Bishop Cormac Murphy O'Connor, co-chairman of the second Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission POPE John Paul's 1982 visit to Britain was a very emotional one. His meetings with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Queen, the representatives of the Church of England, engendered high hopes. It seemed that we were entering a new era of reconciliation and co-operation between our churches.
Robert Runde's visit to Rome next week should be seen in the context of that papal trip to Britain. It will show that, whatever obstacles there are between us, we are still, however imperfectly, in communion as churches. It will be a very moving occasion in Rome with John Paul and the archbishop meet at the church of San Gregorio for this is the place from whence, in tradition, St Gregory sent St Augustine on his missionary journey to England.
Of course there have been developments since the Pope was in Britain — not only over the ordination of women in the Anglican communion. From a Catholic viewpoint one has witnessed in general terms the difficulties of the Anglicans in being a worldwide communion. These have shown themselves principally in terms of the question of authority in that church, over the extent of the autonomy of the various provinces of the church, and over how they work out an ecclesioIogy.
I think that a question like the ordination of women focusses attention on that central question of authority in the Anglican communion quite dramatically. It's really a very different question to any other. Our two churches could live with a certain diversity over spirtuality and matters of disciple, for example on the question of celibacy of the clergy. But over women's ordination, because its both theological and practical, it highlights the dilemma over authority in an acute way. It touches in a very fundamental way on what is the attitude of a particular church to ministry and to sacramentality. And it doesn't give any leeway. Either you have a woman priest or you don't.
To my mind the Archbishop of Canterbury is rather agonised over the whole matter. He himself thinks that women's ordination will come eventually in England as it has already in other provinces of the Anglican communion. But at the same time he has been too involved in ecumenical dialogues over the years, principally with the Orthodox, not to see the damage that will be caused to such conversations by the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate in the Anglican church.
In Rome be will be trying to put the Anglican case to the Pope — how they have no focus of authority similar to the Catholic Church and how thus provincial authority on women's ordination and other questions is inevitable when parts of the worldwide Anglican Church feel that to proceed on this is right and what they must do.
In this aspect it will be a very difficult visit. However, I think that even if our expectations of this particular dialogue have had to be altered over the past seven years because of the difficulties encountered, it is also fair to say that the Catholic Church does have dialogue with other ecclesial communions who ordain women. The Catholic Church's commitment to the ecumenical process is complete, is utter, and is not going to stop. Therefore there is a sense in which whatever happens in Rome, the developments in the Anglican communion regrettable as they are in our view and equally not regrettable as they are to many Anglicans, it is not going to halt our continuing dialogue. Rather in one sense that dialogue must develop and grow as we try to give a joint witness in the world to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I realise that the Anglican dialogue has a special place. The Anglicans are instanced in the second Vatican Council document on ecumenism as having a special place because they have kept so many Catholic traditions — more so than other churches of the Reformation. When you have for example bishops and sacraments you have some of the traditional elements that Catholics hold as indispensible.
In the short term and the long term — like the old psalm "to you a 1000 years are a single day" — we should pause to consider what an enormous amount of growth in understanding and friendship has happened in 25 years. That is a very short period in the history of our churches. You've got to look at it in the long-term. The obstacle over women's ordination has meant that the reconciliation of ministries which was on the agenda of the second Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARC1C II) seems to be precluded in the short term. But that doesn't mean that growth cannot continue. We share prayer , social work, schools together. Our bishops meet regularly at local level to discuss and issue statements.
This will continue whatever happens in Rome. The very fact that Christians work together has its own impetus on the ecumenical process to proceed.
And whatever the Pope and archbishop decide, it must be seen in the light of the work of the Holy Spirit. "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" — I think these words of Our Lord are so true to ecumenical endeavour.
On a practical note though I think it is essential to say something about the admission to Holy Communion of nonCatholic Christians which is a very delicate and important question. Whatever the pain it causes at the moment, one might see the Catholic position on this right now as a gift to ecumenism. I wouldn't want this to be misinterpreted, but by enabling and indeed forcing people to focus on the connection between Eucharist and church, we are saying that within the ecumenical movement, we think the discussion between us cannot just be about fellowship, or social work together. Rather it must be about what makes up the church of Jesus Christ, and its nature. The most focussed way we reflect on that is by saying that there is a deep connection between the Eucharist and the church, and that is why our self understanding of the church is connected with our understanding of the cucharist.
Therefore when we say that other Christians may not normally receive Holy Communion at a Catholic Eucharist we are saying something about the importance we attach to agreement on the nature of the church.
This article is based on a conversation between the bishop and the Catholic Herald on the eve of the formers departure for Rome.