Ecumenical spring is already here

11 April 2007

Gregory Cameron sets out a guide to the current state of relationships with other Churches

Thaw? The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope in November

Thaw? The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope in November

A RUBY WEDDING brings rejoicing in domestic life; yet the fact that a number of 40-year ecumenical milestones have been passed recently has surprisingly not excited much comment. Archbishop and Pope marked 40 years of Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue in November 2006. Archbishop and Patriarch marked 40 years of Anglican-Orthodox co-operation in January. Two weighty new dialogue reports invite study.

Yet the talk these days is often of an “ecumenical winter”, as a generation of hard-bitten ecumenists moves into retirement, and we seem no closer to “reunion all round” than ever before.

The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, formulated in the 1880s, has always set the agenda for Anglican ecumenical relations. The future unity of the Church, Anglicans discerned, would have to be founded on the authority of the holy scriptures, on the faith of the creeds, on the proper celebration of the dominical sacraments, and on the Catholic ordering of the Church around the central ministry of bishops.

The Quadrilateral paved the way for the Bonn Agreement of Intercommunion in 1931 between the Anglican Communion and the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht. This remains a rare example of concrete change between two global Christian Communions.

The methodology of the Quadrilateral has allowed the Communion to recognise its relationship with the Iglesia Filipina Independiente of the Philippines, with the Mar Thoma Church of India, and, in the fullness of time, with all the United Churches of South Asia.

It has allowed Anglican Churches in some parts of the world to receive local Evangelical Lutheran Churches, where these can be seen to be living into conformity with the pattern the Quadrilateral holds. A universal relationship between the Churches of the Anglican Communion and of the Lutheran World Federation eludes us, but conversations to that end continue in the third phase of the Anglican-Lutheran International Commission.

BEYOND THIS, difficulties multiply. Examples of local co-operation between Anglican and Protestant Churches flourish in some places, with greater or lesser degrees of formal rapprochement. But, of the Quadrilateral, episcopacy is the clearest outstanding issue in dialogue with the Protestant traditions: with the Lutherans, and particularly with Methodists and Reformed — although new phases of dialogue with both are planned at global level. Conversations between Anglicans and Baptists have been helpful, but no process of formal relationship was sought or found.

Conversations with the so-called Churches of the First Millennium have tended to build on the assumption that a much wider degree of theological convergence would be necessary for mutual recognition than that set out in the Lambeth Quadrilateral. Relationships with the Oriental Orthodox began well, with rapid movement towards a draft agreed statement on Christology, but have stalled in the light of developments in the Anglican Communion about sexuality.

Dialogue with the Eastern Orthodox Churches has just reached a new level, with the recent publication of an agreed statement on the Church and ministry (The Church of the Triune God). A new phase of dialogue is planned.

It is becoming hard to see what holds the two traditions apart, beyond the issue of the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate (which is seen as a huge obstacle, despite the difficulty of articulating the theological reasons why this might be so). A more honest evaluation might also point to the sheer cultural alienation bred by 1000 years of separate development.

Dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church proceeds with cautious optimism: the second Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC II) has finished its work, with the publication of the Agreed Statement, Mary, Grace and Hope in Christ. A third phase of ARCIC is in the planning.

In the mean time, a parallel bilateral Commission, focusing on an agenda for practical co-operation and common mission, the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission (IARCCUM), has reported on the achievements of 40 years of dialogue (Growing Together in Unity and Mission).

Here the theological terrain is also demanding: questions about the ordination of women blocked off the possibility of a re-examination of Anglican orders by the Church of Rome. But the issue of authority, and, in particular, of the universal ministry of primacy exercised by the Bishop of Rome, overshadows all other progress.

SACRAMENTAL communion with these Churches is probably further away than when the Quadrilateral was written, and further threats come from unexpected directions. The unity of the Anglican Communion itself is exposed by challenges to the traditional teaching on sexual morals.

Yet I would hesitate to say that this talk of winter is justified. Decades of patient ecumenical work have changed the landscape for ever. There are substantial changes, if not the concrete reconfiguration that was hoped for. No one can deny a deeper mutual understanding, a wider convergence, and much closer working relationships than at any other period since the undivided Church. Multilateral relationships, such as the WCC and the Global Christian Forum, still attract investment.

More importantly, the concept of what ecumenism is has become richer. It is no longer about doctrinal recognisability, but about shared mission and worship, reconciliation on the personal and political, as well as the ecclesial, levels.

It is no longer conceivable for any one Church of the Christian oikumene to go it alone. Despite late frosts, in the continuing reality of an ecumenical spring, genuine partnerships are forged, and deep friendships are founded.

Canon Gregory K. Cameron is Deputy Secretary General of the Anglican Communion.

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