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The Contribution of Canon Law to Anglican-Roman Catholic Ecumenism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 December 2010

Nicholas Sagovsky
Canon Theologian, Westminster Abbey


Amongst the subjects discussed by the theologians of ARCIC, canon law has been conspicuously absent. The ecclesiology of koinonia, which is central to the work of ARCIC, has been of the greatest importance in ‘re-imagining’ the Church and so promoting ecumenism. It has faced received canon law with new questions: to what extent can canon law facilitate those structures and practices which undergird the ecumenical initiatives promoted by koinonia ecclesiology? Already, canon law provides for shared institutions and chaplaincies to institutions. Test areas for future ecumenical convergence include the reception of a member of one tradition by the other, ethics and suitability for ministry. The proposed Anglican covenant presents a challenge to the canon law of member churches within the Anglican Communion and may present a model for future ecumenical convergence. The work of canon lawyers in developing this and other new models for ecumenism is indispensable to a deeper and more extensive koinonia amongst the churches.

Copyright © Ecclesiastical Law Society 2011

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2 In Models of the Church (Dublin, 1976), p 14, Avery Dulles quotes the definition of Robert Bellarmine to the effect that ‘The one true Church is the community of men brought together by the profession of the same Christian faith and conjoined in the communion of the sacraments, under the government of the legitimate pastors and especially the one vicar of Christ on earth, the Roman pontiff.’ Bellarmine goes on to say that it is a fully visible society – as visible as the Kingdom of France or the Republic of Venice. In his book, Dulles explores a variety of models and images (‘Church as Mystical Communion’; ‘Church as sacrament’; ‘Church as herald’) which suggest a much stronger awareness of the inalienable bond between the visible and invisible Church. Compare also The Catechism of the Catholic Church (London, 1994), which speaks of the Church as ‘People of God’, ‘Body of Christ’ and ‘Temple of the Holy Spirit’ (cf paras 751–798).

3 The ‘Special Position of the Eastern Churches’, who share in this unbroken continuity of (diachronic) koinonia, is recognised in the Decree on Ecumenism from the Second Vatican Council (Unitatis Redintegratio) paras 14–18.

4 Lumen Gentium para 8; cf Unitatis Redintegratio para 4. Cardinal Kasper writes: ‘According to the Catholic sacramental view, the Church of Christ and her whole mystery, without overlooking its charismatic dimension, subsists in a concrete and permanent institutional structure, in communion with the Bishop of Rome and the bishops in communion with him.’ He goes on to contrast this with the [Reformers'] view which ‘without totally abandoning the institutional aspect, holds an understanding of the Church as event, existing wherever the Gospel is correctly preached and the sacraments duly administered.’ Kasper, W, Harvesting the Fruits: basic aspects of Christian faith in ecumenical dialogue (London/New York, 2009), p 204Google Scholar. The latter view is also that of Anglicanism (cf Article 19).

5 Unitatis Redintegratio is fundamental here.

6 See Canon C 15.

7 Est autem Ecclesia congregatio Sanctorum [Versammlung aller Gläubigen], in qua Evangelium recte [rein] docetur, et recte [laut des Evangelii] administrantur Sacramenta. Et ad veram unitatem Ecclesiæ satis est consentire de doctrina Evangelii et administratione Sacramentorum. (Confessio Augustana VII).

8 The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral (1886–1888) affirmed as one of the four ‘articles’ on which the unity of the Church could be affirmed ‘The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the Unity of His Church.’ (The other three articles were: the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as ‘containing all things necessary to salvation,’ and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith; the Apostles' Creed, as the Baptismal Symbol, and the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith; and the two Sacraments ordained by Christ Himself – Baptism and the Supper of the Lord – ministered with unfailing use of Christ's words of Institution, and of the elements ordained by Him.) According to the articles of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, Anglicanism can conceive of authentic church life in non-episcopal churches, but now sees participation in ‘the historic episcopate’ as a precondition for complete, visible unity.

9 Article 19 goes on: ‘As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch have erred: so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of ceremonies, but also in matters of faith.’

10 The ‘shape of the liturgy’ in both traditions was reformed in line with the scholarship of Dom Gregory Dix (an Anglican).

11 An ecclesiology of koinonia is compatible either with a more ‘static’ presentation of the life of the Church as participation in the life of the Trinity or a more dynamic, pneumatologically (and eschatologically) driven account of participation through time: the first sits well with ‘Mystical Body’ imagery, the second with ‘pilgrim people of God’ imagery.

12 ‘Of its nature, canon law – whether Anglican or Roman Catholic – properly so called provides a level of clarity that is not always verifiable (or even desirable) in other forms of inter-Church discourse. Law defines limits, outlines boundaries and establishes what is normative within each ecclesial communion’ [my emphasis], A Decade of Ecumenical Dialogue on Canon Law: a Report on the Proceedings of the Colloquium of Anglican and Roman Catholic Canon Lawyers 1999–2009’, (2009) 11 Ecc LJ 284Google Scholar at 320.

13 See Murray, P (ed), Receptive Ecumenism and the Call to Catholic Learning (Oxford, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Amongst 32 essays, not one focuses on canon law.

14 Hence the importance for Anglicans of member churches' canon law to support new structures which may emerge with the adoption of the Covenant (as discussed later in this essay); a parallel example for Roman Catholics might be the new synodical structures developed after Vatican II: the canon law that supports new structures such as national episcopal councils and synods of bishops. From an Anglican point of view, further development to ensure lay participation in Roman Catholic processes of synodical discernment would be an area ripe for exploration.

15 Canons B 43 and B 44. See page 13 note 25 below. The importance of canon law in facilitating and supporting the joint foundation of Anglican-Roman Catholic parishes, schools and universities, as well as ecumenical chaplaincies, cannot be overestimated.

16 See ‘A Decade of Ecumenical Dialogue’, pp 284–328.

17 Ibid, p 306.

18 Canon B 28. For the approved rite of reception into the Church of England, see <>, accessed 28 February 2010.

19 The establishing of a Personal Ordinariate could be seen as a means of recognising the koinonia that already exists between Anglicans and Roman Catholics; however, in the way that this came about it looked much more like ad hoc pastoral provision, made without reference to the wider ecumenical discussion in which the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity is engaged. To the extent that this is true, canon law had become detached from ongoing ecumenism.

21 ‘A Decade of Ecumenical Dialogue’, p 298, emphasis added.

22 The question of gender comes in here. If we ask it in this context, we can perhaps tease out a little more what ecclesiological presuppositions are apparent where women are admitted to or refused ordination to the presbyterate and episcopate. Is there some physical reason why women should not be so ordained – or does the reasoning lie solely in the area of tradition and apostolicity? And what of the hermaphrodite? How is their gender to be determined? Is the possession of both male and female sexual organs an impediment to ordination?

23 ‘A Decade of Ecumenical Dialogue’, pp 321–323.

24 Growing Together in Unity and Mission, An Agreed Statement of the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission (IARCCUM) (London, 2007), p 50.

25 The proposals of IARCCUM open the way to a variety of local initiatives. I have not in this paper explored the important subject of local ecumenism as my own experience has been much more that of a theologian working on an international commission. For Anglicans, there are significant statements of canon law in Canons B 43 (‘Of Relations with Other Churches’) and B 44 (‘Of Local Ecumenical Projects’), which govern local ecumenism.

26 For the text of the proposed covenant, see <>, accessed 28 February 2010.

27 Ibid, para 4.1.3.

28 Ibid, para 4.2.9.

29 For the text, see <>, accessed 28 February 2010.

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