The proposal to allow Anglican spouses of Catholics to receive Holy Communion will be discussed at the synod next week

A synod proposal to allow Anglican spouses of Catholics to receive Holy Communion has been rejected by the Archbishop of Birmingham.

The proposal, contained in the working document is due to be discussed at the synod next week.

If approved it would mean Anglicans being allowed to present themselves at Communion during Mass if they were married to a Catholic but unable to attend a service in their own denomination.

Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham, co-chairman of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (Arcic), set up to further unity, has criticised the move, however, saying it did not meet the demands of either the Code of Canon Law or the Ecumenical Directory.

He said: “Such a proposal would tend to establish a category of Christians not in full communion with the Catholic Church yet distinguished from other Christians by a ‘right’ to receive Holy Communion at a Catholic Mass on any occasion. Nor can I imagine that the usual and recurring demands of a hectic family life could be regarded as constituting a long-term situation where a person would ‘be unable to have recourse for the sacrament desired to a minister of his or her own Church or ecclesial community’.”

The move to loosen the rules on admission to the Eucharist comes after lobbying by liberal German bishops, according to one source, who are also seeking changes to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion – and for gay couples to celebrate their unions with private blessings in churches.

The proposal recommends that a “baptised person who is not in full communion with the Catholic Church, yet shares the Church’s faith in the Eucharist, be allowed to receive the Eucharist, when their pastors are not available and taking into account the criteria of the ecclesial community to which they belong”.

It has been described by Catholic commentators as a “bombshell proposal”.

Ann Widdecombe, a former Anglican who converted to the Catholic faith in the early 1990s, said that any proposed weakening of practice of the reception of Holy Communion should be approached “with caution”.

“I think once you weaken it, you can’t restrict it,” Miss Widdecombe said.

“Once you have weakened that provision and have allowed any exception at all, then you have got a problem. Why only those circumstances, what about other circumstances?”

The consecrated Host is held by both the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church to be the actual flesh of Jesus Christ that has been changed, or “transubstantiated”, from bread by the actions of the priest.

The Church of England incorporates a variety of Eucharistic beliefs, from the “real presence” of High Church Anglicans to the Low Church view of the Host as symbolic of the spiritual union of Christians with Jesus.

At present, only Catholics who are deemed to be a “state of grace”, or who are free from the stain of serious sin after going to Confession, are permitted to receive Holy Communion.

The Code of Canon Law of the Catholic Church prohibits non-Catholics from receiving the sacrament except in cases of “grave or pressing need” or “danger of death”, and where there is a spontaneous request from the person.

In 1996, when Tony Blair was the Leader of the Opposition and still an Anglican, he repeatedly took Communion at Mass in the Church of St Joan of Arc in Islington until Cardinal Hume wrote to him to tell him to stop.

Blair reluctantly agreed to the request, but remarked: “I wonder what Jesus would have made of it?”

The Labour leader eventually converted to the Catholic faith after he stood down as Prime Minister in 2007.

The new proposal, however, will waive the existing conditions for such spouses of Catholics and will allow them to receive the Host also without ever going to confession.

It was welcomed as a “positive development” by the Rev Christopher Hill, the former Anglican Bishop of Guildford and a leading expert on relations between the Church of England and the Catholic Church.

The bishop, who now serves as the president of the European Council of Churches, said the admission of non-Catholic spouses to Communion during Mass was “already theoretically possible and has been practised in some places, for example Belgium and France, for some time”.

“But its fresh discussion is a good sign ecumenically,” added Bishop Hill, who has served for more than 30 years on Arcic.

Full text of Archbishop Longley’s statement:

The working document of the synod on the Family highlights the longing that many inter-church couples experience to receive the Eucharist together. It calls to mind the provision the Catholic Church already makes on the occasion of celebrating a marriage, and under the usual conditions, for a baptised member of another church or ecclesial community to receive Holy Communion with their new spouse during a Roman Catholic Nuptial Mass. It also acknowledges the possibility for such a spouse to receive Holy Communion at a Roman Catholic Mass, by way of exception and in “situations of grave and pressing need”, at the discretion of the minister and according to any norms established by the competent Bishops’ Conference (PCPCU Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism § 130).

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales established its own norms in the 1998 teaching document One Bread One Body. This recognises that “a couple in a mixed marriage may well have a strong desire to receive Holy Communion together, to be fully united at the Lord’s table”(§ 83). However, because of the exceptional nature of such occasions, “there will sometimes be a deep sense of pain and sadness when they find themselves divided at this most sacred moment of unity”. One Bread One Body identifies some unique occasions “for joy or for sorrow in the life of a family or an individual” which might include Baptism, Confirmation, First Holy Communion, Ordination, and the Funeral Mass as well as Marriage (cf §§ 106 – 109) – unique occasions when careful and sensitive consideration should be given to spontaneous requests for the sacraments.

Personally, I cannot foresee a proposal arising from the synod that would regard the sacramental unity of a couple in marriage as representing in itself a situation of “grave and pressing need”. Such a proposal would tend to establish a category of Christians not in full communion with the Catholic Church yet distinguished from other Christians by a “right” to receive Holy Communion at a Roman Catholic Mass on any occasion. Nor can I imagine that the usual and recurring demands of a hectic family life could be regarded as constituting a long-term situation where a person would “be unable to have recourse for the sacrament desired to a minister of his or her own Church or ecclesial Community” (one of the conditions currently required by the Ecumenical Directory §131).

At the same time, I believe we should make the sacramental possibilities that are currently offered by the Catholic Church much better known for the good of couples in mixed marriages or inter-church families and I hope that the synod will take up this theme. One Bread One Body §115 urges Catholic priests to “treat with kindness and sensitivity other Christians who seek admission to these sacraments, welcoming them with pastoral love even when their request cannot be granted.” We need to take much greater care in discerning such situations since “the sacraments should not be denied to those whom the present law of the Church allows to receive them.”

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