What does the future hold for ecumenical relations?

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, addresses the media during a press conference in Canterbury last week (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

It is almost five years since I resigned my post in the Church of England and sought to be received into full communion with the Catholic Church. My decision was a difficult one which involved leaving behind much that I loved and was familiar with. Often people assumed that I was running away from issues developing within the Church of England but this was not the case. My journey commenced because of a growing understanding that the Church of England and Anglican Communion were not what I thought they were.

The 1930 Lambeth Conference asserted that the Anglican Communion was a “fellowship, within the one holy catholic and apostolic church, of those duly constituted dioceses, provinces or regional churches in communion with the see of Canterbury.” Developments within Anglicanism led me to the personal realisation that it was communion with the see of Rome and not the see of Canterbury that guaranteed catholicity.

Last week’s Anglican primates meeting and the unfounded speculations about a breakdown of relationships between the different worldwide Anglican churches has confirmed my decision and understanding of Catholicity. It also highlights broader issues which will be faced by the Anglican Communion in its relationship with the Catholic Church. Questions are posed about how we continue to work in ecumenical conversation.

While a resolution has been reached the whole affair highlights fault lines in Anglicanism that will not simply disappear.

What will the future of ecumenical discussions be?

ARCIC remains the principle organisation which seeks to make ecumenical progress between the Anglican Communion and Catholic Church. Relations have already become strained because of the ordination of woman within the Anglican Communion and the opening session of the third phase of ARCIC in 2011 recognised tension caused over the erection of Personal Ordinariates for former Anglicans.

While the global south has been represented in ARCIC there has remained a dominance of theologians from the northern hemisphere. The outcome of last week’s primates meeting demonstrates clearly that the balance of power has shifted in Anglicanism. The African Anglican primate’s voice was obviously strong and will only grow stronger as the western forms of Anglicanism continue to steadily decline.

One of the suggested outcomes initially last week was that future bonds within the Anglican Communion should be reliant on a common relationship with the Archbishop of Canterbury rather that communion between diocese and provinces. While this did not happen, it may only be a matter of time before issues resurface again and the primates will be back at this point again. If Anglicanism were to no longer function as a communion, different parts would only relate to each other because of historic affection for Canterbury rather than the mutual recognition. Anglicanism would no longer be bound together by confessional unity. This would certainly undermine Anglicanism’s claims of catholicity.

At present the Anglican partner in ARCIC is The Anglican Consultative Council. But in the future, if the Anglican Communion were to be at best a looser federation, who would provide the authentic Anglican voice in ecumenical discussions? It could all become very complicated.

The focus of the third and present phase of ARCIC is to consider questions relating to, “The Church as Communion, local and universal, and how in Communion the local and Universal Church come to discern right ethical teaching” (ARCIC III 2015). The first meeting of ARCIC III discussed at length a draft document which examined the structures of both the Anglican Communion and Catholic Church and how such structures facilitate communion within and among the local and universal dimensions of the church. It will be virtually impossible to have such a discussion in the future as relationships within Anglicanism will become so complicated and nuanced. X will be in communion with Y but not with Z, and so on. The difficulty will be that one partner in ARCIC has a largely coherent understanding of communion and the ecclesiology and the other has a wide and diverse understanding which will become further confused by fragmentation.

Potentially as Catholics we would have to enter into conversations with several different expressions of Anglicanism, if ecumenical talks were to still be meaningful. Certainly ARCIC’s focus, composition and efforts may need to radically shift.

Also how can we make progress in terms of unity with an ecclesial community that doesn’t seem at unity in itself?

What of the Church of England’s national voice?

Despite falling attendances and general decline, he Church of England still has an important national voice, especially on international issues such as persecuted Christians, climate change and the developing world. Being the focus of a global communion of 85 million people (a figure which changes depending on your source) certainly helps in giving credence to statements from the Archbishop of Canterbury and others. If this global dimension is diminished what effect will that have on our national church’s ability to speak with credibility? Realistically Anglicanism ceases to be such a global entity. The death knell of international Anglicanism could leave a vacuum.

It is an obvious statement that the Catholic Church in England and Wales exists within a global context, with full communion with brothers and sisters throughout the world. However, would our bishops be in a position (or have the desire) to fill the vacuum that Anglicanism leaves? One of the consequences of leaving a vacuum unfilled is the further creeping in of secularism into our national life.

A warning to those who seek decentralisation within the Catholic Church

Those who seek decentralisation within the Catholic Church can gain a glimpse in last week’s primates meeting of what the future may hold if they were to be granted their wishes. A compromise was reached by the primates last week but this decision was not without its sacrifices. Anglicans in America who have been placed under sanctions will surely not keep quiet for long. The danger is that last week’s resolution will be merely a surface dressing and therefore the inevitable is only prolonged. Good will can only stretch so far.

The Anglican Church in North America was founded in 2009 by former members of The Episcopal Church who were dissatisfied and disaffected. This group already claims 29 dioceses and looks to the African Bishops for oversight. This sort of arrangement is only likely to grow as Africa becomes stronger and northern Anglicanism shrinks. In all this the weaknesses of decentralised authority is clearly demonstrated. Do will really want to follow in this way? If we are honest are there similar fault lines closer to home?