Pressures have been mounted from inside and outside the Catholic Church in recent years for a relaxation of its ban on inter-Communion with other Christian Churches, despite the lack of agreement reached at ecumenical gatherings on the respective Churches' understandings of the Eucharist and the priesthood.
Recent support for the firm Catholic position has been expressed by Fr Geoffrey Kirk, Vicar of the Anglican parish of St Stephen's, Lewisham, England, in an article in the 'Catholic Herald.'
Something strange is happening in Anglicanism, something which is rooted in changing attitudes to sacramental theology, but something which nevertheless directly affects ecumenical relations.
Ever since it was revealed that the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States (now: Co-Chairman of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission) was in the habit of doffing his purple cassock and dog-collar, donning a lumberjack shirt and receiving Holy Communion at a Roman Catholic Church just round the corner from his New York Office on Second Avenue, it has been clear that those changes are officially sanctioned and far-reaching.
Anglicans have long agreed to differ about the very basics of sacramental theology. Almost every position in the wider ecumenical spectrum, from Zwinglian receptionism to transubstantiation, has been (and still is) found in the Church of England. One party has its monstrances and the other party feeds the leftovers to the birds. What characterised Anglicanism in the past was a fierce internal dispute about this and other matters. Anglicans believed that it was important to get sacramental theology right, even to the extent of persecuting those who deviated from the (admittedly unclear) official line.
All that has changed. Anglicans, it seems, are settling for an experimental, post-modernist view of sacraments. The 'official' position about the ordination of women is a case in point. Anglicans once believed (as the Catholic Church teaches) that it is of the nature of orders to be everywhere equivalent and interchangeable; that Holy Orders exist to guarantee the authenticity of sacraments.
Now that some provinces of the world-wide Anglican Communion ordain women and others do not, that view has been modified. It is now held that the orders of women are in some way "provisional", waiting upon the "reception" of the idea that women can and should be ordained by the "wider Church" - though whether that phrase means the Anglican Communion alone or is intended to include Catholics and Orthodox is anybody's guess.
In practice, where women have been ordained, this strange doctrine means private judgement in the matter of orders and sacraments. Parish churches, other organisations and individuals can decide whether or not to "receive" the ministry of ordained women and the sacraments they celebrate. The Church of England's General Synod, in 1993, voted by overwhelming majorities to uphold this new sacramental principle in an Act of Synod which endorsed the existence within the Church of "two integrities" in the matter.
It would, of course, be hard to imagine an attitude to sacraments more radically at variance with the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church.
Unlike the internal disputes about sacraments among Anglicans in the past, which, though bitter and protracted, assumed that one position or other was right and would prevail, the new doctrine accepts and positively embraces an indefinite (and perhaps even permanent) ambiguity. For the time being (and perhaps for ever) the sacraments of the Church of England are held to be what the recipients of them think them to be.
Inevitably the internal divisions of Anglican provinces and the disagreements between them have affected ecumenical relations. The goal of Anglican talks with other Churches was previously what has been called "full visible unity", an essential element of which was the full reconciliation of ministries. But, now the House of Bishops of the world-wide Anglican Communion contains some whom others of its members suppose not to be bishops, that ideal has, understandably, become difficult, if not impossible, to sustain.
In various ecumenical endeavours Anglicans have surrendered the ecumenical ideal to the relativism which prevails among them internally. So, in the Porvoo agreement, the Anglican Churches of the British Isles have entered into a relationship with the Lutheran Church of Norway which frankly acknowledges that Church's practice of lay celebration of the Eucharist and of the ordination of priests by other priests in the absence of a bishop.
The Church of Norway was required to give no formal assurance that these practices would cease. The Episcopal Church of the United States, meanwhile, has concluded a Concordat with the Evangelical Lutheran Church by suspending its ordinal to ordained ministers to function in Episcopal churches. The Lutherans, in their turn have passed a protocol which allows those who are conscientiously opposed to the doctrine of the Apostolic Succession to continue to be ordained by fellow presbyters.
Within the Anglican Communion itself many believe that it is only a matter of time before the Diocese of Sydney, in the Anglican Church of Australia, approves lay celebration of the Eucharist (which is already widely practised without sanction). Informed observers expect that the ecclesiology of the Australian Church would be adapted to accommodate the opinions of what is Australia's richest and by far its most numerous diocese.
It is in this wider context that the off-duty habits of the American Presiding Bishop and the recent document of the Church of England's House of Bishops, The Eucharist: Sacrament of Unity, must be assessed and evaluated by Roman Catholics. For it is clear that when they speak of unity, what Anglican and Catholic bishops mean is very different. Anglican bishops, though they argue in their document that they share with the Roman Catholic Church its historic Eucharistic faith, make it quite clear that by this they do not mean anything which might pass any test of doctrinal precision or consistency. How, indeed, given their willingness to accept almost any sacramental theology as being part of what they are prepared to embrace, could they?
But they go one stage further: not only are the sacraments of the Church of England held to be whatever the recipients of them think them to be: this understanding should now extend to the sacraments of other Churches. Thus, we read in The Eucharist: Sacrament of Unity that Anglicans would be unwilling to press lay people for an explicit form of doctrinal assent with regard to eucharistic theology. They would be inclined to say that communicants identify themselves with the faith of the Church by their active participation in the liturgy, including reciting the Nicene Creed (or the Apostles' Creed), and by the assent that they make through congregational acclamations and the various Amens said by the people, not least at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer and at the moment of actual reception of the sacred elements.
Anglicans would wish to ask: Is not that enough? The Church of England bishops who produced this document genuinely cannot work out for the life of them why Roman Catholics will persist in saying that it is not enough: it is an imaginative gulf the very existence of which they are incapable of perceiving.