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ARCIC III, Walking Together on the Way: Learning to Be the Church—Local, Regional, Universal

By John Bauerschmidt

Bishop Bauerschmidt serves as one of the paired bishops of the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity and Mission (IARCCUM), which exists in part to promote the work of ARCIC.

The official bilateral theological dialogue between the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church traces its origins to the historic 1966 visit of Archbishop Michael Ramsey to Pope Paul VI in Rome, which led to the establishment of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC).

This has been a fruitful dialogue. ARCIC’s first two rounds of discussion, from 1981 to 2005, generated a number of “Agreed Statements.” Those of ARCIC II largely explore the theological understanding of the church as “communion,” or koinonia. ARCIC statements have followed a common pattern of determining areas of agreement, and identifying possible issues for resolution. The statements possess only the authority of the commission, with study and evaluation by the churches to follow.

In their 2006 Common Declaration, Pope Benedict XVI and Archbishop Rowan Williams celebrated what had been achieved, but also acknowledged that “new developments” had strained the unity of the Anglican Communion and also presented “serious obstacles” to ecumenical progress. The two leaders committed to continued dialogue toward “full visible communion in the truth and love of Christ” as well as to engagement in “the emerging ecclesiological and ethical factors making that journey more difficult and arduous.” ARCIC III was charged with examining “the Church as Communion, local and universal, and how in communion the local and universal Church come to discern right ethical teaching.”

ARCIC III began its work in 2011, and by 2017 had completed its initial Agreed Statement, Walking Together on the Way: Learning to Be the Church—Local, Regional, Universal (WTW), which was published in 2018. The dialogue initially envisaged a single document to engage both ecclesiological and ethical issues, but by its 2014 meeting had decided to concentrate on ecclesiology first. This was seen as the necessary groundwork for the second, ethical, part of its charge (WTW, 14). ARCIC III also broadened its approach to include consideration not only of the local and universal but also of an intermediate regional level. A further Agreed Statement on the church and moral discernment still remains on the agenda of ARCIC III.

WTW is a distinctive Agreed Statement. It acknowledges both continuity and development in its method. Previous ARCICs looked to overcome obstacles to unity by starting with a common shared past; ARCIC III now builds upon this by seeing differences as “gifts that can be gratefully received,” developing language used in the Common Declaration of Archbishop Robert Runcie and Pope John Paul II, as well as John Paul II’s own ecumenical encyclical, Ut Unum Sint (15). The initial meeting of ARCIC III took up the methodology of “receptive ecumenism,” the essential principle of which WTW defines as the recognition that “the current moment requires primary emphasis to be placed on what one’s own tradition needs to learn from the partner, rather than the other way around” (18).

ARCIC III is convinced that, just as a return to the sources of tradition in Scripture, liturgy, and the Patristic and Scholastic periods (ressourcement) has been renewing both Anglican and Roman Catholic theology since the middle of the last century, so critical self-examination through the prism of ecumenical dialogue and receptive learning can deepen the renewal and participation of the Church in the Trinitarian communion of God (19).

In this emphasis on receptive ecumenism, ARCIC III was no doubt well served in the presence of its member Dr. Paul Murray, a distinguished Roman Catholic advocate for receptive ecumenism.

From this methodological embrace of receptive ecumenism comes WTW’s most distinctive feature: rather than a single text throughout, at key points, particularly in the final sections, it presents side by side analysis of ecclesial structures and the challenges they present from Anglican and Roman Catholic perspectives. This is intended as an aid to self-critique and to receptive learning (Preface).

After an Introduction, WTW continues with a section (II, 22-45) containing a reflection on the biblical roots of the understanding of the church, understood as a local, “trans-local” and universal reality (29). It then continues with a section (III, 46-79) that explores ecclesial communion itself, beginning with the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist. ARCIC II’s theology of the church as communion is summarized here. Both traditions possess and recognize the need for “instruments of catholicity,” that serve both unity and legitimate diversity (56). Similarities and differences are acknowledged: for Catholics, the question of priority between the local and the universal (67); for Anglicans, the challenges of a worldwide communion and the issues raised over provincial autonomy by the proposed Anglican Covenant (70).

The third section also contains a section on baptismal identity, using the theme of the “the threefold office and mission of Christ as prophet, priest, and king,” and the active participation of the faithful in that threefold office (52). This is noteworthy as it seems to be the first appearance of Christ’s threefold office in an ARCIC Statement. A footnote identifies the roots of the theme in patristic, scholastic, and modern writers, also citing their mention in Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium (1964) and the World Council of Churches’ document The Church: Towards a Common Vision (2013).

It’s in the final three sections that the distinctive methodology of WTW is most clearly on display. Three levels are explored: the local level (IV, 80-103); the regional level (V, 104-122); and the worldwide/universal level (VI, 123-149). At each level, there are “instruments of communion” that serve for connection (82, 104, 125). For both churches, “local” includes the parish, diocese and bishop (82). “Regional” (a first instance of the “trans-local”) includes the provincial churches of Anglicanism and the episcopal conferences of Roman Catholicism, as well as voluntary societies and religious orders in both traditions (105). The “worldwide/universal” level includes the Anglican “instruments of communion” and international congresses, as well as for Roman Catholics the papacy, general councils, and synods of bishops.

At each level, the differences between the traditions are apparent and the methodology of the statement reveals them. Is the role of the laity simply consultative or also deliberative (83)? At the regional level, there is asymmetry between the traditions, with Anglicans placing greater “ecclesiological significance” on the provincial church, while this level is fairly underdeveloped in Roman Catholicism (108). At the worldwide/universal level, the earlier mentioned asymmetry leads to difference in the character of decisions made at this level, which in Anglicanism must be received and implemented by the provincial churches (126).

There are tensions between and within the two traditions (154); but to emphasize these would be to miss the contribution that WTW wishes to make. The emphasis is on identifying gifts that may be received by the other; on self-critique and reform within each tradition; on journeying together as a support to the other in the face of challenges (Preface). This final note is highlighted in WTW by reference to the October 2016 Common Declaration of Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby. “We have become partners and companions on our pilgrim journey, facing the same difficulties and strengthening each other by learning to value the gifts which God has given to the other, and to receive them as our own in humility and gratitude.”

This is a valuable and timely document, especially for Anglicans. More acutely for ARCIC III, engagement in the next part of its charge, how in communion the local and universal church discern right ethical teaching, will further illustrate fault lines within the Anglican Communion itself. These fault lines concern not only the presenting ethical issues but also the understanding of how local, regional, and worldwide levels of the church are related. The methodology of receptive ecumenism may require more than two parallel columns, as different Anglicans are challenged to receive gifts even from each other.

The Rt. Rev. Dr. John Bauerschmidt is the 11th Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee


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