Today’s doctrinal disputes may well seem irrelevant to future generations

Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury blesses Pope Francis during a private meeting at the Vatican last year (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

It may come as something of a surprise to many that ARCIC is still in business. But the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission, which is the forum for ecumenism between Catholics and the Anglican Communion, met recently in Rome, where they were addressed by the Pope. This is ARCIC’s third incarnation, and it has been going now for some considerable time. There is a useful summary of its history here.

It is worth remembering just why the ecumenical movement started in modern times. When Protestant churches sent missionaries abroad, to Africa and Asia, they naturally realised that a difficulty existed. How on earth were they to explain to people in Africa that the Christian Church, One, Catholic and Apostolic, was in fact not one, but a bunch of rival enterprises? It was thought, among the Churches of the Reformation, that the various communities should not turn mission lands into disputed territories. But in fact if you go to Kenya today, there are numerous Protestant Churches that have been planted there: Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, and even “the Friends’ Church”, which one assumes is what in Europe goes by the name of the Society of Friends.

One lot of people who do not recognise these divisions are ISIS. They kill all Christians, whatever their ecclesial allegiances. That is why the Pope has spoken of the ecumenism of blood. Just as missionaries once tried to give a united witness, but failed, the various Christians murdered by ISIS have, in contrast, succeeded in giving a united witness.

This may well count as progress of a sort, but the Pope also points out that there are continuing divisions, some of which are new. He didn’t mention what these are, but there again, there was no need to do so. Some or these are moral and doctrinal (matters such as divorce, abortion and homosexuality) and others are liturgical and doctrinal, such as the ordination of women. All of these, the latter in particular it seems to me, are pretty insurmountable, which is why the Pope seems to suggest a miracle will be needed to shift these barriers to unity.

But the nub of the roadblock, it seems to me, is not really doctrinal per se, but historical, given that the doctrines held by the Church of England and the other Anglican churches, spring from a particular historical period. The turbulent times of the Reformation are now behind us, thank the Lord, and this should enable people to look at what emerged then and see it as a product of its times. Just as those times have passed, so too has the reasoning that underpinned the doctrinal innovations.

And yes, I do realise that just as Anglican doctrines are contingent on history, so are Catholic ones. But certain doctrines stand the test of time, and faith in them is shown to us by experience to be enduring. There is a difference between fad, fashion, and the eternal verities, but it takes wisdom to know the difference. The very idea of a national church seems to me unreasonable in this day and age: though goodness knows it may well have seen like a good idea in Tudor times which were a period of emerging nationalism.

Women priests and bishops may well seem like a good idea in this age of feminism – get with the programme, our Prime Minister urged us all! – but the age of feminism will not last forever. Away with Aristotle, declared Luther, and back in the sixteenth century Aristotle may well have seemed like a busted flush, a barrier rather than a path to understanding, but who would dare say that today, when Aristotle is more revered than ever? Sola scriptura, said Luther: but today that phrase looks very doubtful given the progress we have made in our studies of the origins of scripture, many of which were pioneered by Lutherans.

I do hope that ARCIC, still not fifty years old, runs for a long time to come. For in several hundred years we may indeed start making ecumenical progress, as we begin to see the 16th century in its true historical context.