This month we publish a significant document which sets out the theological and ecclesiological principles which will guide our future as traditional Catholics living out our vocation and discipleship within the Church of England. We hope that this text (‘Communion and Catholicity in the Church of England: A Statement of Principles by the Council of Bishops of The Society’) will be widely and carefully read not only by members of Forward in Faith and those who look to the bishops and priests of The Society for sacramental and pastoral oversight, but also by our brothers and sisters in Christ of differing views from our own. We are confident that this text will promote a deeper understanding of what traditional Catholics in the Church of England believe. It should also lay to rest misunderstandings which have too long hampered the search for mutual flourishing within the life and structures of the Church of England.
The document sets out a positive vision, one which begins and ends with the mission of the whole Church. It speaks of the ‘suffering and glory of the universal,’ and that phrase captures something vital about the vocation of the Catholic Christian. We are drawn irresistibly by the vision of the one Church of Jesus Christ, and we long for her full visible unity. That very same vision makes us acutely aware of the wounds which afflict the Body of Christ, and of the witness of brothers and sisters around the world persecuted for their faith, the many martyrs of our own generation.
At the heart of the document is an account of the theology of communion: that life of the Blessed Trinity which is ‘an eternal communion of love,’ and how we share in that communion by baptism and the celebration of the Eucharist. The document sets out a theology of baptismal communion and of Eucharistic – ecclesial – communion. Its account of these theological principles, while, we believe, freshly and helpfully expressed, is not novel, nor incompatible with classical Anglican teaching. On the contrary, it draws substantially on the formularies, liturgies and canons of the Church of England, on documents which bear the authority of the House of Bishops, and on agreed ecumenical texts.
Inevitably, the document turns its attention to the fact that the Church of England no longer enjoys, within itself, the life of full ecclesial communion. More on what follows from this will be set out in a second document, also from the Council of Bishops of The Society, to be published shortly. In this first text, we hope that readers will notice the emphasis which is placed on demonstrating that, while the communion of the Church of England is torn, it is not torn apart. Our communion with our brothers and sisters in the Church of England who welcome the admission of women to all orders of ministry must be, in the words of the document (section 4:1), ‘characterised by the love (charity) that arises from our common life in Christ.’ We believe that the text which the bishops of The Society have produced accords well with the Five Guiding Principles which accompany the House of Bishops’ Declaration on the admission of women to the episcopate, and to which all in the Church of England should now be committed. It is very helpful to note that the theology of communion which the document carefully sets out finds its place in the first report of the Independent Reviewer, Sir Philip Mawer, which followed representations from Watch on the subject of Chrism Masses celebrated by bishops of The Society. There, Sir Philip writes of the ‘less than full degree of communion between those diocesan bishops who ordain women and those among their clergy who, for reasons of theological conviction, cannot accept the ordination of women as priests,’ and also of ‘clergy and laity who do not regard themselves as being in full communion with their diocesan bishop.’
‘Communion and Catholicity’ concludes with an impressive summary of what our bishops believe traditional Catholics can especially contribute to the life of the whole Church of England: a commitment to the centrality of worship, fostering prayer and habits of holiness, renewing local communities, caring for the young and fostering young vocations, and keeping the vision for the full visible unity of the Church alive. In welcoming this document and commending it for widespread study and reflection, it is good not only to have such a clear exposition of theological principle to hand, but also such a challenge to inspire us all.