The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) made the goal of achieving unity among the world's Christians - ecumenism - a major priority for the Catholic Church. Central to this goal has been finding agreement on the vexed question of the role of the Papacy.
Long-awaited progress in this direction has come with the recent release of a joint statement by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) on authority in the Church, titled 'The Gift of Authority'. Launched at Westminster Abbey on 12 May, the document is of considerable significance because it includes some recognition of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome over all Christian Churches.
However, this significance is tempered by the fact that ARCIC has no authority of its own over either the Catholic or Anglican Churches other than a moral one; it can merely recommend. ARCIC itself consists of 18 theologians, nine appointed by each Church, who have devoted their attention to a series of disputed matters over the past 20 years, e.g., the Eucharist, Anglican Orders and Church authority.
In releasing the latest ARCIC statement, The Gift of Authority, and submitting it to the hierarchies of their respective Churches, ARCIC's two co-chairmen - Bishop Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of Arundel (Catholic) and Bishop Mark Santer of Birmingham (Anglican) - voiced the hope that its conclusions would be accepted and put into practice. In that way, they said, "The subject of the nature of authority and the manner in which it is exercised will cease to be a cause of permanent rupture in communion between our two Churches."
Dr George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury, reacted positively to the document. In a communiqué issued a few hours after its publication, Archbishop Carey said that differences in attitude between Catholics and Anglicans regarding the Pope's authority were at the centre of differences between the two Christian confessions during the Reformation carried out by Henry VIII four centuries ago.
Dr Carey concluded by inviting Anglicans to read the text, take it into consideration, and discuss it.
While ARCIC's role arose from a general concern by Pope Paul VI and the then Archbishop of Canterbury to address differences between their respective Churches, John Paul II has encouraged responses from other Christians as to how the issue of Papal authority might be resolved.
In his encyclical, Ut Unum Sint (95-96), John Paul II invited leaders and theologians of other churches to engage with him in a fraternal dialogue on how the particular ministry of unity of the Bishop of Rome might be exercised in a new situation.
Central to The Gift of Authority is its discussion of the significance of Scripture and Tradition to an understanding of authority in the Church. The statement's discussion of the meaning of Tradition is heavily based on those passages of Scripture in which Jesus gave the Apostles authority to teach and lead the church, and how the Apostles themselves understood and exercised that authority.
Addressing the concerns of those who believe only in the inerrancy of Scripture, the document highlights the point that the Catholic Church itself identified certain books as divinely inspired, thus defining the composition of the New Testament. This involved the operation of the Magisterium and Tradition in the Church.
The Gift of Authority states: "The formation of the canon of the Scriptures was an integral part of the process of tradition. The Church's recognition of these Scriptures as canonical, after a long period of critical discernment, was at the same time an act of obedience and of authority. It was an act of obedience in that the Church discerned and received God's life-giving 'Yes' through the Scriptures, accepting them as the norm of faith. It was an act of authority in that the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, received and handed on these texts, declaring that they were inspired and that others were not to be included in the canon."
The statement emphasises that since the Anglican church separated itself from the Catholic Church in the 16th Century, the exercise of authority had taken different directions in the churches.
In Anglicanism, authority was exercised by Diocesan Synods, but still "bishops bear a unique responsibility of oversight. For example, a diocesan synod can be called only by the bishop, and its decisions can stand only with the bishop's consent. At provincial or national levels, Houses of Bishops exercise a distinctive and unique ministry in relation to matters of doctrine, worship and moral life."
At the wider level, "In the Anglican Communion as a whole the Primates' Meeting, the Anglican Consultative Council, the Lambeth Conference and the Archbishop of Canterbury serve as instruments of synodality."
In the Catholic Church, however, authority is exercised by the Pope - who is seen as Christ's vicar on earth - as well as by individual bishops, and through Councils of the Church.
Following the Second Vatican Council, National Episcopal Conferences have developed, ad limina visits to Rome by all bishops within particular countries have been co- ordinated, Synods of Bishops have also been conducted, and the Pope himself has "strengthened the brethren" throughout the world by his frequent visitations.
The Gift of Authority addresses the primacy of the See of Rome, and shows how it is based in Scripture and Tradition. It also shows how, to a point, this has been accepted in the Anglican communion: "Historically, the Bishop of Rome has exercised such a ministry either for the benefit of the whole Church, as when Leo contributed to the Council of Chalcedon, or for the benefit of a local Church, as when Gregory the Great supported Augustine of Canterbury's mission and ordering of the English Church. This gift has been welcomed and the ministry of these Bishops of Rome continues to be celebrated liturgically by Anglicans as well as Roman Catholics.
"Within his wider ministry, the Bishop of Rome offers a specific ministry concerning the discernment of truth, as an expression of universal primacy. This particular service has been the source of difficulties and misunderstandings among the churches.
Faith of the Church
"Every solemn definition pronounced from the chair of Peter in the Church of Peter and Paul may, however, express only the faith of the Church. Any such definition is pronounced within the college of those who exercise episcopacy and not outside that college. Such authoritative teaching is a particular exercise of the calling and responsibility of the body of bishops to teach and affirm the faith.
"When the faith is articulated in this way, the Bishop of Rome proclaims the faith of the local churches. It is thus the wholly reliable teaching of the whole Church that is operative in the judgement of the universal primate. In solemnly formulating such teaching, the universal primate must discern and declare, with the assured assistance and guidance of the Holy Spirit, in fidelity to Scripture and Tradition, the authentic faith of the whole Church, that is, the faith proclaimed from the beginning.
"It is this faith, the faith of all the baptised in communion, and this only, that each bishop utters with the body of bishops in council. It is this faith which the Bishop of Rome in certain circumstances has a duty to discern and make explicit. This form of authoritative teaching has no stronger guarantee from the Spirit than have the solemn definitions of ecumenical councils. The reception of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome entails the recognition of this specific ministry of the universal primate. We believe that this is a gift to be received by all the churches."
There remain, however, a number of problems with the principles outlined in The Gift of Authority; and some of these are outlined near the end of the document, as issues facing Anglicans and Catholics.
The statement accepts that "Anglicans have shown themselves to be willing to tolerate anomalies for the sake of maintaining communion. Yet this has led to the impairment of communion manifesting itself at the Eucharist, in the exercise of episcopate and in the interchangeability of ministry."
As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the signatories raise a number of questions about whether the Catholic Church would accept "effective participation of clergy and lay people" in synods, and whether the Pope would be sufficiently engaged in consultation with bishops and "the variety of theological opinion" when making "important decisions affecting either a local church or the whole Church".
These questions go centrally to the Catholic understanding from Scripture and Tradition: that the Church is essentially hierarchical, as the Second Vatican Council described it, rather than 'democratic' or congregational. The Pope is not just a visible sign of unity, but has the authority which Christ gave to St Peter, apart from that which he gave to the Apostles collectively.
Apart from the doctrinal difficulties which occurred at the Reformation - many of which (such as the number and meanings of the Sacraments, the role and status of Councils and place of Mary) have yet to be fully addressed - since the 16th Century, the Catholic Church itself has formulated the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, which are not generally accepted by Anglicans.
On the other side, the Anglican Church has acted independently of and contrary to the teachings of other Apostolic churches, particularly the Catholic and Orthodox, on the appointment of women priests and bishops, as well as on questions such as abortion, artificial contraception and IVF technology.
Even allowing for these very real difficulties, the Archbishop of Canterbury faces a formidable task in winning the support of the whole Anglican communion for The Gift of Authority and its cautious - but significant - contents.
Already, some Anglican Evangelicals have reacted with hostility. Writing in the London Tablet, the Rev'd Stephen Hampton, Chaplain of Exeter College, Oxford, said that "virtually every Protestant critique of the Roman Catholic view of authority is ignored ... In matters of authority, this report is in effect proposing the wholesale abandoning of the Reformation."
He rejected the document's understanding of the role of Tradition, the idea that "the Church is indefectible and may teach infallibly", and that the Pope, as Bishop of Rome, may exercise a primacy over the universal church "with the assured assistance and guidance of the Holy Spirit." After citing the authority of Scripture from the Thirty Nine Articles, the foundation document of Anglicanism, the Rev'd Hampton said, "All human gatherings can err, including General Councils [of the Church], and indeed the whole Church. The only source of infallibility is the clear word of Scripture (The Tablet, 22 May 1999).
Finally, apart from all the difficulties, which have been more or less explicitly expressed in the document, and the initial predictably hostile comments of some Anglican Evangelicals, the agreement meant to have been reached in The Gift of Authority is more apparent than real. This is no doubt due to the ambiguity of expression into which it all too often lapses. One example will suffice.
The statement says that the Bishop of Rome has the duty, in certain circumstances, "to discern and make explicit" what is in fact already "the faith of all the baptised in communion." "This form of authoritative teaching has no stronger guarantee from the Spirit than have the solemn definitions of ecumenical councils." What does this mean? If you believe in the infallibility of ecumenical councils you will no doubt interpret that sentence to mean that the Pope has an infallible teaching authority.
However if, as an Anglican, you believe that General Councils cannot be convened by the Pope acting alone (i.e., without the commandment and will of Princes), that such Councils may err and have indeed "erred even in things pertaining to God", and that "things ordained by them [ecumenical councils] as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority unless it may be declared that they be taken out of Holy Scripture" (see Article XXI of the 39 Articles), then that same sentence may be taken to mean that the Pope can err when teaching definitively on matters of faith and morals.
In short, while the The Gift of Authority is a welcome and necessary attempt to remove a major impediment to closer dialogue among Christians, full communion remains a distant prospect.