an essay for Anglicans Online

A reflection on the dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches 

By Rodrigo Contreras *
October, 2000

A translation by Anglicans Online of the original Spanish document. This translation has not been approved or reviewed by the original author.

Archbishop and Pope
The Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope John Paul II have worked enthusiastically for the reconciliation of our churches.

On the occasion of the recent publication by the Roman Catholic Church of the document Dominus Iesus 1, in which, ignoring 30 years of ecumenical progress, it reiterates its old pretension of being the only authentic Church of Christ, describing as “defective” and “not proper churches” the other Churches that—according to its judgment (as ours) did not maintain apostolic succession and therefore do not have proper sacraments. The dialogue reached by the Anglican Roman-Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), which had made considerable progress, is again seeming to stagnate and return to being the subject of commentary. There are circles in both communions, primarily with ARCIC’s detractors, that already say that this dialogue is dead. For its proponents, the disagreement dominates and is a clear signal that there is still a lot of ground to cover before mutual understanding is reached, mainly by the Roman-Catholic side. 

It seems to be a good time, in the light of recent events that as Anglicans involved withthe present and future of our Church we spend some time in reflection on this dialogue, which should be important for both Churches in the search for unity (as a first step towards Christian reconcilation) and thus to contribute to the reconstruction of the Church we claim that it is: One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. 

Its origins 

After the conclusion of Vatican Council II and the great ecumenical feelings that arose after it, after more than 400 years of separation and distance between our Churches, in 1966 the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, met in Rome with Pope Paul VI, to initiate a new ecumenical era between our Churches with views to the removal of the causes of our conflict and the restoration of unity.

With this purpose, ARCIC was established, and has since produced a series of joint agreements: on eucharistic doctrine in 1971;  on ministry and ordination in 1973;  and two agreements on authority in the Church, 1976 and 1981. They were presented that same year (accompanied by some explanations) as the Final Report[2], that apparently had resolved, to a great extent, the major points in areas where our separated Churches were in discord and conflict.

These agreements were recognized by the Lambeth Conference  of 1988 and ratified again in 1999  to be "in substantial agreement with the beliefs of Anglicans"[3].

"The Gift of Authority"

The big advance achieved by ARCIC reached its peak in May of last year with the release of the document "The Gift of Authority,[4]"  which proposes that as one possibility, Anglicans could accept papal primacy under certain clear conditions. 

The report indicates the form in which the authority would be exerted at several levels of the life of the church, primarily distributed between the ministry of episcopal visits, which has as its main role the proclamation of the gospel, the synodality between all the members of the church and the unique role of bishops to discern and articulate the faith, assuring that all the churches are in communion, and expressing that in special circumstances, the church’s teachings can be infallible.

Also it expresses the unique role of the Bishop of Rome "within the college of bishops" as far as the discernment of the truth, establishing clearly that all solemn proclamation from the Throne of Peter is proclaimed inside the college of bishops rather than outside. It also expresses that when solemnly formulating such teaching, the primate  must “discern and declare, with the assured assistance and guidance of the Holy Spirit, in fidelity to Scripture and Tradition, the authentic faith of the whole Church, the faith of all the baptised in communion" and ARCIC says that it is a gift that must be received by all the Churches, and that it includes recognition of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. 

The final section establishes challenges for both comunions if they are to be committed to a common life. 

For Anglicans it revisits one of the most contentious subjects of the last Lambeth Conference (1998):  the interdependence between the provinces of the Anglican Communion, namely the issue that the Anglican communion be opened to the acceptance of supervision instruments. These would allow decisions to be made that, in certain circumstances, would be mandatory for all the church. For now the unilateral actions of individual provinces, even after a consultation, inhibit koinonia. 

For Roman catholics it raises in the same way the issue of whether the lessons of Vatican II have been carried out in a real and effective way, like more active collaboration between the clergy and the laity in synod meetings, and at what point a principle has been sufficiently put into practice, teaching on the collegiality of bishops, as well as consultation between the Bishop of Rome and the local church before making important decisions. 

This final section presents, in addition, an attractive picture of a ministry of renewed primacy exerted in the collegium of bishops and of priests, a ministry of the servant of the servants of God, that sustains the legitimate diversity and increases unity, and indicates that it would be necessary that both communions are disposed towards a recovery and re-reception (under certain conditions) of universal primacy of the Bishop of Rome. 

Present and future of the dialogue

A resolution of these 30 years of dialogue was made by Anglican bishops and Roman Catholics meeting in Toronto, Canada last April; which found that it was time for a joint declaration of faith to be signed, and which there decided to form a joint commission that will be exclusively dedicated to preparing it. 

Finally from 26 August to the 3 of September, ARCIC met in Paris to define the form in which they were going to begin the agreements made in the meeting of bishops and to outline the future of the dialogue. 

It is at this point that opinions have been divided around two questions: unity of faith or unity of organization.  For either to be enough would be the ultimate goal of the ecumenical movement, whereas for others the two cannot be separated. 

The question is how we can interpret the words of Jesus Christ, who prayed to the father so that their followers were one "as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." (John 17:22-23).  Perhaps the unity between the Father and the Son is not a perfect communion, like that which we would need in the church? 

In 1991 ARCIC published a document titled Church as Communion  in which it declares very clearly that spiritual unity is not sufficient, explaining it in the following way:  “For a Christian the life of communion means sharing in the divine life, being united with  the Father, through his Son, in the Holy Spirit, and consequently to be in fellowship with all those who share in the same gift of eternal life. This is a spiritual communion in  which the reality of the life of the world to come is already present. But it is inadequate to speak only of an invisible spiritual unity as the fulfilment of Christ's will  for the Church; the profound communion fashioned by the Spirit requires visible expression. The purpose of the visible ecclesial community is to embody and promote  this spiritual communion with God (cf. §§ 17-25).”

“For all the local churches to be together in communion, the one visible communion God  wills, it is required that all the essential constitutive elements of ecclesial communion are present and mutually recognized in each of them. Thus the visible communion between these churches is complete and their ministers are in communion with each other. This does not necessitate precisely the same canonical ordering: diversity of canonical structure is part of the acceptable diversity which enriches the one communion of all the churches.”

In fact this comes in principle from the Malinas Conversations in a document titled "The Church of England united not absorbed” of 1925, in which it proposes or establishes that there would have to be a formula so that after a possible union the Church did not lose its autonomy, internal laws and liturgy. This model can be found in some Eastern churches that returned to communion with Rome[5].

The need for a primacy

The Anglican Church, as much as the Roman Catholic Church, shares the necessity for a universal primate as the focal point for all local Churches, nevertheless the question here is if this must be solely honorary, or have jurisdiction. On that matter I will say that both positions have some logic to them, and there is a need to find middle ground. 

The well-known Lutheran scholar W. Pannenburg has this to say when asked about the Papacy: “Leaving aside for the moment the question whether the Papacy is of divine or human right, the need for a ministry of unity in the Church is so evident that negative Protestant attitudes ought no longer be adopted.”[6] and in our own communion we can see very clearly that not even our instruments of collegiality, like the Lambeth Conference, the Consultative Council, or the Archbishop of Canterbury have authority to act in important cases like the variations with respect to the ordination of gay priests, same-sex marriages, etc., that have arisen in the US Episcopal Church.

Recently, an investigation into revising the powers of the Archbishop of Canterbury was opened, concerning  the necessity of having more primate-like power within the Anglican Communion. This arose as a result of the consecration of two anti-homosexual bishops in Singapore to serve as missionary bishops in the United States, since it was afraid that these consecrations could cause a division in the US Episcopal Church, and although the Archbishop disapproved of it, he does have the power to take action to solve the disputes. 

In both cases the need is not to give limitless power, but only that necessary to be able to carry out the tasks inherent to the office,. Although the Pope at the moment enjoys an almost limitless power, he has invited the leaders of other Churches, in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint  (That they may be One)[7]  so that together they might reform the papal role, to find a way that the ministry of the Bishop of Rome should be exerted in a new situation.

The current Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, has said that "in a world full of violence and division, we Christians urgently needed to be able to speak with a common, faithful voice of the spirit of peace" and invites serious consideration and debates. 

I believe that the work of ARCIC during this time has shown us that our differences with respect to faith, practice and vision of current authority of the Roman church are not irreconciliable, IF WE EVEN CONSIDERED THE CENTRALIZED MODEL OF AUTHORITY OF THE ROMAN CHURCH, SINCE AS WE HAVE SAID THE REPORT ESTABLISHES THAT IN A REUNITED CHURCH THE DECISIONS WOULD BE MADE BY THE COLLEGIUM AND NOT BY JUST ONE MAN.

ARCIC says that communion with the See of Rome could also bring to the churches of the full Anglican Communion not only one koinonia, but be strengthened by the power of  its traditional idea of diversity in unity.  The Roman Catholics, for their part, would be enriched by the presence of a particular tradition of spirituality and schooling that they lack, which has prevailed in the Roman Catholic Church as a precious element in the Christian inheritance.  The Roman Catholic Church has much to learn of the Anglican synodic tradition of involving the laity in the life and mission of the Church. 

ARCIC has also arrived at a consensus from which, in view of historical considerations around the historic importance of Rome in Christianity, it being the city where St Peter and St Paul died, and being the only seat that to consistently assert one universal  primacy, is the See of Rome. In light of those reasons, it seems appropriate that in a future union, a primacy, as described, could continue being maintained at that See. 

Dominus Iesus and its impact in the ecumenical dialogue

Until now, it would seem that a great consensus between our Churches had been reached towards a mutual reconciliation. Nevertheless, ignoring the great advance of 30 years of ecumenical dialogue not only between us, but also among other Christian confessions, the Roman Catholic Church by means of the document Dominus Iesus  has resumed its old position with respect to the other Christian faiths of being the only authentic incarnation of the Church of Christ, and saying that although it recognizes “outside of her structure, many  elements can be found of sanctification and truth, that is, in those Churches and ecclesial communities which are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church. But with respect to these, it needs to be stated that “they derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church” which is how the Mother of all the Christian denominations describes itself. 

This last point of differentiation between ecclesial Churches and communities is perhaps the one that most affects the ecumenical movement between the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church, since again the authentic character of the Anglican Communion is put in doubt, since it is known that the Roman Catholic Church has not recognized the validity of our ordinations since 1896 when Leo XIII  declared them invalid, and until now there has been no official change in that position, even though the phrasing in 1973 of the ARCIC agreement on ordination and ministry had established a basis for a broad  consensus on the meaning of the Eucharist and ordained ministry had established a basis for talking about Anglican ordinations in a new context, and that would be a way for a reconsideration of the Apostolicae Curae verdict about our orders.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has said that “By restating the long-held view of the Roman Catholic Church on the position of other Christian  churches, this document breaks no new ground. But neither does it fully reflect the deeper understanding that has been achieved through ecumenical dialogue and co-operation during the past thirty years. Even though the document is not part of that process, the idea that Anglican and other churches are not "proper churches" seems to question the considerable ecumenical gains we have made."

"Of course, the Church of England, and the world-wide Anglican Communion, does not for one moment accept that its orders of ministry and Eucharist are deficient in any way. It believes itself to be a part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church of Christ, in whose name it serves and bears witness, here and round the world.", also the  words of Archbishop Carey.  And it is not that we are worried about whether Rome recognizes us, as if it got to decide if we are a Church or not, or if our sacraments are valid;  we only say that it is lamentable that after 30 years of dialogue, the Roman Catholic Church has not been able to value the results of ARCIC and has reinterpreted from an extremely conservative angle the meaning of Vatican II. 

As the document Unitatis Redintegratio establishes on this subject, I concede "true ecumenism cannot occur without inner conversion" and therefore a really ecumenical dialogue cannot be given in a context of “I am the only true Church and I make the rules for Christian reunification.” 


Now that we have arrived at this point, what are the conclusions that we can take away from this dialogue?  Perhaps it is hidden, as  many have speculated?  That we must continue in spite of the reactionary positions and anti-ecumenism of the Roman Church?

I think in the first place that continuing to look for the unity of all Christians is an evangelical obligation that all of us Christians must adopt, despite the adversities that might stop us from succeeding. On the other hand I do not think that the declaration Dominus Iesus reflects the totality of Roman catholic thought, since during these 30 years of interchange of experiences and treatment we have seen that a large part of the members support significant reform in that Church, and this could be the true cause of the launching of this document. 

As we have seen, the focus of the dialogue between our Churches, based in part on the launching of The Gift of Authority, depends on true internal reform of the Roman Catholic Church so that a true balance of powers between the Bishops around the world and the Bishop of Rome could exist, besides fully exercising the unfulfilled recommendations of Vatican II, with which the cures (mainly occupied by conservatives) would lose all the power that they now enjoy.

It would not surprise me that the present state of health of the Roman Pontiff (who throughout his pontificate has demonstrated a true ecumenical spirit and has made Christian reconciliation a major goal) could be taken advantage of by the conservatives represented by Cardinal Ratzinger, who with the pretext of keeping orthodoxy in the Church emits this document and literally forces the Pope to sign this negation of his achievements. 

And it would not be the first time that declarations of this type specifically put in danger the dialogue between our Churches. Already in some occasion without any justification, the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith emitted a commentary to a Papal letter titled Ad Tuendam Fidei (In Defense of the Faith), putting in examples of doctrines that without being considered "divinely revealed" must be taken by the Roman catholics as obligatory "to be established definitively by the Church with its principle of infallibility":  beyond the sacerdotal ordination for men and the reiteration of the declaration of Leon XIII with respect to the invalidity of our Anglican orders, in a time in which ARCIC had declared that the verdict of Apostolicae Curae could be reconsidered. Peculiarly this document is tossed out one day after the last meeting of ARCIC, by which we could clearly think that whenever important advances in this dialogue are obtained, Cardinal Ratzinger (who apparently is an enemy of ecumenism) could take advantage of his position to reverse just whenever important consensuses are obtained, just as were on the verge of producing a joint declaration between our churches.

We could then also ask, “Who really governs the Roman Catholic Church, The Curia or the Pope?”,  but it is not that point that concerns us, for by pulling back a little at this point we can conclude that we do not have to lose the gains obtained in this dialogue nor in any in which the Anglican Church participates, and can see that even though there is lot of ground to cover (mainly by the Roman catholic side) before reaching a total unity agreement, since obstacles exist aside from those established by this document, such as the ordination of women to the priesthood, the recognition of Anglican orders, and the subject of the supposed papal infallibility that was not affirmed nor denied directly in the last ARCIC  document, among others that  before agreeing to a possible union. We could also ask, “Are we ready?” 

* Licensed in Communication Sciences and congregante in the Cathedral of San Jose de Gracia. 

1 Complete text is available in English at

2 This and other ARCIC documents are available in the page of the Center Pro Unione (only in English) at

3 Resolution #8 of the Lambeth Conference (1988). 

4 The complete textis available on the Anglican Communion site at

5 The text is available in Project Canterbury, at

6 W. Pannenburg in a Sancta (1975) Pags. 220-221

7 The complete text of this is available from the Vatican at