtaining evidence for their Baptism which will be needed before registering for reconciliation through Confirmation with Chrism next year. Those who are in irregular marriage situations need to go at once to the local Catholic Marriage Tribunal and seek whatever is possible to regularise their situation. These tribunals are pastoral, welcoming and maintain respect for confidentiality.

Above all pray. We are now entering the Vigil of the Ordinariate. In a spirit of “watching and praying”, In invite you keep vigil by reflecting on the wonderful mystery of the Church, the organic working Body of Jesus ChriSt But let that visible reality of the living Church confront you. Let her challenge you, as you ask, “With whom are we in communion?” If that remains a painful or perplexing question, bring it before the Lord. Then may the Holy Spirit of unity and communion guide you and lead you to inner peace. ND

1 Cf. Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, 4; Decree Unitatis redintegratio, 2.

2 Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, 1.

3 Decree Unitatis redintegratio, 1.

4 Cf. Jn 17:20-21; Decree Unitatis redintegratio, 2.

5 Cf. Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, 13.

6 Cf. ibid; Acts 2:42.

7 Cf. Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, 8; Letter Communionis notio, 4.

8 Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, 8.

9 Cf. CIC, can. 205; Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, 13; 14; 21; 22; Decree Unitatis redintegratio, 2; 3; 4; 15; 20; Decree Christus Dominus, 4; Decree Ad gentes, 22.

10 Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, 8

11 Order forms obtainable from: CSSP, 9402 Stateside Court, Silver Spring, MD 20903, USA.