Lambeth consultants consider Roman Catholic official’s comments on unity

21 July 1998 • Persistent link:


By James H. Thrall
Lambeth Conference Communications

A top official of the Roman Catholic church has offered a positive but cautionary assessment of the relationship between the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, according to ecumenical consultants assisting at the Lambeth Conference.

The homily at Monday night’s ecumenical vespers service by Edward Cardinal Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity at the Vatican, reasserted that the two churches “share a real, but imperfect communion,” said Dean William Franklin of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University in the United States.

“He categorically reaffirmed the commitment of the Roman Catholic Church to the full visible unity of all the baptized, which means establishment of full communion,” including reconciliation of ministries and sacraments, Dean Franklin said. Cardinal Cassidy’s statement that Anglicans and Roman Catholics are “increasingly bound up with each other,” also is a “technical but important description,” he said. And even though Cardinal Cassidy offered clear warnings that some developments in the Anglican Communion could impair that relationship, his comments reflected “a level of communion where we need to be realistic with one another,” Dean Franklin said.

The homily also expresses “the level of concern that he has for the well-being of our church,” observed the Rev. Canon Alyson Barnett-Cowan, Director of Faith, Worship and Ministry for the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada. Like Dean Franklin, Canon Barnett-Cowan is an advisor to the Section Four group of bishops considering ecumenical issues.

She observed, however, that Cardinal Cassidy’s words were “more cautious than enthusiastic.” In particular he raised fundamental questions about the role of authority as a force of unity for the two churches, questions “the Anglican Communion wrestles with all the time,” she said.

While Cardinal Cassidy was not explicit in his references to the need for a universal authority as an instrument of unity, he seemed to be “offering the papacy as that authority,” said Dean Franklin. “Will Anglicans wish to find universal communion in a primatial authority? It’s not a foregone conclusion.” Rather, he suggested, “our bishops may come up with other forms of universal authority which are not focused on one person or a single office.”

Cardinal Cassidy also warned that “our internal disunity leads to an increasing disunity with the Roman Catholic Church,” Dean Franklin noted. “He suggests a general weakening in the internal coherence of the Anglican Communion.”

“When Cardinal Cassidy refers to new interpretations of the Gospel creating new problems, he seems to imply something, but he doesn’t name it, so it is difficult to know just what he means,” Canon Barnett-Cowan said. The Cardinal’s homily did not name any other topics being considered by the conference, other than human sexuality, she noted. Anglicans might respond that they are considering any particular issues in a “faithful response to the call of the Spirit,” she said, and also might point out that “how Anglicans go about discussing things is different from the way that Roman Catholic may go about discussing things.”

A key benefit of the homily, Dean Franklin said, is that it offered a “useful context” for the discussion of Anglican-Roman Catholic relations by the Section Four subgroup chaired by Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold of the United States. “What the cardinal has done is to let us know what their understanding is of what our relationship should be for the next decade-which is real but imperfect communion, with cautions about ways that communion can be improved but also weakened,” he said.

As the conference pursues its many issues, the homily is a reminder that “one of the important issues on the table is how important do Anglican bishops feel is the relationship with the Roman Church at this time,” Dean Franklin said. “They should make that evaluation.”

In response to the homily, and picking up on language Cardinal Cassidy used, “we might want to express, with Christian love, the concerns of the Anglican Communion about the relationship,” he said. “The spirit of the Conference ought to be: he has laid out a context; we should respond with our interpretation of what it means.”