Icon (Close Menu)

Incompatible ecumenism? Dialogues on communion, ordination, and primacy

The same year that the International Anglican–Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission produced Growing Together in Unity and Mission (hereafter, GTUM), the International Commission for Anglican–Orthodox Theological Dialogue published the Cyprus Agreed Statement, The Church of the Triune God (hereafter, CTG). This statement represents the fruits of the third phase of a dialogue between Anglicans and Orthodox that began in 1973, and its particular task was “to consider the doctrine of the Church in the light of the doctrine of the Trinity, and to examine the doctrine of the ordained ministry of the Church” (Introduction).

This is a rich document, well worth careful study. Since I have spent some time thinking recently about Anglican and Roman Catholic ecclesiology in Rome with my Covenant brethren, including a consideration of GTUM, I want to identify a few places in CTG that helpfully reinforce and expand much of what we find in GTUM, as well as a few places that are possibly in tension with GTUM when held up for comparison.


Church as communion

There is substantial convergence between GTUM and CTG on the centrality of koinonia (“communion” or “fellowship”) in our picture of the Church. Both affirm, by appeal to 1 John 1, that in the communion of the Church we share in the divine life, and that the Church is a foretaste of the perfect eschatological communion with God and one another promised to the faithful in Scripture. The Anglican Communion’s proposed Covenant similarly opens with a quotation and exposition of 1 John 1:2-4; the Covenant’s first paragraph of the draws heavily on CTG and even quotes it directly.

Both GTUM and CTG (and by extension, I think, the Covenant) are careful to avoid veering into the territory of “social trinitarianism” in order to express this communion. One problem with social trinitarianism is that it tends to treat the simultaneous oneness and threeness of God as the model of unity amid differentiation to be copied in human (and ecclesial) relations. GTUM provides the resources to avoid this by defining koinonia, not as a reflection on the human level of a harmonious community seen in God, but rather as union with God in Christ through the Spirit: “The Son of God has taken to himself our human nature, and he has sent upon us his Spirit, who makes us so truly members of the body of Christ that we too are able to call God ‘Abba, Father’” (GTUM 15).

This definition helps remind us that being adopted into the divine life does not mean standing at the center of a “three person dance” that is always circulating around us, but rather being securely held by God the Holy Spirit in the same intimate filial relation with God the Father that God the Son eternally enjoys. It is the Holy Spirit who makes each Christian a “little Christ” in his or her own peculiar way; and the Holy Spirit is the one who binds together as one organism all of the diverse members whom Christ has grafted into his body. The Holy Spirit, then, is properly the principle of both differentiation and unity in the Body of Christ, not the Trinity. “For through him [i.e., Christ] both of us [i.e., Jews and Gentiles] have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2.18).

CTG similarly grounds its picture of koinonia in these biblical terms, but it also wants to affirm very strongly (and predictably, given historic debates between East and West) the absolute irreducibility of the hypostatic realities; but this is not tritheism (another danger of the “social trinity” picture) because “the person is not a part of some whole, but the place where the wholeness of nature is real and concrete” (CTG I.4).


Personal primacy

This is where we begin to see some important divergences in emphasis between the two documents, and we should ask whether they can be held together without contradiction. CTG builds on this “personalist” emphasis in its Trinitarian theology to a personalist account of the Church and, in particular, of primacy in the Church. It worries that prioritizing substance over person in theology lends itself to the same priority in ecclesiology. In this case, “universal laws would be imposed upon particular personal beings, and the Church would be a totalitarian authority over the person.” But because “the universal Church exists only as a communion of local churches,” “Orthodox and Anglicans agree in rejecting a single centralized authority in the Church” (I.25).

In contrast, GTUM is very positive about the ministry of primacy, claiming that the communion of the Church requires this ministry “at every level of the Church’s life as a visible link and focus of its communion” (GTUM 70). This includes an openness to a ministry of universal primacy, “which would be exercised by the Bishop of Rome, as a sign and focus of unity within a re-united Church” (71).

These may seem at first glance to be in tension with one another, but I think this tension is superficial. It depends on what CTG means by “single centralized authority.” CTG is obviously not opposed to the idea of primacy (both Anglicans and Orthodox have primatial ministries). It wants only to qualify the nature of primacy by way of its established personalist terms. By assigning all causality in the Godhead to the Person of the Father (and not allowing for a shared procession from Father and Son together), it indicates that the Church should similarly conceive and practice all authority and primacy in personal, relational terms rather than by impersonal, bureaucratic laws (I.26). GTUM, leaning as it does so heavily on the communion ecclesiology of Lumen Gentium, similarly situates its understanding of primacy in relational terms: “the ministry of oversight (episcope) serves the koinonia, and … a ministry of primacy is a visible link and focus of koinonia” (GTUM 19).

The real questions that CTG might pose to Roman Catholic ecclesiology are also questions that emerge within GTUM itself: both Anglicans and Orthodox are apprehensive that the “irreformable of themselves” claim in Pastor Aeternus for ex cathedra papal pronouncements inherently overrides the crucial place of conciliar reception in the Church’s authoritative teaching: “[Anglicans] hold that doctrine, however proposed or defined, must be received by the body of believers to whom it is addressed as consonant with Scripture and Tradition” (GTUM 76). “Reception cannot be imposed by authority, since the authority of truth is recognized in and through communion” (CTG IX.12).

And yet CTG also shows awareness that universal communion will require “a ministry of universal reception,” that “this ministry should be episcopal in nature,” and even that “this ministry should be sought in the Bishop of Rome” (CTG IX.12.iv). It does, however, carefully qualify this concession with certain conditions that would “ensure that universal catholicity does not ignore the catholicity of the local church” as the place where the wholeness of the Church is real and concrete.


Indelible mark?

One other issue on which it may at first appear difficult to square the accounts of GTUM and CTG is the nature of ordained ministry. CTG asserts quite plainly,

Bishops and presbyters do not possess an indelible mark as if ordination were a magical seal granting them personal power to celebrate the Eucharist or any other liturgical action, apart from the ecclesial body. (VI.22)

The concern here is with a doctrine that “absolutizes priesthood and isolates it from the community of the Church,” rather than seeing it as “a permanent order of service only in union with the Church and by its discerning authority.” CTG concedes that the sacramental act conferring order is unrepeatable, but it is also clear that the ecclesial graces so conferred can only be realized insofar as communion with the Church is preserved: an excommunicated priest retains no autonomous sacramental power over and above the Church itself. Priesthood should be conceived not in “ontological” or “functional” terms, but “as a relational reality” (VI.25).

This may seem incongruous with the standard Roman Catholic picture of the priesthood, which emphasizes the conferral of a sacramental “character” in priestly ordination. But GTUM is cautious enough, I think, that explicit contradiction with CTG is avoided. It affirms, for example, that the conferral of orders takes place properly within the context of the Eucharist, since “ministry is in and for the community and … ordination is an act in which the whole Church of God is involved” (GTUM 53).

It also makes it clear that the traditional sacramental “character” language is grounded in the “particular sacramental configuration with Christ” that is manifested in the priestly ministry when the priest celebrates the Eucharist (GTUM 57). But CTG says this too: “In taking bread and wine … the priest is configured to Christ at the Last Supper” (VI.19).

The difference here is one of emphasis. CTG rightly emphasizes the embeddedness of the priesthood within the Church, the sense that the ministry is for the Church: “priesthood cannot exist apart from the community. It is not an authority or a power above the community, nor a function or office parallel to or outside it” (VI.20). GTUM emphasizes, on the other hand, that the ministry is not simply an office of congregational representation, but rather a divinely appointed service that exists for the sake of the Church in a specific way, namely, to preserve it in the catholic and apostolic faith. This is what it means when it says, “The priesthood of the ordained ministry cannot be derived from the congregation” (GTUM, 58).


Mutually complementary

This is by no means an exhaustive treatment of these two very fertile ecumenical texts. The few areas I have identified are just points that were particularly jarring on my first reading of them, and the ecumenical commitments made by diverse Anglicans in diverse contexts seemed at first incompatible. But my hope is that these diverse texts can be read in the spirit of Unitatis Redintegratio 17 (Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism), with respect to the divergent theological traditions of East and West: “these various theological expressions are to be considered often as mutually complementary rather than conflicting.” Obviously there is much more work to be done before this can be applied all the way down — the debates over papal infallibility in relation to conciliar reception perhaps being the most difficult — but the presumption of complementarity provides the framework of Christian charity in which this work ought to be done.


Top headlines. Every Friday.



Most Recent

Church Camp, Ministry Conferences, & VBS 100 Years Ago

July 1924 brought the Diocese of Georgia’s first summer camp, a vocations conference for 200 boys in New Hampshire, and 47,000 children in New York City’s vacation Bible schools.

Preaching the Transfiguration with Sarah Hinlicky Wilson

Episode 128 • 18th July 2024 • The Living Church Podcast • The Living Church Ever run out of preaching...

CEEC Commissions Overseers, Not Bishops

Just as the Church of England has created blessings for same-sex couples that are not wedding rites, the Church of England Evangelical Council has created “spiritual overseers.”

Sean Rowe: ‘I See Significant Changes’

The Presiding Bishop-Elect brings a deep reservoir of Episcopal experience to his coming role.