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AFTER ROWAN/ The Coherence and Future of Anglicanism (1)

JOHN MILBANK comments on the relationship between Catholicism and Anglicanism, the problems in the Anglican church and the future of Anglicanism after Rowan Williams.

Westminster Abbey Westminster Abbey

This is the first of a three-part article.

Anglicans and Catholics in the UK
On Palm Sunday, I attended Mass at Southwell Minster in the small town where I live at the southern tip of the ancient English Archdiocese of York. It is a glorious medieval building that is now an Anglican cathedral. However, on this occasion, as happens every year, the local Catholic congregation joined us for worship along with a donkey, starting with a procession round the building, returning through the massive Romanesque doorway. After the Peace, which all shared, the Catholic faithful filed off into the Chapter House -- which is decorated with uniquely realistic12th C gothic leaf-carvings – to celebrate their own Mass, while the Anglicans celebrated theirs in the nave. Both congregations rejoined for the final hymn, after which the Catholic priest thanked the Anglicans for their hospitality.

He then added: ‘we share one baptism, one love for Jesus Christ and one belief in the word of God’. The assembled people were waiting for the ‘but’ – but it never came. Instead the priest added ‘and besides that – well besides that nothing else can really matter’.

These were surely well chosen words because it made one realise that any qualification would have amounted to a kind of blasphemy. What remained unspoken was of course our eucharistic division. Yet the absence of qualification forced one to reflect that there is indeed only one possible Mass of Christ. And indeed this is already recognised by the fact that in only mild extremis, Anglicans and other Christians temporarily out of reach of their own communion are generally welcomed to reception of the Catholic eucharist. For their part Anglicans receive to their own eucharist all baptised Christians in good standing with their own churches.

Both the one ontological and the other institutional fact should encourage us to see Christian unity less as something to be realised by human effort of negotiation, and more as an already existing reality which our practice and still more our thinking struggle woefully to reflect in its entirety. And yet, in England today, Anglicans and Catholics, along with Orthodox Christians and those of dissenting churches, increasingly find themselves involved in a common struggle both against the culture of atheism and against the politics of selfish individualism and sterile greed.

It is for this reason that Catholics in the UK cannot view with indifference the prospects of their sister communion. Nor, one can suggest, can Catholics worldwide. The Anglican Church is the second largest united body of Christians in the world, and if it is currently riven by issues that often have to do with sex and gender, then it would be complacent to imagine that the Catholic Church will remain relatively immune to divisions around this dimension of human life forever into the future.