The Bishop of Ebbsfleet reports on a symposium in Rome on ‘Communion, Catholicity, and a Catholic Life’

When in June a group of us travelled to the Vatican we went with hope. I’m not meaning that we went in the hope of gaining anything, except perhaps the sense of blessing that any pilgrims receive when they reach their destination. Rather, we ‘went with hope’ in the sense of going bearing hope, a hope within us, to which we wanted to give witness to those we had invited to join us at the Anglican Centre in Rome. We went ‘ready to make reply, to explain the hope’ that is in us, as St Peter has it [1 Peter 3.15].

‘Faith,’ says Cardinal Kasper, ‘is not a ready-made answer’ for humanity’s questions, ‘it is an invitation to risk one’s life for hope’ [The Catholic Church p.59], for something we do not yet see—the coming kingdom of God. So, while the earthly Church cannot in itself be the thing we’re hoping for, it is the God-given sign of it, the instrument and foretaste of it. To embrace the Church in the Apostolic Tradition, to be committed to its scriptures and sacraments as undoubted sources of truth and life, is a profound act of hope. It is a passionate witness for a unity and a reconciliation that is yet to come, which is as yet in the hands of God. The Church is fundamental to that hope. [See ARCIC II, Salvation and the Church §§29, 31]

When The Society says it wishes to provide ministry, sacraments and oversight which can be received with confidence it’s not motivated against anyone. It is part of this positive decision of hope in the Church, a hope which we believe exists with integrity in our Anglican tradition, and especially when it is convergent with all other Christians believing the catholic faith. This was the spirit of our pilgrimage.

On 16 July 2014, the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote to the Church of England’s ecumenical partners to inform them of the General Synod’s decision to proceed to the ordination of women as bishops. In that letter, he quoted the five guiding principles as the basis on which the bishops had ‘sought to build trust across the Church.’ He specifically pointed to the third and fourth principles as ‘ecumenically relevant’: the ones that say that the CofE’s decision is ‘set within a process of discernment within the universal Church,’ and that ‘those unable to receive the ministry of women bishops or priests remain within the spectrum of Anglican teaching and tradition—and will be enabled to flourish.’ He noted that ‘some of our Sister Churches in communion will share the joy of those in the Church of England, who welcome the development of having women in the episcopate. But we are also aware that our other ecumenical partners may find this a further difficulty on the journey towards full communion. There is, however, much that unites us, and I pray that the bonds of friendship will continue to be strengthened and that our understanding of each other’s traditions will grow.’

And there, so far as I am aware, the Church of England’s explanation to ecumenical partners about its momentous decision paused; it remains a task to be done. But by the autumn of 2016 it seemed to some of us that it was a task we might help with. We had passed through the transitionary arrangements and much good, we thought, could be done by being willing to take an initiative to give an account of how the historic commitments of Anglican teaching and tradition remained firmly part of its present reality. Given the Society’s commitments, the ecumenical partner we turned to first was the Roman Catholic Church.

The precise task was to explain the two statements which must now be so familiar to you: first, a theological statement of principles—Communion and Catholicity in the CofE—and secondly, a practical statement of policy and pastoral guidance—A Catholic Life in the CofE.

You’ll remember (I hope) that the first explores, from a theological point of view, what The Society is, how we evaluate the communion of the Church of England for all its members, and what as catholic Christians our vocation is within it. A brief final section looks outwards (beyond The Society, the Church of England and our worshipping communities) to the mind of the universal Church and to the wider community. The second statement looks at how parishes, clergy, ordinands and religious people relate to The Society, and at some of the difficult issues of policy and practice. It sets out some rules and some guiding principles.

The first is theological and irenic, grounded in a scriptural and Anglican theological vision, and refined in 50 years of ecumenical dialogue. The second is firm but flexible. Yes, there are some red lines concerning public and private sacramental practice, but the defining tone is engagement not withdrawal.

The group that travelled was deliberately mixed. In addition to myself, as the ‘shop steward’ of the group, there were two bishops—Bishop Jonathan Baker and Bishop Norman Banks. Though our current responsibilities are very similar, we brought the diversity of our backgrounds before ordination as bishops. We were joined by two younger priests, again with contrasting expertise: Fr Ian McCormack, who could speak to the workings of the new situation on the ground in parish and diocesan life, and Fr Alexander McGregor, generously on loan from the Legal Office, to speak with authority and detachment about the legal aspects of the whole package of measures that make up the 2014 Settlement. And then a layman, but what a layman! Dr Podmore also brought detachment but, in addition, memory of a historical kind.

In our minds—not least because the guiding principles affirm the Anglican Communion and our part in it twice—it seemed completely natural to wish to gather our Roman Catholic colleagues in our Anglican home in Rome, the Anglican Centre. The then-director of the Centre, Archbishop David Moxon, and his assistant, Fr Marcus Walker, were from the outset very receptive to the initiative, not least because they knew that it enjoyed the support and blessing of the Archbishop of Canterbury in its genesis, and the advice of the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in its design. It was an unexpected gift to all involved when, at the last minute, the new director of the Centre, former archbishop in Burundi, Bernard Ntahoturi, was also able to accept our invitation to be present. His responsibilities as chairman of the Communion’s unity faith and order commission, as well as his experiences as a senior primate in Africa for many years, brought a very welcome presence into the meeting.

Guided by Cardinal Koch we had issued invitations to many guests from across the Roman Curia, as well as prominent ecumenists in other Roman institutions (and beyond) with expertise in Anglican/Roman Catholic dialogue, and the local Bishops Conference here in England. Inevitably some could not be present but sent the assurance of their prayers, whilst others were deputizing for their superiors. The British Ambassador to The Holy See was present for the morning, and Cardinal Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and a long-time close friend of several Anglicans, stayed throughout. A gathering of eighteen people—six presenters and twelve invited guests—was one in which we could hope for real conversation. Cardinal Koch himself and Archbishop Bernard Longley were travelling overseas and unable to attend, but took a keen interest in the meeting. A compilation of the texts has since been prepared and circulated to all who were invited or helped in its preparation.

In my opening comments at the symposium, I tried to orientate our guests to the task we had set ourselves for the day. First, it was to be an exercise not simply in information-sharing, but (far more significantly) in good communication. And oh! How difficult it is to communicate when one really has something important to say! Why was it that we had formed The Society in the wake of the recent decision to ordain women to the episcopate? We wanted as loyal Anglicans to point to the deeper communion with fellow catholic Christians for which we long.

Secondly, the framework within which the seminar was happening was well-known: that popes and archbishops have said a ‘certain yet imperfect’ and ‘real but incomplete’ degree of communion already exists between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. It is a mature relationship and an ongoing dialogue, based on nearly 1500 years of full communion before our separation. The historic methods, statements and goals of ARCIC and IARCCUM are ones to which the bishops of The Society subscribe and which we wish to strengthen. They shape many aspects of our approach to our new situation.

The third comment was on the content of the seminar. A great deal of the material in the presentations would be readily recognizable by Roman Catholics, as both authentically and historically Anglican and as belonging to the faith of the universal Church. But we did not expect the anomalies of our situation to remain uncriticized or unchallenged. We were presenting as loyal Anglicans and showing how, as the Bishop of Gloucester likes to put it, ‘we are living the new landscape,’ but in ways which we hoped were recognizable to fellow Catholics.

What we were not in Rome to do was to petition or negotiate. We were a group of Church of England bishops accompanied by others, with the blessing of our primate, to explain the Church of England context. We were far from suggesting that our situation is anything other than anomalous. We are indeed torn between the ancient common doctrine and ecclesiology that for the most part we share with Roman Catholics, and the ties that bind us strongly to our fellow Anglicans.

The shape of the morning was very clear. We started quite early, as often happens in the Vatican, and had a clear structure of presentations, punctuated by good Italian coffee and cake, and ending with a late pasta lunch. The first two pieces gave essential background, and for that we deployed our professional historian and our authoritative lawyer. Dr Colin Podmore gave a discerning survey of the historical background to 2014, from 1992 on, and Fr Alexander McGregor gave a detached and objective account of the documents which together make up the 2014 settlement.

Then we turned to the statements themselves. I took the first, the theological statement. I tried to do two things: to show how The Society was theologically an outworking of the Declaration, able to give expression to full sacramental communion and able to present ourselves credibly to other catholic Christians. I also tried to push rather deeper into the notion of degrees of communion, using the documents of Vatican 2. And I ended with a reflection on the primacy of charity in the Christian Church. In a piece entitled ‘An Outward-looking Communion,’ Fr McCormack underlined The Society’s commitment both to the universal Church and to the wider community where we serve, frequently places of significant deprivation. There’s nothing uniquely Anglican in that, but they are ways in which the catholic tradition in the Church of England has always sought communion beyond its own boundaries.

After more coffee, Bishop Jonathan took up the second statement, on policy and practice. While remaining fully loyal members of the CofE (sharing in its mission, participating in its structures, faithful to its formularies, and governed by its canons) we have been compelled to develop patterns of sacramental life which accord with our theological convictions about the ordained ministry, which our Church has recognized as legitimate and authentic. Beginning with the process by which a parish requests the ministry of a bishop with whom all can be in full communion, Bishop Jonathan carefully explained a range of concrete situations that the bishops’ statement sought to provide for, to give both integrity to the parishes and clergy entrusted to the oversight of bishops of The Society and flexibility to affirm and nurture good relations with fellow Anglicans of divergent commitments.

The presentations ended with two testimonies as to how in practice these considerations are lived out and experienced: one an episcopal perspective, given by Bishop Norman, and the other a priest’s perspective, given by Fr McCormack. Bishop Norman underlined that, after 20 years of turbulence, the 2014 settlement is in the earliest stage of reception. Most diocesan bishops, including the recently ordained women bishops, are encouraging and sympathetic, but very few dioceses have given serious time or resources to discussing the Five Guiding Principles, a fact that Sir Philip Mawer’s report was later to underline. Confidence is gradually but really being restored, not least among lay people. Everyone is beginning to understand what it means to be in full communion with the council of bishops of The Society, and to take a long view of what faithfulness to the received Anglican tradition involves and demands.

Fr McCormack similarly stressed a new and growing cohesiveness in the catholic movement, a clearer sense of relationship with the rest of the Church of England, and a sense of resilience in ministry and mission, and ecumenical and community engagement, that comes from the more guaranteed future the Declaration gives.

At the end of each presentation there was an opportunity for questions, where some of the most interesting exchanges were between our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters themselves. There were also Roman Catholic presentations. Fr Tony Currer of the Pontifical Council gave a Roman Catholic response to my presentation, and Prof. Dr Annemarie Mayer responded to Bishop Jonathan.

At the end, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran gave a personal reflection: ‘I am representing no one and I have no message to deliver to you, except that of the deep friendship I have enjoyed with the Anglican Communion since my youth… Anglicanism is part of my spiritual baggage.’ He underlined that we are in dialogue, which requires of each of us an engagement with our own identity, a regard for our partner’s otherness, and sincerity of expression. Thus he encouraged us in a genuine Anglican vocation to identify and affirm fundamentals, both catholic and reformed.

There were other aspects to our visit, which (each in their own way) have suggested an agenda flowing from our visit. We were at two Masses while we were in Rome and they were beautifully paired. First, Fr McCormack celebrated for us at the altar in St Gregory’s cell, in the monastery from which Augustine came to land on Ebbsfleet beach in the shadow of the fort at Richborough. And later we attended an early morning Mass celebrated by Pope Francis. Both experiences encouraged us in taking seriously two things. Firstly, our responsibility to intensify our openness and attunement to the wider Church at a time when so much of the CofE is short-sightedly focused on the here and now; and secondly, our role as that part of the CofE that holds its (catholic) tradition and memory, at a time when the whole is in danger of forgetting it.

The day after the symposium, we met with officials of the Pontifical Council to reflect more on what they had heard and better understood, what we need to hear as fraternal challenge, and the ways in which The Society may maintain its voice in dialogue.

We certainly felt understood, confirmed in the rightness of the initiative and in the value of The Society’s theological faithfulness to the fruits of Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue.

I began by mentioning ‘the hope that is in us,’ a hope for something we cannot yet see. I called it an act of trust that the Church in the Apostolic Tradition is the trustworthy sacrament of that future unity for which we are agents and proclaimers. It requires an ecumenism that is so much more than conflict management, or damage limitation, or hanging on to what we’ve got because it is so fragile and vulnerable. Because our hope is the goal—the eucharistic goal—to which God draws the whole world.

The Right Reverend Jonathan Goodall is the Bishop of Ebbsfleet