Anglicans could receive Roman Catholic communion, Archbishop suggests
The ban on Anglicans receiving Roman Catholic Holy Communion could be relaxed as part of moves to bring the two churches together after centuries of division, one of Britain’s most senior Catholic clerics has suggested.
Although he insisted that he was expressing a “personal view”, the Archbishop’s comments will be closely watched as he is the senior Catholic cleric responsible for dialogue with the Anglican churches.
His remarks were warmly welcomed by leading figures in the Church of England who said it was time for closer ties.
For centuries, the issue of communion was a source of some of the deepest and most bitter division between protestants and Catholics.
In the 16th and 17th centuries Christians from both traditions were put to death because of disagreements over their beliefs on transubstantiation – whether the bread and wine in Communion are the real body and blood of Christ or a symbol.
Archbishop Longley is the Catholic co-chairman of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), an official body which has been working for the reunification of the two churches for more than 50 years.
In an interview with the Church of Ireland Gazette, he said that although the two churches now work closely together on a daily basis it was a source of “pain” that they still could not share communion.
But he pointed to a Vatican document published in 1993 as well as a paper produced by bishops in the British Isles which already allows non-Roman Catholics to receive sacraments in very special circumstances, including if they are in danger of death.
Asked whether he thought, that given there had already been a limited relation, there could be room for further changes, he said: “My personal view is, you are right to draw attention to the changes which we have already seen on the basis of a deeper theological understanding of one another’s churches.
“And on that basis the 1993 Ecumenical Directory made possible the reception of Holy Communion by the baptised who are not members of the Roman Catholic Church in a number of specified circumstances and with certain criteria.
“Given that that represents a change and a very significant shift away from the impossibility to the limited possibility then I could imagine and foresee one of the fruits of our ecumenical engagement as moving towards a deeper understanding of communion and a deeper sharing between our churches … which perhaps would lead to a reconsideration of some of the circumstances.”
He added that it was impossible for him to predict the “speed of change” but that he hoped existing rules could be made use of.
But the Anglican Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Rev Christopher Hill, a member of the Commission and one of the most prominent Anglican figures pressing for closer ties, said that the influence of Pope Francis could mean that the time is ripe for change.
“I am aware that Rome is considering updating the Directory and now with the more open tone coming from Pope Francis I can see why Archbishop Bernard is thinking that perhaps the time is right for perhaps another look at it,” he said.
“I am very pleased to see the words which Archbishop Longley has spoken in terms of non-Roman Catholics receiving communion under certain circumstances.
“Archbishop Bernard, of course, is a very experienced ecumenist in Britain and internationally.”
The Rev Robert Byrne, secretary to the Department for Dialogue and Unity, at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, said: “The hope of all Christians is that one day all will be united in faith and be able to share in one Eucharist.
“How and when that day comes, no one can predict. It is up to the Holy Spirit.
“In the meantime, as Archbishop Longley highlights, the Catholic Church permits and even commends access to the Sacraments of the Holy Eucharist, Penance and the Anointing of the Sick for Christians of other Churches.
“This is realistically provided for in certain circumstances under specific conditions as spelt out in the 1993 Directory and One Bread One Body of 1998.”
As the Roman Catholic partner in the ARCIC organisation that holds joint theological talks on matters of common interest with Anglicans, Archbishop Longley meets together with Archbishop David Moxon, the Anglican Communion Representative to the Holy See, in Rome. Abp. David’s provenance as an Anglo-Catholic will no doubt have made some sort of impression upon Abp. Bernard Longley – meeting together, as they do, to seek theological convergence on matters important for both our Churches.
One important point of contention about the Sacrament of Holy Communion is that, since the Reformation, the Church of England has entertained different views of what, precisely, is happening at the celebration of the Eucharist – an activity at the heart of catholic practice and theology. Varying from a ‘memorial ceremony’ to ‘con-substantiation’; from The Lord’s Supper to Holy Mass; understandings of the ‘Real Presence’ of Christ in the elements of Holy Communion have, traditionally, been equally acceptable as valid understandings of what is ‘going on’ in this Sacxrament of Christ within the family of Anglican Churches.
However, the movement towards a common understanding of the Lord’s Presence in the Sacrament of the Eucharist in many Churches of the Anglican Communion would seem to have indicated a more cogent basis for respect, on both sides, for one another’s tradition – in ways that might allow of a common approach to the reception of the Eucharist by Anglicans who believe in the ‘Real Presence of Christ’ at the Eucharist in Roman Catholic Churches.
My own ecumenical approach has always been that, in a situation where it is impossible, or difficult, to attend an Anglican Eucharistic Celebration, I have felt moved to receive the Blessed Sacrament in a Roman Catholic church. I have no scruples about this, believing, as I do, that it is the same Christ present in both Church communities, and that Christ would understand. In a situation, for instance, where I have been on a cruise ship, with no Anglican Celebration on board. I have approached the Roman Catholic chaplain, explaining that I am an Anglican priest and that I believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Mass; asking “may I receive the Holy Communion?” The answer was ‘Yes!’ This demonstrates the readiness of at least some R.C. clergy, to accept Anglicans who have a firm belief in the Presence of Christ in the Mass.
This movement towards a reconciliation based on a common apprioach to the nature of the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood is surely at the very heart of what it means to be “One Bread, One Body, for we all partake of the One Bread” – a theological statement we Anglicans in Aotearoa/New Zealand are encouraged to express every time we receive this amazing Gift of Christ around the altar. This is why there is a problem with those in the Anglican Communion at present refusing to share the Sacrament of Christ at the altar with other Anglicans with whom they have a disagreement is so destructive of the unity that Christ wills for all his disciples.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand