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Anglican-Catholic Relations: the Quest for Unity

by Fr. Christopher Phillips

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    Document Information

  • Description:
    Fr. Phillips examines the state of relations between the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church and the validity of Anglican orders.
  • Larger Work:
    Lay Witness
  • Pages: 23-26
  • Publisher & Date:
    Catholics United for the Faith, November 1998

Anglican-Catholic Relations
The Quest for Unity

By Fr. Christopher Phillips

Issue: What is the state of relations between the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church? What does the Catholic Church teach about the validity of the sacraments within Anglicanism?

Response: The Catholic Church takes seriously the desire of Our Lord Jesus Christ "that they all may be one" (Jn. 17:21), and so there are ongoing discussions and efforts to overcome those things that separate Anglicans from Catholics. Because the Catholic Church has a responsibility to present the truth as revealed in Scripture and Tradition, it is necessary at times to be clear about those areas in which other Christians have deviated from Christ's teaching. Although there are striking similarities between Anglicans and Catholics, there remain serious areas of doctrinal disagreement which mean that the sad divisions, for now, continue.

Discussion: In the Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio ("UR"), the Fathers of Vatican II expressed concern over the divisions which hinder the work of the one Church founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ. They identified "two principal types of division which affect the seamless robe of Christ" (UR, no. 13), as set forth below:

The first divisions occurred in the East, either because of the dispute over the dogmatic formulae of the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, and later by the dissolving of ecclesiastical communion between the Eastern Patriarchates and the Roman See.

Still other divisions arose in the West more than four centuries later. These stemmed from the events which are commonly referred to as the Reformation. As a result, many communions, national or confessional, were separated from the Roman See. Among those in which Catholic traditions and institutions in part continue to exist, the Anglican communion occupies a special place (emphasis added).

It is because of this "special place" that the division between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion is especially tragic. Adding to the confusion is the "exterior" of Anglicanism, which appears to be so similar to that of Catholicism. In fact, many Catholics ask Anglicans who have entered the Catholic Church, "Why would you become a Catholic? The churches are almost the same, aren't they?"

Indeed, among Anglicans and Catholics there is a like understanding of the hierarchical nature of the Church as expressed in the three-fold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons; there is a similar understanding of the importance of sacramental life; there is an acceptance of the great creedal formulas as being foundational statements of faith. The list of similarities could go on, giving support to the statement in UR that the Anglican Communion continues to exhibit many "Catholic traditions and institutions." Unfortunately, this list cannot include a similar understanding of authority, particularly papal authority. The lack of agreement in this one area is the source of other doctrinal differences, and forms the basis for the ongoing division which hinders reunion.

A Brief History

In order to understand Anglican-Catholic relations today, it is necessary to understand something of the historical situation. The establishment of an English Church separate from the Roman Catholic Church took place in 1534 with the Act of Supremacy. In the Act of Supremacy, King Henry VIII declared that "the king's majesty justly and rightfully is and ought to be the supreme head of the Church of England." It was not Henry's desire to establish a separate church. Rather, he simply wanted to eliminate that papal authority which was preventing him from putting away one wife so that he could take another. By rejecting what he viewed as the pope's temporal jurisdiction, the king was able to declare himself the temporal head of a national church, and so "give himself permission" to carry out his planned divorce and remarriage. The matters of administering the sacraments and preaching were rightly seen as the work of the clergy, but the sovereign appropriated to himself all ecclesiastical jurisdiction, even to the choosing and licensing of the bishops. It is evident, however, that King Henry VIII did not want a complete rupture with the Catholic faith, but rather wished to attempt to maintain a "nonpapal Catholicism" in his realm.

Unfortunately, King Henry VIII did not understand the danger of removing part of the Church from the authority of the successor of St. Peter. Resultantly, he opened the door for a number of strong individuals who sympathized with the Protestantism sweeping through parts of Europe. As long as Henry lived, much of Catholic belief survived. For example, in the Articles of Faith, which were issued in 1536, the Eucharistic presence was called "corporal and substantial" (although the term "transubstantiation" was not used). Furthermore, it affirmed that justification was attained by "contrition and faith joined with charity," images of the saints were to be retained along with seeking their intercession, and prayers for the departed were encouraged.

With the succession in 1537 of Henry's son, Edward VI, Anglicanism took a distinct turn toward a radical Protestantism. King Henry's "non-papal Catholicism" was cut off from its roots and became a modified form of Calvinism. There was a specific denial of the sacrificial nature of the Mass, many Catholic practices were suppressed, and the bishops and other clergy were required to subscribe to the 42 Articles of Religion, which were entirely Protestant in their content.

At the death of King Edward VI in 1553, Mary Tudor became queen. With her accession to the throne, England was returned briefly to Catholicism. However, there remained a strong undercurrent of Protestantism. When Queen Mary died in 1558 she was succeeded by Elizabeth I, the queen who would give expression to an Anglicanism founded upon the years of upheaval which had gone before—an Anglicanism which would attempt to be a "via media" between the Catholic faith and continental Protestantism—an "Elizabethan settlement," seeking to embrace elements of both, yet being neither.

Queen Elizabeth herself had no strong personal religious convictions. However, she disliked Catholicism because it denied the legitimacy of her birth (since she was the offspring of Henry's invalid marriage to Anne Boleyn), and she disliked Protestantism because it abolished the episcopacy, which she felt was necessary for the safety of the monarchy. So it was that Elizabeth set the course for Anglicanism down the "middle way," and the practice of religion in England was, at best, chaotic at the beginning of her reign. Old rituals were retained alongside new rites. Many of the clergy were still Catholics held over from the days of King Henry VIII. The doctrine of the Real Presence in the Eucharist was not specifically denied, but worship was conducted using a decidedly Protestant Book of Common Prayer. The 42 Articles of Religion were revised as the 39 Articles of Religion, and although they were written in such way that a somewhat Catholic interpretation could be imposed upon them, they specifically denied much of what the Catholic faith would hold as being essential.

The Loss of Valid Sacraments

In the transitional period from King Henry VIII into the beginning of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the clergy (for the most part) were validly ordained bishops and priests, having been ordained before the Act of Supremacy was declared. The settlement during the Elizabethan reign was based upon the Prayer Book of 1552, which was vastly more "Protestant" than that of 1549. Included within the Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer was the ordination rite, which was used for the ordination of bishops, priests, and deacons.

Drastic changes were made in the Anglican rite, reflecting the Protestant rejection of the traditional sacrificial priesthood instituted by Our Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, when the Anglican formularies for ordination are combined with the expressed view and intention of the Protestant reformers who compiled the rite, it was evident that Holy Orders no longer were able to be transmitted as historically understood by the Church. When Pope Julius III attempted to reconcile the Anglican Church to the Holy See during the reign of Queen Mary, the Pope sent Cardinal Pole as his legate to England, with the specific instruction to distinguish between two different situations:

[T]he first, those who had really received sacred orders, either before the secession of Henry VIII, or, if after it and by ministers infected by error and schism, still according to the accustomed Catholic Rite; the second, those who were initiated according to the Edwardine Ordinal, who . . . had received an ordination that was null.1

It is the teaching of the Catholic Church that in order for any sacrament to be valid, it must be administered with a proper form (i.e., using a valid rite) and with a proper intention (i.e., that no defective intention be stated or manifested externally). Because those who formulated the Anglican rite for ordination specifically expunged any reference to the traditional Catholic priesthood, and were quite public in their intention not to continue what they considered to be a "superstitious" understanding of Holy Orders, ordinations carried out using the Anglican formularies were null and void. Because the sacrament of Holy Orders is so intimately associated with the sacraments of the Holy Eucharist and of Reconciliation, these sacraments also were not able to be validly celebrated by those who were ordained according to the Book of Common Prayer.

The whole matter of the invalidity of Anglican orders was given exhaustive study by a commission appointed by Pope Leo XIII. His papal bull Apostolicae Curae, issued on September 15, 1896, stated that because of a defect in both form and intention, apostolic succession was not preserved in Anglican orders. This was most recently confirmed in 1998 by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in his commentary on the Apostolic Letter Ad Tuendam Fidem ("To Protect the Faith") issued by His Holiness Pope John Paul II.

The Situation Today

During the pontificate of Pope Paul VI, there was a renewed hope that agreement could be found between the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church, agreement that would allow union. It was hoped that the Catholic Church would not simply absorb Anglicans, but would allow them to maintain a distinctive liturgical and hierarchical life in full communion with the Holy See.

To this end, in an attempt to see if agreement could be reached, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) was established to study those issues which were causing separation. In many areas a deeper understanding certainly has been found, but the necessary agreement in essential areas has not been achieved. The Anglican decision to "ordain" women, as well as the widening gulf in moral teaching on such issues as artificial birth control and abortion has presented serious, if not insurmountable, problems for any future reunion—even if the invalidity of Anglican orders could be remedied.

Throughout the years, there have been many sincere Anglicans who have sought to justify the position that Anglicanism is simply one expression of the Church founded by Christ. They claim Anglican sacraments to be every bit as valid as those of the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodoxy, and their desire to believe this is understandable.

It is important to understand that Catholic teaching about the invalidity of Anglican orders is not intended to question the sincerity of Anglicans. Indeed, the Catholic Church acknowledges that God can minister His grace in all sorts of ways and through many channels, and there is no doubt that non-Catholic Christians experience the grace of God in their lives.

However, as Catholics, we have access to the very sacraments instituted by Christ and ministered through His one holy priesthood. For this reason, it is never permissible for us to receive Holy Communion or absolution from an Anglican clergyman. Because of the invalidity of the Anglican priesthood, these sacraments are not valid.

As tragic as the separation is, it should serve as a reminder that we must work to build upon those things that we hold in common, and to pray for there to be "one fold, under one Shepherd," in communion with the Vicar of that Shepherd, the Pope.

By living the Catholic faith in charity, we manifest the eternal truths given us by God (cf. Eph. 4:15-16). Our lives then bear witness to the truth and draw all men to Christ. As Vatican II teaches: "[Mother Church] exhorts her children to purification and renewal so that the sign of Christ may shine more brightly over the face of the Church" (Lumen Gentium, no. 15). Only in this manner of living can we hope for true unity within the Body of Christ.

Endnotes

1 Letters of Julius III Issued to the Apostolic Delegate, letter dated March 8, 1554.


Father Phillips is pastor of Our Lady of the Atonement parish in the Archdiocese of San Antonio. He is a convert from the Anglican Communion.

© Lay Witness, Catholics United for the Faith, 827 North Fourth Street, Steubenville, OH 43952, (740) 283-2484.

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