Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Forthright Appraisal Of Dialogue

Via Rorate, I've come across a couple of very good articles on ecumenism. The first is from William Oddie at the Catholic Herald. It's a refreshing take on the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission and why it's a ludicrous ritual with little or nor redeeming value.

In the wake of the recent collapse of Muslim-Catholic dialogue, you have to ask what that word “dialogue” has come to mean these days: two groups of irreconcilables, each churning out yet again their own point of view in case their interlocutors weren’t already perfectly well aware of what they think about absolutely everything? I remember as a Catholic-minded Anglican desperately hoping, back in the 70s, in the early days of ARCIC, that a series of statements would somehow emerge which would uncover a common faith, on the basis of which corporate reunion might be a distant prospect. The statements did emerge, on Ministry, Sacraments and so forth: but they were never officially accepted by Rome as being a sound or adequate representation of Catholic belief, and nor were they.

I think this is an excellent point and one seldom raised. Aren't we creating a false hope (or whatever) among all these other groups by playing the whole dialogue scene this way? Folks like Mr. Oddie wait around for Rome to see the light, but we all know that won't happen. Even when documents and reports come out, they are theologically worthless. The Joint Declaration on Justification with the Lutherans is a classic example of this.

The trouble with ARCIC always was (as a former Catholic member of it once explained to me) that on the Catholic side of the table you have a body of men (mostly bishops) who represent a more or less coherent view, being members of a Church which has established means of knowing and declaring what it believes. On the Anglican side of the table you have a body of men (and it was only men, on both sides, in those days) the divisions between whom are just fundamental as, and sometimes a lot more fundamental than, those between any one of them and the Catholic representatives they faced: they all represented only themselves.

And they all, Catholics and Anglicans, quite simply belonged to very different kinds of institution. It isn’t just that Catholics and Anglicans believe different doctrines: it’s that there is between them a fundamental difference over their attitude to the entire doctrinal enterprise. I remember very vividly, in my days as an (Anglican) clergy member of the Chelmsford Diocesan Synod, a debate on one of the ARCIC documents followed by a vote on whether to recommend to the General Synod in London that it should be accepted. The document was accepted overwhelmingly. At lunchtime, standing at the bar with a number of clergy, I asked how they had voted; they had all voted affirmatively. I then asked them if they had read the document.

And here comes the ugly truth:

None of them had; and most of them, it became clear, had little idea of what it contained. “Well”, I asked, puzzled, “why did you vote for it, then?” “The point is,” one of them replied, “the important thing is unity. The RCs are frightfully keen on doctrine. You have to encourage them: so I voted for their document”. There you have it: what the late Mgr Graham Leonard, when he was still an Anglican bishop, once called “the doctrinal levity of the Church of England”.

At the brass tacks level, you'd think we'd have to get past the whole issue of holy orders before we can even talk about anything else. But hey, who cares, right? They're just "encouraging" us, hoping that eventually we'll cave on something in the name of "unity." Unity in what, nobody really knows, but it would look good in the papers.

And in the end, that fundamental disqualification of ARCIC remains: it is an endless time-consuming discussion between representatives of the Catholic Church on one side, and a varying group of individuals who represent only themselves on the other. And so it will be at the next ARCIC meeting. Some of the Anglicans will be quite close to the views of their (hum, hum) “spiritual leader”, Rowan Williams; others will be very far from them. A document so general that they can all subscribe to it will somehow be cobbled together. Nobody will read it: and the whole operation will at great expense achieve nothing.

Can anybody explain to me why we carry on with ARCIC? Is there any real intention, as 30 years ago there undoubtedly was, of actually acheiving something? Is it a continuing self-delusion on the part of those participating? Or is ARCIC III just a PR exercise, designed to avert attention from the fact that we have now, inevitably but finally, come to the bitter end of the ecumenical road?

Great questions. I wish I knew the answers.

No comments: