“Ecumenism in the Front Row”

Recently I ran across the expression, “Ecumenism in the front row” as a descriptor of the Anglicanorum coetibus ordinariates.  A quick search produced what I assume was the first public use of the term by then-Monsignor Lopes in 2014.  (Click here for the report of the 2014 statement.)  I take this expression to mean that the Anglican patrimony now plays—thanks to Anglicanorum coetibus—an immensely increased importance in both furthering and realizing ecumenism.  It realizes ecumenism among those in full communion with the See of St. Peter by establishing the Anglican patrimony as a now-official liturgico-spiritual expression in the Catholic Church.  It furthers ecumenism between Anglicans/Episcopalians and Catholics by establishing a shared liturgico-spiritual tradition that is the common patrimony among Anglicans/Episcopalians and some Catholics.

I suspect that even among those who are ardent supporters of Anglicanorum coetibus, there are those who don’t fully appreciate how momentous Anglicanorum coetibus is.  In the first place, many cradle Catholics don’t fully appreciate how central liturgy is to Anglican identity. Anglicanorum coetibus’s establishment of the Anglican patrimony as an official expression of the Catholic faith is thus much more than a gesture of respect to Anglicans/Episcopalians who join us in praying and working for unity.  It’s the Catholic Church’s promise that it is working to understand Anglican identity at its very core.  This isn’t to say that it’s all smooth sailing ahead and that there aren’t those on both sides of the Tiber who will try to minimize this importance (for motives that usually leave me mystified).  But Rome doesn’t throw things away, especially if what’s at issue is a liturgical expression established on the basis of an apostolic constitution.  So though I can understand why, among those who turn their attention to all that Anglicanorum coetibus means, there are some (most of us?) who might have more questions than answers, a realistic and responsible approach would not include ignoring it and hoping it will go away.

Having claimed that Rome doesn’t throw things away, I nonetheless acknowledge that so vast is the liturgical and spiritual treasury of the Catholic Church that some of these expressions of Catholic unity of faith do end up in metaphorical side chapels and back rooms. This is the second reason Anglicanorum coetibus is so momentous.  As I’ve written elsewhere (“The Monastic Quality of Anglicanism: Implications for Understanding the Anglican Patrimony,” in Anglicans and the Roman Catholic Church: Reflections on Recent Developments, [San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 2011]), Anglicanorum coetibus not only builds the basis for more profound dialogue between Anglicans/Episcopalians and Catholics, it brings back into daily use in some Catholic parishes the patristic/monastic approach to theology and spirituality.  Perhaps some of the bewilderment about Anglicanorum coetibus is due to the fact that it’s so unusual to recognize that what “they” (a tradition born of the era of the Protestant reforms) are providing in the Catholic spiritual treasury is, in so many ways, already “ours” (Catholics’).

Theoretically, patristic/monastic spirituality has always been an influence in Catholicism because of monasteries. But how fully that has been the case would require a full analysis of whether and how extensively monasticism’s influence has diminished in the West throughout those centuries that saw the rise to prominence of the mendicant orders, then of the canonical orders, etc.  Connected to this discussion would be the issue of whether monasticism’s own post-twelfth-century history has involved organic development from its sources.  Since either/or dualisms aren’t at home in Catholicism, there cannot truly be such a thing as a pure pre-Enlightenment, patristic/monastic Benedictine or Cistercian.  The Benedictine who doesn’t at least appreciate the importance of scholastic theology, for example, or of Ignatian imaginative contemplation doesn’t live in a truly Catholic or catholic universe.  Nonetheless, for the monastic charism to be authentic, whether in the sixth century or the twenty-first, it must be true to its strong affinity with the patristic way of thinking theologically, which has also been an essential element of the Anglican patrimony.

It is because Anglicanorum coetibus welcomes a Catholic liturgical expression not only from another tradition but also from its own treasury back into daily use that I confess to being a bit grumpy when I see (I barely read them anymore) article after article fascinated by this “new thing” that allows married priests in the Catholic Church while ignoring the question of whether there’s a distinct spirituality at issue.  Granted, pinning down a definition of “Anglican patrimony” is a project still in process.  So I can’t blame the news-article genre for steering clear of an issue that isn’t easily reduced to a few pithy statements.  But unless the sources in my and others’ research are all unreliable, there’s something in the claim that the way Christianity in the West worshipped and prayed and reflected theologically for roughly the first millennium—i.e., the patristic/monastic way of both doing and living theology—is distinct.  Compare the writings of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, for example, with those of St. Teresa of Avila.  Liturgy and reflective/contemplative reading of Scripture is at the core of St. Bernard’s spirituality as is the Rule of St. Benedict, which refers back to the importance of lectio divina and liturgy.  And though St. Bernard and the other early Cistercians are known for having developed an affective expression of monastic spirituality, the fact that liturgy is prayed in common means even the ostensible inner workings of St. Bernard’s soul read more like an echo of the Psalmist or the Song of Songs than a genuine baring of his own identity.  Though St. Teresa was just as faithful in praying the liturgy and reading Scripture, hers is not really a liturgico-scriptural spirituality.  Rather, her great works focus on her individual, interior spiritual journey.

Lest all of this discussion of roughly the first millennium (which continued to exert great influence in England up to and through the English Reformation) give the sense that Anglicanorum coetibus is carting out an antique and blessing nostalgia, the effect of the apostolic constitution is to recognize that rather than the patristic/monastic way of doing theology being a thing of the past, this liturgical spirituality has been tooling along and developing in its own ways, both in the Anglican communion and in the monastic “side chapels” within the Catholic Church.  Given these continuing traditions, it’s actually a bit misleading to use the term “patristic/monastic” without constantly repeating that this is but a heuristic device.  (And that caveat is a reason for feeling a sense of relief that the news-article genre hasn’t quite taken up what could too easily become a simplistic identifier.)  Nonetheless, since the authorities who actually rely on scholarship seem to return to this theme again and again, we are justified in using, at least as a shorthand term, “patristic/monastic.”

I end by adding yet another voice—that of Esther de Waal in her A Life-Giving Way—to the chorus of those who see the Anglican patrimony and monasticism as being so intertwined that indeed Anglicanorum coetibus puts those involved in it or supportive of it in the front row of ecumenism.  Moreover, since this passage is taken from de Waal’s commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict, with oblates as her intended readers, it shows that Benedictine oblates committed to this ecumenical vision are in the first seat of the front row.

“I was living in Canterbury, in a house that had been, in the Middle Ages, the prior’s lodging of the great medieval Benedictine community. [I thought] that I would pick up the Rule in order to increase my historical understanding [of the great monastic Church]. Instead it changed my life. … The monastic Church of Canterbury is the mother Church of the Anglican Communion, and I now came to realize just how great the extent to which its Benedictine roots have shaped Anglican life and worship. I found that the prior and monks became the dean and chapter … I found … that the daily saying of the Offices of morning and evening prayer in the cathedral represented the work of Thomas Cranmer, who, during the Reformation, shortened the seven monastic Offices into Matins and Evensong, so that, like the monks, the Anglicans sing the psalms and hear the Word of God daily. I found that the Anglican via media was nothing more than the Benedictine ideal of moderation and balance.” (p. 194)

[The photo shows the crozier of St. Gregory the Great, the pope whose longing for the conversion of England resulted in sending St. Augustine—soon to be “of Canterbury”—to found a monastic community there.]

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