We have 85 per cent agreement between the two churches that both claim a Catholic identity. Indeed, we are so very close in liturgy and prayer, Scripture and Gospel discipleship, sacramental practice and spirituality, the historic threefold order of bishop—priest-deacon, Mary and the saints. But why do we still find ourselves in such vastly different places?
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 are slowly floating to the surface. I will attempt to share a couple in this and the next column.
In his book The Anglican Moral Choice Paul Elmen writes: “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 toward a legal authority model that allows exceptions in pastoral situations. The Anglican model acknowledges the grey and ambiguous spheres of life upfront, motivated by a deep concern to make room for every possible situation in which people of goodwill with a sincere desire for God can find themselves.
I appreciate the Roman Catholic 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 living. But I also appreciate the Anglican instinct of hospitality and trust, the kind Jesus extended so freely in ways that scandalized the religious establishment of his day.
However, both traditions struggle how to read the “signs of the times” from different vantage points. While criticism can be swift over the Anglican storm around homosexuality and same-sex marriage, accusing it of selling out to culture trends, Catholicism has its own challenges. 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, while it is struggling mightily how to welcome and accompany its gay and lesbian members. Finally, while the passing of time is an important discernment tool, much-needed reform in the Catholic Church occurs at a snail’s pace despite Pope Francis.
Indeed, both Catholic and Anglican points of departure carry merits and risks. 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.
Ron Rolheiser once 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).
Our common ground is Christ Jesus himself. In light of Rolheiser’s words, and in light of increased ecumenical appreciation of the past 50 years, we can now recognize that Christ indeed meets us in either tradition depending on one’s spiritual and moral challenges and needs. Both traditions have gifts and challenges needed by the other. Only in the tension of mutual accountability can the fruits of common witness mature on our pilgrimage in Gospel faithfulness.
Rev. Marie-Louise Ternier is now an Anglican deacon, serving the Anglican and Lutheran parishes in Watrous, SK. In her spare time she serves on the programming team at Queen’s House in Saskatoon. Marie-Louise is a published author and spiritual director, retreat leader and conference speaker. This column is co-published with the Saskatchewan Anglican. Marie-Louise blogs at http://graceatsixty.wordpress.com