The year 1517 is the symbolic heart of the Reformation and has led to the commemorations of its 500th anniversary in 2017. It is the year in which Martin Luther was purported to have nailed his Ninety-five Theses for the reformation of the Roman Catholic Church to the door of the church in Wittenberg. Although this was a powerful and dramatic action, it was simply a symbol of a much larger movement of reform and transformation happening across Europe, England, and Scotland that resulted in schism from the Roman Catholic Church and led to the creation of what are now the Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Anglican Churches.
The Anglican split from the Roman Catholic Church occurred for both political and religious reasons, often symbolized in the rejection of papal authority by King Henry VIII over his desire to divorce his wife, but containing elements of the other factors of reformation theology, including worship in the language of the people and translation of scripture among others.
The early part of the 20th century saw strong commitments made towards the unity of the Church in the face of increased fragmentation. The establishment of the World Council of Churches in 1948 is a result of this movement. Although the history of Anglican Roman Catholic relationships is littered with much antipathy and even outright persecution and martyrdom, the last 100 years has seen a move towards reconciliation. This was most clearly expressed after Vatican II stated a desire to work towards the unity of all churches in the encyclical, Unitatis Redintegratio, which notes, “As a result of the Reformation, many Communions, national or confessional, were separated from the Roman See. Among those in which Catholic traditions and institutions in part continue to exist, the Anglican Communion occupies a special place.”
Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Michael Ramsey met in 1966 and declared a desire to seek the visible unity of our Churches. They established the first Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC I). Within a decade that Commission had come to agreement on the nature of the eucharist, ministry, and the Church. What had seemed to be insurmountable differences were finding agreement through intentional dialogue, listening, and learning.
The second ARCIC was established to continue the dialogue and produced five further texts between 1983-2006 on the nature of authority, salvation, the church as communion, moral teaching, and the role of Mary.
However, changes in the Anglican Communion in this period led to obstacles that have tempered the original optimism of reaching full communion in the near future. The ordination of women and recent changes in parts of the Anglican Communion around human sexuality are new differences that require further dialogue.
Even so, the third phase of ARCIC, established in 2011, collated the entire work of ARCIC II with commentaries (published in 2016) and continues work on the nature of the Church in decision-making and the discernment of right ethical teaching.
While these have been the international level of dialogue that produces texts for study and consideration in our two churches the real growth in Anglican Roman Catholic relationships has been on the ground where Anglicans and Roman Catholics share mission and ministry.
Canada established a national Anglican Roman Catholic theological dialogue in 1971 and has contributed significantly to the international conversations through papers, reflections, and practical study materials. A dialogue of bishops also meets annually to discuss shared concerns and reflect together. These bishops developed a Guidelines for InterChurch Marriages that has sought to honour the expectations of both traditions in supporting marriages. We continue to seek ways to partner on issues of common concern.
In 2000, 13 pairs of Anglican and Roman Catholic Bishops from around the world met in Mississauga to deepen relationships. That led to the creation of the International Anglican Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission. This Commission has sought to encourage practical ways in which Anglican and Roman Catholics can ‒ in spite of our continued differences ‒ engage together in mission and ministry. Deepened friendships have led to sharing, like the covenant signed by the Bishop of Qu’Appelle and the Archbishop of Regina in 2011 that encourages prayer for one another, a joint annual service, shared work in justice ministry, and shared consultation with Indigenous elders.
Anglicans and Roman Catholics have moved beyond the stereotypes to see the high degree of unity we already enjoy. We share a common commitment to the creeds, scripture, sacramental life, and nature of the Church. We are siblings in the family of God seeking to deepen our bonds so that we can ultimately be at the table of Christ together with no barriers. The Reformation set us on a path of division that we are now seeking to heal and we are much closer than we may realize.