Prima di ogni contrasto — Vatican response to the Canterbury primates gathering

Fr Anthony Currer of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity gives an appraisal of the problems of the Anglican Communion in L’Osservatore Romano, 21 Jan 2016 p 5.

[Italian original below] To respond to the Gospel message with faith immediately implies a whole network of relationships, it implies that something is owed to those others who have also responded in faith. This is true of individual Christians and it is true of Christian communities be they parishes, dioceses, national or international ecclesial communities. In decision-making and in what we do, something is always owed to those other Christians beyond our community who are our brothers and sisters. That we don’t act unilaterally is a given of ecclesial life.

The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) is currently examining the way in which the Church local and universal discerns right ethical teaching. The starting point is the theological understanding shared by Catholics and Anglicans that recognises both the proper ecclesial fullness of a local church constituted under a bishop, but also its necessary related-ness to the wider communion of churches.

However, beyond this fundamental principle or bedrock conviction there is necessarily a lived tension between the legitimate self-determination of a Christian community in a particular place and the limits imposed on that freedom by what is owed to the wider communion. The Anglican Communion describes itself as a Communion of churches, and this signals a decentralised structure in which a great deal of autonomy is located at the regional level, that is, the various provinces, which very often are national churches. Provinces have their own processes of synods through which they discern and promulgate teaching. This model of dispersed authority, for all its strengths, has in recent years been a source of considerable tension when the decisions of one province prove to be distressing to other provinces of the Communion.

The presenting issue that has been the cause of most recent tension is, of course, that of ethical teaching, and in particular, sexuality. Both Anglican provinces in North America made significant moves on this issue in this past year. In July 2015 the General Convention of the Episcopal Church (that is the Anglican Province of the United States) voted to revise its marriage canons to make them “gender neutral” and endorsed wedding liturgies for same-sex couples, a change which came into effect on 1st November. On 22 September, following a two-year period of consultation, a Commission on the Marriage Canon made its report entitled,This Holy Estate, to the Council of General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada. The consultation included a contribution from the national Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue which indicated the implications of a change to the marriage canons and stated such a change “would weaken the very basis of our existing communion”. Coming to its conclusion This Holy Estate states that it “attempts to show how it is theologically possible to extend the marriage canon to include same-sex couples, without thereby diminishing, damaging, or curtailing the rich theological implications of marriage as traditionally understood”. This proposed change will be debated in the General Synod in 2016. While the provinces of North America have been in the vanguard of such changes, other provinces including Brazil, New Zealand, Scotland, Wales, South India and South Africa, are all open to making similar changes.

Despite admirable efforts to consult widely, it remains inevitable that decisions such as these will cause, and have already caused, dismay in other provinces of the Anglican Communion, particularly those in Africa. Responding to the decisions of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the United States last July, Archbishop Justin Welby expressed his “deep concern” and went on to say that the decision, “will cause distress for some and have ramifications for the Anglican Communion as a whole, as well as for its ecumenical and interfaith relationships”.

Against this background Archbishop Welby announced on 16 September that he was inviting his 37 fellow Primates to meet in Canterbury from 11 to 16 January, 2016. The archbishop stressed that the question of human sexuality was not the only question on the agenda, but a considerable amount of time would be given to other issues such as the protection of children and vulnerable adults, the environment, and religiously motivated violence. While some fear the fabric of the Communion is being torn apart on issues of human sexuality, the Archbishop will hope that these other issues, in which a co-ordinated response across the Communion would be mutually beneficial, will demonstrate the necessity of deepening and strengthening the bonds of communion.

Many media reports at the time of Archbishop Welby’s announcement suggested that his intention was to replace the communion relationship of the provinces with a much looser federal relationship in which member churches relate to Canterbury, but not necessarily to one another. The various provinces, these reports claimed, would keep the name “Anglican” but without any attempt to maintain common discipline or doctrine. Such a radical reorientation of Anglican ecclesiology would be a considerable blow to Anglican-Catholic ecumenical relations which have been predicated on the basis of a shared communion ecclesiology. However, Lambeth Palace has strongly rebutted such claims, insisting that no such abandonment of its Communion structures is intended, but rather the aim is to strengthen those structures by reappraising them and encouraging those who are currently disenfranchised to find their voice and be unafraid to offer critique.

At time of writing, the Primates’ Meeting has not yet concluded, however it is possible to make a few observations about the meeting. Firstly, Archbishop Welby has always maintained that he wants the Primates as a group to call the next Lambeth Conference, the ten-yearly meeting of all Anglican Bishops from around the world. All the indications are that the next Lambeth Conference will be announced, though mostly likely scheduled for 2020 rather than 2018, and this announcement in itself will be a strong signal of the primates’ continued desire to work for the unity of the Communion.

Secondly, while the Archbishop cannot sanction the North American provinces, he will be working strenuously to deepen the bonds of communion with those provinces which have been most scandalised by their recent decisions. The strongest protest to the North American provinces comes from those affiliated to GAFCon, a grouping that takes its name from the Global Anglican Future Conference held in Jerusalem immediately before the last Lambeth Conference in 2008. A number of the primates who will attend the January 2016 meeting are members of GAFCon, and claim to represent the majority of the world’s Anglicans. One GAFCon primate, Archbishop Stanley Ntagali of Uganda has already warned that he will not continue to participate in the meetings unless “godly order” is restored. GAFCon claims not to be in communion with the Anglican provinces of North America, supporting instead a breakaway group called the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA). In a strong indication of Archbishop Welby’s intention to reach out to GAFCon, he has invited ACNA’s Archbishop, the Rt Rev Foley Beach, to attend some of the Primates’ Meeting as an observer. Moreover, the Archbishop has worked hard at establishing strong personal relationships with many of these primates, which he hopes will help to avoid a rift.

Two recent changes of personnel may be decisive in helping to strengthen the communion’s relationships and avoid further dissension. Firstly, in April of last year Nigerian archbishop, the Most Rev. Josiah Atkins Idowu-Fearon, was appointed as Secretary General of the Anglican Communion. Theologically conservative Bishop Idowu-Fearon is an expert in Christian-Muslim relations, and is the first African to take up a major role in the Anglican Communion Office, reflecting the growing numerical importance of Africa within the Communion. Secondly, also in 2015, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the United States elected Bishop Michael Curry of the diocese of North Carolina as its 27th Presiding Bishop. Bishop Curry is the first African-American to serve as in this capacity, and is a moderate evangelical. It is to be hoped that both Archbishop Fearon and Bishop Curry can help to heal the tensions between the predominantly evangelical Anglicans of Africa and their more liberal brothers and sisters in Europe and North America.

Archbishop Welby gave his own vision for the Primates’ Meeting when he said, “The difference between our societies and cultures, as well as the speed of cultural change in much of the global north, tempts us to divide as Christians: when the command of Scripture, the prayer of Jesus, the tradition of the church and our theological understanding urges unity. A 21st-century Anglican family must have space for deep disagreement, and even mutual criticism, so long as we are faithful to the revelation of Jesus Christ, together.” He went on, “I long for us to meet together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and to seek to find a way of enabling ourselves to set a course which permits us to focus on serving and loving each other, and above all on the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ.”

No one, least of all Archbishop Welby, expects the Primates’ Meeting to resolve the deep theological differences between the various provinces. Such a hope would be unrealistic for a week-long meeting. Instead the aim is more modest, namely, that the primates can disagree respectfully, recognising the positions of those with whom they disagree as being held in good faith. For Archbishop Welby the meeting will have been a success if all the primates remain committed to stay bound together within the Communion relationship, even though this commitment demands ongoing theological work on contested issues.

To give concrete shape to his hopes for the Primates’ Meeting the Archbishop has enlisted support from an unusual source. The ivory head of a crozier thought to have belonged to St Gregory the Great, the 6th century Pope who sent St Augustine as a missionary to the south of England, has been sent on loan from the Church of San Gregorio in Rome, to Canterbury. It will be a symbol to the gathered primates of their shared heritage and tradition, the courageous apostolic journey of St Augustine through whose ministry they have been blessed with the grace of the good news of Jesus Christ. Even more than this, the crook of the crozier is a hook, a visual sign of the need to stay connected, to stay bound to one another, and this, above all because the pastoral staff recalls the ministry of the One Shepherd who brings back the lost, who pulls back with his crook the wandering, and who leads all his disciples, all his sheep, into one flock.

Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission

The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission held the fifth meeting of its current phase (ARCIC III) at Villa Palazzola, the summer residence of the Venerable English College in Rome, 28 April–4 May 2015. The mandate for this third phase of ARCIC is both to promote the reception of the previous work of the Commission by presenting it as a corpus which it hopes to do in the coming year, and to explore “The Church as Communion, local and universal, and how in communion the local and universal Church come to discern right ethical teaching”. To this end the Commission worked on a draft document responding to the ecclesiological element of the mandate, that is, an examination of the structures of our two traditions which facilitate communion within and among the local and regional and universal dimensions of the Church.

On Thursday 30 April the Commission had a private audience with Pope Francis who encouraged them in their work, and in the context of contemporary persecution of Christians noted, “There is a strong bond that already unites us which goes beyond all divisions.” Archbishop Bernard Longley, the Catholic co-Chair of the Commission, thanked Pope Francis for the inspiration and leadership given by both him and Archbishop Justin Welby, “especially by your common commitment to seek justice for those who suffer exploitation or neglect.” Archbishop David Moxon cited the draft ARCIC II volume, and acknowledged with gratitude Pope Francis’s emphasis on the preaching of the Gospel, the simplicity of his personal lifestyle, his stress on ministry to the poor and marginalized, and the positive role he has played in international reconciliation. He concluded by saying that all of these have “played their part in commending the ministry of the Bishop of Rome to Christians throughout the world”.

Methodist Roman Catholic International Commission

From 9-16 October 2015, the Joint Commission for Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Methodist Council met at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. This was the fourth and final meeting of this current round of dialogue, as the Commission seeks to finalize a report which will be presented at the World Methodist Conference to convene in August 2016, in Houston, Texas, USA and to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in Rome.

The report will be entitled “The Call to Holiness: From Glory to Glory”. Building on the 2006 Methodist association with the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, the Commission recognises that Methodists and Catholics have expressed basic agreement concerning the nature and effect of grace upon the Christian believer, emphasizing that growth in holiness through daily life in Christ is the calling of all Christians. In exploring both shared and diverging understandings of holy living and holy dying, the report will address areas of Catholic devotional practice which have traditionally been problematic for Methodists.


The theological issues which divide Christians, both between traditions, and as we have seen, internally, are certainly very significant. However, this must not obscure the fact that behind these contentious issues of our day lies very deep theological agreement which much careful, ongoing dialogue, at both international and national levels, and of an official and unofficial nature, continues to discover. Moreover, there is much that Christians can and must do together. Addressing the Waldensian Community of Turin in June, Pope Francis spoke of the need for Catholics and Waldensians to work together in service to suffering humanity: the poor, the sick and migrants. He went on to say, “The differences on important anthropological and ethical issues, which continue to exist between Catholics and Waldensians, do not prevent us from finding forms of cooperation in these and other fields. When we walk together, the Lord helps us to experience that communion which comes before all conflict.” Taking our lead from Pope Francis, Anglicans, Methodists and Catholics remain determined to walk together in defence of the environment, in seeking justice for migrants, protection for persecuted Christians, and to fight poverty, and by so doing to experience that communion which comes before all conflict. 

L'Osservatore Roman 2016.01.20 p 5

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