Walking Together on the Way: A new phase in Anglican–Roman Catholic dialogue
by Sr. Donna Geernaert, SC
As any long-standing married couple will tell you, living relationships are changing relationships. So after some 55 years of bilateral dialogue, it’s not surprising to see that the Anglican–Roman Catholic international dialogue (ARCIC) has adopted a new approach. Where the first two phases of the dialogue, ARCIC I and II
, sought to identify points of agreement, ARCIC III has focused on mutual support and possibilities for learning from one another through use of a methodology called receptive ecumenism
. Its first agreed statement, Walking Together on the Way: Learning to be the Church – Local, Regional, Universal
(WTW), was published in 2017.
Building on the work of its two predecessors and “recognizing: (i) the development in separation of the two traditions, (ii) the current serious obstacles to full communion, and (iii) the internal difficulties faced by each tradition, ARCIC III believes that the time is ripe to pursue the task of ecumenical engagement as one that includes explicit self-critique” (17).
Only breaking apart in the 16th century, Anglicans and Catholics share a common heritage and have inherited many similar structures and procedures. The dialogue framework offers an opportunity to consider how structures and procedures developed separately in each tradition serve the mission of the church today. It is also important to ask what each tradition can learn from the inheritance of the other and how far each needs to undergo conversion, renewal, and reform. In brief, this new methodology invites participants to place less emphasis on what their tradition can teach the other than on what it needs to learn from its dialogue partner.
The methodology of receptive ecumenism adopted by ARCIC III “involves being prepared both to discern what appears to be overlooked or underdeveloped in one’s own tradition and to ask whether such things are better developed in the other tradition. It then requires the openness to ask how such perceived strengths in the other tradition might be able, through receptive learning, to help with the development and enrichment of ecclesial life in one’s own tradition” (18).
In appreciation of the long-term nature of the ecumenical calling, the authors of WTW identify a two-fold task: “(i) to look humbly at what is not working effectively within one’s own tradition
, and (ii) to ask whether this might be helped by receptive learning from the understanding, practices, and judgements of the other” (78).
It’s not a matter of proving who is right or better than the other but, rather, in Christian charity, of being willing to receive from the gifts and example of the other communion. Also important in receptive ecumenism is the recognition that the practices of the other tradition may sometimes not be judged to be of value or may be of value in a different way.
Paul Murray, a lay Catholic theologian and member of ARCIC, has proposed this concept of receptive ecumenism which has taken shape over the course of four conferences (2006, 2009, 2014, 2017) with a fifth planned for the summer of 2022.
Over 40 years of bilateral and multilateral dialogue have set the churches on a new relationship with each other. Most of the suspicions of earlier years have disappeared: at the congregational level, people mix easily with each other, and at the level of church leadership, there are structures in place that give heads of churches an opportunity to meet regularly. Despite formal divisions that still exist, churches have been doing much to nurture what already unites them.
But, in spite of progress made, there is a sense of impasse – a sense of looking for a way forward. In this context, receptive ecumenism may have something new to offer the ecumenical enterprise.
Affirming the consensus that has been reached in ecumenical dialogue, receptive ecumenism asks what each church can learn from the other. The question is about a willingness to be self-critical and to be open to grow through learning from the other. A further characteristic of receptive ecumenism is its potential to help the churches look with fresh eyes at their own situation, particularly the threats and challenges they face. It is obvious that many churches at this time face an impasse on important issues of faith and witness: clergy decrease, retaining young people, questions about gender and sexuality, the challenge of presenting the Gospel in a modern world where indifference is often replaced by hostility. Receptive ecumenism may offer a way to learn from others in facing up to these challenges.
Reception is a spiritual process, perhaps most easily seen in the process following the World Council of Church’s Baptism Eucharist and Ministry
(BEM) document published in 1982. Here, the first question put to the churches was whether or not they could recognize the “faith of the churches through the ages”. Subsequent questions invited churches to consider the implications for relations with other churches and asked about the consequences of the acts of recognition each church had been able to make.
Recognizing that the apostolic faith can be seen more clearly in another church can lead together to renewal in one’s own church. Thus, this concept of reception requires churches to be self-critical, to be open to conversion and renewal. While most of the churches working with BEM probably thought of it as a means of exploring their relationship with their dialogue partners, it may have had just as great an impact on their self-understanding and self-identity. Receptive ecumenism is a way for churches to grow, learn, and change – to become truer to their apostolic origins and more able to offer a precious gift to the whole church.
ARCIC III’s choice of receptive ecumenism is the first effort of an international bilateral dialogue to engage in a process of receptive ecumenism/learning. It implies a fundamental recognition by Anglicans and Catholics of the genuine ecclesiality and apostolicity of each other’s tradition. Readiness to learn from the gifts of God expressed in another’s corporate ecclesial life and practice implies that the expression of faith in one’s ecumenical partner – however different – is a legitimate expression and instrument of serving to maintain their fidelity to the one apostolic faith we share.
Receptive ecumenism/learning is a creative process, and it will only be effective if each church takes an active part in it. It will take an individual church beyond simply seeing what it sees in the other and trying to do the same thing. Rather, each church will ponder what it sees, consider how this could look in its own, perhaps different, circumstances, and develop something that is fitting for its particular communion.
This is a highly spiritual and practical process. Australian theologian, Gerard Kelly, describes practical applications of receptive ecumenism among the local churches in Durham and in the follow-up to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification
(JDDJ). In Durham, he notes, the local churches have agreed to make available data about their church life, including governance and finance. The purpose of the project is to gather data and analyze it so that all the participants might learn something about how the difficulties they experience in their own cultures and practices may be fruitfully addressed by learning from each other and receiving “best practices” from each other. Practices can vary, and they have been developed from certain theological perspectives. The purpose of the project is to assist the churches to learn things that will help them grow in their capacity to respond to the demands of contemporary life. The focus is on what each church can learn from the others
Reflecting on the JDDJ
, Kelly recognizes that the notion of justification is somewhat foreign to most Catholics, and perhaps to many in today’s world:
“We no longer feel the burden of guilt and sin as Luther did, we no longer live in fear of God’s judgement; we have all become too deistic, seeing God as quite withdrawn from our world and everyday existence... Here, the question of justification seems somewhat at odds with our modern experience.”
Here, the key seems to be less about the finer points of doctrine and more about human and spiritual experience – how do we help our people open up and interpret their experience, particularly in many places of hopelessness and search for meaning. Thus, the JDDJ
goes to the heart of our pastoral mission, giving us a new way to consider both questions and answers. There is a gift to be received from our ecumenical partner, and it may help us to see or understand something we haven’t seen before or give new insight into something that has always been familiar.
In their Preface to WTW, the ARCIC III Co-Chairs express the hope that their work will be part of an ongoing process of honest self-reflection and growth for both Anglican and Roman-Catholic traditions. They state:
“The sense is of our two traditions each walking the pilgrim way in each other’s company: ‘pilgrim companions’, making their own journey of conversion into greater life but supported by the other as they do so.”
Receptive ecumenism implies (or requires) a willingness to learn from the other, an openness to self-critique which is never easy and may in fact, be seen as a call to conversion. What do you see as first steps in this process of self-critique/conversion?
Sr. Dr. Donna Geernaert, SC, served for 18 years in promoting ecumenical and interfaith relations for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. She has been a staff member, consultant, and member of numerous multilateral and bilateral theological dialogues in Canada as well as internationally.