A stride down the road to unity
Arcic III, as it is known, has worked under the joint chairmanship of two archbishops – David Moxon, former head of the Anglican Centre in Rome, and Bernard Longley, Archbishop of Birmingham. It was able to build on the substantial progress made by previous Commissions in finding common theological ground, but adopted a new technique known as “receptive ecumenism”. Arcic member Paul Murray, of Durham University, describes its methodology as “one which involves traditions in showing and engaging their vulnerabilities and difficulties; one which is focussed on ecclesial reform; one which appears more modest about long-term ecumenical hopes, in some respects, but which is in fact far more ambitious about seeking to walk the long, hard road of real conversion that the growth to ecumenical communion requires.”
Receptive ecumenism is essentially an exchange of gifts and insights. It requires a willingness from representatives of each Communion to be self-critical in their conversation with representatives of the other. So each system is found to suffer from what might be called an ecclesial deficit, where the balance between conciliarity and universal primacy – collegiality and the papacy – leans too much one way or the other. In the Anglican case, there is a perceived need to strengthen the commitments to communion between Anglican provinces, without the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury becoming a “papacy-lite”. In the Catholic Church, on the other hand, there is a recognition that it has not fully caught up with its own doctrine, from the Second Vatican Council and in the teaching of Pope Francis, that the Holy Spirit animates and inspires not just bishops and the Pope but priests and people. In the Church of England and its sister churches, lay opinion is given due weight through the structures of the General Synod, though on matters of doctrine the bishops have a veto. The report does find its synodical methods and procedures too dominated by a Parliamentary model. This is a valid point: seeking a majority of one in a debate has sometimes taken precedence over building a true consensus.
The report’s authors are understandably reluctant to speculate how various issues could have been handled differently, with different outcomes, if the Catholic Church had given full weight to the sensus fidelium instead of treating it merely as an obligation on the laity to conform to an existing magisterium. The unasked question is this – might not the Catholic Church have reached positions closer to the Anglican position if it had consulted the faithful before making up its mind, on issues ranging from contraception to the ordination of women to the priesthood? Arcic’s answer to this, when it completes its next project, could be enthralling.