The ecumenical process is not unlike a profoundly elongated form of speed dating.
Occasional short bursts of conversation around a table, over the decades. Questions asked and answered; impressions made; but no meals, no films or shows, hardly any commitments; very infrequent marriages.
There was a time when a real possibility emerged for a convergence between the Church of England and Rome. So when Pope Francis addressed the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Dialogue Commission’s latest round of ecumenical talks in Rome this week, he understandably began with a reference to the meeting of Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Michael Ramsey in 1967.
Even the optics were favourable at that promising moment. Archbishop Ramsey looked like a real Archbishop. He even carried with him an air of profundity and sanctity.
In the world of “what if”, or “if only” , had the Church of England decided not to embrace secular values in the 70’s and 80’s and not acted unilaterally without reference to a full ecumenical Council, who knows what miraculous reconciliation might have been possible?
But at the moment of peak opportunity, it chose to embrace a secular ideology and reconfigure its ecclesiology unilaterally. The consequences were ecumenically disastrous.
The swallowing of the precepts of the first of what was to become many waves of feminism, ordaining women to the priesthood, was catastrophic for any further attempt at rapprochement with its historic parent.
Pushing the envelope of the romantic metaphor, one might say that Anglicanism was first seduced by and then married the spirit of the age, which made its return to occasional speed-dating with Rome not only pragmatically problematic, but probably immoral.
Not only had Anglicanism plighted its troth to an ideological enemy, but it had made itself hostage to a movement that was to inexorably move through increasingly anti-Christian ethics.
This began with gay blessings, sped towards gay marriage, swallowed trans rights, and eagerly surrendered to the Marxist “racist anti-racism” of Critical Race Theory. A conservative black ordinand (Calvin Robinson) who has just had his ordination cancelled has provocatively been asking if the Church of England now committed to CRT dogma can answer the question “are white people capable of being saved?”
And yet, even beyond that, the Church of England has always carried a fatal flaw that makes all ecumenism more a matter of wish-fulfilment than actuality. It is characterised by a series of sixteenth and seventeenth century reactions against the medieval Church. It’s 39 articles represent a spectrum of Protestant reflexes of antipathy. Anglicanism owes its birth to a coalition of convenience, united by a single purpose – that of deep repudiation of the mother Church.
So what options are left to those who inherit the speed-dating calendar of two churches set on such divergent trajectories, remembering in particular the wisdom of Kenneth Galbraith who reminded us that “there are few ironclad rules of diplomacy but to one there is no exception. When an official report says that talks were useful, it can safely be concluded that nothing was accomplished.”
In ecumenical terms obviously politeness is the currency of choice, and this is best achieved by pitching the conversation in terms of the beauty of the overlap of human existential experience, followed by diplomatic flattery and stroking of the ecclesial ego.
Pope Francis followed this formula with finesse. His opening remarks referred to the moment of initial hope, politely passing over the historic ecclesial incoherence, ignored the extinction of the hope and took confident refuge in the language of process, therapy and travel.
There had been “a journey”. The etymology of the word “synod” involves a way, and classically one always talks about “walking together on the way”. So long as “together” is not defined, all is well.
Certain therapeutic rules were engaged “not to be concerned with appearing attractive and secure to our brothers and sisters, presenting ourselves the way we would like to be”.
But the moment of potential danger arrived with the reference to the Synodal Way. “As you know, the Catholic Church has inaugurated a synodal process: for this common journey to be truly such, the contribution of the Anglican Communion cannot be lacking. We look upon you as valued travelling companions.”
What is not said is often more important that what is said.
For the truth is that the Anglican experience of the Synodal way has been disastrous for Church unity. The great cultural and intellectual civil war between progressive and traditional values of the last sixty years has been waged throughout the Anglican Communion by means of Synods.
It has been a story of lies and schism. Lies, because the sugar-coating of the pill was the promise that there would always be room for the defeated traditionalist opponents who took refuge in the defence of Scripture and tradition. These promises were everywhere and at all times broken – almost instantaneously; and schism because the honoured defeated opponents were then either ruthlessly marginalised, or, seeing the writing on the wall, left. The synodal way has ended up becoming a means of imposing secularism on the sacred.
It was encouraging to know that an ecumenical trip to Sudan is planned. The Pope, archbishops and moderators will act as “promotors of reconciliation, patient weavers of concord, capable of saying no to the perverse and useless spiral of violence and of arms.” This will bring great comfort to the churches trying to endure and survive the resurgence of Islamist violence and antipathy.
Invocations of humility and charismatic graces followed, with a final fruitful reflection by Pope Francis on how crisis is always preferable to conflict.
“We need to distinguish between crisis and conflict. In our dialogue, we should enter into crisis, and this is good, because crisis is open, it helps you to overcome, but not to fall into conflict, which leads you to wars and divisions.”
Perhaps it just as well that it was not said that the Greek etymology of krisis is judgement. For judgement requires a full presentation of the unvarnished truth, and it is unlikely that the most polished skills of diplomacy could protect the ecumenical relationship between the Anglican Communion and its mother Church, if the full and unvarnished truth found its way onto the negotiating table.