Honest Ecumenism

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[It would be hubris on my part to think my research and writings on the Anglican patrimony made their way to the pope’s speech writers. But Pope Francis’s comments do read as though they’re a caricature of what I and others have referred to as the monastic influence in Anglicanism.  The thesis we have put forth isn’t that Anglicanism retained full-fledged monasticism.  Anything but!  Rather, the Prayer Book retains significant elements of monastic spirituality and did so for the sake of making that spirituality available not to vowed religious but to the entire nation.  (Whether Cranmer and company knew they were doing this is a separate issue.  Another separate issue is whether it was wise to direct the liturgical character of an entire nation according to this charism—albeit modified for laity.  I’ve been told that the Spanish crown forbade Benedictines from planting foundations in its new-world colonies.  If true, this is the opposite case, i.e., hindering, rather than insisting upon, the monastic influence in national identities.)  In any case, Fr. Lucie-Smith’s point in the article attached below is well worth considering.  Ecumenism should be built on honest appraisals of what has been and what is.  Though I think Pope Francis’s pastoral instinct tells him to tell us that clinging to the mistakes and misunderstandings of the past would also be a disservice to our efforts to move towards full unity.]

One hopes that the Pope enjoyed his recent visit to All Saints in the Via del Babuino, a rather fine Anglican Church in the heart of Rome, the work of the famous architect G E Street. In the course of his visit, he preached a sermon in Italian. It centred on the blessing of an icon, using language that is more redolent of the Christian East than the Christian West. One wonders who writes these things.

More interesting were the remarks made in a question and answer session, which are reported by Vatican Radio. When wishing to emphasise what Anglicans and Catholics share, the Pope had this to say:

“We have a common tradition of the saints … Never, never in the two Churches, have the two traditions renounced the saints: Christians who lived the Christian witness until that point. This is important.

“There is another thing that has kept up a strong connection between our religious traditions: [male and female] monks, monasteries. And monks, both Catholic and Anglican, are a great spiritual strength of our traditions.”

This is interesting from a historical perspective and suggests that the Pope should perhaps take a close look at the history of England or the Thirty-Nine Articles.

Anglicanism was born out of a movement that saw the destruction of all of England’s religious houses, many of whose mute ruins stand as a witness to this catastrophe today. Moreover the Thirty-Nine Articles specifically forbid the cult of the saints, and our Tudor forebears made a point of destroying all the shrines of England bar one (that of Saint Edward the Confessor, who was spared as he was a king.) The XXII article states:

“The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping, and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.”

If ecumenism is to progress, it has to do so on a sound historical basis. There is no other way. It is true, as the Pope avers, that there are Anglican monks and nuns, but these religious foundations date to the nineteenth century at the earliest, and are fruits of the Oxford Movement. For four hundred years there was no religious life lived under vows in community in the Church of England. Many (though not I) would see the influence of Anglican religious life as marginal in the Church of England. Again, Anglican devotion to the saints of our own times is certainly present and to be encouraged; but whether someone like Saint Therese of Lisieux has much of an impact on Anglican thinking these days, I am not sure.

Too much of our ecumenical dialogue has been based on a mixture of wishful thinking and not looking too closely at the historical faith of various Christian bodies. This does no one any favours, and it needs to change.

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