Peripheral Issues

This week, in an uncharacteristically bold move, the Archbishop of Canterbury declared the pope peripheral. He didn’t say it in so many words – he’s a theologian after all – but it was perfectly clear to anyone reading between the theological lines. Only a few weeks after standing beside his Roman opposite number in England, the Archbishop of Westminster, to announce a new Roman initiative that would allow the pope to take on the most troublesome members of the Church of England (and good luck to them!), he went to Rome to ask, “Who needs the pope anyway?”

Now, Archbishop Williams knows perfectly well that the pope is not ready to renounce on short notice authority acquired over many centuries. Why then suggest it? Perhaps the Archbishop was speaking in Rome to lay out a principle more immediately applicable to the divisions in the Anglican Communion. The Archbishop cited a Lutheran/Roman Catholic agreement of 1972 “that the question of altar fellowship and of mutual recognition of ministerial offices should not be unconditionally dependent on a consensus on the question of primacy.” In other words, (theologians need other words!) we don’t need to agree about the pope in order to be in communion. He spoke of “Cardinal Willebrands’ celebrated sermon in Cambridge in 1970 which spoke . . . 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.” It’s a complicated (theological!) way of saying that being in communion need not depend on the pope if there is “lasting loyalty, shared theological method and devotional ethos.”

“The underlying idea” said the Archbishop, “ 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.” Translating the theological jargon again: The papacy is peripheral.

And doesn’t this apply much more immediately to the relationship between the Anglican bishops of West and Central Africa and those of America? Yes, we disagree about sexual matters, but do these supersede “lasting loyalty, shared theological method and devotional ethos.” Do these differences destroy any possibility of communion? Is sexuality not peripheral also to the central nature and mission of the church?

“I am asking,” said the Archbishop, “how far continuing disunion and non-recognition are justified, theologically justified in the context of the overall ecclesial vision.”

Yes, indeed, How far can continuing disunion and non-recognition be justified if we have our priorities straight? Not far at all. Anglicans who announce themselves as being out of communion with the wider church need to ask themselves how to justify their position. The Archbishop has suggested an answer.

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