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Cardinal speaks to Anglican bishops at the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury
posted on 25 July 2008
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor

On 25 July Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster, spoke to Anglican bishops at the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury reflecting on his experiences of ecumenical dialogue.

Full text

Dead in the Water or Money in the Bank?

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-OConnor

I want to take advantage of this kind invitation to reflect on my experiences: of what has been going on over these last four decades while we have been in dialogue with each other, and especially in the years when I was intimately involved in the work of ARCIC. There are people on both sides who have become sceptical about this whole enterprise, but I am not one of them.

1. Some biography

First, a bit about myself. Ive been involved with the search for unity, and with ARCICs work in particular, for a large part of my priestly life. I was appointed Co-Chair of ARCIC 26 years ago and presided over its work with Bishop Mark Santer until 1999. After I stepped down, I have continued to be involved:  particularly as a participant in the Mississauga Meeting of Anglican and Catholic bishops which took place in Canada in 2000; and by attempting to implement some of what came from that meeting in the shape of the IARCCUM commission and the proposals in its document, Growing Together in Unity and Mission.  Here in England and Wales, for example, we had the first joint meeting of Anglican and Catholic bishops a while ago.

When I look back at the time when I started my work with ARCIC it sometimes seems like a different age. They were heady days. You remember this was back in 1982:

  • ARCIC had just published its Final Report, which had brought together all the Statements it had produced since it began in 1970: the statements and elucidations about Eucharistic Doctrine, Ministry and Ordination, and Authority in the Church.
  • All this was very new. Engaging in this sort of dialogue was itself new, and people were genuinely amazed and delighted by what had been done over 12 short years.
  • Pope John Paul II was still in the early years of his long papacy. In 1982 he had just paid a landmark pastoral visit to the Catholic community in this country. How well I remember when he visited this city and Archbishop Runcie welcomed him to Canterbury Cathedral. People witnessed that extraordinary sight of the two of them processing down the nave and praying together for unity.
  • And here in this city, they had also declared publicly that there was going to be a new ARCIC commission, a second phase of dialogue of which I was to become a co-chair.

Back then, many people were expecting a quick and positive evaluation of ARCIC Is work after all, the initial hope had been that some concrete intermediate steps on the way towards full communion might result. We were early on in this new enterprise of ecumenical dialogue and maybe people had not yet fully reckoned with what reception of such documents might require. Even high-level official reception takes time, and it did. A careful process of discussion in the Provinces prepared the way for Lambeth 1988 to recognise the Eucharist and Ministry statements as consonant in substance with the faith of Anglicans and the work on Authority as a good basis for further dialogue, especially over the concept of a universal primacy. In the Catholic Church it took even longer before the full Catholic Response came out at the end of 1991 largely positive about Eucharist and Ministry, and also acknowledging remarkable progress on authority.  

One thing we have gradually come to realise is that the reception of any dialogue document involves far more than just its publication or even an official response. It takes time and discussion at every level of the life of the Church, as the path taken by your own 1997 Virginia Report and its proposals shows. And some or all of the contents can prove not to be accepted or received. I know some of our Christian partner communions have had anxieties when the Catholic Church has closely analysed or even questioned some of what has been proposed in dialogue statements. But that has to be an integral part of the process of receiving what a dialogue commission may propose.

2. The Changing Atmosphere during the time of ARCIC II

While this was going on, ARCIC began its second phase but the atmosphere was changing. What do I mean by that?

In several respects, when we look back now we can easily see how much in those years was positive: Pope John Paul produced his Encyclical Letter on Commitment to Ecumenism in 1995, for example, the first time such authoritative teaching on ecumenism was given by the Pope. As I hope you know, it is full of a zeal for unity, and rich perspectives flowing from the Second Vatican Council that people are still unpacking a dozen years later; and it contains his remarkable appeal for others to enter into dialogue about how his Petrine ministry may accomplish a service of love recognised by all (UUS, 95). Two years before that he had issued the Catholic Churchs Ecumenical Directory, a handbook full of the key principles and guidelines to help every member of the Church engage in the search for unity and I believe we remain the only Church to have produced such a thorough and positive handbook. And what we had applauded here in Canterbury back in May 1982 revealed what would be one of the main priorities in the Popes many visits across the world: while he was healthy, and even after he became ill, Pope John Paul met, got to know, and prayed with other Church leaders. Meetings with the Archbishop of Canterbury seemingly so daring and even controversial back at the outset have as a result become fraternal and frequent. No longer are they limited to the solemn set piece meetings such as that of Archbishop Coggan in 1987, but have become more informal and increasingly normal.

But the atmosphere had also begun to change, as I said we gradually became aware that the path to unity might be longer than we had imagined at first, and that some shadows were spreading over our relationship.

  • It became increasingly clear that the ordination of women priests and bishops in a growing number of provinces has presented what is for the Catholic Church a major stumbling block to the hoped-for reconciliation of ministries. If our Church does not believe that it can ordain women, in what way is the issue of Anglican ordinations to be overcome? Or to put the matter another way, and this is not meant to be polemical, if Anglicans themselves disagree over this development, and find yourselves unable fully to recognise each others ministry, how could we?
  • It doesnt need me to enlarge upon the divisiveness of some issues of morality. If anybody ever thought that such questions concerned only the individual conscience and had little ecclesial (let alone ecumenical) consequence, events have shown otherwise.

3. The Underlying Issue in ARCIC II

But I think something else is now emerging which has been hidden in these shadows, something even more fundamental, which is the question of ecclesiology. How do we understand the Church? Where is the Church to be found? Is it a loose federation with a common history and family kinship? Is it a more closely-knit body with developed structures of authority? Moreover, with what instruments does the Spirit enable the Churches to reach binding decisions where necessary? decisions which can provide clear and focussed guidance about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and about the moral decisions church members face as they try to follow the Gospel.

These, and questions like them, have emerged in most of our ecumenical dialogues and they have become increasi

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