Healing the Split

Rome and Canterburyby By Mary ReathRowman & Littlefield. 160p $19.95
I began my reading of Rome and Canterbury nagged by a sense of obligation: “I said I would; I will.” Questions spiraled around in my head. Could its timing be any worse? What more was there to know about the breach between Rome and the Anglicans? What could possibly come from talks between the two? I may have begun grudgingly, but Mary Reath quickly had me reading avidly.

Reath is a fine writer. She knows her subject and cares about it. Raised a Roman Catholic, she is now a governor of the Anglican Centre in Rome, where as a student in 1998 she first became enamored of the causes of the split and was “stunned to learn that the divisions in Christianity were seen not as a given, but just the opposite.” Her efforts to learn more opened her to a vast quantity of scholarly works, while showing her the need for a book where lay people could discover “this search for unity from the historical, doctrinal, and practical angles.”

Reath’s book offers readers a brief (97 pages of text) history of the dissolution of Western Christianity and the ecumenical efforts in modern times by Rome and Canterbury to heal the breach between them. Besides 10 short chapters, there is a foreword containing enthusiastic endorsements by the late John Macquarrie (a theologian), John Bathersby (Roman Catholic archbishop of Brisbane) and Peter Carnley (retired Anglican archbishop of Australia). The book concludes with eight appendices, half of which give the texts of documents agreed upon by the Anglican/Roman Catholic International Commission (Arcic) that has met annually since 1970. Arcic’s statements include documents on the Eucharist, ministry and ordination, salvation and the church, and the church as communion.


In addition, Appendix III (“Morals: Agreed Statements on Teachings and Practices” [1994]) treats topics like marriage and divorce, contraception, abortion and homosexuality. Since this section explores many hot-button issues, its approach deserves citing as an example of the care and thoroughness taken by the commission in its work. After noting “how penetratingly difficult the subject of morals is today,” the document continues:

In this agreed statement, the first of all of the post-Vatican II ecumenical dialogues to address morals, Arcic does three things.

• Firstly, they give a thoughtful and developed overview of the underlying and relevant moral and spiritual theology of both churches.

• Secondly, they explain the differences that have evolved regarding how the leadership and the laity interact as related to morals.

• And, thirdly, they explore the actual official teachings that are specifically different, and those where ambiguity exists.

Reath acknowledges the current events in the Anglican community that are causing inner turmoil and making ecumenical dialogue difficult. In the book’s preface, the author cites the election in June 2006 by the Episcopal Church in the United States of Katherine Jefferts Schori “to lead them and represent them at global meetings of the Anglican Communion.” This event was followed two weeks later by the Church of England’s announcement that it intended to allow female members of the clergy in England to become bishops. Reath knows that such actions (along with the continuing bitterness over the consecration of Gene Robinson—a priest who is in a long-term homosexual relationship—as bishop of New Hampshire) may well cause the dissolution of the Anglican Communion. I think, however, that Reath sees the present tumultuous time more as a spur to creative ecumenism than a deterrent. Certainly she believes that spreading knowledge about the past 40 years of honest effort to rebuild relations between Rome and Canterbury is worthy work.

Rome and Canterbury is divided into three parts covering history, authority and the future. Chapters 1 and 2 treat the complex reasons for the Reformation and the res-ponses taken that solidified all positions for 300 years. Chapter 3 discusses both the papacy’s and Anglicanism’s reactions to 19th-century modernism. For example, Rome responded to disestablishment by tightening oversight (direct appointment of bishops) and Vatican I’s decree on papal infallibility, while Canterbury produced the Oxford Movement—an Anglican effort at spiritual renewal—and inaugurated the Lambeth Conference (1867) to address issues of authority and governance. Chapters 4 through 6 trace the beginning of the ecumenical movement in 1910 to the present. Without losing focus on healing the rift between Rome and Canterbury, the author explains the formation and work of the World Council of Churches, the opening of scholarly cooperation in biblical studies and the impact of the Second Vatican Council on ecumenism. This section closes with a chapter outlining the work of Arcic, whose birth produced a press release announcing: “After 400 years of separation between the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, official representatives from both churches have taken the first steps towards restoring full unity.”

Chapters 7 and 8 focus on authority: its exercise in the early church, relevant background on infallibility, indefectibility, conciliarism and primacy, as well as a clear overview of where both churches are today concerning authority. The book’s final two chapters offer thoughts on where we may be heading in our ecumenical endeavors. Reath is quite candid about the obstacles to union: the current internal tensions in the Anglican Communion, mutual ignorance among the laity about one another’s traditions and lingering negative biases. But she also points to many notable achievements, such as doctrinal agreement that hints at complementarity and genuine support from the leadership of both churches. Concerning this last point, in documenting her assertions and aspirations, Reath cites a wide range of figures whose expertise and influence are impressive. She also provides an extensive bibliography that will be useful to anyone interested in pursuing this topic further.

Rome and Canterbury is a book that could—and should—be read and discussed in appropriate theology classes and parish book clubs. It is an ideal dialogue tool for Roman Catholic and Episcopalian laity. As Reath insists:

Though sometimes mystified about how to move forward, no problem is so formidable as to preclude dialogue. Christ’s prayer “May they all be one” remains. Seeking oneness is not an optional extra, but rather learning and receiving from each other is a divine imperative. Ecumenism is the future of Christianity.

Proceed with caution. But proceed.

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