Leader: A time for frankness

25 November 2009

THE PRIVATE conversation between the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Benedict XVI last Friday was said to be “cordial”. This is one notch down from “warm”, but considerably better than “frank”. For the Pope, the frankness had come in the wording of Anglicanorum Coetibus three weeks ago. One Anglican observer, the Revd Dr Charles Sherlock, a former member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Com­mission, judges that the Pope “skips the language of love” in the document, which contains several retranslations of phrases from Lumen Gentium, a seminal Vatican II document on the Church.

For Dr Williams, the frankness came in the lecture he gave the day before the papal meeting at a symposium in honour of Cardinal Willebrands. The Archbishop was back in academic mode, as if challenging one of his Ph.D. students to reconsider an essay about the problems caused by the ordination of women. Show your workings, Dr Williams said, making it plain that, in his view, the evidence once produced would show flaws in the thesis that the Churches were at present irreconcilable.

Pope Benedict had cited the Holy Spirit as the source of the movement of groups of Anglicans into the Roman Catholic Church. In his lecture, the Archbishop invoked the Spirit as the source of a greater movement towards unity. “To be restored to life with God is to be incorporated into Jesus Christ by the Spirit; but because the gift of the Spirit is what takes away mutual fear and hostility and the shutting-up of human selves against each other, it is inseparably and necessarily a gift of mutual human communion also.” In other words, to strive, as every Christian does, to live in Christ, is also to strive to live with one’s neighbour, since these two commandments form the core of Christian doctrine. Following St Paul, it is possible to argue that the ability to get on with others is distributed unevenly through humanity, as are other gifts of the Spirit. It is easy to support this view from observation. But the removal of mutual fear is available to all, individually and institutionally, although the grip that fear has on those in charge of institutions is often harder to slacken than it is in individuals.

The start of Advent is a time to remember that the Spirit is making straight the way in the wilderness, calling all to the Lord’s communion. Those in charge of the Churches need to see themselves from the perspective of an outside observer, to whom it is incomprehensible that bodies that agree on such central doctrines as the incarnation, person, and teaching of Christ, can still act as if the other followed a separate religion. Fortunately, those at parish level are more used to working together. A Roman Catholic congregation in Ireland recently raised £3000 for its neighbouring Anglican church. It is through such actions that the Church is made whole.

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