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Harvesting the fruits of ecumenism in a slightly different way

7943003Tuesday’s news—that the Holy See is offering a canonical structure Anglicans wishing to become Catholics, but keep aspects of their identity—has set the Christian (and secular) interweb a-humming.

A million different interpretations of the statements made both in Rome and in London about the Apostolic Constitution, the highest form of Papal decree, abound, while experts attempt to unravel the process and the politics behind the Vatican move. Speculation is varied: Does this announcement mean the end of the Anglican Communion? Was Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, hopping mad over the news?  Had he been implacably opposed to the idea? How will the hierarchy of England and Wales react? Was the Vatican fishing/poaching from the Anglican pool? Showing a vote of no confidence in the Anglican Communion? Is this the end of the ecumenical process? Will it make the Catholic Church more conservative? Will it put an end to mandatory celibacy?  Will it foreshadow a structure which the SSPX could adopt if it were to return to the fold after the conversations start on Monday? Is the Pope simply moving forward in his greater plan for Christian unity?

For a comprehensive overview of reactions and coverage of the story as it has developed, see my editor Luke Coppen’s blog.

Some have argued that for Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican’s ecumenism supremo, this means the end of a dream of achieving unity with the Anglican Communion. Like Dr Williams, he was not consulted about the Anglican provision until the document’s final stages. For the propagators of this theory there must be a delicious sense of irony, in the fact that Cardinal Kasper, who heads the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, launched a book entitled Harvesting the Fruits: Basic Aspects of Christian Faith in Ecumenical Dialogue this month. At its launch he insisted that 40 years of ecumenism had borne fruit, despite the negative attitudes emanating from some corners of Curial offices.

In light of the recent events, I have tried to struggle through Cardinal Kasper’s book, but it is too dry even for me. Still what he has said cannot be entirely dismissed; the ecumenical process of the last 40 years has borne some fruit, if not quite as it was imagined.

At the joint press conference in London, both Dr Williams and Archbishop Vincent Nichols were keen to stress that this did not mean the end of the ecumenical process between the two churches, that in fact it could be regarded as a product of that very ecumenical process.

Dr Williams said: “It is also another kind of product of our years of conversation and prayer together, the recognition that there are elements of the Anglican heritage that are not at all problematic for the Roman Catholic Church. There is a recognition there of something profoundly in common. And in that sense, this is something to be grateful for.”

Cardinal Kasper, himself , said that the Church of England’s decision to ordain women in the 1990s pointed to a different understanding of the priesthood and would prove to be an obstacle in the ecumenical dialogue which had been making huge progress in the 1980s.

Last year, ahead of the Anglican Communion’s ten-yearly Lambeth Conference, Cardinal Kasper warned : “Ultimately it is a question of the identity of the Anglican Church. Where does it belong? Does it belong more to the Churches of the first millennium—Catholic and Orthodox—or does it belong to more to the Protestant churches of the 16th Century?”

Over a year after the difficult conference, the Vatican is offering a structure to many of those Anglicans who increasingly over the years have felt closer to Rome, especially after investing a great deal of time into the ARCIC processes, but have been reluctant to lose their culture and their traditions. It’s unlikely to be a huge group in this country availing themselves of the Anglican Provision and world-wide it will only represent a small fraction of the wider Anglican Communion, but it will certainly simplify things.

And as far as the ecumenical dialogue is concerned: perhaps now it will be able to begin again, this time, with new clarity.

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