“The ban on Anglicans receiving Roman Catholic Holy Communion could be relaxed as part of moves to bring the two churches together after centuries of division, one of Britain’s most senior Catholic clerics has suggested”: that is how the Daily Telegraph reported a recent interview given by Archbishop Bernard Longley, who is currently co-chairman of that now entirely futile body the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC). Actually, Archbishop Longley suggested nothing of the kind: but the story is, to say the least, certainly yet another example of the dangers for senior Catholic churchmen of giving newspaper interviews.
In an interview with the Church of Ireland Gazette (which the Telegraph picked up), Archbishop Longley referred to the changes in “specified circumstances” in which non-Catholics might be given Holy Communion (like imminent death) set out in the 1993 Ecumenism Directory. He commented that, “Given that that represents a … a very significant shift away from the impossibility to the limited possibility, then I could imagine and foresee one of the fruits of our ecumenical engagement as moving towards a deeper understanding of communion and a deeper sharing, a deeper communion between our churches which perhaps would lead to reconsideration of some of the circumstances.”
Asked if he felt “healing” on the issue would indeed come, the archbishop said: “I know that that will be the case,” and described the “pain” of division at the Eucharist as “a spur” towards resolving the issue. However, he also pointed to how, over the past several decades, “further challenges — obstacles, if you like — in the way of that have been placed before us and they also have their part to play in what holds us back from sharing the Eucharist together.”
He instanced differences over the recognition of clerical orders.
Now, that isn’t at all the same thing as saying there ought to be intercommunion between our Churches: and the simple fact is that the “obstacles” Archbishop Longley points to, principally the ordination of women to the Anglican priesthood, are not simply a temporary glitch but a permanent and definitive barrier to any possibility of intercommunion, ever. Another fact is that the very existence of ARCIC is now an unending source of misunderstanding, and it ought to be dissolved, or at least have its remit clearly redefined.
Archbishop Longley, wanting to sound positive, says that he could “imagine and foresee one of the fruits of our ecumenical engagement as moving towards a deeper understanding of communion and a deeper sharing between our churches … which perhaps would lead to a reconsideration of some of the circumstances.” That’s all very well-meaning: but since the chances of prelate-speak of this kind being misunderstood by the secular press are about 100 per cent, it really would have been better not to have said it.
Not only will his interview be taken by liberal Catholic bishops and clergy who already dish out the Blessed Sacrament to all comers as an encouragement simply to carry on with their blasphemous practices: but the Anglicans are already, because of his remarks, taking it as read that moving towards intercommunion is now the policy not only of the Catholic members of the Commission, but possibly of the Pope himself. I very much doubt that: all the same, the Anglican Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Rev Christopher Hill, a member of ARCIC III, said that the influence of Pope Francis could mean that the time is ripe for change. “Now,” he said “with the more open tone coming from Pope Francis I can see why Archbishop Bernard is thinking that perhaps the time is right for perhaps another look at it,” he said. “I am very pleased to see the words which Archbishop Longley has spoken in terms of non-Roman Catholics receiving communion under certain circumstances.”
Archbishop Longley’s fantastical notion that there has been a “deeper theological understanding of one another’s Churches”, presumably because of the work of ARCIC, requires a little more attention. What theological understanding would that be? The trouble with ARCIC always was (as a former Catholic member of it once explained to me) that on the Catholic side of the table you have a body of men who represent a more or less coherent view, being members of a Church which has established means of knowing and declaring what it believes. On the Anglican side of the table you have a body of men the divisions between whom are just fundamental as, and sometimes a lot more fundamental than, those between any one of them and the Catholic representatives they face: they all represent only themselves.
When ARCIC III was first established, two or three years ago I wrote the following:
in an attempt to explain why Catholics should be deeply suspicious, not only of ARCIC and all its works, but of any notion of theological understanding of Anglicans by Catholics and Catholics by Anglicans. “It isn’t just that Catholics and Anglicans believe different doctrines: it’s that there is between them a fundamental difference over their attitude to the entire doctrinal enterprise. I remember very vividly, in my days as an (Anglican) clergy member of the Chelmsford Diocesan Synod, a debate on one of the ARCIC documents followed by a vote on whether to recommend to the General Synod in London that it should be accepted. The document was accepted overwhelmingly. At lunchtime, standing at the bar with a number of clergy, I asked how they had voted; they had all voted affirmatively. I then asked them if they had read the document. Not one of them had; and most of them, it became clear, had little idea of what it contained. ‘Well’, I asked, puzzled, ‘why did you vote for it, then?’
‘The point is,’ one of them replied, ‘the important thing is unity. The RCs are frightfully keen on doctrine. You have to encourage them: so I voted for their document’. There you have it: what the late Mgr Graham Leonard, when he was still an Anglican bishop, once called ‘the doctrinal levity of the Church of England’.”
The fact is that the eventual possibility of administering Holy Communion to Anglicans, “on the basis of a deeper theological understanding of one another’s churches” is a simple nonsense, given the fundamental institutional character of the Anglican Church itself. The point is that as far as Holy Communion is concerned, there is absolutely no common theological understanding of its meaning even between Anglicans, let alone between Anglicans and Catholics. There is no “Anglican doctrine” to be had on the meaning of the Eucharist: there is, indeed, no Anglican doctrine on anything else, simply a maelstrom of confused personal opinions.
Knowing that, as surely he does, Archbishop Longley should not have dipped his toes into these perilous waters. He ought now to issue a “clarification” of some kind, in an attempt to undo the damage that has been done, and the false expectations his interview has engendered. If he does not, we will know what to think: that ARCIC has become not merely a pointless exercise, but a positively dangerous one.