Faith and Reason: Roman Catholicity is deeply flawed: Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, the General Secretary of the Church Missionary Society, responds to Margaret Hebblethwaite's attack on Anglicanism last week with a consideration of Roman claims.

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Margaret Hebblethwaite's article last week (Faith and Reason, 30 May) is another example of the present tendency in the Catholic Church to revert to pre-Second Vatican Council polemics as far as reflection on Anglicanism is concerned. Earlier this year Fr Aidan Nichols made a similar intervention in his important book The Panther and the Hind. Mrs Hebblethwaite's style is necessarily more anecdotal and less theological, but deserving a response none the less.

She charges Anglicans with claiming to be 'catholic' even though they are not in communion with the Roman Church. On these grounds, however it could equally be said that the Church of Rome is not 'catholic' because it is not in communion with Anglicans or, indeed, the Orthodox, the Ancient Oriental Churches or the churches of the Reformation. From the Anglican point of view, it can at least be claimed that it was Rome that broke the remaining bonds of communion after the Henrician and Elizabethan reforms had been made.

In fact, Mrs Hebblethwaite herself admits that the 'catholicity' of the Roman Catholic Church is 'deeply flawed' because of the number of Christians not in communion with it. This is greatly to her credit as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the former Holy Office), while claiming that churches not in communion with Rome are 'damaged', has not been able to admit that the Roman Church is similarly damaged.

Another point that she makes is that communion with the Universal Church is experienced at the Eucharist where we join Christians of every age and in every part of the world in partaking of the benefits of Christ's passion. Anglicans would agree,but the problem is how to experience such a Eucharist in a divided Church?

Once again, it is not only Anglicans who are deprived of universality at this point but also Roman Catholics and Orthodox. The Roman Catholic Church admits the validity of the Eucharists of the Orthodox and Ancient Oriental Churches and yet it is not in full eucharistic fellowship with them.

Perhaps the most we can say is that the Crucified and Risen Lord graciously makes himself available to us in our broken Eucharists, in proportion to our intention to fulfil his command, and unites us with himself and, therefore, with each other. This is why many Anglicans believe that the Eucharist can be both a means to unity as well as a demonstration of an existing unity. At present, all experience of universality in the Eucharist is partial and fragmented.

In her discussion of the Anglican Communion, she produces those old chestnuts of Roman Catholic polemic, the marital infidelities of Henry VIII and the British Empire. These, she claims, are the basis for the Anglican Communion. She is entirely silent on the nepotism, extravagance and licentiousness of some of the Renaissance popes and their courts. But unlike Fr Nichols, she is also silent on the important factors within the English Church and nation which allowed Henry to act in the way he did.

She seems unaware of the fact that Anglicanism has not been co-extensive with the British Empire or, indeed, the Commonwealth for a very long time and that there are strong Anglican churches in many different parts of the world which were never within the sphere of British military or political influence.

The newest provinces of the Anglican Communion, Zaire and Korea, illustrate this point adequately. The latter has experienced Japanese, but not British, colonialism, whereas the former was a Belgian colony. In fact, people often seek the fellowship of the Anglican Communion as a way of being 'catholic' without having to be Roman Catholic and having to accept the greatly exaggerated claims of Rome in respect of immediate universal jurisdiction, infallibility and other matters. They wish to be 'catholic' in a way that recognises the normativeness of scripture for teachers of the faith, as well as the faithful. They want to be 'catholic' in a way that both holds to apostolic tradition and sees the possibility of development in faith and practice. Such development, however, should arise out of the tradition itself and should be an authentic explication of it in the light of contemporary circumstances. Surely this is better than to trust development de novo which may be based on no more than the 'intuitive understandings' of the magisterium?

Anglicans, of course, have never claimed to be the one, true, Catholic Church of Christ but only to be part of it. They agree that catholicity consists in believing what has been believed semper ubique et ab omnibus (always, everywhere and by all) but they also know that Christian traditions have diverged in many respects in the interpretation and application of the primitive deposit of faith.

There are some irreducible tensions in Mrs Hebblethwaite's article. Many Anglicans would accept her arguments for some kind of a Roman primacy, but she cannot see that it is the exaggerated and innovative claims of Rome which prevent Anglicans from entering into full communion with that church.

She herself is conscious of Rome's capacity to oppress and wants a reformed papacy, but she cannot see that it was this very demand that led to the excommunication of the Reformers. She presents quite a good argument for women priests, but does not discuss Rome's refusal to consider a development of tradition in this direction. Is this an instance of Rome's 'soundness' in theological matters of which she is so convinced?

Perhaps most disturbing of all, there is no reference at all to a recognition of each other's baptism and the real, though imperfect, communion which results from it even among separated communities of Christians. Such a recognition, as well as other matters such as a sharing of the Scriptures, the Creeds, the teachings of the early Fathers and a common patrimony of devotion, has been the basis for the ecumenical encounter between Roman Catholics and Anglicans.

Her dismissal of the poor Anglo-Catholic ordinand who wanted to be separate and yet to belong is also ominous. The Roman Catholic Church has for long claimed that it wants unity and not uniformity. Fr Aidan Nichols looks to the emergence of an 'Anglican Uniate Church' in which many distinctive Anglican elements would be retained. Recent decisions by Roman Catholic authorities, however, do not seem to give any encouragement to such views and Mrs Hebblethwaite, in spite of her desire that the structure should be reformed, seems also to have a monolithic church in mind. It appears that Rome's experience with the oriental churches has no relevance in the West and that unity with Rome is still seen as a submission to an ultramontane Church.

Comments