Archbishop of Canterbury says prospects for ecumenical dialogue still hopeful

Pope Benedict XVI / Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams
Pope Benedict XVI / Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams


Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams on Thursday spoke about the state of ecumenical dialogue, saying expectations should not be adjusted “downwards.” Discussing the new Apostolic Constitution and the ordination of women, he asked whether the “impaired communion” within Anglicanism might be a model for progress on Christian unity.


His remarks came in an address to the Willebrands Symposium in Rome the day before his meeting with Pope Benedict XVI.


Archbishop Williams, who is the head prelate of the Church of England, noted a “strong convergence” in Christians’ agreement about the nature of the Christian Church. In his view, the main question at present is whether issues that still divide Christians have the same weight.


“I also want to put a bit of a challenge to some trends across the board in current thinking, trends that might encourage us to adjust our expectations downwards in ecumenical dialogue, given the apparent lack of progress towards institutional or organizational unity,” he commented.


He reported that different understandings of authority and primacy are still issues in ecumenical discussion.


However, the archbishop suggested that issues of disagreement “less basic” than the agreement over “the Church’s central character,” should encourage a search for “practical convergence” in administrative responsibility and visible structures of governance. These efforts ought to allow “a significant mutual recognition of sacramental authenticity.”


“The recent announcement of an Apostolic Constitution making provision for former Anglicans shows some marks of the recognition that diversity of ethos does not in itself compromise the unity of the Catholic Church,” he said.


However, he noted that the Constitution does not seek to build any formal recognition of existing ministries. In his view, it was a pastoral response to the needs of some former Anglicans, rather than an advance in the understanding of the Christian Church sought by Anglican-Catholic dialogue.


“It remains to be seen whether the flexibility suggested in the Constitution might ever lead to something less like a 'chaplaincy' and more like a church gathered around a bishop.”


The Archbishop of Canterbury questioned whether Catholic arguments against the ordination of women stand at the same level as a theology more directly derived from Scripture and the Christian tradition. He also said Roman Catholics need to explain how “the prohibition against ordaining women” enhances “the life of communion” necessary for Christian unity.


Archbishop Williams asked whether it would be possible for a “Catholic and evangelical ministry” to remain intact even when there is a dispute about the ordination of women. He noted Anglicans have maintained “a degree of undoubtedly impaired communion” among themselves despite their different commitments towards the issue.


“Yet, in what is still formally acknowledged to be a time of discernment and reception, is it nonsense to think that holding on to a limited but real common life and mutual acknowledgement of integrity might be worth working for within the Anglican family? And if it can be managed within the Anglican family, is this a possible model for the wider ecumenical scene?”


Describing the “ecumenical glass” as half-full, he said the nature of “unfinished business” in ecumenical dialogue should be carefully examined.


“For many of us who are not Roman Catholics, the question we want to put, in a grateful and fraternal spirit, is whether this unfinished business is as fundamentally church-dividing as our Roman Catholic friends generally assume and maintain.”


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