In January 2011, the Anglican diocese of Qu’Appelle and the Catholic archdiocese of Regina signed a statement of covenant. This covenant upheld the common faith between the two dioceses and outlined specific ways the two dioceses would work together for the sake of Christian unity. These ways included an annual service of reconciliation between the two dioceses, praying for each other’s churches and their mission, working together on First Nations issues, and continuing to commit to communication and consultation with each other.
This local covenant between two dioceses in Saskatchewan continues the ongoing Anglican-Catholic dialogue that has happened at a global level. Since 1968, in light of Vatican II, and with the publication of the Malta Report, the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church have met regularly to discuss issues of theology and doctrine. While there have been some points of agreement, there are still areas where the two churches have very different doctrines (e.g., the role of the Virgin Mary in the life of the Church). There have also been concessions to Catholic doctrine on the part of the Anglican Communion. For example, the Unity, Faith and Dialogue report of 1981 includes a statement that “we nevertheless agree that a universal primacy will be needed in a reunited Church and should appropriately be the primacy of the bishop of Rome…”
Despite four decades of dialogue, there are also signs of strain in the relationship between Catholics and Anglicans given the current trend of the liberalizing of the faith within the Episcopal Church (USA) and the Anglican Church of Canada. In response to the liberal and politically-motivated decisions of several dioceses (e.g., The Diocese of New Westminister in British Columbia and the Diocese of Niagara in Ontario), the Vatican has issued an invitation for Anglican parishes to “cross the Tiber” and join the Roman Catholic Church through a special dispensation called an Ordinariate. This arrangement allows for Anglican parishes to keep their own liturgy and prayer books, as well as keep their own priests, even those who are married. These parishes come under the authority of a Catholic bishop and are received as members into the Holy Catholic faith. This invitation, while it has been accepted by a handful of Canadian parishes, does not necessarily solve the problems that are currently occurring in the Anglican Communion.
Historically, the Anglican Church has had a colourful relationship the Catholic Church. It has been suggested that the birth of the Anglican Church was “an accident” caused by a clash of politics and religion in an attempt to secure the lineage of the Tudor family.
Henry VIII, though Catholic, needed to reform some of the laws of the Catholic church in order to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled, as she had been unable to give birth to a male heir. His political needs did not mean that his theology was anti-Catholic. In fact, his 1521 book, defending the sacraments of the Catholic Church and criticizing the theology of Martin Luther, was so thoroughly a defense of Catholicism that Pope Leo X honoured him with the title “Defender of the Faith.” But Henry chose Protestant-minded allies to push his reform, including Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer (who would become Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533), and some of Henry’s decrees seemed to support the Protestant cause, including changes to the church calendar, and the edict that every church was to have an English Bible. It would appear that the break with Rome was complete by 1534, and yet, in 1539, with the publication of the Six Articles, Henry affirmed a Catholic theology of transubstantiation, confession, and the requirement that clergy be celibate. In 1543, he passed the Act for the Advancement of True Religion that severely restricted the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, by declaring that only certain classes of people were allowed to interpret the Scriptures.
The pendulum would swing back towards a more Reformed, Protestant theology within the Anglican Church during the reign of Edward VI with the repeal of the Six Articles, the drafting of the Forty-Two Articles and the publication of The Book of Common Prayer. But this shift was short-lived and many of the Protestant doctrines were repealed under the reign of Mary I, a Catholic.
But what is most interesting is that, under Elizabeth I, the pendulum did not swing fully back to Protestant theology, and instead the via media (middle way) was born. Elizabeth would not allow ardent Protestants like John Knox to exert too much influence over her reign, and she continued to advocate for the middle way. The Forty-Two Articles were replaced with the more moderate Thirty-Nine Articles which, though Protestant in theology, allowed for some Catholic elements like the use of clerical robes. On the other hand, under Elizabeth, the via media gave believers the freedom “to interpret doctrinal statements and patterns of worship in the manner they saw fit.” Richard Hooker, for example, advocated for via media between Catholics and Puritans in his book The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. And yet, at the same time, the Church of England made it clear that, in being a “middle way,” it was still distinct from the Roman Catholic Church (This can be seen, for example, in John Jewel’s Apologia Ecclesiae Anglicanae: Or, The Apology of the Church of England) and in 1559, the Act of Supremacy was passed, which declared that the Pope’s authority was no longer recognized in England.
Today, the Anglican Church continues to be a “middle way,” neither Catholic nor Protestant; it is instead a tradition of its own, influenced by both. It has developed three general streams within it: evangelical, Catholic and liberal. The question is whether or not the Communion can continue to hold these three in unity. And while Anglicans and Catholics have continued since Vatican II to build bridges of communion and dialogue, the acceptance of the Vatican’s offer to conservative Anglo-Catholic congregations to leave the Anglican Communion and join the Roman Catholic Church demonstrates that there are cracks in the “middle way.” (Not to mention that conservative evangelical parishes are choosing to withdraw and realign under the authority of African and South American dioceses rather than stay under the authority of their North American bishops.) Mark Noll argues that the Anglican-Catholic dialogues, while successful in creating unity on theological issues, ultimately failed to produce ecclesial unity because they “could not agree on populist practices in the day-to-day lives of their churches, in particular, divorce, birth control, and the ordination of women.”
I wrote this little post because I am wrestling with the question, “What is the future of the Anglican Church?” Given the actions of dioceses like New Westminster and Niagara, conservative Anglican parishes have three options: to join the Anglican Network in Canada, which is under the authority of the Province of the Southern Cone, to join the Ordinariate established by the Roman Catholic Church, or to stay the course within the denomination. The diocese of Qu’Appelle is one of the evangelical, orthodox and conservative dioceses left in the Anglican Church of Canada, and with the retirement of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican Communion is about to undergo a shift. Without trying to sound too fatalistic, some sort of schism could happen, and the question is going to become, “What does it mean to be Anglican?” And so, while it is really good that the diocese of Qu’Appelle has entered into covenant with the Catholic diocese, and has actively sought to coordinate their efforts in proclaiming the Gospel throughout southern Saskatchewan, at a larger level, the Anglican via media is cracking, and I cannot help but wonder if it the covenant is going to be for naught, seeing as how the Anglican Communion, and the Anglican Church of Canada in particular, are probably about to be redefined.
Healey, Robert. “Waiting for Deborah: John Knox and Four Ruling Queens.” Sixteenth Century Journal XXV, no. 2 (1994): 371–386.
Holder, R. Ward. Crisis and Renewal: The Era of the Reformations (Westminster History of Christian Thought). Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009.
Hooker, Richard. The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Glasgow: George Routledge and Souns, 1888.
Jewel, John. Apologia Ecclesiae Anglicanae: Or, The Apology of the Church of England … London: J. Bowyer, 1720.
Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christianiy: Reformation to the Present. Vol. 2. 2 vols. Peabody: Prince Press, 2000.
LeMarquand, Grant, Alister McGrath, James Packer, and John Paul Westin. “Anglicanism Today: The Path to Renewal.” In Anglican Essentials: Reclaiming Faith Within the Anglican Church of Canada, edited by George Egerton, 53–63. Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1995.
Noll, Mark. Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.