Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of posts reflecting (1) on Covenant’s recent seminar in Rome on Catholic ecclesiology and ecumenism, and (2) fresh approaches to, and promises of, Christian unity in our own time.

During our recent Covenant seminar in Rome to prepare for the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Anglican Centre in Rome, we considered the 2006 Agreed Statement by the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission (IARCCUM), Growing Together in Unity and Mission (GTUM). As part of the anniversary events, 19 pairs of IARCCUM bishops, Anglicans and Catholics from different parts of the world, were set to meet, pray, and gather together in Canterbury and Rome, ultimately receiving at an ecumenical Vespers service the blessing and commission of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope. In this way, the bishops could go forth to share in the mission of the Word and kingdom of God in their respective contexts. We prepared ourselves to witness this hopeful event by thinking about and assessing what IARCCUM has already achieved in GTUM.

The document attempts two things. First, to discern “those doctrinal elements over which there is a readiness in both of our Communions to see in [the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission’s] work a faithful expression of what the Church of Christ teaches,” and to point candidly to “remaining difficulties” on which further work is needed (GTUM, p. 9). Archbishop Bernard Longley, currently the Catholic co-chair of ARCIC, said in a 2007 commentary on GTUM that the document is a step in the process toward preparing a declaration of agreement intended for authoritative reception by the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church.

GTUM attempts, second, “to bridge the gap between the elements of faith we hold in common and the tangible expression of that shared belief in our ecclesial lives” (p. 10). It therefore makes concrete proposals for ways in which Anglicans and Roman Catholics can share at the local level in mission, witness, and prayer. It seeks to give visible shape to the “real though imperfect communion” that already exists between us.

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Holding together these two stated aims is crucial, and is one of the virtues of IARCCUM and GTUM. The work of attaining substantial agreement on essential matters of faith is set in the context of the call of the Body of Christ to proclaim and disclose the coming kingdom of God and to bring all nations to repentance, faith, and discipleship; and yet there is not a naïve expectation that simply working together at soup kitchens will overcome the theological convictions that stand in the way of full, visible communion. Rather, the mission that GTUM proposes for Anglicans and Roman Catholics to share is one that will create a context of mutual charity and hospitality within which we might sort out our disagreements more effectively and thoroughly.

GTUM invites us to joint prayer to the extent that canonical disciplines allow, the kind of joint prayer of which the ecumenical vespers service was the clearest and most hopeful example possible. It promotes joint study in order to deepen the faith we share, commending for special reflection the Agreed Statements of ARCIC. It encourages the common work for the “peace and well-being of the human community” that follows from our shared theological commitments (e.g., the recent shared commitment of Anglicans and Roman Catholics to combat human trafficking as a grave crime against a humanity infinitely ennobled by the Incarnation of our Lord; and joint participation in evangelism to those who have yet to hear and respond to the Gospel).

The proposals for shared mission are not without problems. One wonders, for example, whether Anglicans and Catholics can really engage in joint ventures of evangelism without a sense of competition for “sheep”: if I am a Catholic who believes that the fullness of Christian sacramental communion lies in the Roman Church, then my evangelism might necessarily include a commendation to be received into that sacramentally full fellowship.

But it seems to me that the biggest question facing GTUM, IARCCUM, and ARCIC more generally has to do with the problem of authoritative reception. In his commentary, Longley worries that GTUM is not specific enough in its account of the Eucharist to accord clearly with Catholic doctrine, and suggests that this account would have been strengthened by direct appeal to previous work of ARCIC that affirms, for example, “the propitiatory nature of the Eucharistic sacrifice, which can be applied also to the deceased” (see ARCIC’s 1993 “Clarifications of Certain Aspects of the Agreed Statements on Eucharist and Ministry”).

But one wonders whether all Anglicans would be able to affirm this as “what Anglicans believe” (Dean Pearson’s recent piece on this blog comes to mind). And the bigger question on the Anglican side is whether we have some means of saying, whatever any given Anglican might believe, that such and such doctrine is in fact the teaching of the Anglican Communion. Does Lambeth 1988’s recognition of the statements of the Final Report on Eucharist and Ministry as “consonant in substance with the faith of Anglicans” authorize me to appeal to these documents as authoritative Anglican teaching?

This is a common refrain on the Catholic side of our dialogue. As the official Catholic “Response to the Final Report” put it,

 The quite remarkable progress that has been made in respect of Authority in the Church indicates just how essential this question is for the future of the Roman Catholic-Anglican dialogue. The value of any consensus reached in regard to other matters will to a large extent depend on the authority of the body which eventually endorses them.

It’s not surprising, I might add, that the Catholic response to the proposed Anglican Communion Covenant was overwhelmingly positive. Might I suggest that the IARCCUM bishops include a shared study of that document in their renewed efforts towards unity and mission?

About The Author

Fr. Mac Stewart is studying for a doctorate in historical theology at the Catholic University of America, and serves as assistant priest at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, Maryland.

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To paraphrase Jesus, “A housed divided against itself cannot enter into ecumenical partnerships.” Our Progressive friends would seem to want a “soup kitchen” ecuminism, but that is a thin gruel. Evangelical Anglicans would want some additional clarity on a few theological issues, especially with regards to the relationship between soteriology and ecclesiology. Plus it is not clear that a large portion of this group even *care* about the ecumenical project. Anglo-catholics would seem poised to jump, with the central issues of Eucharistic theology already in line. It is not surprising that the Roman Catholic side of the discussion would note… Read more »