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Wittenberg is closer to Rome

by
29 April 2016

Protestant Churches are nearer to RCs than Anglicans are, argues Alexander Faludy

AP

Welcome for some? Pope Francis in Rome, earlier this month

Welcome for some? Pope Francis in Rome, earlier this month

THE “special relationship” between the UK and the United States in foreign affairs, defence, and intelligence is famously one that London seems to be more aware of than Washington. It is also one that seems not to register especially with the US’s other strategic partners.

At times, I have wondered whether there is a parallel here with Anglican self-perception of our special status in relationship to the Roman Catholic Church, compared with the rest of the Protestant family.

Talk about Anglicanism’s vocation as the “bridge Church” — not just passively standing between two ecclesiastical thought-worlds (the older language of via media), but actively connecting them — has a long history. It is at least as old as the modern ecumenical movement, but is perhaps particularly associated with the thinking of the 1948 Lambeth Conference.

It has been the cornerstone of the Church of England’s post-war ecumenical strategy. This conception of Anglicanism’s ecumenical vocation continues to be eloquently espoused by writers with an Anglo-Catholic background, such as Geoffrey Kirk and Arthur Middleton.

 

DOUBTS about the bridge-Church rhetoric swam into my mind after reading Pope Francis’s recent warm words about Roman Catholic-Methodist relations. On the occasion of the opening of the new Methodist Ecumenical Office of Rome this month, he spoke of his desire to “overcome all that stands in the way of our full communion [with the Methodist tradition]” (News, 15 April).

These words pose uncomfortable questions for Anglicans: is our self-perception as the bridge Church somewhat hollow and self-deluded? Does the Pope need any other bridge than himself in dealing with the rest of the Christian world?

It is difficult to think of a significant concrete instance where Rome has needed Anglicans to facilitate human contact with other Protestants (or visa versa). In the large swath of Continental Europe where Anglicans have no historic presence, the suggestion that Roman Catholics might need Anglicans to have conversations with their Lutheran or Reformed neighbours tends to be met with a mixture of amusement and incomprehension.

A reading of modern church history suggests that our self-appointed position in providing interpreters between the Roman Catholic and Protestant theological worlds might be superfluous. This is neatly exemplified by comparison of the parts played by Karl Barth and John Moorman as respectively the Reformed and the Anglican observer-participants at Vatican II.

Barth’s influence on the Council was far greater than Moorman’s: it has merited a full-length academic study (Donald Norwood, Reforming Rome: Karl Barth and Vatican II, Eerdmans, 2015), as Moorman’s has not.

Norwood speculates that the disparity in their influence may be precisely “because High Church Anglicans like Moorman found it much more difficult to be critical of Rome than Reformed theologians like Barth, who were not craving for Rome’s acceptance”.

 

THE fruits of more recent Roman Catholic-Protestant conversations have been more tangible than those of the continuing Anglican-RC dialogue. The 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation is emphatically a document of the Roman Catholic Church.

It thus possesses a canonical status to which our own much-prized Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) documents, for all their admirable creativity, can only aspire. ARCIC’s substantive statements on unity, so far from achieving this status, were not even allowed safe passage through the Vatican’s own printing press. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1982 evaluation of ARCIC I’s 1981 final report followed three paragraphs of praise with 53 of cold criticism.

More recently, Pope Francis’s two most significant ecumenical gestures on the admission of non-RCs to communion have occurred in the context of RC-Lutheran, not RC-Anglican, relations. The first was the Pope’s counsel last year to Anke de Bernardinis, a member of the German Lutheran church in Rome, that her reception at mass alongside her RC husband was a matter for her own conscience rather than of ecclesiastical discipline.

The second was the unprecedented admission of visiting Finnish Lutheran bishops to communion at a service inside the Vatican earlier this year. In this trend, Francis is in surprising continuity of spirit with his predecessor, particularly the latter’s take on the Confessio Augustana (CA, Lutheranism’s key doctrinal text, also known as the Augsburg Confession).

In 1976, the future Benedict XVI (then the Most Revd Joseph Ratzinger, Archbishop of Munich) wrote enthusiastically in the journal Bausterine of his desire “to achieve a recognition of the CA as catholic and thereby to establish the catholicity of the Churches of the CA, which makes possible a corporate union while the differences remain”.

He is not known to have ever said anything of equivalent warmth about the Thirty-Nine Articles.

 

IT MIGHT be too much to suggest that Rome might like us Anglicans, if we were a little more like the Lutherans. And yet the best way forward for Anglican-RC relations — especially with the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation in 2017 — might be for the Anglicans to become signatories to the Joint Statement on the Doctrine of Justification with our Porvoo-Lutheran brothers and sisters, with whom we are in full communion. It would cost nothing, and gain much.

The Methodists are a long way ahead of us on this, having adopted it back in 2006 (a move that perhaps underpins Pope Francis’s recent expression of enthusiasm for them). Our adoption of the statement alongside our Methodist Covenant partners might provide some welcome sense of renewed energy and theological depth to the stalled Anglican-Methodist process.

Getting closer to our Protestant neighbours is often wrongly perceived as entailing our being distanced from Rome. In this instance, it is possible to take a step that makes progress in both directions simultaneously. Drawing closer to the Methodists and Lutherans would also mean drawing closer to Rome.

 

IN 1950, R. N. Flew and other learned Free Church writers published a now unjustly neglected volume, The Catholicity of Protestantism, correcting some rather crass mischaracterisations of Protestant theology and ecclesiology, and Anglican distance from it, made in the 1947 Anglican report Catholicity (edited by E. A. Abbott).

All too often, it feels as if we have still not learned the lessons set out there about our place within the intellectual geography of the Christian world. On a real map of Europe, Wittenberg is closer to Rome than Canterbury is. It would do us no harm to remember in humility that this is true ecumenically, too.

 

The Revd Alexander Faludy is Priest-in-Charge of St John the Evangelist, Wallsend, and a former trustee of the Anglican-Lutheran Society.

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