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Walking Together on the Way: Learning to be the Church — local, regional, universal – ARCIC III

September 14, 2018

ARCIC 3No bestseller ever begins with a glossary. At the start of Walking Together on the Way, 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

Anglicans and Roman Catholics can learn much from each other, it says.

AFTER nearly seven years of deliberation, the third Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC III) issued this statement on authority, structure, and decision-making, which sets out how the two traditions might learn from each other.

The text was agreed in Erfurt, Germany, the scene of Martin Luther’s early ministry, on the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation on the Continent.

ARCIC members have described the agreed statement as “exciting”, and suggest that it has the potential to restore ecumenical dialogue to good health after the difficulties experienced since Anglican developments such as the ordination of women and openly gay clergy, and the blessings of same-sex unions.

The statement looks at authority and ecclesial communion in the two Churches. It acknowledges that a significant hindrance to unity is the level at which each Church operates: Anglicans are strong on regional or provincial autonomy, but weak on anything global; whereas the Roman Catholic Church is the reverse.

This raises questions about the level at which decisions are made about ethical, liturgical, and ecclesial matters. ARCIC is now looking specifically at this, with a view to publishing a second statement in the next three years.

The statement promotes a system of “receptive learning” which amounts to self-critical analysis in the light of the differing practices of ecumenical partners, with a view to self-improvement and closer unity.

Anglicans, for instance, are invited to examine successful models of communion and unity with the RC Church, while Roman Catholics are encouraged to learn from Anglicans how to involve the laity in decision-making.

Roman Catholics are also encouraged to consider whether the ordination of women as deacons, and of married men as priests, and allowing lay people to preach possible ways of bringing the two traditions closer.

Dr Paula Gooder, Canon Theologian of Birmingham Cathedral and an Anglican member of ARCIC, said this week that she was so optimistic about the statement that she considered it to be “ground-breaking. . . We are walking together more closely than ever.

“ARCIC I was about all those things that we easily agree about; ARCIC II more about the things that we have more difficulties in agreement.

“ARCIC III is about recognising that there is a huge amount that we can learn from each other — handling those questions of what are those things we can learn, particularly in the areas of decision-making. . . There is so much to learn from each other in that context. . .

“I think this is a really important document. This marks a different register, a gear change. It is definitely a new step.”

In their introduction, the two co-chairmen, the Most Revd David Moxon, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s former representative in Rome, and the RC Archbishop of Birmingham, the Most Revd Bernard Longley, write that they hope that their dialogue might contribute to the flourishing of each of their communions — “both by modelling how such mutual learning can today be pursued and by acting as a means of grace through which each communion is more perfectly configured to the image of Christ”.

Archbishop Longley remarked: “We have been able to reflect together in a slightly different way from previous documents because we are not merely looking for convergence in terms of our theology: we have also used ‘receptive ecumenism’ as a method of reflecting together.

“Within the Anglican Communion, these are some of the elements of church life that we feel Catholics can reflect on and learn from. And Anglicans are saying: within the Catholic Church these are the things Anglicans can reflect on an learn from. In particular, the focus is on the Church as communion, local and universal.

“I am very excited that we have been able to agree a statement together after quite a lengthy process in this third stage of ARCIC; and I am delighted to think that it will give both encouragement and a challenge to our communions to consider some of the issues that are in the document.”

Dom Henry Wansbrough, a Benedictine monk of Ampleforth Abbey, near York, and an RC member of ARCIC, said that the statement showed that the RC Church was willing to learn about authority and decision-making.

For example, he said: “We are probably in the course of learning from other ecclesial bodies that the laity do have a lot of wisdom.”

Paul Murray, Professor of Systematic Theology in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University, and another RC member of ARCIC, expressed confidence that the process of receptive learning would usher in a “new and fresh perspective” to any future dialogue.

“In the first instance it is to help each tradition to be more fruitful and more fulfilled within its own tradition,” he said. “It helps ecumenism immediately because it gives us a fresh way of engaging with each other. This fresh approach gives us a new way forward. It says: ‘Let’s live the difference and live it as a gift.’

“It moves from problem-solving between traditions to learning from each other in ways that give us some real work to do.”

In the longer term, such understanding would move the traditions along the way to full communion, he said.

Several sections of the document are printed in two columns, as the authors set the different structures and processes of the two communions in parallel. These include: the involvement of the laity, the authority and selection of bishops, the challenge of parochialism, approaches to church growth, concepts of reception, regional organisation, primacy, and synodical organisation.

The document also looks at the two communions’ self-understanding “relative to the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Christ”.

It concludes with three short sections summing up what the Churches need to learn together; what Roman Catholics could learn from Anglicans; and what Anglicans could learn from Roman Catholics:


“Dialogue within our respective traditions about such difficult matters as the proper place for decisions on questions of ministry and human sexuality should be welcomed rather than feared. . .

“The development of doctrine shows that contested questions, often debated vigorously throughout the Church, locally, regionally, and globally, can lead eventually to a deeper common understanding and more precise articulation of the truth.”

In contrast, the document states that the instinct for unity in the RC tradition can result in “the suppression of difference, the inhibiting of candid conversation, and the avoidance of contentious issues in open fora”.

The document addresses various polarities that can prevail within a Church. Thus “too strong an emphasis on local autonomy . . . leads to insufficient critical distance from the prevailing culture and inadequate attention to the expressions and practice of faith in other parts of the Church.” At the other extreme, too much centralisation of authority “can lead to the proclamation of a gospel that does not properly enter into specific cultural realities”.

The gospel, which proclaims the “limitless love and salvific will of God, . . . is both deeply personal and local in appropriation and yet necessarily universal in scope and intention”.

Dialogue within our respective traditions about such difficult matters as the proper place for decisions on questions of ministry and human sexuality should be welcomed rather than feared. At all times in the Church, from its earliest days to the present, controversy, debate, dialogue, and synodal processes have led—eventually and often not quickly—to clarification and ultimately a more precise articulation of ‘the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints’ (Jude 1.3). A classic example is the eventual resolution of the Arian controversy at and after the Council of Nicaea of 325, from which in due time emerged a profound and distinctively Christian articulation of the divinity of Christ and the salvific reality of the Incarnation. The development of doctrine shows that contested questions, often debated vigorously throughout the Church, locally, regionally, and globally, can lead eventually to a deeper common understanding and more precise articulation  of the truth

Archbishop Justin Welby and Pope Francis have both used the image of  ‘walking together’ on the path to full communion to describe our ecumenical relations.

We are indeed fellow pilgrims journeying at the summons of God’s Word, through the difficult terrain of a rapidly changing world. We encounter very similar difficulties along the way, and we struggle to discern what faithful obedience demands. Walking together means that, as travelling companions, we tend each other’s wounds, and that we love one another in our woundedness. This journey that we undertake, which is a walking together into increasing degrees of communion despite difference, bears powerful and urgent witness to the world as to what it means to live difference well for mutual flourishing

Too strong an emphasis on local autonomy risks straining important ecclesial bonds at the trans-local level. This potentially leads to insufficient critical distance from the prevailing culture and inadequate attention to the expressions and practice of faith in other parts of the Church.

If a diocesan church or regional/provincial structure does not actively participate in this mission beyond its own borders and immediate concerns, it can lose awareness of a vital dimension of its identity within the universal mission of God.

The dangers of an over-emphasis on the trans-local.

Equally, too strong an emphasis on the trans-local risks the Church becoming overly centralized in a manner that hinders appropriate local adaptation for the sake of mission. This can lead to the proclamation of a Gospel that does not properly enter into specific cultural realities.

There has been a tendency in Roman Catholic theology to distinguish between the participation of the ordained in the tria munera as primarily ordered internally towards the Christian community, and that of the laity as primarily externally directed towards the world. While this distinction still holds, laity are now involved in both arenas. The laity are not only widely involved in the temporal affairs of the Church (such as finance councils) but have become the primary educators of the faithful in preparation for reception of the sacraments and have been consulted widely through diocesan synods that advise bishops on a broad variety of issues. In some parts of the world laity are appointed as chancellors of dioceses and lead diocesan offices. Seminaries now employ lay faculty members.  Laity  can also function as catechists, educators, lay theologians, extraordinary ministers of holy communion, and pastoral ministers. All such participation of the laity is at the discretion of clergy and bishops.

Mutual receptive learning

Through the study of the Church local, trans-local, and universal, the Commission has asked what Anglicans and Catholics could learn from one another to make us better able to walk together in the way of communion. We believe that Anglicans can learn from Roman Catholic structures and procedures which have developed in the service of unity at the trans-local and universal levels.

We also believe that Catholics can learn from Anglican structures and procedures which have developed to ensure consultation and deliberation at the local and trans-local levels. In both cases there needs to be a richer understanding of the role of the laity as those who through their baptism participate fully in the threefold office of Christ as prophet, priest, and king.

Roman Catholic receptive learning from Anglicans

The discernment of proper teaching, sound governance, and appropriate pastoral care requires a healthy and open conversation in the Church. In the judgement of the Commission, the Roman Catholic Church can learn from the culture of open and frank debate that exists at all levels of the Anglican Communion, evidenced by the indaba process, for example.

The Anglican practice of granting a deliberative role to synods and of investing authority in regional instruments of communion indicates that the Synod of Bishops could be granted a deliberative role and further suggests the need for the Roman Catholic Church to articulate more clearly the authority of episcopal conferences.

Mindful of the participation in the threefold office of Christ of both laity and the ordained, the Catholic Church can fruitfully learn from the inclusion of laity in decision-making structures at every level of Anglican life.

Anglican receptive learning from the Roman Catholic Church

Receptive learning for Anglicans from Roman Catholic ecclesial life begins with an appreciation for the depth of commitment to the unity of the universal Church.

In the judgement of the Commission, a renewed commitment to this ethos of unity would be strengthened through commitments such as: the use of at least one common, modern eucharistic prayer across the Communion; the provision of an approved common catechism; formal reception of the Principles of Canon Law Common to the Churches of the Anglican Communion; further exploration of the role of the See of Canterbury and its cathedral as the seat of the Archbishop as a focus of unity; and the practice of pilgrimage visits by bishops to meet with the Archbishop of Canterbury for prayer and consultation.

Receptive learning from Roman Catholic expressions of episcopal leadership would include reflection on: diverse communities in full communion with one another in the same region; models of episcopal consultation and deliberation as seen in episcopal conferences and the Synod of Bishops as recently developed; the normative presence of a voice from outside the province, representing the wider Church in the deliberations and life of a regional church; and clarity of recognized processes for discernment, communication, and reception of authoritative teachings and decisions.

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