We have 80% agreement, the article states, between the two churches that both claim a Catholic identity. Anglicans and Roman Catholics are indeed so very close in liturgy and prayer, Scripture and Gospel discipleship, sacramental practice and spirituality, the historic three-fold order of bishop–priest–deacon, Mary and the Saints. Truly close siblings holding each other in deep affectionate regard. Then comes Bishop Linda Nicholls’ question: “If we’ve come to so much agreement … why is it we’ve arrived in such different places?” Why indeed … ???
In this question lies the enigma that is the Anglican Church to Roman Catholics. Now that I am swimming in Anglican ecclesial waters, some answers to Bishop Nicholls’ question are slowly floating to the surface. In his book The Anglican Moral Choice Paul Elmen formulates the difference as follows: The Roman Catholic view in general seems to be that a principle must be affirmed without exception; and that thereafter exceptions can be dealt with, without modifying the principle. The view natural to the (Anglican) mind is rather that a principle must be framed in such a way as to include all allowable exceptions. It follows inevitably that the Roman (Catholic) Church must profess to be fixed, while the Anglican Church must profess to take account of changed conditions. The (Roman Catholic) Church thereby conceives of and treats human nature in vastly different ways than the Anglican tradition, and that difference goes deep. (pg. 118, 1983)
In other words, the Roman Catholic point of departure leans more towards a legal authority model that allows exceptions in pastoral situations. The Anglicans acknowledge the grey and ambiguous spheres of life upfront, motivated by a deep concern to make room for every possible situation people of good will with a sincere desire for God may find themselves.
I appreciate the RC Church position. We need clear moral and spiritual markers to help develop our conscience and guide our life choices. Like a good mother, Rome indeed strives to guide her children in upright and moral goodness. But I also appreciate the Anglican instinct of radical hospitality, the kind Jesus extended so freely in ways that scandalized the religious establishment of his day.
There is a real danger in an overly firm grip on the legal side of things. Once we become grown adults in faith, with capable and critical minds, life itself teaches us that we cannot always apply neat legal categories of right and wrong. The more we live, the more grey appears (despite our colourful experiences). This is where Anglican discipleship shows greater hospitality. While the Anglican approach can be criticized for its apparent inconsistencies, the Roman Church gets criticized for its inability to accommodate those same inconsistent and grey areas of life.
The Comments section of a recent NCR article included the following by a Catholic reader: To be fair, as much as I admire Anglicanism, the subject of homosexuality has long vexed the world-wide Anglican Communion, with some member bodies supportive of LGTB people and others, like the church in Africa, being solidly against. But that’s what I admire about Anglicanism: it’s messiness. They at least are willing to air out arguments in the light of day with considerable lay input. Within Catholicism it’s trickle-down all the way, and nothing ever sees the light of day.
While criticism can be swift over the Anglican storm around homosexuality and same-sex marriage, Catholicism has its own challenges when it comes to moral teaching and practice. The Church’s official teaching against artificial birth control has failed to persuade many married Catholics. As much as it tries to remedy and show contrition, the clergy sexual abuse continues to deliver serious blows to Roman Catholic moral credibility. Moreover, the Catholic Church is struggling mightily with how to welcome its gay and lesbian members.
Both moral approaches come with merits and risks. While the Anglican position risks allowing too much latitude (fueled by a radical trust that God will sort it all out in the end), the Roman position risks stifling pastoral accommodation, thereby alienating those whose lives do not neatly fit the legal ecclesial boxes. A superficial understanding of the Anglican position can lead to the notion that it stands for nothing, thereby completely missing its profound and robust relational and incarnational ethos. Roman Catholics can be criticized for trying to squeeze life’s ambiguities into a greater rigidity than life itself can tolerate, thereby ignoring its noble commitment to moral guidance.
Anglican ecclesiology and polity can look incredibly attractive, fueled by the Christian ideal of communion. But I do wonder if this makes Anglican spirituality and praxis an adult-church, “X-rated” so to speak. In other words, the Anglican tradition is not for children or the faint-hearted. A mature faith is required, an ability to engage in thoughtful dialogue without fear, reserving rash judgments and legalistic categories. However, I don’t think it was an Anglican who said recently: “Who am I to judge?”
In one of his columns, Ron Rolheiser wrote: “What’s needed today is not less freedom but more maturity. We don’t need to roll back freedom in the name of God and morality: we need to raise the level of our maturity to match the level of our freedom. Simply put, we are often too immature to carry properly the great gift of freedom that God has given us. The answer to that is not to denigrate freedom in the name of God and morality, but to invite a deeper maturity so as to more properly honour the great gift that we have been given.” (May 21, 2006)
In light of Rolheiser’s words, it seems that both traditions need to be accountable to the other. Only in this tension of mutual accountability can the fruits of our witness mature in our common pilgrim journey in Gospel faithfulness.
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