Julian Browning stumbles along with ARCIC III


You’re never alone with an ARCIC. However choppy the Tiber, however depressed your clerical team, however isolated your parish, there’s always an ARCIC (Anglican–Roman Catholic International Commission) coming along to take you out for a bracing walk in the oxygen of ‘receptive ecumenism.’ The optimism of these commissions is relentless. Full visible unity is still the goal. Saved from collapse by the Common Declaration of Pope Benedict XVI and Archbishop Rowan Williams in 2006, these talks now enter their third phase with the 2017 Agreed Statement of the Anglican–Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC III), called ‘Walking Together on the Way: Learning to Be the Church—Local, Regional, Universal.’ Note the strange position of those capital letters: they warn of linguistic trouble ahead. This is Part One of ARCIC III and is concerned solely with church governance. It is designed to prepare the way for a second part concerning discernment of right ethical teaching. Your enthusiasm will wane further when I tell you that this is very much a committee effort and lacks the spontaneity, the exclamation marks and sheer life of the statements by Pope Francis: ‘How many important things unite us! If we really believe in the abundantly free working of the Holy Spirit, we can learn so much from one another! It is not just about being better informed about others, but rather about reaping what the Spirit has sown in them, which is also meant to be a gift for us.’ [Evangelii Gaudium] The ARCIC statement reminds me of many a modern Anglican sermon: impeccable theology, historical accuracy, pertinent biblical references, all bases covered, entirely careful, tidy and polite from opening text to predictable conclusion… but is anybody listening?

The Preface by ‘the Co-Chairs of ARCIC III,’ Archbishop Bernard Longley and Archbishop David Moxon, sets the scene by stating the two themes which ARCIC has explored since the top was set spinning in 1970: ‘The question of authority and the ecclesiology of communion. This current document takes up these themes again, and seeks to develop them in a new way.’ The new way is largely a matter of presentation, to illustrate the two ‘pilgrim companions’ setting out on this compulsory walk together. ‘At times the Commission has chosen to represent this by presenting our respective Anglican and Roman Catholic analyses of our structures and their challenges in parallel columns. This allows us to recognize the similar but differentiated ways in which our respective structures seek to serve our communions. At other times, in order to avoid appearing to equate quite different processes, we use a sequential format, but with those paragraphs on the left-hand side of the page in an Anglican voice, and those on the right-hand side in a Roman Catholic voice. This side by side analysis of our structures allows us to identify what is challenged, what is graced and what we may have to learn from our dialogue partner or pilgrim companion.’ Sixty-eight pages of walking together, dear reader—can you understand why I struggled to keep up with the others?

In spite of the eyelid-drooping committee style, this is a highly important statement of where we are now. A huge amount of hard work is contained within it. It is particularly strong in ecclesial history, with biblical and Patristic references to support the idea of a common heritage to which both Churches can refer, such as the presence, guidance and power of the Holy Spirit in early Christian communities. However, as Ormond Rush suggests in the published Catholic commentary on ‘Walking Together,’ the commission’s footing is less sure in tracing what the Holy Spirit might be doing today at every level of communion, an activity which Pope Francis recognizes as indispensable to any conversation among the churches. All I can hope to do in a short review is to provide readers with a bold summary of the contents of the statement, with a short glossary so that you can understand it.

The document introduces the reader to ARCIC’s work to date. One report feeds off another. This creates an entry difficulty for the reader who has not been following the entire series. ARCIC is its own world, with its own terms of reference. The sections which follow are not for the fainthearted. We plunge into ‘The Church Local and Universal in the Apostolic and Post-Apostolic Periods,’ the use of the word apostolicity, creeds, bishops, the Bishop of Rome, the ecumenical councils, and discussion of the ways in which the early Church responded to new demands. In the third section, we encounter a blizzard of capital letters in ‘Ecclesial Communion in Christ: The Need for Effective Instruments of Communion.’ ‘Instruments of Communion’ is pure ARCIC. The focus is on ‘the ecclesial implications of baptism and eucharist.’ Here is ARCIC at its best, explaining to us how the eucharist constitutes and builds up the communion of the Church. The whole Christ is present throughout the action of the eucharist. In the eucharist the Church both meets Christ and is there disclosed to itself. The eucharist both celebrates communion and deepens the desire for communion. The eucharist celebrated in communion with the bishop actualises the fullness of ecclesial reality. The section concludes by stating the need ‘both to recognise the limits and difficulties associated with respective instruments of communion and to examine the possibility of their transformation through receptive ecumenical learning.’ This introduces us to the new buzz phrase of ARCIC speak, ‘receptive ecumenism’ (of which more later), in which the authors of the statement seize the moment to announce that ‘the time is ripe to pursue the task of ecumenical engagement as one that includes explicit ecclesial self-critique.’ This means developing the genius of ‘asking not what we might give the other, but what we lack that God might give us through the other,’ according to Archbishop Justin Welby in 2016 whilst celebrating fifty years of the Anglican Centre at Rome. Reeling from that brainstorm, we enter Sections IV, V, and VI, a survey of local churches and the worldwide structures of the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church; a sort of OFSTED inspection.

Humour is suppressed. The ARCIC corporate methodology holds us close. ‘We do this, first, by identifying the structures and processes which are appropriate at the relevant level; second, by identifying any perceived difficulties; and third, by exploring what possibilities there are for fruitful receptive learning across the traditions in these regards.’ It’s all so earnest, so ‘appropriate,’ so Anglo-Saxon, with this call to humble self-critique and ‘ecclesial repentance.’ There is precious little joy in this ARCIC world. No priority is given to the gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus which transforms our lives, whatever the Church gets up to. Instead we stumble along ‘through the difficult terrain of a rapidly changing world,’ staring at the ground, footsore and out of breath. ‘Walking together means that, as travelling companions, we tend each other’s wounds, and that we love one another in our woundedness. This journey that we undertake, which is a walking together into increasing degrees of communion despite difference, bears powerful and urgent witness to the world as to what it means to live difference for mutual flourishing.’ Discuss, with reference to your own parish.



  1. Bonds of Affection. A very ARCIC phrase meaning getting on well with each other. Or not, as in the statement about the Anglican Communion: ‘When the needs of mission in one province lead to changes that are neither understood nor approved by other provinces, there is strain on the bonds of affection and the capacity of the instruments of communion to respond.’ That’s a no to the Anglican Covenant. Bonds of affection can be strengthened by forms of ‘focused listening’ such as the Lambeth Indaba of 2008, when nobody is left out of the discussion, and all formal resolutions are abandoned.
  2. Receptive Ecumenism. This is at the heart of ARCIC, a fruitful means of learning and growing towards full communion. It is also known as ‘mutual receptive learning.’ Instead of looking at our strengths and rejoicing in them, as we used to do, we are now encouraged ‘to look humbly at what is not working effectively within one’s own tradition and to ask whether this might be helped by receptive learning from the understanding, structures, practices, and judgements of the other. The opportunity is to teach by showing what it means to learn and to bear witness by showing what it means to receive in our need—recognizing that at times the members of one tradition may judge that the practices and structures of the other will not, in a given instance, be helpful.’ I know, I don’t understand it either, and I have stared at this document for days. At times it was like being confined in the Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit.
  3. Tensions. These used to be bad things, but can be good when caused by ‘cultural differences’ which reflect the ‘diversity’ (also good) of the Anglican Communion, not so good when caused by the centralised nature of the Roman Catholic Church which ‘challenges appropriate attention to regional, inculturated experience.’ I noticed a small cloud of tension creeping along the ceiling of my study when I read of the Anglican Church: ‘In an effort to offer a mutually acceptable practice of oversight that is compatible with the theological and juridical authority of a diocesan bishop, models of delegated episcopal oversight have been established in some provinces. It is unclear whether these are to be viewed as enduring features of Anglican polity or as temporary anomalies while the church in question continues its discernment of particular issues. A degree of impaired communion is seen as the cost of a settlement which respects the integrity of conscience.’
  4. Trans-Local. An ARCIC word for regional, I think, as in ‘the local, trans-local, and universal church.’ It’s not a diocese, yet it is some sort of ecclesial body. We must find out. It could mean the sort of gathering to which you and I are never invited. Listen for grand churchmen saying to one other ‘See you at the Trans-Local, Father!’

Dr James Hawkey, in a published Anglican commentary on ARCIC III’s ‘Walking Together on the Way,’ begins his survey with a reminder of the sharing of symbolic gifts which has run parallel to the theological dialogue of the ARCIC conferences. In fact, the sharing of gifts began well before ARCIC in Rome in March 1966 when Pope Paul VI gave his episcopal ring to Archbishop Michael Ramsey. Fifty years and many gifts and symbolic visits later, in October 2016 in the church of San Gregorio al Celio, the church from which Pope St Gregory the Great sent St Augustine to England, Pope Francis presented Archbishop Welby with a replica of a pastoral staff which had belonged to St Gregory. Despite my stumbling comprehension, I do see that the ARCIC trail is worth following in the light of these hugely symbolic exchanges, which celebrate, in their silences, our unity in Christ. I have concentrated on the Anglican side, but shall let Pope Francis have the last word: ‘Time is greater than space… This principle enables us to work slowly but surely, without being obsessed with immediate results… It invites us to accept the tension between fullness and limitation, and to give priority to time.’ [Evangelii Gaudium]


Fr Julian Browning is Honorary Assistant Priest at All Saints Margaret Street.