By Luke Coppen THE CATHOLIC Church's rules on intercommunion are "hurtful and unhelpful" and must be relaxed in the interests of Christian unity, the Church of England bishops said this week.
In a "robust" challenge to their Catholic counterparts, the bishops called for a "more flexible approach" towards the admission of Anglicans to Holy Communion in Catholic churches.
The bishops made their appeal on Wednesday at the launch of a new document setting out the Church of England's teaching on the Eucharist.
The document, The Eucharist: Sacrament of Unity, was a response to the 1998 teaching document on the Eucharist, One Bread One Body, which said that Anglicans could only be admitted to Holy Communion in grave and exceptional circumstances .
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of Westminster, who oversaw the writing of One Bread One Body, received a handdelivered copy of the document on Tuesday night from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey. His fellow English Catholic bishops were expected to receive a copy later this week.
In the foreword to the new document, Dr Carey, and the Archbishop of York, Dr David Hope, urged the Catholic bishops to ease restrictions on intercommunion.
"We take issue with the discipline that the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church are seeking to apply," they wrote. "We find it to be hurtful and unhelpful. We do not believe that it follows from the Eucharistic theology on which Anglicans and Roman Catholics largely agree.
"One Bread One Body," they continued, "makes explicit a number of erroneous assumptions by the Roman Catholic Church about the Church of England, the Reformation, Anglican teaching regarding the Eucharistic sacrifice and the presence of Christ in the sacrament, and Anglican ministerial and episcopal orders. We take this opportunity to correct these misapprehensions, as well as to set out the positive teaching of the Church of England on the Eucharist."
The 23-page paper, produced by the Church of England's House of Bishops, claimed a large measure of agreement between Anglicans and Catholics about the Eucharist.
It made 19 "affirmations" of the Catholic Eucharistic theology found in One Bread One Body. It affirmed that the Eucharist was central to the life of the Church, that it was connected to Christ's sacrifice on Calvary and that through it Christians were in communion with the saints and the faithful departed.
However, the document also expressed 21 reservations about the Catholic teaching document. The Anglican bishops objected to the "rather specific and tightly drawn" teaching of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Although the Church of England "clearly taught" that Christ was present in the Eucharist, they said that Anglican "divines have consistently been loath to speculate as to the mode of that presence".
The bishops would, therefore, be unwilling to press Anglican lay people to assent explicitly to the doctrine of the Real Presence.
The bishops also took issue with the claim that the Church of England was rooted in the Reformation. "The Church of England traces its origins back to the Continued on p2 Continued from p1 beginnings of Christianity in England," they wrote, "and is continuous with the Church of the Apostles and the Fathers."
Another major stumbling block, they said, was the Catholic Church's belief in the invalidity of Anglican orders and consequently of the invalidity of Anglican celebrations of the Eucharist.
They also questioned whether Anglicans married to Catholics should be prohibited from receiving Holy Communion in Catholic churches. Partners in mixed marriages share a double bond in the Sacraments of baptism and maniage, which the bishops said was nullified when Eucharistic communion together was forbidden.
But the bishops reserved their sharpest criticism for the rules on intercommunion laid down by the Catholic bishops. They expressed bafflement that Anglicans were only allowed to receive Catholic Holy Communion in exceptional circumstances and that Catholics were never permitted to receive the Eucharist in Anglican churches.
"Anglicans should find the ban on Roman Catholics receiving communion at Anglican celebrations of the Eucharist, even in the most exceptional circumstances, an ecumenical, theological and pastoral affront," the bishops wrote. "They long for the Roman Catholic prohibition on mutual eucharistic hospitality to be lifted as part of the process of growing into full visible unity."
The Eucharist, they proposed, could be used to obtain full visible unity in three stages. The first would be "mutual eucharistic hospitality", the second, the participation of ministers in other churches' eucharistic services, and the third and final stage, the "full interchangeability of ministries".
Hopes of progress towards unity were revived last May when Anglican and Catholic bishops representing 13 countries met in Mississauga, Toronto, to draw up a plan to deepen relations between the two communions. In a concluding statement, the bishops said that Anglicans and Catholics shared a degree of common faith "such that greater cooperation and mission is possible than is currently the case". They also created a new highlevel working group to help bring this about.
Fr Bernard Longley, secretary of the department of mi6sion and unity of the bishops' conference of England and Wales, said: "I'm pleased that the Church of England has taken such care in preparing this response and that they've decided to make it a House of Bishops' document. It is significant because it's bishops responding to bishops. In the wake of the Toronto meeting, it should encourage joint reflection by our bishops on these issues.
Bishop Philip Pargeter, chairman of the bishops' conference committee for unity, who had not yet read the document, said: "We welcome the document. We've been wailing for it for some time."
One Bread, One Body, issued on September 30, 1998, by the bishops of Britain and Ireland, invited other Christian communities to respond to its presentation of Catholic belief in the Eucharist.
It said: "We know only too well that the Catholic Church's understanding of itself and our convictions about who may and may not be admitted to Holy Communion can and do cause distress both to other Christians and to some Catholics.
"It is not, however, the Church's norms on sacramental sharing which cause division: those norms are simply a reflection and consequence of the painful division already present because of our Christian disunity."
The Eucharist: Sacrament of Unity is available, priced £3.95, from the Church House Bookshop, 31 Great Smith Street, London, SWIP 3BN, tel: 020 7898 1300, fax: 020 7898 1305, email: firstname.lastname@example.org