There were several problems with the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission. First was the choice of delegates. Naturally, both sides chose theologians who were sympathetic to the process and longed for agreement between the churches and finally some sort of visible unity. Unfortunately, these ecumenically minded theologians were not representative of the ordinary pew occupants in their two churches. Ordinary Catholics remained bemused and bewildered by Anglicans, and Anglicans of the liberal and Evangelical variety had no real desire to be united with Catholics. Consequently they dissected and destroyed the ‘agreements’ that issued from ARCIC.
Meanwhile, developments in Anglicanism were pulling in a different direction. As early as the 1940s there had been calls for women to be ordained to the Anglican ministry, and by the 1980s those calls had become demands. Homosexual activists became more vocal and strident, and radical liberal trends in theology became more mainstream.
While these currents pulled Anglicans in a radically progressive direction, Evangelical Anglicanism, with its blend of Calvinist theology, individualistic spirituality and up to date styles of worship, pulled the Anglicans away from Catholicism in another direction. Furthermore, it was the Evangelicals (who have no love and less understanding) of Catholicism who were growing in numbers not only in Anglican’s heartland of England, but also in the developing world.
A hand picked group of gentle academics meeting in congenial surroundings for their discussions could hardly hope to come up with a solution that could navigate the turbulent waters of Anglicanism. For these mild mannered scholars to cope with the tumultuous world of the Anglican Communion would be akin to asking Miss Marple to ride a bucking bronco at the rodeo. To be fair, the scholars were not asked to come up with a permanent solution resulting in instant visible communion between the two churches. They had the more modest brief to begin communication over the theological issues that divided the two churches.
This they did, and although there does not seem to be much fruit from their forty years of labor, the real fruit can be seen in the establishment of the Anglican Ordinariate by Pope Benedict in 2009. The erection of the Ordinariate really is the most astounding development in ecumenism since the meeting of Pope John XXIII with Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher in 1960. It is astounding for several reasons. First, it might have been assumed that the gentle theologian Joseph Ratzinger would have been content for the world of ecumenism to continue in its diplomatic course with the usual round of regular theological conferences, scholarly papers and the occasional ‘agreement’. Like the old ‘detente’ between Russia and the United States, officials met. Pleasantries were exchanged, treaties were signed and then they all went home again.
Benedict XVI’s Anglican Ordinariate scheme was something sudden, solid and stupendous. It can be compared to Ronald Reagan’s decision that the Russian regime was about to fall, and his call “Mr Gobachev. Tear down this wall!” Reagan’s decision to stop talking and take action knocked over the first domino. Likewise, Benedict XVI’s erection of the Anglican Ordinariate may well be the first domino to fall in the eventual realignment within Christianity.
This is because the Anglican Church has always been a kind of bridge between Protestantism and Catholicism. Many Evangelical Protestant begin following Christ in Baptist churches or independent ‘house churches’. Once they begin to study the faith more they are often drawn to liturgical worship and the historic church. Typically they would migrate to more formal churches like the Methodist or Presbyterian and often they would continue to ‘come up higher’ by moving to the Lutheran or Anglican traditions.
In the past they would find in these churches the simple faith of the Apostles combined with liturgical worship and ancient traditions that were derived from the fullness of the Catholic faith. Now, however, when these conservative believers try an Episcopal or Lutheran church they are likely to find a woman minister, homosexual marriage, radical theology and left wing politics.
Because of their upbringing they are still very biased against the Catholic Church, but should they enter a Catholic Church they may very well find the same liberalism they found in the Episcopal Church combined with the honky tonk music, dumbed down religion and wishy washy self help teaching they ran away from in Evangelicalism. If they don’t encounter these sad phenomena in American Catholicism they are likely to be met with elements of ‘cultural Catholicism’ which they find alien and unattractive.
This is exactly why the Anglican Ordinariate congregations will become the first light of the new ecumenism. They will not be only a refuge for disenchanted Anglicans who want to keep their lovely old traditions, but they will be a door through which many other Protestants can come into the Catholic Church and feel at home.
The Anglican Ordinariate may also be the first light of a new ecumenism because the new model established by the Holy Father could be a stepping stone for other Ordinariates. If an Anglican Ordinariate is the answer for Catholic-minded Anglicans, why not a Lutheran Ordinariate for Catholic minded Lutherans or even a Methodist Ordinariate for Catholic minded Methodists? If this is not a realistic scenario, then it would certainly be realistic for Catholic minded Christians in these other denominations to enter the Anglican Ordinariate as converts.
Furthermore, what is even more exciting is that if we look to the East, the Ordinariate could provide a creative model for groups of Eastern Orthodox to come into full communion while retaining their patrimony and a measure of autonomy. If this opens up, then the Ordinariate will turn out to be the most promising initiative of this papacy. Through the Ordinariate we will see stunning progress of the Great Re-alignment through which those who believe Christianity is a divinely revealed religion (rather than a human construct) may come together as one flock under one shepherd.
Finally, the new ecumenism is not a dismissal of the old. ARCIC and the other instruments of discussion and concord between the Catholic Church and other Christians will continue to have their uses. The great difference is now they have a real and concrete end point for discussion. Real progress has been made. There are real, positive ways for non Catholics who have come to agreement with Rome, to come into full communion, bringing their own traditions with them.
Read Fr. Longenecker's blog, listen to his radio show, browse his books and be in touch at: www.dwightlongenecker.com Blog: Standing on My Head. His latest book is The Romance of Religion --Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty