Sunday, November 22, 2009

What's at Stake in Anglican and Roman Catholic Unity Discussions

Archbishop Rowan William's address at the Willebrand's Symposium underlines striking and worrying concerns regarding recent movements of some conservatives in the Anglican communion toward Rome. The Anglican church seems embattled on both right and the left. On the left, discussions about ordination of practicing homosexual bishops, women bishops, and homosexual "marriage" threaten to pull the church into the left side of the abyss. But on the right, there is an equally dangerous peril--conservative wings of the communion offered 'a home' in the Roman Catholic Church.

Why would conservative movement to Rome be as "equally dangerous a peril" as the church drifting leftward into liberal positions on women's ordination, homosexuality, and marriage? In short, both positions lose their grip on the gospel. On the one hand, there is an obvious abandonment of the gospel in favor of unbiblical sexual ethics and church order clearly contrary to Scripture. On the other hand, there is what should be seen as the obvious abandonment of the gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, apart from any works.

Let me offer an example of the latter from the opening of the Archbishop's address at Willebrand. Williams references discussions the Roman Catholic Church has had since Vatican II with various other churches and what he sees as the legacy of those discussions "justly and happily celebrated" in the day's events. He writes:
The strong convergence in these agreements about what the Church of God really is, is very striking. The various agreed statements of the churches stress that the Church is a community, in which human beings are made sons and daughters of God, and reconciled both with God and one another. The Church celebrates this through the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion in which God acts upon us to transform us 'in communion'. More detailed questions about ordained ministry and other issues have been framed in this context.

That's a really interesting summary definition of the Church, and an ominous omission of what, in fact, creates the Church. Is she not constituted by those in saving relationship and union with Christ? And, precisely, how is that salvation and union wrought? The Archbishop's statement suggests--by what it does not say as much as by what it does say--that the Church is created by the sacraments "in which God acts upon us to transform us 'in communion'." Hmmm.... That's mighty slippery language that completely blanks the cross.

One might read these comments are "loose" statements, not meant as precise or clarifying comments, the way people might talk at the barbershop or their kids' soccer match. But this is not a barber shop or soccer match, and Archbishop Williams is no armchair theologian speaking loosely. What he considers important he states more clearly in the following paragraphs:

Therefore the major question that remains is whether in the light of that depth of agreement the issues that still divide us have the same weight – issues about authority in the Church, about primacy (especially the unique position of the pope), and the relations between the local churches and the universal church in making decisions (about matters like the ordination of women, for instance). Are they theological questions in the same sense as the bigger issues on which there is already clear agreement? And if they are, how exactly is it that they make a difference to our basic understanding of salvation and communion? But if they are not, why do they still stand in the way of fuller visible unity? Can there, for example, be a model of unity as a communion of churches which have different attitudes to how the papal primacy is expressed?

The central question is whether and how we can properly tell the difference between 'second order' and 'first order' issues. When so very much agreement has been firmly established in first-order matters about the identity and mission of the Church, is it really justifiable to treat other issues as equally vital for its health and integrity?"

It's staggering to think that the head of the Anglican communion could relegate the matter of authority to secondary importance, questioning whether it's even a "theological" issue in the same sense as "the bigger issues" already agreed on; namely, that "the Church" is "transformed in communion" by the sacraments. Really. The sacraments are more important theological issues than the cross, justification, grace and faith, authority, papal primacy, and so on? The sacraments are first order issues, while justification is second order?

One suspects that if that's the case it's because a comprise agreement has already been reached by some, and it's agreement itself that establishes order. Wherever there can be agreement, there must then be a first order issue. If there is no agreement, then obviously it's second order.

It's not difficult to tell that if Williams' definition of first and second order issues prevails, the Roman Catholic Church's definition of the Church and justification have already carried the day. Apparently Williams believes that treating justification as equal in importance is... well... not justified.

The Archbishop is serious about visible and institutional unity. He thinks there are some trends that might adjust ecumenical conversations downward, but the goal of visible, institutional unity remains. It would seem that the repeated casualty in historical and contemporary ecumenical discussions is the gospel itself. The one giant opposing issue unresolved in these discussions, side-stepped with sophisticated theological chatter and noise, is the gospel. It is marvelous that the central message of the faith is the central point of disagreement among those who value community.

But we're not surprised because those who champion "community" the loudest are often those who demonstrate little love for "the truth." If truth creates community, the tent of unity appears smaller but the stakes are driven deeper into the bedrock of God's salvation. Where community "creates" truth, the tent seems larger but it floats aloft in the winds of compromise and novelty.

Take, for example, Williams' meditation on the limits of ecumenical unity imposed by the issue of papal primacy. How do you establish institutional or visible unity where one communion maintains centralized and juridical papal primacy and another does not? Williams argues that we should take a:
look back to Cardinal Willebrands' celebrated sermon in Cambridge in 1970 which spoke (using the language of Dom Emmanuel Lanne) of a diversity of types of communion, each one defined not so much juridically or institutionally as in terms of lasting loyalty, shared theological method and devotional ethos. The underlying idea seems to be that a restored universal communion would be genuinely a 'community of communities' and a 'communion of communions' – not necessarily a single juridically united body – and therefore one which did indeed assume that, while there was a recognition of a primatial ministry, this was not absolutely bound to a view of primacy as a centralized juridical office.

Again, the emphasis on community espoused here rests upon "lasting loyalty, shared theological method and devotional ethos," not the truth of the gospel, the faith once and for all delivered unto the saints. A "community of communities and a communion of communions" somehow magically allow centralized papal authority to happily co-exist with other polities and views of authority. If that were ever possible, we might expect that the reformation would never have happened to begin with.

Williams alludes to doubts of his own, though they're not grave enough for the Archbishop to oppose the drift of conservatives in his communion toward Rome and the Apostolic Constitution under which conservative Anglicans may be welcomed into Roman arms. Williams writes:
The recent announcement of an Apostolic Constitution making provision for former Anglicans shows some marks of the recognition that diversity of ethos does not in itself compromise the unity of the Catholic Church, even within the bounds of the historic Western patriarchate. But it should be obvious that it does not seek to do what we have been sketching: it does not build in any formal recognition of existing ministries or units of oversight or methods of independent decision-making, but remains at the level of spiritual and liturgical culture, as we might say. As such, it is an imaginative pastoral response to the needs of some; but it does not break any fresh ecclesiological ground. It remains to be seen whether the flexibility suggested in the Constitution might ever lead to something less like a 'chaplaincy' and more like a church gathered around a bishop.

Williams' statement reads like an exercise in voluntary, willful schizophrenia. If the Constitution doesn't grant to the "community of communities" parallel methods of oversight and decision making but little more than autonomy in "spiritual and liturgical culture" and something like a chaplaincy for those moving to Rome, why as the leader of the communion would you support it?

For its part, Rome doesn't seem to yield one square inch of theological turf. And, honestly, I can't blame her. If she believes she holds the truth, why abandon it for a yarn as fuzzy as "community of communities"? The RCC leadership demonstrates more integrity with its theological positions than Anglican leadership does with her own, whether within or outside Anglican communion. For example, ordination of women is an open question for Anglican communions doing theology along the lines of Williams' understanding of the church and authority. But that's not an open question for Rome, and the Roman Catholic Church's steadfastness threatens Williams' vision for unity. He writes:
To take the most obvious instance in the relations between the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches at present, the local decision to ordain women as priests – and as bishops in some contexts – is presented by Roman Catholic theologians as one that in effect makes the Anglican Communion simply less recognisably a body 'doing the same Catholic thing'.

Here, I say, "Three cheers for Rome!" While perhaps not popular, I'd say it's better for conservative Anglicans to bite the bullet and embrace Rome wholeheartedly than to remain an ostensible part of the "Protestant" fold in a communion abandoning biblical authority and the gospel that saves. The more you look at some quarters of the Anglican church, the more one has to agree that it's not "doing the same Catholic thing." It's doing something completely different than biblical Christianity. At least those moving to Rome would move to a communion where clarity holds and keeps the main issues the main issues.

In his conclusion, Williams makes my point:
Once again, I am asking how far continuing disunion and non-recognition are justified, theologically justified in the context of the overall ecclesial vision, when there are signs that some degree of diversity in practice need not, after all, prescribe an indefinite separation. I do not pretend to be offering a new paradigm of ecumenical encounter, far from it. ... At what point do we have to recognise that surviving institutional and even canonical separations or incompatibilities are overtaken by the authoritative direction of genuinely theological consensus, so that they can survive only by appealing to the ghost of ecclesiological positivism?

What exactly is "the authoritative direction of genuinely theological consensus"? Is that what happens when you get enough people simply agreeing to a position, a kind of democratically-determined sanity and truth? If so, that'll never do.

Williams goes on to state:
All I have been attempting to say here is that the ecumenical glass is genuinely half-full – and then to ask about the character of the unfinished business between us. For many of us who are not Roman Catholics, the question we want to put, in a grateful and fraternal spirit, is whether this unfinished business is as fundamentally church-dividing as our Roman Catholic friends generally assume and maintain.

It would seem that among all those who believe in truth and that truth is not determined by consensus, yes, the business of Protestant-Catholic unity is unfinished and church-dividing. Until we all hold the same gospel, there can be no deep, lasting or real unity. For it is the message that saves and the Savior of that message that creates the Church of His calling. Everyone in the "community of communities" had better make sure they know this message and this Savior. We don't get a vote or a community caucus on judgment day. Those who do not love the truth perish while those who obey the gospel of our Lord enter life (2 Thessalonians).

What do you say: Is the Anglican-Roman Catholic discussion of unity helpful? Is union possible?

Related Posts:
Are Protestants Still Protesting?
So, Again, What Is an Evangelical?

1 comment:

Paul said...

In my opinion the Roman Catholic church is embattled but will survive as it has big black lines of do and do not that some people find appealing. The Church of England however, increasingly has no lines whatsoever, and nobody really finds that appealing. The evangelical wing will slowly secede and the left and right will disappear in the Richard Dawkins Foundation and the Vatican respectively. You heard it here first... ;-)