To make real progress Catholics and Anglicans must look to Scripture

Pope Francis, left, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, arrive for vespers in the church of San Gregorio al Celio, in Rome (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

The Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury have just prayed together and issued an agreed statement. Much of the common declaration is what one would expect, but one bit in particular struck me as of great interest, namely this passage:

Fifty years ago our predecessors recognised the ‘serious obstacles’ that stood in the way of a restoration of complete faith and sacramental life between us. Nevertheless, they set out undeterred, not knowing what steps could be taken along the way, but in fidelity to the Lord’s prayer that his disciples be one. Much progress has been made concerning many areas that have kept us apart. Yet new circumstances have presented new disagreements among us, particularly regarding the ordination of women and more recent questions regarding human sexuality. Behind these differences lies a perennial question about how authority is exercised in the Christian community.

It is completely right and entirely honest that the document should point out the new obstacles to unity between Canterbury and Rome that have arisen. It would undermine the credibility of the common declaration if they did not. The ordination of women, which the Catholic Church has ruled out definitively, is clearly an obstacle, and so are the “questions regarding human sexuality”. This latter is code for the questions concerning the moral status of homosexual acts, a subject that has led to great disagreement within world Anglicanism.

But let us not get stuck in the arguments about homosexual acts at present, or indeed female ordination, as far more interesting is the next sentence, namely: “Behind these differences lies a perennial question about how authority is exercised in the Christian community.” This is indeed the real root of the question. In this single sentence we move from focusing on the status of homosexual acts (for example) to the far more important question of why the Catholic Church holds the teaching it does on this (or indeed any other) matter.

The questions of female ordination or homosexual acts are in fact surface questions. The real questions to be confronted are to do with scripture, Magisterium and tradition. And if you think that homosexual acts or female ordination are difficult to discuss because they get people hot under the collar, trust me, they are easy subjects compared to scripture, Magisterium and tradition.

The first question is this: how seriously do we take the Scriptures? Do we see them as embodying timeless truths, or as texts which mirror the age in which they were written? As with all questions, that one contains presuppositions that are to be challenged. The Scriptures in fact do both: they reflect the beliefs of their authors and they are inspired texts as well. So, when examining a text like Leviticus 18:22 which condemns homosexual acts, you must take context into account, but at the same time the verse, and the other verses that condemn homosexual behaviour, cannot simply be dismissed as the worthless ravings of a unenlightened age. To do that would be to undermine the credibility of the entire canon of Scripture. (The same goes for Jesus’s prohibition of divorce, by the way. If you discount that, you can, in theory at least, discount everything the Scriptures report him as saying.)

The second question is: how authoritative is tradition? To what extent can we innovate? The simple answer to this question is that we must develop, but we must only do so in a way that shows continuity rather than rupture with the past. We cannot contradict, ever, what was believed always and everywhere by previous generations. Female ordination and the recognition of homosexual acts as having moral value represent, as their proponents have argued, the overturning of traditions that they think of as wrong. These bad traditions, as they see it, have been revised in the name of progress. Human beings have somehow moved on. But no Catholic could ever accept such a crude argument that essentially sees the Church of previous generations as dangerously defective. Archbishop Carey accused those who were opposed to the ordination of women of heresy. He was completely right to do so, from his point of view; any Catholic arguing for the ordination of women effectively accuses previous generations of the same.

Does this mean that doctrine cannot change? Of course not; but it does mean that any change in doctrine has got to be recognised as an organic development of what went before.

Finally, Magisterium: how extensive is the teaching authority of the Church? It is surely bound by both Scripture and tradition, and at the service of both. Even an ecumenical Council of the Church cannot change Divine Revelation. Magisterium is not a word much used by non-Catholics, but Scripture and Tradition certainly are, the first in particular among our evangelical brethren. It is by looking at the Scriptures together that real ecumenical progress is to be made.

One of the major controversies at the time of the Reformation was about the inerrancy of Scripture. This may sound like a Protestant doctrine; but time brings in all its revenges, and to my ears it now sounds like a peculiarly Catholic doctrine. It is here that Catholics and Anglicans need to do some spadework; and it is here, ironically, that we shall find, I think, that evangelicals have more in common with Catholics than they may have thought.