Saturday, January 21, 2012

A look at recent Catholic and Episcopal Church relations

I've been staying out of church politics for a good long while on this blog, not out of any lack of interest but more out of a feeling others are more knowledgable and saying things better than I could. And as I have mentioned a number of times, church politics is like plate tectonics -- it mostly moves beneath the surface, but erupts now-and-then with an earthquake.

We've had several of those tremors recently from the Vatican, and while those events may not directly affect daily life at St. Paul's  Memorial Church, it is nonetheless worth looking at for how it may impact our greater Church and sense of who we are as church. Here is a commentary published Friday in the Erie Times-Union that is quite readable written by The Very Rev. John P. Downey, the Dean of the Cathedral of St. Paul and the Ecumenical Officer for the Episcopal Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania:

Downey: What's next for Episcopalians, Catholics?

Contributing writer
Two recent events mark a significant change in the ecumenical relationship of Roman Catholics and the Episcopal Church.

First, a new translation of the Mass was introduced at the beginning of Advent. Then, on New Year's Day, the Anglican Ordinariate for the United States was officially launched. The Ordinariate will serve much like a diocese created especially for Episcopalians and others of Anglican heritage who wish to be in full communion with the Pope. Such folk would fully accept Roman Catholic teaching and authority while retaining some aspects of their former life in the Episcopal Church such as liturgical texts, married priests, and (limited) democracy in governance.

With regard to worship, the recent change is a departure from decades of working together along with other ecumenical partners to provide common worship texts in the various churches and denominations.

The new Mass translation was undertaken unilaterally by the Roman Catholic Church, apparently with no ecumenical consultation. Other Christian bodies, including Episcopalians and Lutherans, made major liturgical changes after Vatican II with ecumenical optimism and a commitment to shared translations among themselves and Roman Catholics. This hopeful project has been abandoned by Rome and we have the curious situation that the "old" Mass texts can now be found in Lutheran and Episcopal churches!

As for the Ordinariate, it is likely that very few will take advantage of the offer, however grateful those few might be for the opportunity. Life in the Episcopal Church is an entire culture, and it remains to be seen if a few parts of it can be successfully grafted onto a very different understanding and practice of Church. Given that Roman Catholics will not be permitted to join Ordinariate congregations, its future will depend on further conversions and evangelism.

This does bring into focus, however, the deep distinction these events and others have revealed between Roman Catholicism and the Episcopal Church, which is the matter of governance. The Roman Catholic Church is structured as a monarchy, governed by the Bishop of Rome. Even though this governance is shared in communion with other bishops, in the end, full authority is vested in the Pope, trusting that this is Christ's will for the Church.

The Episcopal Church is structured as a representative democracy, modeled after the United States Congress. All matters are deliberated and decided upon by elected governing bodies that include bishops, clergy and lay people. Episcopalians trust that, even if some of their decisions are mistaken, the Church will not fail in it basic grasp of the truth, and God will eventually correct any errors.

The relative merits of these two understandings can be debated, but it has become clear that this is the source of the differences between Roman Catholicism and the Episcopal Church. The ecumenical progress of the last decades has shown that both churches share a wide and deep range of common doctrine, including some areas where conflict was once assumed, such as the meaning of the Eucharist and the priesthood. This has allowed a sense of friendship that will probably not go away despite the recent changes.

Nonetheless, the different forms of governance have led to differing outcomes in matters such as contraception, remarriage, ordination of women, and the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in all aspects of the church's life.

We have entered a time of differentiation that will probably not be resolved in the foreseeable future. Traffic is moving in both directions across the Roman Catholic/Episcopalian border.

Hopefully, this time will be lived with both honesty and charity and with the prayer and hope that these differences will not harden divisions, but will motivate a desire to discover a godly diversity in unity that will be a gift to the world.

THE REV. JOHN P. DOWNEY is dean of the Cathedral of St. Paul and ecumenical officer of the Episcopal Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania.

Copyright 2012 The Erie Times-News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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