What Still Separates Us from the Catholic Church?
An Anglican Reply

John Macquarrie

The question for us Anglicans is not, “What still separates us from the Catholic Church?” but “What still separates Anglicans and Romans within the Catholic Church to which they both so visibly and manifestly belong?"

John Macquarrie (1919-    ) is one of the Anglican Communion’s pre-eminent theologians.  Of his many highly-esteemed works, the best-known, perhaps, is Principles of Christian Theology (New York: Scribner, 1966). He began his career as a Scottish Presbyterian, but while living in New York and teaching at the Union Theological Seminary he came into the Episcopal Church and was ordained to the priesthood.  Later he was appointed Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford.

This essay, originally copyright © 1970 by Herder and Herder, is posted here by permission of the author, to whom ownership of the copyright has reverted.  It may not be reproduced in any medium without his permission.  The essay was published in Post-ecumenical Christianity, edited by Hans Kung (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970), 45-53.


I.     The Catholic Church as a Common Heritage

What still separates us from the Catholic Church? I am asked to give an Anglican answer to this question.  Needless to say, I cannot answer on behalf of all Anglicans.  The Anglican communion is noted for the great diversity of views which it embraces.  Some like to speak of the “comprehensiveness” of Anglicanism while others would use less laudatory words and would talk of the “indefiniteness” or even the “confusions” of Anglicanism.

        Nevertheless, I think that a great many Anglicans, even an overwhelming majority of them, will agree with me if I first of all answer the question by saying that, in a very real and important sense, nothing separates us from the Catholic Church.  Anglicanism has never considered itself to be a sect or denomination originating in the sixteenth century.  It continues without a break the Ecclesia Anglicana founded by St. Augustine thirteen centuries and more ago, though nowadays that branch of the Church has spread far beyond the borders of England.  Our present revered leader, Arthur Michael Ramsey, is reckoned the one hundredth Archbishop of Canterbury, in direct succession to Augustine himself.

        It is often claimed that Anglicanism has no special doctrines of its own and simply follows the universal teaching of the Church.  When one considers the nature of the English Reformation, one see that there is strong support for this claim.  In England there was no single dominant figure, such as Luther or Calvin, who might impress upon the Church his own theological idiosyncrasies.  The conscious aim of the English Reformation was to return, so far as possible, to the Catholic Christianity of the undivided Church of the first five centuries.  No doubt the vision of that early Church was idealized (especially with regard to the idea that it was “undivided” and that it displayed a “uniformity,” so beloved of sixteenth-century minds—and of some ecumenists today). But there was a conscious striving for continuity as well as for renewal, and the result was that the classic shape of Catholic Christianity was more clearly preserved in the English Reformation than in the more violent religious upheavals which took place in some other countries.

        In spite of Puritan pressures, the Catholic tradition persisted in Anglicanism, and was powerfully reaffirmed by the Oxford Movement in the nineteenth century.  In recent decades, the Catholic character of Anglicanism has been evidenced in ecumenical discussion by the insistence of Anglican theologians on the so-call Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral as the minimal characteristics of a Church fully Catholic—the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the Catholic Creeds, the Dominical Sacraments, and the Historic Episcopate.

        No doubt all Christians participate, in greater or less degree, in Catholicity.  They have all maintained something of the classic form.  Vatican II recognized that Anglicans had done this in a quite distinct way, and we are glad to have this recognition from our Roman brethren—it is a tremendous step forward from the old “all or nothing” position of 1896—and I shall have something to say about this later.  But if we are to take this change of attitude seriously, then I must insist on changing the form of the question which stands at the head of this article.  Because both Romans and Anglicans (as well as some others) have been true to the classical shape of Catholic Christianity, the question for us is not, “What still separates us from the Catholic Church” but hat still separates Anglicans and Romans within the Catholic Church to which they both so visibly and manifestly belong?”

        In putting the question this way, I am emphasizing how much the Roman and Anglican communions have in common.  They have always had much in common, but since the reforms of Vatican II, their convergence is more apparent than ever.  The celebration of the liturgy in the vernacular and the new stress on the collegiality of the bishops are moves on the Roman side which significantly narrow the gap with Anglicanism.  There are many minor matters where convergence has occurred, such as the proposed new Roman marriage service.  It is at least possible that in the Roman communion, as in the Anglican, celibacy will come to be regarded as a prized but optional vocation for some, and that many parishes will be served by married priests.  If present trends continue, then the Roman and Anglican communions will become more and more alike.

 II.   Serious Barriers

But although these convergences are striking, we would be deceiving ourselves if we did not recognize that there are still serious differences, and it is not likely that these will be quickly or easily overcome.  Let me mention a few of the more obvious.

        Let me say something first on the problem of the Papacy.  In the summer of 1968 I was a consultant at the Lambeth Conference, which brought together in London bishops from all over the Anglican communion.  In general, these bishops were well disposed toward the Roman Catholic Church and eager for better relations (though I wished that more of them would show as much enthusiasm for unity with Rome as some did for rather parochial schemes of union with Protestant bodies).  But in the midst of their deliberations, we learned of the publication of the encyclical Humanae vitae.  There can be no doubt that this definitely chilled the ecumenical atmosphere, so far as our relations with Rome were concerned. Let me hasten to say that I do not think we underestimated the difficulties confronting the Pope as he tried to give guidance to a Church deeply divided between progressives and conservatives.  On the contrary, there was much sympathy with him, and a recognition of his deep sincerity.  But rightly or wrongly, it did seem to Anglican eyes that this was an example of an autocratic action, taken without sufficient regard to a very large and impressive body of opinion, both theological and demographical.

          This was a definite setback to the possibility of coming to some common mind on the place of the Papacy in ecumenical Christendom.  Up till that point, the image of the Papacy had been steadily enhanced over a number of years. John XXIII, by his human warmth and loving spirit, had led many people outside of the Roman communion to have a new respect for the successors of St. Peter.  The present Holy Father also, by his concern for peace and for the poor, had gone far towards winning a place of influence and affection in the hearts of many people, both Christian and non-Christian.  (His fraternal reception of the Archbishop of Canterbury had made an additional favourable impression among Anglicans.) Many Christians including Anglicans, had begun to see in an invigorated Papacy a rallying-point for Christian action and a centre for Christian unity.  But Humanae vitae gave a sudden check to these thoughts.  It appeared once more that the Papacy concentrates in a single individual a measure of power which many Christians, including most Anglicans, find intolerable and in conflict with their understanding of the nature of the Church.

          I still believe myself (and I think that many, though by no means all, Anglicans would agree) that the Papacy has an important role to play in the future of the whole Church.  I do not wish to have the Papacy abolished as the price of unity, and I do not even wish to have the Pope reduced to a mere figurehead or ceremonial leader.  I believe that the Papacy can provide dynamic leadership for all of us.  But this can come only from a Papacy that is truly integrated with the bishops and, eventually, with the whole People of God.  The Pope is a sacramental person, an embodiment of the whole Church, but he is nothing apart from the Church.  Whether a renewed doctrine of the Papacy that would be acceptable to Anglicans can be worked out remains to be seen.  I should think that the notion of infallibility, even in some subtly diluted form, would be quite unacceptable to most of us.  So the Papacy remains at present a formidable barrier.  But who knows what two hundred more years of reflection and working together may do for both Romans and Anglicans on this matter?

        The question of the Papacy, however, seems to me to be only part of a wider problem.  There is in the Roman Catholic Church a tradition of authoritarianism with which those accustomed to less rigid structures will find it hard to come to terms.  Of course, some kind of authority is necessary in the Church if it is to retain its cohesion as the People of God and the Body of Christ.  In the Anglican tradition, an attempt has been made to diffuse authority through a number of agencies, so that there is no over-concentration of authority in any single area.  One of the great architects of the Anglican communion, Richard Hooker, sought a middle way between the Puritan insistence of the absolute authority of the Bible and the Roman Catholic tendency to repose authority in the Church and the hierarchy.  But this middle way was no mere compromise.  It was an attempt to reach a concept of authority more flexible and more responsive to the needs of the Church, and this was to be achieved by allowing the several factors constituting the authority to check and correct each other.  The Bible has a certain primacy, yet it is the Bible as interpreted in the Prayer Book and under the guidance of the Church.  More than this, Anglicans from Hooker to Temple have laid stress also on the authority of reason and conscience.  This means in effect that Anglicans are treated as responsible adults, for whom authority is not external or oppressive.

        Let me at once admit that Anglicans are not always responsible in the use of their freedom.  Sometimes the Anglican communion must look, in the eyes of other Christians, like the ecclesiastical version of the “permissive society.”  From time to time, Anglican clergymen, theologians, and occasionally bishops, create a sensation by teaching some wildly unorthodox doctrine or by engaging in some bizarre behaviour. Anglicans have become tolerant of such eccentricities, and I do not think that many of us would wish to have it otherwise.  We believe that the best answer to deviant beliefs and practices is not to try to suppress them but to bring them into the open and by free criticism, to show what is mistaken in them as well as learning something of the truth that is hidden in every error.  No doubt there is a risk in this permissiveness, but we believe that it is a risk worth taking if there is to be progress in theological understanding and in the practical application of the faith.  Furthermore, it can be argued that willingness to take this risk shows a fundamental confidence in Catholic truth and in the capacity of this truth to survive in the free market of ideas. One may recall the words of St. Irenaeus about the false teachers of his day: Adversus eos victoria est sententiae eorum manifestatio (Adv. Haer.,I, xxxi, 4). [“Victory against them is the exposure of their opinions.”]

          It is true that within recent years the concept of authority is being subjected to renewed scrutiny in the Roman Catholic Church, and that some of the old rigidity has been abandoned.  There is a new freedom, and it is hoped that it will be strengthened.  But authoritarian and autocratic attitudes still persist, and many Roman Catholic bishops still seem to have the idea that if anyone’s teaching deviates from the accepted norm, he ought to be silenced.  This would be quite unacceptable to Anglicans, and we would need to look long and hard at any move towards closer relations with Rome if there was any danger that this might impair the reasonable liberties which we prize.

          A somewhat amusing feature of contemporary Roman Catholicism is that even supposedly “progressive” bishops still entertain very old-fashioned ideas of authority, and try to enforce reforms by methods quite as arbitrary and dictatorial as the “reactionaries” ever used in opposing reform.  In the United States, we recently had the unedifying spectacle of two priests being harassed and eventually silenced by the hierarchy, one because he was considered to progressive, the other because he still wanted a few Latin Masses and the old ceremonial!  This would have been funny, if it had not shown to what an extent the old inflexible ideas of authority still prevail and how much fear there is of departure from uniformity.  Anglicanism could gladly accommodate the positions of both of the priests mentioned, and if it makes for a somewhat untidy Church, it is nevertheless one in which there is opportunity for experiment and dialogue.

          A related question is that of dogmatic definition.  There are, I think, no really unbridgeable differences of doctrine between Rome and Canterbury.  Indeed, for my own part, I think that Anglicans are much closer to Rome in their understanding of the Christian faith than they are to Protestants—though here I must add that, because of the wide diversities to be found within Anglicanism, many of my brethren in the Anglican communion would disagree with me and would believe that their affinities were rather with Protestantism.  However, Anglicans do not attempt to formulate precise dogmatic definitions of the kind that have multiplied in the Roman Catholic Church, and most of us would not want to be committed to such definitions.

          Let me give a couple of examples of whit I have in mind.  Anglicans agree with Roman Catholics that the Eucharist is not merely a memorial meal but is a sacrament in which Christ is really present.  This, however, is not spelled out in a precise definition in terms of transubstantiation (or transignification!) or anything of the sort, but rather it is implicit in our invariable liturgical practice (for instance, in the various Prayer Book rites and in the rubrics concerning the disposal of the consecrated Elements).  There is no one officially received and promulgated theology of the Real Presence, though the mystery itself is unambiguously affirmed.  A second example concerns the place of the blessed Virgin Mary.  Throughout the Anglican communion, her feasts are observed according to the Prayer Book.  Implicit in this is a theology of her role in the economy of salvation, and an acknowledgment of the veneration which is due to her.  But we do not insist that particular ways of understanding, let us say, her conception or her dormition, shall be de fide, as Rom has done in the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption.

          Does this mean that Anglicanism has only a diffuse and indefinite theology? I think the answer to this question is both Yes and No.  Our theology is diffuse in the sense that it is not precisely formulated; for we recognize that various formulations are possible, that these vary according to historical and cultural circumstances, and that no single formulation can claim a monopoly of truth, for it cannot be more than an approximation to truth.  On the other hand, our theology is not an indefinite, “Believe what you like, so long as you feel good!” This kind of sentimentalism is just as far from Anglicanism as is rigid dogmatism, and the Prayer Book makes clear Anglican adherence to the central mysteries of the Catholic faith.  It is obvious further that this flexibility in the manner of formulating belief is closely connected with the question of theological freedom, which I mentioned in the paragraphs dealing with authority.

III. Irritants which could be overcome

          The problems I have talked about up till now will not be quickly solved, though I believe that there can be a gradual “growing together” and convergence of the two communions, so that these barriers will in course of time come to be less formidable.  However, I think there are some minor matters that separate us from the Roman Catholic Church.  These are in the nature of “irritants.”  It would surely not be too hard to get rid of them, and until they are got rid of, they definitely interpose a barrier in the way of a rapprochement between Rome and Canterbury.

          Let me mention first the Roman Catholic attitude toward “mixed marriages”—marriages where one of the partners is not a Roman Catholic and the other either and Anglican or an adherent of some other faith.  The decree Ne temere requires an undertaking from the partners that all children of the marriage shall be brought up in the Roman Catholic faith.  I consider this to be an oppressive requirement.  I was not surprised to read recently that one branch of the Anglican communion (the Church of Ireland) has decided that its priests will no longer participate in joint marriage ceremonies with Roman Catholic priests where the Ne temere promise is exacted.  I think this decision of the Church of Ireland is correct, for there is no true ecumenism in polite gestures against a background of ecclesiastical imperialism.

          The other irritant which divides us from genuine fellowship with our Roman brethren is the condemnation of Anglican orders by Rome in 1896.  According to Apostolicae curae, Anglican orders are “utterly null and absolutely void.”  I know, of course, that such a harsh judgment would not (in all likelihood) be passed in the ecumenical atmosphere of today.[1] I know also that many individual Roman Catholic theologians tell us that this judgment no longer represents the mind of the Church.  I know too that Pope Paul VI made the splendid and significant gesture of giving his ring to the Archbishop of Canterbury.  But in spite of all this, the condemnation remains “on the books” as the official Roman Catholic position.  It is still being printed in the most recent handbooks of official Roman Catholic teaching—some of these books edited by very eminent and supposedly “progressive” theologians.  What is Rome going to do about this? It will not do to say (as some Roman Catholic theologians seem to be saying) that we can sweep it under the carpet and that many of the terms of reference under which the question was discussed in 1896 no longer apply.  The point is that many of them do apply.  Perhaps a bigger question lurks in the background: can Rome ever admit that it has been mistaken, or must there always be the subterfuge that one is merely “supplementing” what was said on a former occasion? What a tremendous ecumenical breakthrough would take place as regards Rome and Canterbury if Rome could only frankly dissociate itself from the one-sided and unjust condemnation of 1896!

          My personal love and admiration for the Roman Catholic Church, and my commitment to the catholic form of Christianity are great, and I am sorry if some things in this article may seem harsh.  But the kind of ecumenism which glosses over genuine differences with ambiguous phrases and sentimental claptrap is worse than useless.  So is the impatient kind that demands immediate intercommunions as if differences did not exist.  We are historical beings, and we have to grow together historically, just as in the past we have grown apart historically.  I rejoice that even now we are so close to each other, and look forward to our drawing still closer together in the decades ahead.

      


[1] [Regrettably, Cardinal Ratzinger has recently reaffirmed it.]