NO BESTSELLER ever begins with a glossary. At the start of Walking Together on the Way, the agreed statement from ARCIC III, released on Monday, is a list that explains the technical use to which the Commission puts such terms as “deliberative”, “receptive learning”, and “trans-local”. No stronger indication is needed that this document is written for other document writers, intended to convince members of both hierarchies that, when you put your theological heads together, the answer that comes is the same as the one your hearts felt back at the beginning. There are still large structural and political hurdles that must be got over if full visible unity is to be achieved. What this document is bold to suggest is that both Churches suffer by not asking themselves the questions that they should be asking together. Both Churches stumble over the application of the gospel to new cultural or ethical situations. But before deciding what, if anything, either Church has to say about embryo research, for example, or artificial intelligence, it has to know who is to say it, and by what process that speaker ensures that he or she has the assent of the rest of the Church. ARCIC III has bravely undertaken to instruct the Churches on all this.
There are, however, two other ways of dealing with hurdles besides leaping them. One is to knock them down and sustain the bruises this causes. Those who take this approach attempt to speak with the voice of a Church that has not been allowed the opportunity to give its view. The other way is simply to go round them as if they didn’t exist. Increasing numbers of Anglicans and Roman Catholics, following their hearts, have strolled together round the hurdles and are now looking back, wondering what all the fuss had been about. Those involved in intricate ecumenical dialogue have a dual task: to convince awkward, indifferent, or complacent colleagues in the hierarchies that change must come; and to show the rest that, unless historical arguments are understood and resolved, they will repeat themselves in different guises, causing further stumbles along the way.
The test of the mettle of those involved in the official discussions is whether they are encouraged or threatened by the many advances being made around them. Once again, sport provides an example. When Anglican and Roman Catholic cricketers take to the field at Lords (albeit the Nursery Ground) this afternoon, it will mark a further leap forward in sporting unity. For the past four years, the teams have played against each other in England and Rome. Today, for the first time, they will be playing on the same side. While many in our Churches have still to learn how to walk together, there are those who are already running.