The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), along with many other bilateral theological dialogues, is a fruit of the Second Vatican Council's change of direction for the Roman Catholic Church as far as ecumenism is concerned.
Before Vatican II (1962-65), the teaching of that church was that if other denominations wanted Christian unity they knew what to do: return to the Roman fold.
Vatican II's embrace of ecumenism had not come from nowhere, however. It was the result of the earlier nouvelle théologie and of the visionary Pope John XXIII's desire for the opening-up of the church that he led to the realities of the modern world – a true aggiornamento.
Not long after Vatican II, Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey visited Pope Paul VI, who succeeded John XXIII in 1963, and had taken over the positive agenda of the council.
The visit concluded with a common declaration in which the leaders of the two communions stated their intention “to inaugurate between the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion a serious dialogue which, founded on the Gospels and on the ancient common traditions, may lead to that unity in truth, for which Christ prayed”.
After the work of a joint preparatory commission, the first ARCIC met, co-chaired by English Roman Catholic bishop Alan Clark and the Church of Ireland's bishop of Ossory Henry McAdoo, later archbishop of Dublin.
ARCIC-I gave way to ARCIC-II which in turn gave way to the current ARCIC-III. Each phase of the dialogue resulted in joint reports on theological issues, so that a whole corpus of agreed statements has emerged.
Celebration of difference
The latest report, entitled Walking Together on the Way, was published last year and, as with previous agreed statements in their day, it is now out for consideration within the Roman Catholic Church and the churches of the Anglican Communion.
The latest document focuses on what is termed “receptive” ecumenism, an approach that offers a certain new life to the ecumenical movement which has now been around for so long that the churches have been rather taking it for granted.
Just as, from a secular perspective, different cultures can enrich one another, so, it is held, differing churches can do likewise
Receptive ecumenism invites different denominations to ask themselves what they can beneficially learn from the different characteristics of other churches.
It might be described as a quiet celebration of difference, although in the sense of the churches allowing differences to have a positive role through the mutual embracing of features of different ecclesial life.
Just as, from a secular perspective, different cultures can enrich one another, so, it is held, differing churches can do likewise.
What can Anglicans see in the Roman Catholic tradition that could enrich their ecclesial life? And vice-versa?
The 113-page Walking Together on the Way document makes suggestions, some of which are:
Anglican learning from Roman Catholic: The use of “at least one common, modern Eucharistic prayer across the (Anglican) Communion; the provision of an approved common catechism; formal reception of the (2008 document) Principles of Canon Law Common to the Churches of the Anglican Communion; further exploration of the role of the See of Canterbury and its cathedral as the seat of the archbishop as a focus of unity; and the practice of pilgrimage visits by bishops to meet with the Archbishop of Canterbury for prayer and consultation”.
Roman Catholic learning from Anglican: Learning from “the culture of open and frank debate that exists at all levels of the Anglican Communion”, a deliberative role for synods; the inclusion of laity in decision-making structures, and the investing of authority in regional instruments of communion, suggesting “the need for the Roman Catholic Church to articulate more clearly the authority of episcopal conferences”.
Yet, ecumenism is about much more than such mutual receptiveness, as ARCIC-III itself acknowledges. There are still big issues to be resolved between Roman Catholics and Anglicans, not least in terms of separation at Holy Communion.
Receptive ecumenism does, however, hold out the promise of a closer walking together as churches. And anything that brings churches together can only contribute to the ultimate resolution of those differences that really cannot ever be of mutual benefit.
Canon Ian Ellis is rector of Newcastle, Co Down, and a former editor of the Church of Ireland Gazette