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In January 2014 the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, celebrated Christian Unity week by labelling the work of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) “irrelevant to the ordinary Christian”. He argued that the 45 year-old dialogue should be abandoned in favour of small, local collaborations between Anglicans and Catholics.
Ever one to stoke a fire, Lord Carey nevertheless reflected what seems a growing opinion and, indeed, reality: that the theological problems between Anglicans and Catholics are now intractable, so energy should instead be put into working together on social issues at a global and local level. While we cannot agree about women priests, we can open a food bank together.
This apprehension is reinforced by the change of personalities at the head of the two communions: the theologians Pope Benedict and Rowan Williams have been replaced by leaders whose overarching concern is social, for issues of justice and reconciliation. Accordingly, the visit to Rome by Archbishop Welby this Sunday and Monday will have, at its focus, the shared initiative on human trafficking and slavery, raised a year ago at his first meeting with Pope Francis, and formally launched in March this year with messages of support from both Pope and Archbishop.
Yet any shift in emphasis has to be understood within a broader context of the ecumenical situation. The Catholic partners in dialogue are mindful of the warning given by Pope Benedict in 2012 against reducing ecumenism “to a kind of social contract to be joined for a common interest, a praxeology for creating a better world.” The theology, no matter how difficult, has to be done. But theological dialogue has never been seen as an end in itself, an intellectual endeavour apart from real life. It is an axiom of ecumenical dialogue, going back to the origins of the ecumenical movement, that acting more like Christ together draws Christians together in belief. Archbishop Justin underlined this in his message at the launch of the human trafficking initiative: “The more we share the pain and oppression of the poor and suffering in the name of God, the more God will draw us closer to each other, because we will need each other’s strength and support to make the kind of difference that is needed.” This understanding is reflected in the latest phase of ARCIC – ARCIC III – which is seeking to find the common theological sources of our ethical decisions, bringing together the fields of theological understanding and shared social activity.
In addition, ARCIC III has shown itself ready to complement its own discussions with the experience of local ecumenical projects. During his visit to Rome, Archbishop Justin will launch the website of the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission (IARCCUM), a resource aimed at making the documents of ARCIC better known, and at disseminating examples of local mutual cooperation.
The heady enthusiasm of earlier decades has subsided, but a realistic assessment of the problems facing ecumenical relations is also, in the words of the former head of the Vatican’s ecumenism office, Cardinal Walter Kasper, a sign of a “new maturity”. Shared social activity does not shortcut the theological dialogue; rather, it can help it to be appreciated in a new way, and by a new generation.
Mgr Mark Langham is Catholic chaplain to the University of Cambridge and was previously co-secretary to ARCIC III