Anglicans cannot accept universal primacy of the pope

Published February 1, 2000

WHEN ANGLICANS and Roman Catholics have so much in common, why can’t we come together – not just to be friends, not just to go steady, but to be one again?

Our liturgies are now almost the same. Our bishops and clergy now dress up the same. Our sanctuaries now look the same. Our theological wordsmiths can now make our doctrines sound the same. Why can’t we be the same?

Because of one of the most important four letter words in the language: pope.

Not John Paul II himself. Nor his inevitable successor. But the institution of the papacy, that unique spiritual establishment with its claim to a supreme authority articulated in such titles as Vicar of Jesus Christ, successor to Peter, prince of the apostles, supreme pontiff, patriarch of the West, primate of Italy, metropolitan of the province of Rome, bishop of Rome, and sovereign of the Vatican.

Some of this authority can be shared with each bishop – but not transferred. Some of it can be devolved collegially to national conferences of bishops – but not handed over. No bishop can function without papal appointment, and any bishop can be removed by papal fiat. He may consult a multitude of bishops before making a statement, but it is his statement.

No matter how high the other peaks in the episcopal range, the pope rises above them like a pontifical Mount Everest. He has no counterpart, especially among Anglicans.

Yes, our worldwide communion of national churches is held together by the way each bishop and diocese is in communion with the See of Canterbury, but that does not mean its archbishop is an Anglican pope. He has no authority outside the Church of England, nor does the Lambeth Conference of bishops over which he presides every 10 years assert authority over anyone.

Anglicans function multi-nationally partly by communicating with each other, partly by accepting that we can be different without being separate. One national church may ordain women, remarry divorcees, and accept abortion but another national church may endorse none of these options.

Hence the challenge to those Anglican – Roman Catholic ecumenists who want to build a bridge across this chasm, even if it can be only the swinging, shaky footbridge of acknowledging the pope’s so-called universal primacy.

It is an appealing, inviting prospect to all Anglicans who, like myself, know the spiritual strength Roman Catholics bring to Christian ministries when we work together. It offers an apparently painless process because Anglicans are so used to having primates, every national church having one, the Church of England even having two.

But it cannot be. What the papacy can mean by primacy is unalterably different from what Anglicans mean by it. No matter how much authority is delegated by the papacy, it all remains in one pair of hands able to draw it back at will. No matter how much collegiality is shared by the Bishop of Rome with his fellow bishops, they can act only as he allows. There is no way his universal primacy can ever be defined the way Anglicans have understood primacy.

When all the pomp and circumstance have been stripped away, all the dogmas diluted in palatable form, all the triumphalism softened into kinder, gentler service, the core of Rome has to remain what is has been so long. As the essence of the ancient empire was the centrality of its rule in one emperor, so the very being of this great church lies in the supremacy – not the primacy – of one bishop. Rome must rule in order to be Rome. When it has achieved so much for Christianity under papal rule, why should it change?

When Anglicans have grown from one small national church to a worldwide communion of every tongue and nation, why should we become other that what we are? The Spirit blows when he will, and when he has chosen to breathe his life into different kinds of churches, humbly accepting, gladly rejoicing in the gift is the way to respond. Dr. Reginald Stackhouse is Principal Emeritus and Research Professor at Wycliffe College in the University of Toronto.


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