Page 3, 23rd June 1978

23rd June 1978
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Page 3, 23rd June 1978 — News Analysis

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News Analysis

Anglican problems on road to unity

John Carey shines some light on the difficulties which still keep the two major churches apart.

The recent announcement by the Protestant Reformation Society that it was taking legal advice on the question of Catholic use of Anglican churches with a view to challenging it in the courts is not going to destroy the ecumenical movement.

Nevertheless, if, as was indicated last week, the Society is in fact right in law, it could prove an embarrassment in many places where such hospitality has been and is being customarily extended to Catholics.

The legal position is obscure. It appears that once a Church is consecrated it can only be used for Anglican worship. This appeared to exclude, for example, the chapel in the crypt of the House of Commons where Cardinal Hume is to celebrate Mass on July 6, since that was not thought to be a consecrated Anglican church.

However an interesting sidelight on this is provided by the case in 1924 of a Scottish non-conformist MP who wanted his child baptised in the chapel.

Initially he was refused permission by the Bishop of London who claimed that the chapel was under his jurisdiction, so he turned to the Attorney General who overruled the bishop. However his decision was then challenged by the Solicitor General on the basis that statute law had not revoked the medieval canon law which showed that the chapel was indeed under the jurisdiction of the Bishop.

The matter then went, as is customary when two Law Officers of the Crown disagree, to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. However, before a decision could be reached the Government resigned. Subsequently the new officers agreed to drop the case and let the chapel be regarded as a "royal peculiar" under the care of the Lord Chamberlain.

The significance of all this is that in the last known case of this kind, no decision was reached. Now that it has been raised again, it therefore looks to be an entirely open issue. That said, what effect would a ruling against Catholic usage have on ecumenical relations?

Bishop Gordon Wheeler of Leeds thinks there will be little effect. He says — and almost every expert I have spoken to agrees: "I don't think it will cause any problems. There has never been any difficulty about using Anglican buildings before and I don't expect there will be in the future." In his view, the Society's action is if anything more likely to swing public opinion further behind ecumenical sharing.

And this was echoed by Dr Patrick Rodger, Anglican Bishop of Manchester and the chairman of the Churches' Umty Commission (CUC), who said: "By far the greater part of Anglican opinion is in favour of ecumenical hospitality and would wish to see it extended. A move to quench by law what really belongs to the gospel would be very poorly regarded."

And recently Dr Gerald Ellison, Bishop of London, called for the removal of the rules regarding patronage of Anglican parishes, which allow almost anyone except for Catholics to be patrons with the power to appoint vicars. These, it is true, are petty restrictions. Far more important is the Act of Succession which bars Catholics from the monarchy and which has been highlighted recently by the recent debate over the proposed marriage of Prince Michael to Baroness Marie-Christine von Reibnitz.

It may well be that it is time for this Act to be repealed as Norman St John-Stevas points out in his column this week (page 7). Indeed, now may be an excellent moment for the Church of England to take the initiative in suggesting to the Queen that such a step could do something to further the unity of the Church.

But that aside, the Society's action spotlights a further fundamental problem faced by the Church of England, namely the extent to which it is being squeezed from either side on the unity question.

For behind the legal move is a determination to prevent Anglicans from moving further towards Rome. At the same time Cardinal Hume's remarks on women priests at the February Synod, Bishop Butler's recent statement on the Ten Propositions and the Pope's refusal to grant a dispensation for the royal marriage have all been seen as warnings from Rome on the consequences of acting in a way contrary to Catholic beliefs.

To complicate matters still further, from the Methodists has come a clear indication that they will not wait for ever for a positive response on the Ten Propositions, the CUC's proposals for unity.

All this threatens to induce ecumenical paralysis amongst Anglicans whereby they are too scared to move in one direction for fear of the consequences in the other.

What is to be done to break the stalemate? Catholics may see this as a purely internal Anglican affair. However they can do certain things to help.

First they can continue to offer friendship on a local parish level. And second, the official Church hierarchy, from the Pope downwards could make it clear that they would rather talk about unity with a Church which shows itself willing to come down on one side or other of the fence on specific issues such as the ordination of women or the Ten Propositions than with one that prefers to hedge all its bets.

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