Anglicans look to the Roman Umpire

The world’s Anglican bishops gathered at Canterbury this week learned a new German word, courtesy of Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Vatican’s Christian unity council. Nabelschau is “the tendency of looking too much at our navels”, he told ecumenical observers at a 29 July dinner for at the Lambeth Conference.

His address the next day, worth reading in full, is a wide-angled view of the state of relations between the Catholic and the Anglican Churches of the past 40 years, and of the repercussions on them of the Anglican crisis. He succinctly sums up that crisis, referring to relations between the 44 member churches of the Anglican communion as “independence without sufficient interdependence”.


Cardinal Kasper takes the opportunity to do some pretty dense teaching on the link between the episcopate and koinonia, quoting Cyprian and the documents produced by the official Catholic-Anglican dialogue body ARCIC. But most significantly, he praises the 2004 Windsor Report  -- commissioned by the Archbishop of Canterbury following the crisis unleashed by the consecration of an actively gay bishop by the North-American Anglicans the year before – as being “fundamentally in line with the communion ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council”.  This is a strong endorsement – although not entirely surprising, given that its principal influences were Fr Robert Ombres OP, a Dominican friar and canon lawyer, and his Anglican canonist counterpart, Dr Norman Doe. They are longstanding collaborators.  

Given that the plans to tighten Anglican church structures currently being considered by the bishops at the Lambeth Conference have been put forward by the Windsor Continuation Group, it is clear that Rome backs these ideas. Indeed, Cardinal Kasper is forthright in his disappointment that the Windsor proposals have not been adopted before now.

The Cardinal goes on to warn that accepting practices that go against Scripture and tradition  -- homosexual activity or the ordination of women – all but scupper hopes of unity between the Churches. Should there be any doubt, he says that “the ordination of women to the episcopate effectively and definitively blocks a possible recognition of Anglican Orders by the Catholic Church”.

So traditionalist Anglicans vainly hoping for a Vatican climbdown from Pope Leo XIII’s 1896 Bull declaring Anglican orders “null and void” – a move they have been hoping for years would clear the way to their becoming Roman Catholic – will need to think again.

Cardinal Kasper ends, intriguingly, with a call for another “Oxford movement”, the nineteenth-century attempt to recover the Catholicity of the Church of England:

 “Perhaps in our own day it would be possible too, to think of a new Oxford Movement, a retrieval of riches which lay within your own household. This would be a re-reception, a fresh recourse to the Apostolic Tradition in a new situation. It would not mean a renouncing of your deep attentiveness to human challenges and struggles, your desire for human dignity and justice, your concern with the active role of all women and men in the Church. Rather, it would bring these concerns and the questions that arise from them more directly within the framework shaped by the Gospel and ancient common tradition in which our dialogue is grounded.”

Let’s try and wrap up these messages:

1. The Catholic Church remains committed to “full and visible unity” with the Anglican Church, but that will not happen as long as it is ordaining women and breaking with Christian tradition on sexuality.

2. But the Catholic Church strongly supports the Windsor proposals for forging communion within Anglicanism by strengthening ecclesiological structures through a tighter juridical framework.

3. In the same vein, the Catholic Church would like to see Anglicans recover the Catholic elements in their tradition, away from Protestantism and towards the Apostolic Tradition.

These messages are not exactly surprising, but the ecumenical politics of it is.

Consider this: Cardinal Kasper’s is the third address by a cardinal to this Lambeth Conference – the previous two were by Cardinals Ivan Dias and Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. The Vatican team has been 10 strong: in addition to Kasper and Dias, there have been two Catholic archbishops, four bishops and two monsignors. Also attending have been Fr Timothy Radcliffe, the former master-general of the Dominicans, and Fr Guido Dotti, a monk of the ecumenical Italian monastery in Bose, Italy (where Dr Rowan Williams is a regular guest).

In other words, the number of Catholic guests present and giving papers at this Lambeth far outstrips any previous, and is an indication of the intense involvement of the Catholic Church in the Anglican drama.

The clever headline in this week’s Tablet above an article by Victoria Combe audaciously sums it up: ‘Rise of the Roman Umpire’ .

Faced with ecclesiological meltdown, the Anglican Church – with the Archbishop of Canterbury out in front -- has turned to the Catholic Church for guidance, wanting at least some of what holds Catholics together.

And here’s the irony. As Anglicans have plunged down a path which makes unity with Rome ever more improbable, a crisis has been triggered which has caused the Anglican Church to want to become more like the Catholic Church.   

And here’s the surprise. It has worked. The Lambeth Conference has ended without splits or schisms, and boasting a number of new, Catholic-inspired, instruments for replacing centrifugal disintegration with centripetal integration.  It’ll all take time to accept -- and some parts of the Anglican Church could simply refuse to do so. The crisis is far from over.

But a corner has been turned. And that means less nabelschau.

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10 years ago
I for one understand the points made and the optimism of the writer. I have been more drawn to the Roman Catholic Church through the crisis of the Anglican Church...and less enthralled with the teaching of the church outside the Roman Catholic Church in general. However, in a Roman Catholic environment, I remain protective of the inspiring faith of many Christians outside the Roman Catholic Church, particularly when spiritual pride is expressed. When in a Protestant environment I find myself equally disturbed by comments reflecting spiritual superiority. Despite all this, I find myself seeking the stability of the Roman Catholic Church. I often wonder, if God Himself is uniting His Church... I certainly hope so. Also, I am so glad to hear that others are feeling the urge to unite too.
10 years ago
''It’ll all take time to accept -- and some parts of the Anglican Church could simply refuse to do so.'' Which parts? The GAFCON part or the liberal part? Or both? To many, Lambeth was a failure and showed a remarkable lack of leadership on the part of the Archbishop. It looks like more muddling along until the final dissolution.
10 years ago
Less nabelschau. And less Catholic.


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