In his 2009 address at the Willebrands Symposium in Rome, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, confronts the widespread impression that ecumenical dialogue —particularly that between the Churches of Rome and England — has stalled, gone stale, or even reached a dead end. He expresses sincere hope that this is not the case, and emphasizes the “strong convergence” in the ARCIC documents so far on matters of fundamental ecclesiology, “about what the Church of God really is.” He praises the movement of the Second Vatican Council from the conception of the Catholic Church as the societas perfecta — that is, primarily as an institution, for which change was neither possible nor desirable — to what he terms “a genuinely theological doctrine of the Church” as a Spirit-guided community of the baptized.
But where are the next steps now after such carefully-achieved agreement on a range of important and fundamental theological conceptualizations? The focus seems to have shifted to those matters which seem insurmountable obstacles to unity. The primacy of the Roman Bishop, the ordination of female persons, the autonomy of local churches in communion with the universal church — Archbishop Williams is relentless in pressing the question on point after point: is this truly an essential element to the understanding of what the Church is? And if not, why should it remain a Church-dividing issue? Such questions are an unambiguous challenge to the Roman Catholic Church to re-evaluate its firm stance: a challenge to discern carefully and courageously what are really and truly essential elements of the Christian Faith.
Roman Catholics as a rule are very leery of any attempt to ‘bottom line’ the faith, of reducing it to a fundamental common ground, which is what often happens in ecumenical dialogue. They feel the Church, as they know it and embrace it, is an all or nothing affair: there is no room to negotiate, and nothing needs to — or even can — change.
If the true Church of Christ already subsists in the Church of Rome, then what incentive is there to change anything about the Church as it is? There is, in practice, clearly a strong disincentive to do so, and this is evident throughout church history, as well as in the current conversations.
Here in the early years of the third millennium of Christianity, the Christian Churches which have been so divided for so long have made great efforts to begin to approach each other once more, to dare to hope that some at least of the differences of praxis and theory which have splintered the Church might be reconciled. The Catholic Church came late to this movement, of course, and even though the Second Vatican Council swept away the official resistance to ecumenical efforts and made clear the Spirit-led imperative of the Church and all its members to work earnestly for a restoration of Christian unity, there are still many barriers within Catholicism to a true openness to much beyond mere civility toward the ‘separated brethren.’ While much theologically fruitful conversation has taken place, agreements on paper between select groups of respected theologians will not heal the torn body of Christianity. To truly move forward, as Williams is not the first to assert, some more concrete steps — canonical and institutional steps — need to be taken.
Pointing to the present model of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop Williams goes so far as to suggest it as an model for wider ecclesial communion, despite what he acknowledges as “the crises and controversies of recent years” within the Anglican Communion itself, crises which from the outside make that communion seem very fragile indeed, hanging on by the merest thread. He highlights the eschewal of a “centralised decision-making executive” in favor of a “community of communities” which allows for independence of Spirit-led diversity while somehow helping to sustain “a mutually nourishing and mutually critical life” in all the churches concerned.
It is interesting that Williams sees in the provisions of Anglicanorum Coetibus some degree of “recognition that diversity of ethos does not in itself compromise the unity of the Catholic Church” in the view of the Roman central authority. In my limited experience this is not the prevailing view, and given the minor exodus of hardline bishops in recent months in response to the proposals of AC becoming reality, it is somewhat hard to believe that Williams himself can really believe that either. But all cynicism aside, if it is not true, it should be. Rome should welcome, invite, and embrace a broadening diversity of living expressions of the response of baptized communities to the Gospel.
But if the Church does expand its vision to move from ‘differentiated consensus’ to some sort of ‘differentiated communion’ as Williams suggests, how would the union in that communion be defined and maintained? What, as Williams puts it, would be the “criteria [that] help us establish that the same Catholic life is going on in diverse communities” in such an arrangement? The obvious response (from the Roman Catholic perspective, at least) is that some sort of primacy is required to link all the churches into one Church.
But what sort? In these sort of questions, there seems to remain a degree of theologizing still to be done. But the stage is being reached where other experts, including canonists, are required to step in and begin to explore and discern how such vaporous conceptions for desired realities might be made concrete solutions for the tangible future. But the canonists and others are going to need to be given the license to be creative in following the guidance of the Spirit in discerning the way forward for the Church — for all the Christian churches — and such creative license would be a truly revolutionary situation in the canonical discipline, and in the life of the Church, requiring a nearly unprecedented degree of faith and institutional humility, along with true openness to whatever the Spirit of God might call us to.
Archbishop Williams raises many questions which do not seem to have answers at this time in the ecumenical dialogue. But in reflecting on his words, I am most struck by a question he does not ask: what is the Catholic Church so afraid of in this scenario? The Church has, since the Protestant Reformation if not far longer, held to a tenaciously conservative line on almost all matters of what we call the ‘deposit of faith’ and seem to have (with the notable exception of the Second vatican Council) avoiding any uncomfortable admission of doctrinal development for century after century, even as all the world has changed around the Church.
This is not to suggest that the Church established by Christ should be blown this way and that by every whim of history. But the attitude of the Magisterium seems firmly to be one of conservancy, keeping safe and undefiled a fixed way of being, doing, and living. But keeping it safe against what: the Final Day? Is there a deep-rooted apocalyptic dread that ultimately motivates such a institutional fixity, holding tight to the rudder of the bark of Peter, certain that the eschaton is just over the horizon? I hope not, for that would seem to me to be an abdication of the baptismal responsibility of the Church, as individuals and as a corporate body of believers, to transform human society into an ever-closer approximation of the Kingdom of God, not by walling off what has been deemed the true way, but by being salt and light throughout the life of the world.