Anglican anxiety, Catholic prayer

By  Fr. Damian Macpherson, SA, Catholic Register Special
  • May 11, 2007

{mosimage}The recent visit to Canada of the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, to meet with the Anglican bishops across the country was an effort to counsel the bishops on preserving the unity of the communion.


It is fair to suggest that the whole world is holding its breath awaiting the outcome of the unresolved issues facing the Anglican Communion. There is mounting tension and anxiety afoot. This institution stands on a dangerous and an uncertain precipice.

A yes or no answer to the steaming issues of, for example, the blessing of same-sex marriage or the full inclusion of active homosexuals into the highest ranks of ministry within the communion or the ordination of women bishops within the Church of England will sadden the hearts of some and gladden the spirits of others. In whatever direction the communion turns it will at one and the same time leave large segments of people feeling alienated and betrayed.

While either of these choices, made in the affirmative, would place great strain on our future ecumenical co-operation, of the three issues, the latter will certainly have the most devastating affects. In a bracing speech to the Church of England’s House of Bishops, Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, is on record as saying that if the Church of England adopted a resolution to ordain women to the office of bishop, the shared partaking of the one Lord’s table, which we long for so earnestly, would disappear into the far and ultimately unreachable distance. Instead of moving toward one another, we would simply co-exist alongside each other, he said.

Anglicans are a part of the body of Christ and when one part of the body suffers so does the whole. When the late archbishop of Canterbury visited the late Pope Paul VI in Rome in 1966 the pope referred to the Anglican Church as our beloved sister church. Clarification of the use of this term was latter offered by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith to mean that sister churches are expressly particular or local churches. The clarification noted that it must always be clear when the expression of “sister churches” is used in this proper sense that the one, holy, catholic and apostolic universal church is not sister but mother of all the particular churches. The particular Church of Rome can be a sister church to the particular Church of Canterbury. The Church of St. Michael’s Cathedral is a sister church to the Anglican Church of St. James, both here in Toronto. We have these family ties with local Anglican churches in a way not spoken of between Protestant ecclesial communities. Perhaps too few Catholic parishes realize that in a manner of speaking their neighbouring Anglican community is in fact their sister church.

Clearly, the expression on the part of Pope Paul VI was intended as a genuine gesture of mutual affection and an opening of the way for particular churches to see and uphold their unique relationships as Anglican and Catholic. On the occasion of that same historic visit Pope Paul VI gave Archbishop Michael Ramsey his episcopal ring, worn while he was archbishop of Milan.

The ring continues to be worn by Ramsey’s successors. This highly symbolic and unifying gesture speaks again of the sincerity with which the Roman Catholic Church sought to embrace and endear itself to the entire Anglican Communion.

Since that historic meeting in 1966 and up to the present day, Anglicans and Roman Catholics have been hard at work building and strengthening sisterly bonds. The agreed statement of the Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission, Growing Together in Unity and Mission: Building on 40 years of Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue, gives fitting testimony to the substantial amount of co-operation that has taken place between the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church throughout the past four decades. The same document offers a list of real and effective ways in which local sister churches can work and pray together and for one another.

It would seem that in a time of crises, as is being experienced by the Anglican Communion, Roman Catholics ought not idly stand by, perhaps hedging their bets as to the future choices to be made by the Anglican Communion and how such will affect their sister churches. Precisely because we share a particular ecclesial relationship it is incumbent upon us to minimally pray, privately and publicly, with a deliberate and firm intention that the Holy Spirit will give guidance and provide good governance to the Anglican Communion in this time of pressing need. We must pray that the Holy Spirit will draw Anglicans into a deep theological reflection and careful discernment as they move from the dangerous precipice upon which they stand to a secure place from which the gift of word and sacrament can be mutually shared.

A further split within the Anglican Communion impairs the body of Christ and would jeopardize our present sibling status and in general have consequences deeply felt within Roman Catholicism. If the Anglican Church can remain united we can move forward with a restored sense of hope that we and they will one day sit down at the same table of the Lord who prayed with a spirit of passion to his Father “. . . that all may be one. . . so that the world may believe” (Jn. 17:21).

(Fr. MacPherson is a Franciscan Friar of the Atonement and director for Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs for the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Toronto.)

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