There was in the C of E to which I was ordained in the 1970’s a sort of ‘Catholic dynamic’. What I mean is that feeling that the Oxford Movement, the Catholic Revival, had permeated almost everywhere, and was now going to gather in the harvest. Church unity was seen in terms of mending the 16th century breach, which had separated England from the rest of Europe. It was high time to put this right. And the setting up of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission was the way forward.
In the 1920’s the Malines Conversations (led on the Anglican side by Lord Halifax, President of the Church Union, and Cardinal Mercier, Archbishop of Malines-Bruxelles in Belgium) had foundered because they were essentially informal discussions with just one part of the C of E: the Anglo-Catholics. Yet by the 1960’s the C of E as a whole was looking much more like the ‘Church’ as envisaged by Halifax; moreover, with the Second Vatican Council the Catholic Church itself was looking much more like the ‘Church’ as Anglicans had now come to understand it. The signs were good on both sides, and the Commission (ARCIC) got down to the serious business of clarifying doctrinal belief on both sides. They seemed to make progress, and on divisive questions like the priesthood, the Eucharist and the place of authority in the Church, their reports found a common language. Anglo-Catholics, at least, were hopeful that corporate reunion (some talked about Uniate status) would be in sight by the Millennium.
In the memory of the C of E nowadays it was ‘Rome’ who first poured cold water by demanding ‘elucidations’ of points of doctrine: and making the language ‘sharper’. But we should not forget that the Evangelicals in the C of E, who were by now experiencing growth in numbers and influence, rejected ARCIC from the beginning, as representing what they believed as Anglicans . The liberals too, were uneasy. They were beginning to swim with secular concerns about the ‘equality of the sexes’ and to question the 2,000 year old tradition that only men could be priests. The Catholic side was discovering that, lacking any central teaching authority, it was impossible, to pin down what Anglicans believed. Anglo-Catholics had anticipated this difficulty, but believed that their influence was on the brink of tipping the Anglican Communion over into the Catholic way of believing and behaving. As the last fifty years have shown, they were wrong.
As the Provinces of the Anglican Communion began to act unilaterally, ordaining women first to the priesthood and then as bishops, so the whole ARCIC process went ‘on to the back burner’. This is often dismissed (by some Catholics as well as Anglicans) as the influence of conservative forces at Rome. But Anglo-Catholics were dismayed to see years of work for unity coming to an end. Nor were they willing to be told that it “could never have happened”. If the will had been there, as it was with other issues, of course it could – and would – have happened. Determined that the call to unity should not fail, they continued their approaches – and the result, to cut a long story short, was Pope Benedict’s setting up of the Ordinariates. Here was a form of corporate reunion. He was offering it, as Bishop of Rome, to all Anglicans: but if all would not enter this new relationship of restored communion, then it remained for those who would to take action. And we did!
Those who have entered the Ordinariates – and those Anglicans of a previous generation (and today) who come to the fullness of Catholic unity by other routes – are truly the children of the Oxford Movement, the Malines Conversations, and the ARCIC process. They are urgent in their desire for unity, and they point rightly to the desire of the Lord that his Church should be one as their motivation. No other issue may take priority over this one.
The ARCIC discussions continue, and Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby meet on good terms. They encourage joint projects in which Anglicans and Catholics may cooperate. But the understanding of what it means to be ‘Church’ is clearly now different, (and therefore ARCIC is conducted on a different basis) Anglicanism has entered on a new path, and Catholics now look to the East. Perhaps now the C of E is more at ease with itself, as a church of the Reformation, a church in which there is no central doctrinal authority, where individual judgement is exercised, and, it is claimed, the ‘Spirit blows where he (or she) will’.