Catholics can learn from Anglicans in giving a greater role to the laity in matters of church governance and more authority to local bishops’ conferences, according to a landmark new document from the official dialogue body of the two Churches.
Anglicans, the text also argues, should focus on setting up structures and processes that safeguard the worldwide identity of its Communion and avoid becoming too focussed on one province.
The recommendations are contained in “Walking Together on the Way: Learning to Be the Church – Local, Regional, Universal”, the first document produced by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (Arcic) in 13 years.
The 68-page report on church governance, published on 2 July, represents a shift in ecumenical dialogue by focussing on how difficulties within the respective communions can be helped by learning from each other.
Rather than blandly clarifying misunderstandings and setting out where the Churches agree, this document argues that after honestly speaking about internal problems new paths for reform within one another’s tradition can be found.
“Laity, religious, and clergy could be given a deliberative vote in Roman Catholic provincial/regional councils on many matters of worship, pastoral outreach, community self-discipline,” the document argues.
On the other hand Anglicans are warned that “too strong an emphasis on local autonomy risks straining important ecclesial bonds at the trans-local level” and risks leading to “insufficient critical distance from the prevailing culture and inadequate attention to the expressions and practice of faith in other parts of the Church”.
Arcic was established in 1966 following the meeting between Pope Paul VI, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, and produced its first document in 1971 on the Eucharist. Its last document on “Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ” was published in 2005.
But that document received a mixed reaction among Anglicans while Arcic was in a period of hiatus after the ordination of Bishop Gene Robinson, an openly gay man in a relationship. While Rome protested over Bishop Robinson, Anglican bishops were upset by the 2009 decision by Benedict XVI to set up “personal ordinariates”, special structures to allow Anglicans to become Catholics.
It was also Benedict XVI, however, who decided to start a new, third round of Arcic discussions which commenced in 2011 and from which the latest document has been produced.
In it the commission admits that the ordination of women, questions of human sexuality and the ordinariates have caused difficulties, but stresses that despite the disagreements “neither the Anglican Communion nor the Roman Catholic Church has deviated from their commitment to the goal of visible unity”.
“The time is ripe to pursue the task of ecumenical engagement as one that includes explicit ecclesial self-critique,” Arcic argues. “It is not enough to recognise that there is something of gift and grace in the other. We must explore what God has given to our partners which, as Pope Francis has said, ‘is also meant to be a gift for us’.”
Among its recommendations the document includes an “enlarged role for authorised lay ministry” in the Catholic Church including the opening of the “ministry of lector for women”. The role of lector allows someone to read the Scripture at Mass and while women frequently do this in practice, this change would give them an official ministry. It also urges the Catholic Church to give more authority to the Synod of Bishops, which is in keeping with Francis’ emphasis on this body as a form of governance.
For Anglicans, Arcic encourages them to avoid becoming overly focussed on individual provinces, and also warns that the “parliamentary procedures” at a General Synod can “sometimes obscure the teaching authority of the college of bishops”.
While the text is not an "authoritative declaration” by either Church, its fresh approach is likely to be closely examined by both denominations and is in keeping with the vision of both the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby for Christians to find creative ways to work more closely together.
On the Catholic side Arcic III is led by the Archbishop of Birmingham, Bernard Longley, and on the Anglican side by New Zealand Archbishop David Moxon, who last year ended his term as the Archbishop of Canterbury's Representative to the Holy See and Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome.
Arcic III's next round of discussion will focus on how to discern right ethical teaching.