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One Bread One Body

A Preliminary Response by Bishop John Neill (Bishop of Cashel & Ossory) ssued by Catholic Bishops' Conferences of England & Wales, Ireland and Scotland

Anglicans should welcome One Bread One Body on its publication by the Roman Catholic Bishops of these islands. The document represents those who are working where the Roman Catholic Church is in an overwhelming majority and where it is a small minority, and as such gains in significance. It breathes an air which is ecumenical. It is a teaching document that is for Roman Catholics, but also is offered to fellow Christians of other traditions. But it is not only offered for study to other Christians, it is a document that writes theology constantly aware of its ecumenical reception and of the changing and indeed encouraging ecumenical scene in which it is being issued. This explicit awareness of the ecumenical context is all too seldom found in any of our traditions. It is helpful that important ecumenical work is recognised in the document, not least the manner in which it draws on the Agreed Statements of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission.

It is helpful that the document places so much emphasis on the doctrine of the Church and on the Communion that we already share as Christians. There is no doubt that there is a clear recognition that the basic problem is the disunity of the Church, and not simply the problems surrounding admission to Holy Communion, and there is a very clear commitment to the ecumenical challenge and vision on almost every page.

There are difficulties and very serious difficulties. Whereas Anglicans will be able to identify with a great deal of what is written about the mystery of the Eucharist, and indeed about ecclesiology, there is a certain ambiguity from the very beginning of the document. This is the type of assumed absolute and exclusive link with what the first Christians did and with the Roman Catholic Mass, as if other Christians did not feel exactly the same about the Eucharist that they celebrate. This arises out of the type of ecclesiology that can say "The Catholic Church claims, in all humility, to be endowed with all the gifts with which God wishes to endow the Church" (paragraph 20, italics mine) and "Our belief is that the Catholic Church is uniquely gifted..." (Paragraph 21). It is this approach, stemming as it does from Vatican 2, that is quite simply outdated thirty years later for any serious attempt at ecumenical theology.

There is an admission (paragraph 13) that none of us enjoy perfect communion with God until the final fullness of the kingdom, but the whole eschatological context for an understanding of the Eucharist remains weak when it is set out more fully in paragraph 44. It is the eschatological context that needs to be more opened up if we are to see the Eucharist in any sense as leading towards the unity that God wills for his Church. The Eucharist that reflects only where we have been in our separation is less than all that the Christian Eucharist has to offer.

There is a clear statement that "those Christian communities rooted in the Reformation" have not retained "the authentic and full reality of the Eucharistic mystery" (paragraph 41). This is strange, and especially so if Anglicans are included, in the light of the substantial agreement that our two Churches have reached in that area. This is an example of inconsistency in the document.

Approval by many Christians would be given to the affirmation that "Although Catholics rightly emphasise the conversion of the bread and wine in the Eucharist, it is ultimately the conversion of human hearts that is God's loving will." (paragraph 53). This however raises the question as to whether this document is merely a bit of theological writing or something intended to help in the healing of the Church of God. What does it have to offer to Christians who worship and pray together in spite of everything that would tear them apart in society and in the world and in their own history? Sadly it has little that is new or encouraging. It is clearly stated that "The Eucharist is a hallowed means towards healing the divisions and deepening the unity of those who take part in any way" (paragraph 57). But this is not the way forward that is offered.

The question of sharing in Holy Communion by InterChurch couples is examined at some length. Many positive statements are made about InterChurch families which are to be welcomed. However the answer to shared Communion seems to be in the negative except in exceptional circumstances. Paragraph 81 goes very close to suggesting that those of InterChurch marriages have less than a fully Christian marriage. I wonder how those in such marriages can receive the statement that they face "an obstacle to the full unity of their family life". No amount of theological pleading can take from the hurtfulness of such a statement, and it is obvious that these paragraphs needed working through by other than a group of bishops! Likewise offering a blessing in place of offering Holy Communion may seem to the bishops to be generous. To many who have just heard the invitation to the Eucharist "Happy are those who are called to his supper", it is insensitive to imagine that anything less than this happiness is worthy of offering.

There is in Paragraph 99 a plea to other Christians to respect the discipline of the Roman Catholic Church as the Roman Catholic Church respects theirs. There is no problem about respecting the fact that our disciplines differ. The Church of Ireland welcomes all in good standing in their own Churches to Holy Communion, and the Roman Catholic Church does not do so. Respect would infer the realisation that we differ, but neither can be asked to implement the discipline of the other. It is a matter of conscience for Anglicans to welcome others to Holy Communion, and for Roman Catholics to refuse to so welcome - that is if each are acting in accord with their own discipline. The Churches which welcome others to Communion are not doing anything against the internal discipline of another Church, and it is hard to see why this element of pleading has slipped in. Recently the Church of Ireland Committee for Christian Unity has emphasised the word "welcome" more than the word "invite" so that no Roman Catholic is put into the situation of feeling that they must accept an invitation to receive Holy Communion in an Anglican Church.

It is sad that in spite of the ecumenical tone of this document that it does not move the situation on at all. There is no change offered. There is a pica to other Church leaders to as it were accept the status quo (paragraph 99) - but yet there remains some hope. The hope is that there remains in this document a passionate concern for unity, a recognition that we have all sinned against unity, and that we are on a journey together So long as that attitude remains, it becomes harder to accept that things will not change. This document is the setting forth of the traditional position in a more ecumenical and modern way. Its sincerity is undoubted, but its argument becomes less convincing than ever.

+John Cashel & Ossory