Church as communion

Cardinal Kasper’s understanding of the role of the bishop as focus of unity was entirely consistent with existing Anglican thinking Bishop Paul Richardson draws out the ecumenical aspects

W hen Cardinal Kasper spoke to the college of bishops of the Church of England in June he was drawing on an understanding of the Church as communion which is widely accepted among theologians and ecumenists. This ecclesiology can be easily detected in both the Virginia Report, produced by the Inter Anglican Doctrinal and Theological Commission for the 1998 Lambeth Conference, and in the Windsor Report. The Windsor Report sees a parallel between the life of the Trinity and the communion we find in the Church. ‘We are, by God’s gift,’ it tells us, ‘in communion with the Persons of the Holy Trinity, and members of one another in Christ Jesus.’

An ARCIC commitment

But perhaps the most comprehensive account of the Church as communion to appear in an official church document is the ARCIC report of 1991 entitled Church as Communion. This is worth quoting in some detail. It describes communion as being ‘rooted in the confession of the apostolic faith revealed in the scriptures and set forth in the Creeds.’ It is founded on baptism, has its focus in the Eucharist, and is expressed in a shared mission.

The report goes on to describe communion as a ‘life of shared concern for one another in mutual forbearance, submission, gentleness and love; in placing the interests of others above the interests of self; in making room for each other in the body of Christ; in solidarity with the poor and the powerless; and in sharing gifts both material and spiritual.’ It stresses that ‘constitutive of life in communion is acceptance of the same basic moral values, the sharing of the same vision of humanity, created in the image of God and recreated in Christ, and the common confession of the one hope in the final consummation of the kingdom of God.’

The ARCIC report then sets its understanding of the episcopal ministry against the background of its account of the Church as communion. The prime responsibility of bishops is to maintain and express the unity of the churches: ‘By shepherding, teaching and the celebration of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, this ministry holds believers together in the communion of the local church and in the wider communion of

all the churches.’ Looking back over the course of church history, the report sees that various means have been used to foster and preserve communion between bishops, listing the participation of bishops from neighbouring sees in episcopal ordinations, prayers for bishops in the liturgy, exchanges of episcopal letters, synods and councils.

The shared office

Cardinal Kasper drew on this understanding of the Church and the ministry in his remarks to the college of bishops. He told the bishops that ‘from the beginning the episcopal office was ‘koinonially’ or collegially embedded in the communion of all the bishops. It was never perceived as an office to be understood or practised individually.’ He argued that the episcopal office is above all an office for unity. Bishops are meant to be a focus for unity within their diocese and to link their diocese with the wider Church and with the Church through the ages. He added that this understanding ‘is not just a particular Catholic tradition, but an understanding we share with the Anglican Communion. It can be found in the ARCIC conversations from the very beginning.’

Cardinal Kasper was particularly concerned with the ecumenical implications of any decision by the Church of England to ordain women. That is certainly an important issue but it ought not to be overlooked that the understanding of the Church as communion to which he appealed also has relevance to current debates within Anglicanism.

As far as the consequences for ecumenical relations with Rome of a decision to ordain women bishops are concerned, advocates for the move normally tell us that there is no reason to worry about Rome because the Catholic Church does not recognize Anglican orders anyway. This misses the point. When the ARCIC was set up, the Anglican Communion set

out on a journey that many hoped would lead to a restoration of full communion.

There are obstacles

Everyone knew that there were many obstacles on the road, one of them the judgement of Apostolicae Curae in 1896 that Anglican orders were null and void. But what many of us in both the Anglican and Catholic Churches hoped and expected was that a way would be found to overcome these obstacles. What we did not realize in the early, optimistic stage of ecumenical dialogue was that one of the partners would go ahead and create fresh difficulties, first by ordaining women priests and then by ordaining women bishops.

Rome has never made any secret of the fact that it regards the ordination of women bishops as a far graver step than the ordination of women priests, for reasons Cardinal Kasper outlined in his paper. Bishops are a focus for unity. The communion of the churches is strengthened and symbolized by the unity of the bishops. As such figures as Cardinal Willebrands have hinted, past obstacles that prevented Rome recognizing Anglican bishops and joining with them in full communion could possibly have been overcome, but not the new impediment created by the ordination of women bishops. To take such a step shows a sad failing in the ecumenical will.

The Orthodox perspective

It should be added that the ordination of women is a major issue for the Orthodox, many of whom would echo the theological views outlined by Cardinal Kasper. In the case of the Orthodox Church it also needs to be remembered that before the ordination of women became an issue some of them had moved towards acceptance of Anglican orders.

The matter is dealt with by the late Nicholas Zernov in an appendix to his book The Orthodox Encounter where he quotes a Patriarch of Constantinople, supported by his synod, officially declaring Anglican ordinations ‘possessing the same validity as those of the Roman, Old Catholic, and Armenian Churches possess, inasmuch all the essentials are found in them which are held to be indispensable from the Orthodox point of view for the recognition of the charisma of the priesthood

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