As worldwide Anglicanism implodes, Catholics may remember the heady days of Anglican-Catholic ecumenical relations. In 1966, the last great archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, met with Pope Paul VI in the Sistine Chapel. The archbishop and the pope embraced and signed agreements to begin the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission. The pope gave Ramsey an episcopal ring and they promised to "go forward together."
At the same time, Rome initiated ecumenical conversations with a whole range of ecclesial bodies from the Reformed tradition. Even Southern Baptists were wooed into talks. Alas, this type of large scale ecumenical activity seems to have sputtered to a halt.
Much of it has to do with the internal divisions within Protestantism itself. In all the denominational traditions, as the mainline churches follow a predictable feminist/homosexualist agenda, the conservatives are splitting off to follow what they believe to be the "scriptural" faith. As the liberals and conservatives in the Protestant denominations fight to the death, it has become clear to them and to everyone else that even if Rome wanted to move forward ecumenically, any real chance of this happening is now impossible.
It is impossible because both the liberal and conservative Protestants have no real love for Rome. As heirs of the classic Protestant religion, conservative Protestants never abandoned the slogan, "No pope here!" The liberals have often made the right sounds Rome-ward, but they have never really understood the Catholic Church, nor wanted to. The conservative Protestants were (and are) opposed to Rome for all the old Protestant doctrinal reasons. The liberal Protestants are opposed to Rome because they perceive the Catholic Church to be reactionary, authoritarian, homophobic, misogynistic, and patriarchal. As a result, anti-Rome feeling among Protestants is now as high as it has ever been.
This leaves the few remaining Anglicans (along with a few Lutherans and Methodists) who have clung to a "high church" religion with Catholic trappings, bishops, and Catholic sensibilities. These are the rump of Ramsey’s Anglo-Catholic religion of the 1960s. They now occupy a shrinking minority position within their own churches, or they have split into "orthodox" breakaway groups.
So where does this leave the ecumenical movement? In fact, there are some very encouraging signs of hope within Pope Benedict XVI’s overall vision and mission. The key is in Benedict’s concept of "the hermeneutic of continuity." Through everything from his Wednesday catechesis to the reform of the liturgy, to his relaxation of the restrictions on the Latin Mass to his use of more ornate ceremonial and vestments, Benedict is intent on flying the Catholic flag. He is leading a Church that is distinctively Catholic once more, and by doing so is rallying to his flag all those of whatever background who sincerely wish to belong to this Church that lives in continuity with the Christianity of the ages.
This renewal of an authentic and distinctive Catholic faith will not only consolidate the faith for Catholics worldwide, but it will build a bridge for all those who truly wish to be Catholic and are presently alienated. By renewing the ancient traditions of the Church, Benedict is already inspiring confidence among the Eastern Orthodox, who criticized the abuses and radical direction of much of the Western Church after the second Vatican Council. A renewed, distinctive, and authentic Catholic faith will also appeal to those Anglicans who sincerely wish to belong to the fullness of the Catholic faith and be reconciled.
The Eastern Churches can look hopefully to the existing situation with the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches. The way forward may very well be to continue to encourage their own traditions, liturgies, clergy marital discipline, and episcopal jurisdictions. Many more problems need to be solved, not least the Eastern Orthodox’s traditional dislike and distrust of the Eastern Catholic Churches. However, the models that allow and encourage diversity within unity are available, and working well, and the recent reception of a group of Assyrian Catholics into the fold proves it.
Working with the Anglicans is more difficult. The Anglican Communion is a diffuse body that is splitting further every day. In addition to the hundreds of national churches that are part of the formal Anglican Communion, there are now nearly one hundred Anglican breakaway churches. Some of them are no more than a bishop with a few souls worshipping in his garage; others are serious global confederations that are already in conversations with the Vatican. Negotiating unity with whole groups like this is fraught with difficulty, not least because so many of their members and clergy are former Catholics who have formally apostatized or are in irregular marriages.
Nevertheless, in a breathtaking gesture of welcome and encouragement, Rome has already authorized an Anglican Use liturgy, provided the pastoral provision for married former Anglicans to be ordained as Catholic priests, and shown a way for Anglican Use parishes to be established within the existing diocesan structures. Rome has batted the ball across the net; it’s up to the Anglicans who are interested to return it. If they want, individual congregations, religious communities, apostolates, and even dioceses or breakaway Anglican churches can come into full communion.
More easily reconciled are those groups that have most recently broken away from the Catholic Church. If the entire Society of St. Pius X cannot be brought home to Rome, at least we can be hopeful that individual congregations, priests, religious, and provinces might turn away from schism and affirm full communion with the Catholic Church.
This has happened recently when the Transalpine Redemptorists (a group associated with the Society of St Pius X) and the Sisters of Mary Mother of the Church (a group of sedevacantist nuns) were reconciled. The model of receiving religious orders into the Church and regularizing their position — allowing them a certain measure of independence while grafting them into the Church — may also work for schismatic ecclesial communities, new movements in the Church, and individual congregations that have broken away from either the Catholic Church or some other Catholic-oriented schismatic Church.
In my observation of the ecumenical movement over the last 25 years, I have been amazed at the courtesy, diplomacy, and patience of Rome. Time and again, Rome has taken the initiative. She has made the memorable gesture, offered the hand of friendship, opened discussions, and welcomed every effort toward unity in the church. With firmness but love, Rome has kept the conversations going while speaking clearly when her ecumenical partners have time and again created new obstacles to unity.
Until recently, ecumenism has resembled the old US-USSR détente: The two powers sat down from time to time for "talks," but little was accomplished. In reality, one side was merely waiting for the other to collapse. We are witnessing the collapse of any viable, coherent Protestant structures. Just as the Soviet Union broke into many little parts, so in the future Protestantism will be made up of increasingly smaller splinter groups with their own traditions and agenda. The advantage is that they will know what they believe and state it clearly.
This means each one of the small groups can be reconciled to the Catholic Church more easily. The old ecumenism of Rome talking to the big global players is finished. Instead, we’ll see the reconciliation of individuals, religious communities, breakaway groups, and small, ethnic churches or sub-groups within churches. As the Protestant churches disintegrate, the new ecumenism of the 21st century will be far less like a corporate merger and far more like the intense, painstaking work of assembling a jigsaw puzzle.