November this year will mark the 50th anniversary of the solemn promulgation of the Second Vatican Council Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio. It still remains the authoritative document of the Catholic Church setting out the principles of ecumenical dialogue, though much of its teaching was expounded by St John Paul II in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint (1995).
Its first paragraph makes clear that the restoration of unity among Christian people was one of the major concerns of the Council. But a reading of the documents of Vatican II shows clearly that the bishops meeting in Rome did not deviate from the belief that there is only One Church of Jesus Christ and identified that Church with the Catholic Church in communion with the successor of Peter. This is made clear both in the dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, and also the decree on ecumenism. The Catholic Church is described as “God’s only flock” and it is from this “one and only Church” that other Christian communities became separated over the centuries. In a much-quoted passage Lumen Gentium described the Church in this way: “This Church constituted and organised as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him. Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside its visible confines. Since these are gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, they are forces impelling towards Catholic unity.”
In an earlier draft of that constitution the text read “This Church is the Catholic Church” but was changed to “This Church subsists in the Catholic Church”. There have probably been hundreds of articles written about exactly what “subsists” means. It is usually taken to mean that the one Church of Jesus Christ “has concrete form” or is “concretely realised” in the Catholic Church. What it does not mean is that this one Church of Christ subsists in a number of different Christian communities of which the Catholic Church is one among many. It does mean that the Catholic Church is not totally set part from other Christian communities but recognises the active presence of the one Church in other ecclesial bodies, even if they are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church. There is already partial communion between all the baptised which should lead by God’s grace to eventual full communion.
This has been the guiding principle of ecumenical dialogue over the last 50 years. Many of us who were previously Anglicans have yearned and prayed for Christian unity, only to have our hopes dashed as more obstacles have materialised to make the prospect of that unity, for which our Lord earnestly prayed, more difficult. Everybody recognises that the recent decision by the General Synod of the Church of England to ordain women to the episcopate has dealt a serious blow to ecumenical hopes. It would be wrong, however, to see the issue of women’s ordination as the only obstacle to corporate union. Other issues over marriage and other moral questions have arisen over the years to make the ecumenical dream much less of a possibility in the foreseeable future.
It was against this background that many Anglicans, who already believed they shared a common faith, approached the Holy See petitioning to be received into full communion which led to the publication of the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus in 2009 and the erection of the first ordinariate in January 2011.
In a lecture given in 2010, Cardinal Levada, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, made two very important points about Anglicanorum Coetibus. The first was that it was not created in a vacuum but was a logical development of the official Anglican-Catholic dialogue over the previous 45 years. In fact, it could be described a fruit of Vatican II. The second was that this is the first time that the Catholic Church had reached out to men and women of western Christianity who desired full communion and accorded them not just a place among many, but a distinctive place within the Church. This must have important ecumenical implications which Benedict XVI was fully aware of when he described Anglicanorum Coetibus as pointing towards that ultimate goal of full ecclesial communion between Catholics and Anglicans. The erection of the ordinariates opens new possibilities for Christian unity by offering the opportunity of legitimate diversity in the expression of our common faith. So much ecumenical work is about dialogue and reports which, though important in themselves, cannot be a substitute for something actually happening to restore full communion. The full corporate unity of the Church is the will of Christ for which all Christians must work and pray. The ordinariate, far from making ecumenical relations more difficult, holds out a vision for a means by which the goal of unity might be realised. In a small way, those in the ordinariate are working to achieve that aim of being “united but not absorbed”, a hugely important notion for the future of the Church.
We are conscious that many people are not aware of or have misunderstandings about the ordinariate that gives this prophetic vision for Christian unity. To help people understand us better, especially those in the Church of England who may be feeling that God might be calling them into communion with us, we have arranged an exploration day called “Called to be One” on September 6 for which our Holy Father, has promised his prayers. Ordinariate groups around the country are providing opportunities for anyone searching to learn a little more about our mission within the Catholic Church.
Mgr Keith Newton is ordinary of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. This article appears in the current issue of The Catholic Herald which has kindly given permission to republish it.
For more information about “Called to be One”, click here