RNS blames Catholics for Anglican ecumenical ills

Opinion presented as fact dominates several stories in the run up to today’s meeting of Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.

Some of the stories are crafted as news analysis pieces. This BBC story begins with fact and then transitions into the analysis, using the phrase “our correspondent said” to demarcate the line between the two. The reader may choose to accept the reporter’s interpretation, or not.

Some stories like this report from the Religion News Service as printed by the Washington Post combine fact and opinion but do not disclose to the reader what they are reading is not news.

This is a problem of the contents of the package not matching the label. In this case the problem is compounded by false information and faulty analysis.

The lede in the RNS story reports this will be the first meeting between the new pope and the new archbishop before turning to a statement from the Vatican official overseeing that church’s relations with Anglicans.

Welby’s visit to Rome will be “short but very significant,” said the Rev. Mark Langham, the Vatican’s point man on dialogue with Anglicans. While its primary purpose is to allow the two leaders to get to know each other, he noted that they share the same concerns about poverty and the global economic crisis.

I’m not familiar with all different stylebooks out there: Associated Press, Times of London, New York Times, etc., but I’m quite sure all would agree that on first reference a full title is provided. Mark Langham holds the rank or office of Monsignor. This difficulty with labeling extends to a description of the second person quoted in the story.

On the issue of an “economy for the people,” they have “many ideas in common,” said Archbishop David Moxon, the Anglican representative in Rome.

Archbishop Moxon, the former primate of the Anglican Church in Aoteroa, New Zealand and Polynesia, is not the Anglican representative in Rome. There is no such office. Archbishop Moxonn is the director of the Anglican Center in Rome and may have a quasi official/unofficial commission from the Archbishop of Canterbury to facilitate communication between the two churches, but he has no authority to speak on behalf of the Anglican Communion or does he hold a commission akin to a papal nuncio or ambassador.

The article then moves into opinion and gets into trouble. The question of labeling is merely a quibble and is excusable given the shorthand reporters must use to convey as much information into as small a space as they can. But the account of the troubles between Anglicans and Catholics offered by RNS places the blame on the Catholics.

With new leadership on both sides, the relationship between Anglicans and Catholics could be primed for a reset after several years of tension following Pope Benedict XVI’s controversial initiative to woo back disgruntled Anglicans. For years, the Catholic Church has been critical of the Anglicans’ decision to ordain women priests in the Church of England, and is unhappy over steps to allow women bishops. Relations between the two churches were strained in 2009 when the Vatican announced a special structure, called an “ordinariate,” to allow conservative Anglicans to convert to Catholicism while retaining bits of their Anglican tradition. When he was still in Argentina, then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio’s Anglican counterpart recalled him saying that he thought the special structure for Anglicans was “unnecessary,” and that the Catholic Church “needs us as Anglicans.”

But both Moxon and Langham stress that the tensions are now past, pointing out that an official dialogue between Anglicans and Catholics that had been suspended in 2007 over the ordination of an openly gay bishop by U.S. Episcopalians had been recently restarted.

In principle, I would prefer the Anglican or Episcopalian side to be presented in the best light. But the argument that the Catholic response to Anglican innovations in doctrine and discipline is the problem, not the changes themselves, is extraordinary. And the facts presented in support of this contention are incorrect.

Since the project began in 1969 there have been three sessions of the Anglican – Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC): 1970-1981, 1983-2005, 2009 to present.  In the early days of ARCIC there was hope that a series of agreed statements would emerge which would uncover a common faith, on the basis of which corporate reunion might be possible. Statements on Ministry, Sacraments and other topics were produced but they were never officially accepted by the Vatican as being an adequate representation of Catholic belief.

Nor were other statements accepted by Anglicans. The second ARCIC commission studied the doctrine of salvation, communion, and the churches’ teaching authority and produced a paper on the role of Mary. I attended the meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council in Nottingham in 2005  and recall the vociferous objections to the paper from evangelicals, who rejected the report out of hand.

The Anglican decision to ordain women further divided the churches, while the Anglican civil war over homosexuality has ended hopes for corporate reunion. A review of my notes and reporting from the 2008 Lambeth Conference — the every 10 year gathering of Anglican bishops —  recorded Cardinal Ivan Dias, prefect for the Congregation of the Evangelisation of Peoples, speculating the Anglican Communion was suffering from “spiritual Alzheimer’s” and was in danger of forgetting its apostolic roots as it followed the spirit of the age in determining doctrine and discipline.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster said there was little point in pursuing theological dialogue when Anglicans failed to live up to their side of the agreements.  “If we are to make progress through dialogue we must be able to reach a solemn and binding agreement with our dialogue partners. And we want to see a deepening not a lessening of communion in their own ecclesial life.”

Anglicans must decide who they are and what they believe before any meaningful dialogue can take place, he argued as “these discussions are about the degree of unity in faith necessary for Christians to be in communion, not least so that they may be able to offer the Gospel confidently to the world. Our future dialogue will not be easy until such fundamental matters are resolved, with greater clarity,” I reported him as saying.

And Cardinal Walter Kasper, the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity chastised the Anglican Communion for its disorder and lack of theological seriousness. He urged Anglicans to embark on a new “Oxford Movement” to revitalize the church, but he also warned that moves by the Church of England to introduce women bishops and its laxity over gay clergy had effectively ended the quest for Roman recognition of the validity of Anglican orders.

Contrary to the assertions made in the RNS piece, Pope Benedict’s formation of an Anglican Ordinariate did nothing to harm Anglican-Catholic relations, apart from embarrassing the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. And this embarrassment was due to his not having been in the know, not because a group of Anglicans were convinced of the truth claims of the Catholic Church. This embarrassment was not enough to derail the third round of ARCIC talks that began under their watch in 2009.

Anglican clergy who have entered the Catholic Church and have sought to be re-ordained as Catholic priests may have been horrified by Anglican events of recent years, but they became Catholics because they believed the truth claims of the Catholic Church. Gay bishops and blessings, women clergy and inclusive language liturgies may well have sharpened the mind, but the Catholic Church is not a girl picked up on the rebound from a bad break up.

I do not know what talks were suspended in 2007 as reported in the RNS piece — perhaps a local dialogue? — but there were no ARCIC talks to be suspended in 2007.

When RNS advances an argument that the Catholic recalcitrance to accept changes made by some Anglicans to the faith and order of their church is the cause of friction between Canterbury and Rome, that is called an editorial.

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  • Thinkling

    In the last few years, it does seem like the RNS has jumped the shark.. Shame, as the need for a good journalistic approach to religion issues is badly needed.

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    “(T)he Rev. Mark Langham, the Vatican’s point man on dialogue with Anglicans”

    Wait – who? I have to admit, I don’t recognise the name. Cardinal Koch (taking over from Cardinal Kaspar) is the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, which is the dicastery handling the ecumenical stuff.

    ARCIC III, which is the joint effort between the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion, is comprised of the following:

    “The co-chairmen of this phase are Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham and Anglican Archbishop David Moxon of the New Zealand dioceses.

    Roman Catholic members: Bishop Arthur Kennedy of Boston • Paul Murray, professor of theology and religion at Durham University • Janet Smith, professor of moral theology • Redemptorist Father Vimal Tirimanna, professor at Rome’s Alphonsianum University • Benedictine Father Henry Wansbrough from Ampleforth Abbey • Sister Teresa Okure of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, Nigeria • Father Adelbert Denaux, former professor at the Catholic University of Leuven, (currently) dean of the School of Catholic Theology of Tilburg University.”

    Maybe Rev. Langham is a specific representative of, say, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales co-ordinating with the Anglicans but “Vatican point-man”?

  • athelstane

    The reality is that RNS could have gotten its talking points either from folks at Eccleston Square or Lambeth Palace. There are plenty of people in the hierarchies of both churches in England who don’t care for the Ordinariates, and see all the ecumenical trouble as originating in Rome.

    The rest of the story is, sadly, what I’ve come to expect of RNS reporting.

    • FW Ken

      Except, of course, that the Ordinariates were an initiative not of Rome, but a response to initiatives by certain Anglicans. Not a minor detail.

    • bzelbub

      The Ordinates, have also revived many a discussion within Catholic laity, as to why they (the Curia) allow married Anglicans, in to the RC church, but tell their own priests they can not get married. Because then they (priests who want to marry women) will be kicked to the curb, but the powers that be, seem to have no problem keeping child molesting priests on the payroll for decades.

  • William C Michael

    Love how an article picking apart Church issues is followed with an ad that reads: “Why Sex is Good for Your Health”…

  • bob

    Interesting idea, blaming Catholics for Anglicans *being Anglican*. People always, and the press more often than that, miss the forest for the trees.

  • Ann Rodgers

    Although my paper uses its own stylebook that permits “Monsignor,” at the time I learned AP style on religious titles, it didn’t allow that designation. The only first reference title for ordained clergy beneath the rank of bishop was “the Rev.”


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