January 22, 2010


Anglican-Catholic unity?

Back in 1908, Paul Wattson, the founder of what was then the Episcopalian community known as the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, located at Graymoor, Garrison, N.Y., established what he called the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity. Later, he would say that “the first fruits of the Octave was the acceptance of the Society into the Roman Catholic Church” one year later.

Today, 102 years later, that Octave has evolved into the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, still held during the dates proposed by Father Paul—Jan. 18-25, ending on the feast of the conversion of St. Paul. Now it is promoted jointly by the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches. The theme this year is “You are witnesses of these things” (Lk 24:48).

This Week of Prayer is now observed internationally. In Jerusalem, for example, members of all the various Christian communities there—Roman Catholic, Eastern Catholic, Orthodox, Armenian and Protestant—gather each evening of the week at different churches for prayer.

This year, the special week of prayers comes on the heels of the announcement that the Catholic Church is establishing a special structure for Anglicans who want to be in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church while preserving aspects of their Anglican spiritual and liturgical heritage. Special Anglican ordinariates will be created for Anglicans who are disaffected by some of the decisions made by some of the Churches in the Anglican Communion.

It might appear that this development would destroy any chance of unity between the Anglican Communion and Catholicism, but the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, fortunately doesn’t see it that way. He met with Pope Benedict XVI on Nov. 21 and used his visit to Rome to urge the recommencement of discussions within the official Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC).

The first round of the ARCIC talks (known as ARCIC I) took place from 1970 to 1982, and resulted in statements concerning baptism, the Eucharist and ministry, and some issues related to authority in the Church. ARCIC II, which met from 1983 to 2005, issued statements on papal authority, salvation and the Church, the Church as a communion, and beliefs about Mary.

ARCIC III is now expected to start later this year. The topic for dialogue is expected to be the relationship of the universal and local Churches, including the way Church authority is exercised and the nature of papal primacy. These questions have been debated within the Catholic Church.

While in Rome, Archbishop Williams suggested the possibility of unity between the Anglican Communion and Catholicism through the “Covenant” process currently being tried by the Anglicans. The Covenant consists of principles and procedures that the Churches in the Anglican Communion agreed to at the Lambeth Conference in 2008.

In an address at Gregorian University, Archbishop Williams said that the Covenant was “an effort to create not a centralized decision-making executive, but a ‘community of communities’ that can manage to sustain a mutually nourishing and mutually critical life, with all consenting to certain protocols of decision-making together.”

It would appear at first glance that such an idea would have no chance of acceptance by the Catholic Church. One of the problems of the Anglican Communion is that all the Churches that comprise it are autonomous. What the Church of England might accept might be rejected by the Episcopal Church in the United States. A similar problem exists with the Orthodox Churches, all of which also are autonomous.

Nevertheless, the simple fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury is making such a proposal is encouraging.

Pope Benedict plans to travel to Great Britain this fall. While there, he will beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman, who lived almost exactly half of his 89 years as an Anglican and half as a Catholic. He was one of the greatest thinkers of both Churches.

Like Cardinal Newman, Franciscan Father Paul Wattson was also a convert. Perhaps during this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we can pray especially that a way can be found for unity between Anglicans and Catholics.

—John F. Fink

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