We have travelled a very long way in the last 40 years – backwards. As the cold winds of imperial papalism sweep across the ecumenical scene, it seems hardly credible that Pope Paul VI once recognised the Church of England as “our beloved sister church”, and welcomed Michael Ramsey, 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, with the words “by entering into our house you are entering your own house. We are happy to open our door and our heart to you.”
Paul VI was an urbane, cultured and learned pope, well able to understand the intricacies of the English ecclesial scene. By contrast, John Paul II (an East European with no experience or knowledge of the Anglican Communion), and Benedict XVI (a convert from an open progressive Catholicism to a closed conservative one) have undermined further ecumenical progress. Despite painstaking work over 20 years by the Anglican/Roman Catholic International Commission in establishing an amazing degree of common ground on Ministry and the Eucharist after centuries of mutual suspicion, the Vatican poured bucketfuls of cold water over the whole process in 1991.
Those opposed to further progress will of course quote the problem of the ordination of women to the priesthood and (subsequently in the USA) the episcopal ordination of persons – male and female – in committed gay relationships. But it can equally well be argued that it was the intransigence of the Vatican’s stance, and it’s readiness to fall back into well defended trenches – whether Leo XIII’s dismissal of Anglican Orders as “absolutely null and void” in 1896, or even Pius V’s excommunication of Elizabeth I in 1570 – that consigned any subsequent attempt at rapprochement to the waste paper bin.
These attitudes meant that for many Anglicans there seemed to be little point in trying to meet Roman Catholics half way, and strengthening the view that all that one could do was to proceed with further reform in accordance with our own consciences. In such a climate those eager to break new ground saw little reason for restraint.
In the early 1980s, working as a parish priest in a situation where we shared our building with the local Roman Catholic congregation, we strove to do as much together as we possibly could. On Good Friday for example, we shared the Liturgy together, and then received the Eucharist from the Reserved Sacrament of our respective Communion, each group receiving from their own priest. If each year one or two people got themselves into the wrong queue by mistake, we didn’t see it as an infringement likely to consign the accidental perpetrators (or even us!) to the flames of hell.
Such a robust determination to do together whatever we could, while respecting each other’s ecclesial integrity, is unthinkable in today’s climate in which the temperature of Anglican-Roman Catholic relations has chilled dramatically.
Pope Benedict is by all accounts a gracious man, and no doubt his meetings with Archbishop Williams have been cordial, but precise actions speak louder than vague words. By his Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis in 2007, with its chilling reaffirmation that Eucharistic communion may not be shared in any circumstances with “non-Catholics”, and by his outrageous attempt at ecclesial colonisation in his offer of uniate status to disaffected Anglicans (2009), Benedict XVI has revealed his furtherance of what his erstwhile kindred spirit Hans Küng has called caesaro-papalism.
Certainly in this climate there is little chance of top-down ecumenical progress. We can but hope that sufficient numbers of Christians, from all Communions, will be become so dismayed and outraged by the lack of progress shown by their leaders, that, like the people of Egypt, they will seize the initiative and effect change at grass roots level. If enough ordinary people come out on the streets, the tanks will turn back.