For a man hardly renowned for his robustness, the recent speech given in Rome by the Archbishop of Canterbury was remarkably robust. Of course, it was given partly in response to the announcement from Rome on October 20th of effectively a ‘safe haven’ for Anglicans disenchanted by the policies of the Church over which Rowan Williams presides. Few will forget his somewhat glum and deflated appearance at the press conference called for that purpose, which must have been an intensely difficult and embarrassing moment for him.
Could it be that the man has feelings just like the rest of us, and that his visit to Rome came as a personal opportunity to put a few things straight? Despite its donnish language, there are elements of the speech which are decidedly ‘in Rome’s face’, and some will welcome this.
Yet in the present climate, it is necessary to look at any such speech not only in terms of how it challenges Rome, but how it accords with the nature and doctrine of the Church of England. And here, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is of as little comfort to the Anglican as it is to the Roman orthodox.
Williams begins with a claim that there has been real ecumenical progress and convergence. Indeed, his theme throughout is that Rome and Canterbury are so close as to be almost touching. What, then, is keeping them apart? He responds that there are three key issues, whose significance must therefore be considered.
... the major question that remains is whether in the light of that depth of agreement the issues that still divide us have the same weight — issues about authority in the Church, about primacy (especially the unique position of the pope), and the relations between the local churches and the universal church in making decisions (about matters like the ordination of women, for instance).
Over against these issues, there is substantial agreement on what Williams feels are the things which really matter. And this is not just a question of theorising. The life of the Church is suffering whilst we delay:
When so very much agreement has been firmly established in first-order matters about the identity and mission of the Church, is it really justifiable to treat other issues as equally vital for its health and integrity?
But to show the difference between ‘first order’ and ‘second order’ issues, we must understand the nature of the Church itself. And this, Williams argues, mut be defined ‘theologically’, not ‘institutionally’, not set up by divine command establishing a ‘chain of command’ but ‘emerging’, as it were, from the nature of God and the incarnation.
Briefly, but importantly, Williams sums up the underlying theology of the Church as being that God is a Trinitarian community, the incarnation opens up the possibility of people being drawn into this community and the Spirit makes this actual. The Church is then constituted by a ‘filial’, godward, relationship and ‘communal’, human, relationships.
So, regarding the sacraments there is a substantial, if not always acknowledged, overlap:
The whole discussion of sacramental life is centred upon how the believer is established in filial communion through the act of the triune God; there is little to suggest that outside the Roman fold there is any ambiguity over this priority of the divine act, or any separation between the act of God in salvation and a purely or predominantly human activity of recalling or expressing that act through human practices. (Emphasis added.)
In the light of this understanding, which Williams clearly believes should be a matter of common agreement, he argues that current ecumenical debate is not really about the essential shape of the Church but “about where the fullest realisation of communion is to be found.” So we return to his three key issues three key issues, on which he poses a series of questions. On authority and the magisterium:
Is there a mechanism in the Church that has the clear right to determine for all where the limits of Christian identity might be found?
Is the integrity of the Church ultimately dependent on a single identifiable ministry of unity to which all local ministries are accountable?
On the universal Church:
Is it an entity from which local churches derive their life, or is it the perfect mutuality of relationship between local churches – or indeed as the mysterious presence of the whole in each specific community?
For Williams these are, it seems, the remaining stumbling blocks in the way of fuller ecumenical recognition. Yet his answers in each of these areas are confusing. On authority, he speaks of how responsibility is distributed amongst “the communion of the baptised”. But on reaching agreement, he says simply that we have different ways of expressing this.
On primacy he says, starkly, there are two options regarding the present papal model: either it is essential, or it is not ‘fit for purpose’. Yet in its place he offers“a recognition of a primatial ministry” that is “not absolutely bound to a view of primacy as a centralized juridical office”, and appeals to the Anglican covenant as an example of communities bound by what he refers to earlier as “terms of lasting loyalty, shared theological method and devotional ethos.”
On the ‘local’ and the ‘universal’, he argues that, “the church is local community gathered around the bishop or his representative for eucharistic worship not as a portion of some greater whole but as itself the whole,” whilst nevertheless recognizing it exists in connection with the other parts. Thus,
... the question here becomes one about what criteria help us establish that the same Catholic life is going on in diverse communities.
To this, he poses a further question:
The facts of corporate reading of Scripture, obedience to the Lord’s commands to baptise and make eucharist, shared understanding of the shape and the disciplines of what we have called filial holiness — can these be utilised as they stand or do we need a further test — visible communion, say, with a universal primate?
The answer lies in decision making processes — say, for example, on the ordination of women. And on this, Williams poses a direct question to Rome:
... the challenge to recent Roman Catholic thinking on this would have to be: in what way does the prohibition against ordaining women so ‘enhance the life of communion’, reinforcing the essential character of filial and communal holiness [the ‘godward’ and ‘human’ elements] as set out in Scripture and tradition and ecumenical agreement, that its breach would compromise the purposes of the Church as so defined [in terms of reading Scripture, baptism and eucharist]?
Williams answers with a further question, but appeals to Anglican experience:
Even if there remains uncertainty in the minds of some about the rightness of ordaining women, is there a way of recognising that somehow the corporate exercise of a Catholic and evangelical ministry remains intact even when there is dispute about the standing of female individuals? In terms of the relation of local to universal, what we are saying here is that a degree of recognizability of ‘the same Catholic thing’ has survived: Anglican provinces ordaining women to some or all of the three orders have not become so obviously diverse in their understanding of filial holiness and sacramental transformation that they cannot act together, serve one another and allow some real collaboration.
So far, the structure of Williams’ argument is clear: we are almost at full, ecumenical, agreement. Fundamentally, we agree on the shape of the Church and the nature of its sacramental life. We are kept apart only on what are apparently second-order issues, and within Anglicanism itself, we have found a way to organize our life which can overcome our own internal tensions. But then, still on this issue of women’s ordination, he becomes completely unrealistic, if not downright disingenuous:
It is this sort of thinking that has allowed Anglicans until recently to maintain a degree of undoubtedly impaired communion among themselves, despite the sharpness of the division over this matter. It is part of the rationale of supplementary episcopal oversight as practised in the English provinces, and it may yet be of help in securing the place of those who will not be able to accept the episcopal ministry of women. There can be no doubt, though, that the situation of damaged communion will become more acute with the inability of bishops within the same college to recognise one another’s ministry in the full sense. Yet, in what is still formally acknowledged to be a time of discernment and reception, is it nonsense to think that holding on to a limited but real common life and mutual acknowledgement of integrity might be worth working for within the Anglican family? And if it can be managed within the Anglican family, is this a possible model for the wider ecumenical scene?
The problem, of course, is with the phrase ‘until recently’. For what Williams presents as a successful balancing act, which might be “a possible model for the wider ecumenical scene” is, of course, likely to come crashing down, and is precisely the reason Rome acted in the way it did via the offer of the Personal Ordinariate.
Moreover, it is surely exactly the experience of the Church of England at this point which demonstrates it is not the way to go. Extraordinarily, Williams says that this is “still formally acknowledged to be a time of discernment and reception”. Yet as we know, the decision making processes of the Church of England mean that process has been pushed forward by facts on the ground —not least the avoidance of consecrating traditionalist bishops —and is now dominated by a ‘kill everybody’ mentality on the part of the pro-women’s ordination lobby.
Like the desperately-unhappy John and Mary O’Leary in Father Ted, he seems to hope that a smiling face will conceal our domestic conflicts from the visiting priest. Yet if there is deceit, it is one which Williams himself seems to believe, for he asks, in apparent seriousness,
At what point do we have to recognise that surviving institutional and even canonical separations or incompatibilities are overtaken by the authoritative direction of genuinely theological consensus, so that they [the divisions] can survive only by appealing to the ghost of ecclesiological positivism?
“Are we missing something?” he seems to be saying, “Or are we just waiting to clear up some trivial difficulties between Rome and Canterbury in the way that the Anglican communion is already doing so successfully?”
All I have been attempting to say here is that the ecumenical glass is genuinely half-full – and then to ask about the character of the unfinished business between us. For many of us who are not Roman Catholics, the question we want to put, in a grateful and fraternal spirit, is whether this unfinished business is as fundamentally church-dividing as our Roman Catholic friends generally assume and maintain. And if it isn’t, can we all allow ourselves to be challenged to address the outstanding issues with the same methodological assumptions and the same overall spiritual and sacramental vision that has brought us thus far?
And at this point, the reader may wish to pause for breath, for it is nothing if not a bold take on the ecumenical venture and on the issues which have divided us for the last 450 years.
Yet if we simply survey it from a confessionally Anglican perspective, it is a vision which raises as many questions for Anglicans as it must for ecumenists.
To begin with, is Williams right in his claims regarding what truly divides the Church of England from the Church of Rome? Is it our understanding of the nature and function of the Church, or is it rather, as it was when we divided, still the nature of grace and our response to it, and in connection with that, that nature of sacrament and the ‘sacramental’ priesthood?
A glance through the Anglican formularies would suggest it is still the latter. And the test of this will surely be the liturgical traditions which Anglicans will be allowed to carry over into the Personal Ordinariate. Will this include the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, rubrics and all, or will it only allow the non-sacramental services? And what about the requirement that the standard of belief will be set by the Roman Catechism? One only has to look at the sections on justification and grace to know that Catholic and Protestant are still as deeply divided as ever on this subject, where the Church of England is committed via Article XI to justification by “faith only”.
Again, Williams’ doctrine of the Church, whilst couched in terms of episcopal and sacramental significance that would appeal to many in the Anglican hierarchy, is a long way from Article XIX’s understanding of the Word of God preached as being fundamental to the Church’s nature.
And aside from all this, one must ask why, if the ordination of women and their consecration as bishops are second-order issues which we are so effectively resolving, they generate so much heat and so much potential for real division. Why, if they represent a ‘glass half full’, are so many saying that there must finally be a ‘like it or lump it’ acceptance by those who, as Williams puts it, are still possessed of some ‘uncertainty’ on the subject?
For all its robustness of tone, Williams speech represents what happens when a ‘fuzzy’ theology encounters institutionalized clarity. His appeal, in the end, relies on the acceptance of the same fuzziness. But perhaps because this is its intellectual centre, it seems blind to its own inherent contradictions. Not only is it fundamentally un-Anglican in key areas, it is not even a reflection of the realities on the ground, in the parishes, in the dioceses and in the decision-making bodies of our own national church.
It is a bold try. But Williams does not have the substance behind him to back it up.
John RichardsonAnonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select 'preview', then close the preview box. When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.
21 November 2009
21 November 2009