The pope has been recognized as the overall authority in the Christian world by an Anglican and Roman Catholic commission that described him as a “gift to be received by all the churches.”
The assertion is contained in a 43-page document entitled The Gift of Authority, prepared by the 18-member Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission which operates under the auspices of the Anglican Consultative Council and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
Completed after five years of debate, the statement it is not binding on either church.
Disagreement about the extent of the pope’s authority was one of the main causes of the English Reformation in the 16th century, and has been a constant obstacle to the two churches reuniting.
However the statement, released May 12 at Lambeth Palace, accepted that if a united church were created it would be the Bishop of Rome who would exercise a universal primacy.
Dr. George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury, admitted that the text is controversial but called for a debate in both the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches on its findings.
“In a world torn apart by violence and division, Christians need urgently to be able to speak with a common voice, confident of the authority of the gospel of peace,” he said.
The commission has proposed that the world’s Anglicans accept the papal authority of the Bishop of Rome even before the two traditions achieve full communion.
It also said the Bishop of Rome – more commonly called the pope – has a “specific ministry concerning the “discernment of truth,” and calls this “a gift to be received by all the churches.” The commission further accepted that only the pope had the moral authority to unite the Christian denominations.
Publication of the statement, however, does not necessarily mean that Anglicans are about to accept the authority of the current Pope, John Paul II, as further discussions – possibly lasting many years – will be needed within and between the two traditions if the proposals in the statement are to be implemented.
ARCIC’s co-chairmen at the time were Bishop Mark Santer (Anglican) and Bishop Cormac Murphy-O’Connor (Roman Catholic). Commission members come from Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Britain, the United States, Switzerland and the Vatican.
Referring to the 16th-century Anglican split from Rome, ARCIC claims that present-day Anglicans are “open to and desire a recovery and re-reception under certain clear conditions of the exercise of universal primacy by the Bishop of Rome.” However, ARCIC did not go as far as to confirm the Pope’s infallibility. Instead, it said: “This form of authoritative teaching has no stronger guarantee from the Holy Spirit than have the solemn definitions of ecumenical councils.”
The document does not specifically address the issues that divide the two Churches, such as the place of the Virgin Mary and women’s ministry.
The report stresses that it envisages that the Pope’s primacy should “help to uphold the legitimate diversity of traditions” and that it will help the church to express a fellowship in which “unity does not curtail diversity, and diversity does not endanger but enhances unity.”
Archbishop Carey said: “No doubt there will be several issues in the Gift of Authority which will be questioned, critically evaluated and examined by both communions. This is how it should be. But polemical theology has now been replaced by convergent theology.”
ARCIC was set up more than 30 years ago by Pope Paul VI and the then-archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey. It has already issued statements on the Eucharist, and ministry and ordination.
The last report, much of it about the issue of authority, was published in 1981. The Anglican Communion responded in 1988 and the Roman Catholic Church three years later.
The Gift of Authority is the result of further work on authority requested by both churches. Primates of the Anglican Communion and presidents of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference will discuss the document when they hold their first-ever summit next May in Toronto.
The document suggests that “Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops should find ways of co-operating and developing relationships of mutual accountability in their exercise of oversight.” One area for joint activity would be teaching and acting together in matters of faith and morals.
In a new united church, decisions would be made by consensus through councils, not based solely on the opinion of one man. The document remains ambiguous about what would happen when no agreement could be reached.
But the universal primacy of the Pope, ARCIC maintains, will “be an effective sign for all Christians as to how this gift of God builds up that unity for which Christ prayed.”
The proposals are expected to shock many Anglicans, particularly within the evangelical wing of the church, which remains wary of an extension of the Bishop of Rome’s authority.
Mark Birchall, a member of the Church of England Evangelical council, said: “It speaks as if the Bishop of Rome has always been on the side of the angels while it is well known that for several centuries past the Bishop of Rome was certainly not.”
Many Anglicans, not just evangelicals, he added, would find it hard to accept papal primacy as it could be understood from the ARCIC report.
“Evangelicals and Catholics have been getting closer, but papal primacy as it has been exercised for the last 100 years is probably the greatest gap,” he said. “Another understanding of papal primacy might be a different matter, and perhaps this document will open the way to that.”
In London’s Guardian newspaper, Margaret Hebblethwaite, a commentator who describs herself as a “liberal (Roman) Catholic,” called the ARCIC statement “either a stunning breakthrough, or an act of lunacy” for Anglicans. She suggested it was nearer the latter.
“Knowing from experience that Rome is not ready to compromise, (ARCIC) has gone for appeasement. Everything most obnoxious to Anglicans about the (Roman) Catholic view of authority is here.” She added: “Even Catholics are alarmed by the current abuse of authority in the Vatican. The high point of papal domination is not the moment for freezing current positions, for setting them in the stone of a written agreement.”
However, one of the Church of England’s leading ecumenists, Michael Nazir-Ali, Bishop of Rochester and a member of the commission, said that the agreed statement made “the Bible the ultimate test for determining the authenticity of any aspect of the Church’s tradition.
“It is fidelity to the Holy Scripture which enables both teachers to teach with authority and the faithful to receive this teaching from them,” he said, according to the London-based Church of England Newspaper.
Geoffrey Kirk, national secretary of the UK-based traditionalist Anglican group Forward in Faith, said he had no difficulty with the idea that “in moments of controversy the primate (the Pope) decides what is the tradition.”
However, Bishop Santer said: “To understand our conclusions you have to follow how we got there. One faith was given by Christ and his apostles and what we are trying to do is rediscover that one common faith.”
Bishop Murphy-O’Connor, added: “The primacy of the pope is a gift to be shared.”