The Ven George Austin, Archdeacon of York, believes the ordination of women gravely damaged relations between the Church of England and the Catholic Church. But reading the Pope's latest encyclical,"Ut Unum Sint", makes him hope that the principles of the encyclical will fire all the Churches in their war against secularism. Here he explains why.
IT WAS I THINK in 1977, at a meeting in Bangor of the Assembly of the British Council of Churches, that I was so deep in conversation with a Catholic bishop (who always addressed me as "Father") that we missed the departure of the other delegates to take part in an ecumenical service in the town.
After much searching we found the Presbyterian Chapel and crept into the gallery, more than a little amused that we, an Anglican priest and Catholic bishop, were surrounded by a burly male voice Presbyterian choir high above the ranks of the ecumenical great and good in the pews below. We sang lustily and with a good courage.
Returning home to my parish in north London. I found I had to diffuse a potential difficulty with the local Roman Catholic parish priest, worried that he and his people were expected to take part soon in a joint service to celebrate the Queen's Jubilee.We have moved on since then, though not so far as once seemed possible.
When in 1982 I walked into Canterbury Cathedral alongside the late Fr Dennis Corbishley (then ecumenical officer for England and Wales) to take part in a service at which Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Runcie would kneel together in prayer, I began to feel that in my own lifetime the divisions of four hundred years might be healed.
There have been positive changes too for Anglicans in ecumenical approaches to Protestant Churches. The
days have gone, hopefully, that we could ever return to the methodology of strategies like the Anglican Methodist Scheme of 1972 or the later proposals of the Ten Propositions on unity, which relied on a studied ambiguity to mask the real differences which could not be faced. As the Pope says in Ur Unum Sint,
"All forms of reductionism or facile 'agreement' must be absolutely avoided. Serious questions must be resolved, for if not, they will reappear at another time, either in the same terms or in a different guise."
In contrast, the concept of unity in diversity, which began to emerge in the late seventies and early eighties, particularly in Lutheran thinking and which had positive references in the Encyclical, acknowledges the limitations of human understanding and language.
It is sometimes possible to express the same truth in concepts which may seem to be at odds with each other where the essential agreement is obscured by cultural and historical baggage.
Sometimes too there can be a legitimate diversity, where the truths are not first order matters, and where a fundamental truth of the Gospel is not compromised. But it is no service to the cause of unity if ambiguity is allowed to undermine or obscure the essentials of scripture and tradition. As the Pope declares: "A 'being together' which betrayed the truth would thus be opposed both to the nature of God who offers his communion and the need for truth found in the depths of every human heart."
It comes with sadness though as no surprise that the Encyclical concentrates on relations between the Catholic Church and the Churches of the East, in spite of the warm welcome given to the development of closer relations with what are called "other Churches and Ecclesial Communities in the West."
The Church of England's General Synod went into the acceptance of the ordination of women in the full knowledge that this would provide a grave obstacle to ecumenical progress with the Catholic Church.
There is evidence that the recent agreements with the German Churches in the Meissen Agreement, and even more so with the Porvoo Statement on relations with the Nordic/Baltic Churches, will be used in the coming years as a lever towards the development of a pan-Protestant unity.
Such a unity would take the Church of England further from Catholic practice and theology than it has been in the past four hundred years.
Under pressure from postChristian feminists, the Methodist Conference in 1992 accepted a report which took it far from orthodox teaching in scripture and tradition:
God the Father (it said) may also be spoken of as Mother, and the Son is no less an exemplar of feminine virtues as masculine ones.
The General Synod's Liturgical Commission last summer gained authority to substitute "God" for "he", "him" and "his" in future revisions of liturgy, so that a phrase like "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" would become "God so loved the world that God gave God's only son, that whoevere believes in him should not perish but have eternal life".
Although aesthetically offensive, it was vigorously denied by the Liturgical Commission that this was an introduction of feminist language, though what an aversion to traditional masculine language is if not such a precursor to calling God "Mother" is hard to comprehend.And such heresy (for heresy it is, since it is quite contrary to scripture and tradition) is not unknown among Catholic writers.
No-one truly concerned for the unity Christ calls us to can take lightly the warning in the Encyclical on formulating doctrine as one of the elements of a continuing reform: "Here it is not a question of altering the deposit of faith, changing the meaning of dogmas, eliminating essential words from them, or suppressing certain articles of the Creed under the false pretext that they are no longer understood today.
The unity willed by God can be attained only by adherence to all the content of revealed faith in its entirety. In matters of faith, compromise is in contradiction with God who is Truth."
This proper attitude to truth does make for problems in a Catholic search for unity with the Anglican Church. Last year in the United States, as I went up to receive Holy Communion at a Lutheran Eucharist.
I had to sign a card to be handed in to stewards which declared that I believed in the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and in the Real Presence of our Lord in the Bread and the Wine. I had no problem as a Catholic Anglican: but I know many of my evangelical brothers and sisters for whom this would have been a real obstacle.
And anyway, what must the Vatican think of a Church like the Anglican Church where bishops can question the bodily nature of the resurrection, can reject the Virgin Birth, and compromise other such truths? Or allow priests to remain in office who deny the objective existence of God and scorn the reality of life eternal?
Or in which in America, a seminary professor of theology can dismiss Christianity as a "necrophilial religion centred around a dead man", and call for Christ to be replaced by Christa. "Who can represent for women what the Church has crucified with a vengeance, and what we must now raise up in our lives: the erotic as power and the love of God as embodied by erotically empowered women"?
Of course, no Church in ihese iconoclastic days not even the Catholic Church is without those who would turn from scripture and tradition to the rationality of secular demands.
But as the Encyclical points out, in addition to the two essential points of reference in "Sacred Scripture and the great Tradition of the Church", Catholics also "have the help of the Church's living Magisterium."
As I read Ut Unum Sint, I was left wondering if it had an importance quite beyond the particular issue of ecumenical progress between the Catholic West and Orthodox East.
As all the Christian Churches wrestle with the intrusion of post-Christian secular thought, perhaps it will be the principles of this encyclical, together with the continuing leadership of Catholic Church's "living Magisterium" which will be the foundation of a new ecumenism.
This new ecumenism brings together those of all the chur..:hes wilt) ;ove and hold fast to the unalterable and essential truths of Scrip
ture and Tradition. That would be a true unity with the One who is Truth, and the one unity for which Christ prayed in His great highpriestly prayer, which was not for an appearance of unity nor for a unity of ambiguity.
It was a prayer that all who believe might be one, "even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee" a unity of the most profound kind, no less than that which is the very nature of the Most Holy Trinity.