Monday, February 19, 2007

Canterbury and Rome

As I sat down to my breakfast at Gatwick Airport this morning I was greeted by the headline in the London Times that said, Churches back plan to unite under Pope. What followed was an article by Ruth Gledhill, doyenne of religion journalists who recently managed to get her hands on a leaked document that will be published later in the year. The document suggests that the wheels are already being greased as to how Anglicans might reunite with Roman Catholics under the leadership of the Bishop of Rome.

By the time I got to Atlanta Airport some eleven hours later, the place where I am now sitting, there had been some correction and clarification of the Gledhill article, stating that this is part of the 35-year-long conversations that have been taking place between the two ecclesial bodies, but there is no doubt that Ruth Gledhill's timing is elegant.

Clearly the crisis within Anglicanism that was triggered by the inappropriate consecration of Gene Robinson in 2003 has contributed in many ways to a greater willingness on the part of Anglicans to reassess what the relationship between Rome and Canterbury might look like. In a rather cheeky manner Ms. Gledhill thinks there might be ways "to seek reunion with the Church of England's own mother church."

Obviously a couple of thousand word article summarizing a 42-page document at a time of high drama in Anglicanism is not enough to be going on, so we will need to wait until we have more data before we can make a clearer assessment, but it seems that there are up sides and down sides to all of this.

The up side is that in an increasingly hostile world Christian unity needs to be more than something we just chatter about. Our fragmentation in a postmodern age is itself a slur on the Gospel, and we need to start taking that reality more seriously. I can certainly see ways in which I might be able to acknowledge the leadership of the Bishop of Rome, but having said that there is a significant doctrinal gulf between what Rome affirms and where classic Anglican Christianity stands.

Now, I suppose that if I had to choose between Benedict XVI and Dr. Schori, Benedict wins hands down. At least the Pope affirms the fundamental doctrines of historic Christianity, in light of her early month os statements as Presiding Bishop, Schori doesn't even seem to know them - and seems perfectly happy to harass those who do.

Having said that, like most evangelical Anglicans there is much about the Roman obedience that I find hard to digest and the list can grow so long that it is sometimes hard to know where to begin. Rome's theology of the eucharist is highly suspect, for example, and calls into question the once-for-all efficacy of the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ upon the Cross. Together with this goes a theology of the priesthood that to me would be untenable.

Then there is Rome's theology of authority which raises tradition to an inappropriate level and, I believe, diminishes the place of Scripture as containing all things necessary to salvation. From this over-emphasis upon tradition comes all sorts of no-nos as far as an Anglican is concerned such as Marian devotion and the accretions that have gathered around Mary like, for example, the Immaculate Conception. Add a retinue of saints and the like and all sorts of alarm bells begin to go off.

As uncomfortable as I am with the Episcopal Church's loose and often almost illiterate use of Scripture, and a desire to go beyond it, I am no more happy with Rome's sense of Scripture, which seems to allow for all sorts of add-ons.

I suspect that some of my anxieties are that Anglican distinctives might well get swallowed up in the vastness of the Roman Church, the numerical majority ultimately swamping the minority. But I suppose it could be possible that Anglicanism could act like a healthy virus that starts to positively influence Roman values, beginning a process of re-forming and re-making it. While Roman Christianity could enrich Anglicanism, Anglicanism would certainly challenge Romans, asking some very difficult questions about belief and theology that Rome may not want to address.

At the heart of these concerns is th authority of the Papacy. It is here that the Roman Church most compromises the authority of Scripture and I, for one, have to reject the notion of magesterium that is so focused in that office. The Bishop of Rome might be the "senior bishop" of the Western church, but to me he can never be allowed to be more than that. If I am asked to concede more, then I must politely decline.

Personally, I would much prefer conversations of this kind with the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Moscow than with Rome, although there is certainly a lot of Orthodoxy that makes me an outsider. However, given the mess Anglicanism is in as a result of The Episcopal Church's unfaithfulness, the issue of relationships between ecclesial bodies becomes relevant in a new way.

Continued division and bad blood are counterproductive to the Gospel in today's world, but we cannot afford to sacrifice doctrinal clarity for unity. Somehow or other Christians must learn to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with each other as we face today's challenges.


Anonymous said...

Rome DOES have a point. Sola Scriptura has its problems, as 100's of denominations can testify to.

ruthgledhill said...

Thank you for this article. Can I also urge people to read the entire document for themselves
One of the most pertinent paragraphs on which I based my story was this:

114. We urge Anglicans and Roman Catholics to explore together how the ministry of the Bishop of Rome might be offered and received in order to assist our Communions to grow towards full, ecclesial communion.

Given the theology of reception, ie women priests, Catholic reception, I find that par pretty unambiguous and nothing like that was in any of the Arcic documents, although Gift of Authority came close.

I've also done a post on it on my own blog.

Richard Kew said...

Thank you so much for your comments, Ruth, I am glad to know where to get hold of the statement