A historic, week-long meeting in Mississauga, Ont., of Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops from around the world produced many statements of goodwill and small steps toward the long-held goal of uniting two churches that have been divided for nearly 500 years.
Participants said the simple fact that the May 14-20 meeting was held – the first such wide-ranging consultation at the bishop level – was a major step along the path begun in 1966. That year, Pope Paul VI and Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey agreed to try to fulfill “the prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ for unity among his disciples.”
“This is the first time (the process) has been broadened out (beyond) theologians,” said Anglican Bishop John Baycroft, director of the Anglican Centre in Rome and representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Holy See.
The conference of bishops from 13 countries or regions was not expected to – nor could it – produce theological agreements, but contained highly-visible symbolic moments: the Archbishop of Canterbury preaching at an Anglican evensong service in a Roman Catholic cathedral, a joint news conference led by Catholic and Anglican prelates.
The bishops, who attended in Roman Catholic-Anglican pairs, recommended that the two denominations sign a Joint Declaration of Agreement, which would set out areas of agreement and declare “a fresh commitment to share together in common life and witness.” They also recommended establishing a permanent “joint unity commission” to further the work of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, which was set up as a result of the 1966 meeting.
The commission should also, they said, examine ways “to deal generously and pastorally with situations of inter-church marriages,” produce communications materials to make the work of ARCIC better-known and promote cooperation locally on clergy formation, education and other pastoral matters.
At a news conference, Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey and Edward Idris Cardinal Cassidy, the highest-ranking Anglican and Catholic clergy at the meeting, acknowledged that huge differences such as the ordination of women, still divide the churches.
“That was a question that needed a lot of our time. It is a challenge not at all easy to overcome,” said Cardinal Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
“I firmly believe in the ordination of women to the priesthood. Catholics do not, but the debate, the discussion, the friendship, the dialogue, continues,” said Dr. Carey. Although Pope John Paul has declared the question closed, one conference participant who preferred to remain anonymous said after the news conference, “Who knows what the next pope will do?”
The Roman Catholic church also refuses to recognize Anglican orders, while the Anglican church accepts former Catholic priests. However, Cardinal Cassidy said, “We need to recognize the orders of the other partner.”
Dr. Carey noted, “We are no longer at the point we were in 1896, when Anglican orders were declared null and void,” but added, “when I became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1991, I got several letters from Roman Catholic lay people that said, you are not a priest at all. Now, that hurts.”
The bishops also compared notes on how the unity process is being received in congregations.
“There is concern – ‘why are we separate’ – but they don’t understand the differences,” said Paul Kalanda, the Catholic Bishop of Fort Portal in Uganda, interviewed after the news conference as he walked outside the retreat centre with his countryman, the Anglican Bishop of Luweero, Evans Mukasa Kisekka.
In an interview after the news conference, Archbishop Michael Peers said the participants discussed “doing something like this again,” probably within five years.
The most dramatic public event of the conference was the ecumenical evensong service, held at St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Toronto. About 1,100 people packed the 152-year-old building, including Ontario Premier Mike Harris and former prime minister John Turner.
Cardinal Cassidy read a message of greeting from Pope John Paul, which noted “very positive developments” in the relationship between Anglicans and Catholics, but also said “new and serious obstacles have slowed our progress.”
Significantly, the service chosen was not a eucharistic one, since Anglican churches allow Roman Catholics to take the eucharist, but Roman Catholic churches don’t reciprocate.
In interviews after the service, most attendees were enthusiastic about the idea of unity, but also demonstrated a sense of practicality about the continuing divisions.
“I was absolutely in seventh heaven,” said Canon Bill Riesberry, a retired Anglican priest, adding, “I think it will be difficult for the Roman Catholic church to reverse its positions. I like to think inter-communion can happen without complete agreement.”
The meeting drew protests from Protestants opposed to greater rapprochement with Rome. Rev. Ian Paisley, Member of the British Parliament from Northern Ireland and leader and founder of the Free Presbyterian Church, was to have attended a protest meeting in Toronto, but withdrew due to the illness of his wife.
However, a spokesman for Dr. Paisley said his views are reflected by Dr. Frank McClelland, minister of Toronto Free Presbyterian Church. “It is a major betrayal of Anglican history to seek union with Rome,” said Dr. McClelland.
He cited several theological differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics, including the number of sacraments, adding that “the major thing” concerns accepting the primacy of the Pope.
Participants in the conference came from Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Southern Africa, Uganda, the U.S.A., the United Kingdom and the West Indies.