New international Anglican body glimpses ecumenical future

 — Mar. 13, 200113 mars 2001

[ACNS 2417]By Charles Sherlock

The first permanent Commission of the Anglican Communion met for the first time in early December 2000 – the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Ecumenical Relations (IASCER). The diverse group of sixteen people – men and women, lay and ordained, parish clergy, theologians and bishops, from ten nations and five continents – gathered in Nassau, the Bahamas, with the local Archbishop, Drexel Gomez, in the chair. Each member had experience of participation in one or more dialogues with other churches; one represented the Inter-Anglican Liturgical Consultation.

The remarkable ecumenical progress of recent years is the primary reason for the establishment of such a Commission. There have been highly positive developments between Anglicans and other churches – notably Lutheran bodies – as well as encouraging results from ongoing dialogue, for example with the Methodist, Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. These emerging shifts led the 1998 Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops to ask for a permanent Commission, to monitor and encourage ecumenical relationship, and to ensure theological consistency between them.

IASCER spent a solid week in Nassau coming to grips with the wide range of inter-church relationships in which Anglicans are engaged. In addition, they joined in the annual diocesan dedication eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral on the evening of Advent Sunday, and experienced the gracious hospitality of local Bahamian Anglicans. The Commission was given the use of Holy Trinity parish’s hall for its meetings, and was privileged to celebrate the eucharist together in the parish church each day, using the recently issued prayer book of the Province of the West Indies.

A. Overall outcomes: the problems, particularity and possibilities of dialogue

Several overall conclusions were reached by the Commission, as it burrowed its way ‘inside’ the issues raised in Anglican relations with other churches.First, dialogue does not always have positive outcomes. Various causes can be suggested, but the major lesson is that it is essential to be clear about goals before entering into any discussion. Unrealisable goals lead to misunderstandings, a sense of failure and even betrayal. Realism is not unecumenical, but embraces godly wisdom about (presently) attainable hopes and dreams.

Fresh appreciation of the unique nature of each dialogue was a second insight. ‘Ecumenism’ is never a vague generality, but takes on a distinct meaning in each relationship between divided churches. Some divisions occurred due to sharp theological differences, while others arose as churches from different regions came to encounter one another in a global world. Language and cultural diversity can spark division – and ‘political’ factors are rarely absent. The particular mix of theological, historical and social aspects of the ecumenical task varies from church to church.

Thirdly, a different approach is needed according to the ‘level’ of each dialogue. Some take place at the global level, most notably with the Roman Catholic Church, whose ministry structure centres in the universal primacy of the Bishop of Rome as pope. Others, however, are more regional, particularly where the bodies concerned function as ‘national’ churches: for example, the dialogue between the Church of England and the Methodist Church in England, or the varied relationships Anglicans have with Lutheran churches in different nations. On the other hand, dialogue with ‘congregationalist’ bodies such as Baptists or many Pentecostals raises different challenges: here a regionally structured (Anglican) communion is working with loose groupings of congregations.

Two ‘dialogues’ that fit none of these patterns were considered at this meeting of IASCER. One is the daring proposal for an ‘ecumenical bishop’ having oversight of Anglicans, Methodists, Calvinist Methodists, United Reformed and Welsh Independents (Baptists) in a part of Wales – that shifts the imagination! The other is the ‘mutual recognition of ministries’ brought about between Anglican, Methodist, Uniting Presbyterian and United Congregational churches in South Africa. These very different situations are noteworthy in their displaying a positive use of the local context for mission – the desired association of Christian and national identity in a increasingly secular Wales, and the lessons of the struggle with apartheid in South Africa.

B. News from particular dialogues

A large part of IASCER’s work was to come to grips with the wide range of dialogues taking place across the Communion. As well as these, some consideration was given to recent multilateral ecumenical work – Treasure in Earthen Vessels, and The Nature and Purpose of the Church (both from the WCC Faith & Order Commission). The amount of reading had delegates burning the midnight oil!

What follows summarises highlights of discussion, learning and plans for future work.


A five-year dialogue has begun, using a distinctive method. Meetings are taking place in five different parts of the world where Anglicans and Baptists encounter one another: Europe (met in England in 2000), Asia / South Pacific (meeting in Myanmar 2001); Africa (meeting in Nigeria 2002); Caribbean (meeting in Jamaica 2003) and North America (meeting in the USA 2004). A ‘continuing committee’ of three from each tradition attends each meeting, together with up to another six from each tradition representing the region concerned.

The goals of the dialogue are modest but significant: mutual learning, sharing understandings of Apostolic faith, identifying areas of doctrine and church life which need fuller exploration, and looking for ways to cooperate in mission, and increase fellowship and common witness.


A dialogue based in England saw the production of The Fetter Lane Common Statement, which is also being sent to churches of the Anglican Communion in which where is contact with Moravians, asking such Anglicans to consider whether this Statement may offer a basis for similar agreements in their region.

New Churches, Independent Church Groups and Pentecostal Churches:

A huge variety of bodies is included here – from African indigenous churches to Western Pentecostal denominations and more besides. Given this diversity, the Commission took a very local approach, encouraging working parties in areas where such bodies were active.

Two specific suggestions were made: to have ‘good news’ stories of Anglican encounters with such groups published (eg in Anglican World); and to explore whether a seminary could take the lead in resourcing relations between Anglicans and New / Independent church bodies.


Dialogue has proceeded both globally and locally. The Anglican-Methodist International Commission has issued Sharing in the Apostolic Communion. IASCER was impressed by this, and decided to consider the congruence of its eucharistic section with ARCIC‘s work. More locally, IASCER members will consult with Methodist colleagues as to ways forward in our relationship. The renewal of dialogue in England was particularly noted.

Eastern Orthodox:

In the midst of occasional difficulties, and against the background of rapidly changing social and political contexts in most traditional Orthodox lands, serious dialogue has proceeded for some decades in the Anglican-Orthodox International Joint Doctrinal Commission.

Several documents have been published: The Moscow Agreed Statement (1976, on the knowledge of God, scripture and tradition, councils, the filioque clause, church as eucharistic community, and the invocation of the Spirit in the eucharist); The Athens Report (1978, on the ordination of women), The Dublin Report (1984, on the mystery of the Church; faith in the Trinity, prayer and holiness; worship and tradition (including icons); with an impressive summary of the dialogue as a whole). More recently, interim agreements have been reached on The Trinity and the Church; Christ, the Spirit and the Church; and Humanity and the Church.

IASCER – near overwhelmed by the wealth of theological resources offered – nevertheless realised that most of these Statements were not well known among Anglicans. It therefore set about designing a study by which Anglicans at local level can mine these riches, and so engage more deeply with Orthodox Christians in heart, mind and spirit.

Two particular issues raised were Anglican use (or not) of the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed (adding ‘and from the Son’ after ‘proceeded from the Father’), and proposals for a common date for Easter. Lambeth has backed both changes, with varied response across the Anglican Communion. A survey showed that a narrow majority of reporting Provinces had either omitted filioque or made it optional, but also that the canonical issues were not trivial. IASCER supported both proposals, after discussion, but implementation can only come from Provinces themselves.

‘Oriental’ Orthodox:

An Anglican-Oriental Orthodox dialogue has been under way for some time, though occasionally interrupted. Its goals are growth in understanding more than structural change, especially to assist Anglican offer support to, and be open to learn from, Oriental Orthodox churches in parts of the world where they are newly emerging (not uncommonly as the result of refugee movement).

The Commission took particular note of the remarkable agreements between these churches and the Roman Catholic Church on Christological issues, and the fascinating implications for theological method in ecumenical work which they embody (for example, the non-use of the term theotokos in discussing Chalcedonian teaching about Christ).


The overarching issue in developing relations with Lutherans – given their emphasis on the ‘priesthood of all believers’, and that ordained ministry is ‘one’ – has been the role of bishops in relation to other ministers. More recently, the ministry of deacons has emerged as an issue, through The Hanover Report of the Anglican-Lutheran International Working Group, and the Commission gave some time to considering this.

The outstanding good news on the Anglican ecumenical front is the rapid growth of openness with several Lutheran churches. Two Agreements seek to give tangible Christian expression to the emerging unity of Europe; two more bring together Anglican and Lutherans in North America. IASCER also heard of promising developments in Brazil, Africa and Australia.

Roman Catholics:

The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) is the best-known and oldest ecumenical dialogue in which Anglicans are involved. The Final Report (1981) has been largely accepted by Anglicans, to the point where its conclusions on the eucharist and ministry now undergird much liturgical revision in the Communion. The two Statements on Authority are the parts about which substantial agreement was not fully reached by ARCIC.

Later work by ARCIC is not so well known, however: Salvation and the Church (1985, on justification); Church as Communion (1991, bringing together ARCIC’s work on the motif of koinonia, ‘communion’); Life in Christ: Morals in Communion (1993); and most recently, The Gift of Authority: Authority in the Church III (1998).

IASCER set up a two-phase process to enable Anglican Provinces to make their responses to Salvation and the Church (formal synodical responses by 2004), and Gift of Authority (initial response from study by 2003; then, after work by IASCER on these, and consultation with the 2005 Anglican Consultative Council meeting, to seek formal synodical responses by 2006). This plan will enable a fully considered response to be made to ARCIC’s work by the 2008 Lambeth Conference.

The theological agreements reached by ARCIC are vital, yet are but one aspect of working towards visible unity. Pushing forward in practical ways calls for the engagement of the leaders of the churches, the bishops.

In May 2000, thirteen ‘pairs’ of Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops met together for over a week in Mississauga (Toronto, Canada), to work on tangible steps forward. Their ‘Joint Declaration’, with its ‘Action Plan’, called for a Joint Unity Commission to be set up, a proposal warmly endorsed by IASCER.

Alongside formal dialogue, other developments with the Roman Catholic Church continue apace. Some are positive, such as John-Paul II’s Ut Unum Sint (to which several Anglican Provinces have offered responses, briefly considered by IASCER); or the 75th anniversary celebrations in 1996 of the Malines Conversations, initiated by European Roman Catholic leaders, politely obscuring the centenary of Apostolica Curae; or the generous invitation of John-Paul II to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Ecumenical Patriarch to join him in opening the Holy Door for the Jubilee Year, 2000, with its profound spiritual symbolism.

Other Roman Catholic actions have been problematic for Anglican relations, however: the stream of pronouncements on the ordination of women, for example, or the issuing by English RC bishops of One Bread, One Body (guidelines on who may receive the eucharist, drawing sharp criticism from the Archbishop of Canterbury as too narrow). Most recently, the letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dominus Iesus, and its associated note on the meaning of ‘sister churches’, raised questions (notably in the public media) about the way in which Roman Catholic official bodies regard other churches.

IASCER spent some time considering these relationships, and came to appreciate the need to ‘read’ Roman Catholic pronouncements in the way in which they are intended, while reserving the right to criticise them for the sake of the kingdom of God.

On a personal level, the death of Fr Jean-Marie Roger Tillard OP, just prior to IASCER’s meeting, was noted with much sadness by its members, several of whom knew him well. The Commission recorded its “heartfelt appreciation for the many and deep contributions he selflessly and tirelessly made towards the restoration of full, visible unity, especially between the Roman Catholic Church and the Churches of the Anglican Communion.”

Intra-Anglican ecumenical relations:

Relationships between member churches of the Anglican Communion came under scrutiny, in two particular areas:

C. Working outcomes

Where will all this information and reflection lead? IASCER asked several ‘pairs’ of members to work together on matters raised ‘across the board’:

One very practical outcome of the Commission meeting was a request that Agreed Statements and other resources from Anglican dialogues be placed on the internet, and a CD ROM produced, since printed versions are often hard to obtain, let alone make comparisons. Such electronic resources can also offer research methods otherwise impossible, through the use of hypertext and the like, as well as possibly adding visual dimensions to the dialogues. The first week of Advent, 2000 was a very full one for the members of IASCER! The next meeting is planned to take place in the first week of December 2001, in South Africa.

The Revd Dr Charles Sherlock is Senior Lecturer in Theology, Trinity College Theological School, Melbourne, Australia. A participant in IASCER, he is also a member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, the Inter-Anglican Liturgical Consultation and the Faith & Unity Commission of the National Council of Churches of Australia.

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