BY SIMON CALDWELL
CATHOLICS and Anglicans are on the verge of ending almost 500 years of disagreement over the person and role of the Blessed Virgin Mary with the publication of a landmark statement of common belief.
The 85-page document, which took six years to produce, concludes that Anglicans can accept the Catholic dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption because such beliefs are supported by Scripture.
The document also says that there were no theological reasons why Anglicans as well as Catholics should not pray to Our Lady and the saints, asking them to intercede with their prayers on the behalf of the Church on earth.
Bishop Malcolm McMahon of Nottingham, one of 18 people from 10 countries who drafted the document, said: “What we have done is put down a paving stone on the road to Christian unity.” He said the document marked a “considerable achievement in increasing the depth of understanding of each church’s position”.
Cormac Murphy-O’Connor said the document was “a major achievement in the ongoing dialogue between Catholics and Anglicans worldwide, and will help to foster both mutual understanding and renewed devotion in both churches.” He added: “I hope that the document will be carefully studied by both Anglicans and Roman Catholics.” Although the paper, called Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ, is likely to be welcomed by many Anglicans, there are also those who will be uncon vinced by its content. Some evangelicals feel that the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, which states that Our Lady was conceived in a state of sanctifying grace free from Original Sin, and the Assumption, which says that Our Lady was assumed body and soul into heaven at the end of her life, have no sound basis in the Bible.
“We respect Mary for her example of faith and obedience and as the one chosen to be the mother of Our Saviour,” said Gordon Murray, chairman of the Protestant Truth Society, an Evangelical organisation which includes some Anglicans among its members. “At the same time, we deplore developments which go beyond Scripture and give her a position belonging only to Our Lord Jesus. It [the document] will be rejected.” Launched at St James’s Catholic Cathedral in Seattle, the United States, on Monday, the document represents the last project of the second phase of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), founded in 1970 as the key instrument of dialogue between the Catholic Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion. Its publication is one of a number of promising developments in ecumenical relations after a period in which they neared total collapse.
In another key development, the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity and the Anglican Communion Office jointly announced last Friday that Iarccum, the Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission, would be reactivated this week.
The work of the Commis sion was suspended indefinitely in October 2003 after the Episcopal Church , part of the Anglican Communion, went ahead with the ordination of Canon Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. The Vatican had strongly objected to Canon Robinson’s ordination because he was a divorcee who for the previous 14 years had been living with his gay lover.
But Rome has expressed its satisfaction that the Windsor Report of 2004 might lead to the curbing of such obstacles to unity because it “proposes various practical steps to situate the autonomy of Anglican provinces more clearly within the interdependence of the Anglican Communion”.
The publication of the document and the end of the suspension of Iarccum come just weeks after Pope Benedict XVI made Christian unity one of the priorities of his pontificate.
The day after his installa tion, he prayed: “Let us do all we can to pursue the path toward the unity you have promised.” Meeting the next morning with Anglican leader Dr Rowan Williams, the Pope said: “I strongly feel the need to reaffirm the irreversible commitment” of the Catholic Church to pursuing Christian unity. The document is not an official declaration on behalf of the two communions. It will be studied by the authorities who appointed the Commission who reserve the right to approve or reject their conclusions. However, the authors state clearly that “we believe there is no continuing theological reason for ecclesial division on these matters”.
Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, often seen as a distinctively Roman Catholic or Orthodox practice, has roots in Scripture and the early Christian tradition, which make it part of Anglicans’ heritage as well, they said. Both Anglicans and Catholics mark major events in the life of Mary, and in their formal prayers both refer to her as “ever virgin” and as “Mother of God Incarnate,” the document said.
By examining “our shared belief” the document said, ARCIC hoped to provide a “context for a common appreciation of the Marian dogmas” of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, which were respectively defined infallibly by the Catholic Church in 1854 and 1950.
The document argues that the acceptance by the Anglicans of Catholic beliefs places “questions which arise from the two definitions ... in a new ecumenical context”.
In their introduction, the Catholic co-chairman of ARCIC, Archbishop Alexander Brunett of Seattle, and the Anglican co-chairman, Archbishop Peter Carnley of Perth, Australia, wrote: “In this state ment we have had to face squarely dogmatic definitions which are integral to the faith of Roman Catholics but largely foreign to the faith of Anglicans.” ARCIC did not try to tackle the question of papal infallibility, but rather looked at the content of the two dogmas, particularly in reference to Scripture, early Church theologians and the statements of church councils held before Catholics and Anglicans split.
ARCIC said that in proclaiming the Immaculate Conception the Catholic Church specifically explained that Mary was conceived free of sin “in view of the merits of Jesus Christ” thereby affirming that Mary, like all people who came before and would come after Christ was saved through his passion, death and resurrection. Therefore, they asserted, “we can affirm together that Christ’s redeeming work reached ‘back’ in Mary to the depths of her being and to her earliest beginnings.” ARCIC also said that while there is no direct reference in the Bible to the end of Mary’s life, the Bible does mention other great followers of God — including Elijah and Enoch — being drawn into God’s presence at the end of their earthly lives.
“We note that the dogma [of the Assumption] does not adopt a particular position on how Mary’s life ended, nor does it use about her the language of death and resurrection, but celebrates the action of God in her,” the statement said.
“We can affirm together the teaching that God has taken the Blessed Virgin Mary in the fullness of her person into his glory as consonant with Scripture and that it can, indeed, only be understood in the light of Scripture,” the dialogue commission concluded.
Cardinal signs letter on debt relief
THE ARCHBISHOP of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, was among the signatories to a letter to The Times this week calling for an end to Third World debt.
The letter, sent as part of the Jubilee Debt campaign, said current debt relief initiatives “delivered too little, too slowly”.
Legion of Mary pilgrimage
CROWDS of pilgrims gathered at Aylesford Priory in Kent last weekend for the annual Legion of Mary pilgrimage. Chief celebrant at the Mass was the retired Archbishop of Southwark, Michael Bowen while Fr Hugh Thwaites SJ gave the homily in which he urged people to join the Legion “to please our Lady”.
The priest said the Legion had helped to awaken priestly vocations.
Priest tells of knife ordeal
AN ELDERLY Catholic priest who was stabbed repeatedly in the chest by a burglar has given evidence in court.
Fr Michael Ingwell, 71, suffered two collapsed lungs as he was stabbed 14 times at his home in Halifax last year. He told Bradford Crown Court on Monday: “I can remember thinking, ‘Will you ever give up?’”
Public interest in abbey life
RELIGIOUS communities across Britain have reported a surge of interest following the first broadcast of BBC2’s The Monastery last week. Worth Abbey, in West Sussex, where the series is filmed, is planning to hold three residential weekends in June and July in response to the interest shown after the initial broadcast.