The forthcoming discussions will be an expensive freebie that achieves nothing

By William Oddie

And now, ARCIC III: isn’t it time to bring this ecumenical farce to an end?Pope Benedict XVI and Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, sign a joint declaration in 2006 (CNS photo/Alessandro Bianchi, Reuters)

I begin with a simple news announcement, as reported by Zenit, the Catholic online news outlet:

The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) is opening a new phase of dialogue with a meeting scheduled for May 17-27.

A communiqué from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity noted that this new phase of work was mandated by Benedict XVI and the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, at their meeting in November 2009.

The first meeting of the new phase of the commission will take place at the Monastery of Bose in Northern Italy.

The communiqué noted that ‘the task of this third phase of ARCIC will be to consider fundamental questions regarding the “Church as Communion – Local and Universal,” and “How in Communion the Local and Universal Church Comes to Discern Right Ethical Teaching”.

Thus, and much more, Zenit. Zenit doesn’t comment on such matters: but it doesn’t give much background, either. You wouldn’t guess from this straightfaced announcement (and perhaps the boys and girls at Zenit don’t even realise) that the said meeting will not only be an expensive freebie for those involved but also utterly futile, an absolute and total waste of time. But you can probably gather that from the Catholic Herald report: I’m pretty sure the Herald newsdesk does know it, though their report doesn’t actually say so (and probably better not; it’s hardly necessary, since unlike Zenit’s, the Herald report does give the necessary background for us to come to that conclusion ourselves):

Pope Benedict XVI and Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, met in late 2009. They pledged to continue the formal dialogue even as the ordination of women as priests and bishops, the blessing of gay unions and the ordination of openly gay clergy threatened the unity of the Anglican Communion and made it more difficult for Catholics and Anglicans to see a way for their communities to draw closer together.

Shortly after the Pope and archbishop met, the Vatican announced that a new round of dialogue, referred to as ARCIC III, would deal with “fundamental questions regarding the Church as communion local and universal, and how in communion the local and universal Church comes to discern right ethical teaching”.

In the wake of the recent collapse of Muslim-Catholic dialogue, you have to ask what that word “dialogue” has come to mean these days: two groups of irreconcilables, each churning out yet again their own point of view in case their interlocutors weren’t already perfectly well aware of what they think about absolutely everything? I remember as a Catholic-minded Anglican desperately hoping, back in the 70s, in the early days of ARCIC, that a series of statements would somehow emerge which would uncover a common faith, on the basis of which corporate reunion might be a distant prospect. The statements did emerge, on Ministry, Sacraments and so forth: but they were never officially accepted by Rome as being a sound or adequate representation of Catholic belief, and nor were they.

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 (mostly bishops) 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 (and it was only men, on both sides, in those days) 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 faced: they all represented only themselves.

And they all, Catholics and Anglicans, quite simply belonged to very different kinds of institution. 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. None 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”.

And in the end, that fundamental disqualification of ARCIC remains: it is an endless time-consuming discussion between representatives of the Catholic Church on one side, and a varying group of individuals who represent only themselves on the other.  And so it will be at the next ARCIC meeting. Some of the Anglicans will be quite close to the views of their (hum, hum) “spiritual leader”, Rowan Williams; others will be very far from them. A document so general that they can all subscribe to it will somehow be cobbled together. Nobody will read it: and the whole operation will at great expense achieve nothing.

Can anybody explain to me why we carry on with ARCIC? Is there any real intention, as 30 years ago there undoubtedly was, of actually acheiving something? Is it a continuing self-delusion on the part of those participating? Or is ARCIC III just a PR exercise, designed to avert attention from the fact that we have now, inevitably but finally, come to the bitter end of the ecumenical road?

Whatever it is, we will all, finally, have to face reality: and, surely, the sooner the better.