DR COGGAN may not have behaved in the bland traditions of Vatican diplomacy when he raised so sharply and openly the question of inter-communion between Catholics and Anglicans in his sermon at the Anglican Church of St Paul in Rome last week, but he was rendering a major ecumenical service in focusing public and theological opinion on the whole issue.
The end of all the theological dialogues and discussions which have been taking place between Catholics and Anglicans since the revolution initiated by Pope John is .unity between the two Churches.
That is a long and hard road, and It would be absurd to pretend that Churches which have grown apart over a period of 400 years can suddenly be reunited by good intentions or even by acts of will. The difficulties and obstacles are great, but in seeking to overcome them we can all have confidence in the explicit cornmands of Jesus to bring about unity and in the power of his grace and help. This is the context of hope in which rational and effective action is required. One step along the road to reunion is inter-communion between the two Churches which does not exist officially at the moment. Nevertheless it is true, as Archbishop Coggan stated in his sermon, that individuals in both Churches approach the altars of the other.
I have no means of knowing how widespread such practices are. and I daresay the Archbishop does not either, but that they have and do occur I have no doubt, although I do not believe them to be widespread.
The discipline of the two Churches is different in this matter. As 1 understand it, the position is more flexible in the Anglican Church. Baptised Christians who are not members of the Anglican Faith may receive communion from Anglicans, but if they make a constant habit of doing so they are to be approached by their local pastor to see if the position can be regularised by joining the Church. For Catholics the official position is stricter, and while Anglicans may receive Holy Communion from Catholic priests in emergency situations, Catholic reception of the Anglican sacrament is not officially countenanced.
Nevertheless it does happen (although not often, I imagine) that. Catholics, especially those engaged in ecumenical work, grow tired of waiting for official changes and take the responsibility into their own hands and receive Holy Communion from clergy of other Churches.
While haste is not desirable in complex matters, neither is sloth; and the Archbishop's words in Rome should have the effect of imparting a greater sense of urgency to the work of those who are engaged in this form of ecumenical activity. Could not the way forward be to allow inter-communion on an occasional basis? The Eucharist is the sign of unity, and it would be false to resort to the sign as a normal practice before a real unity of faith and order . has been established.
Yet it is also a means to unity and in exceptional circumstances there is nothing inconsistent in resorting to it and maintaining that regular intercommunion can only conic at a further stage of development.
Thus, reception of each others' sacrament could be authorised on the occasion of an ecumenical conference or at a marriage between a Catholic and an Anglican. There is no reason wny a dispensation in this latter case should not be given, and I understand that it has in fact happened in the past. After all, the married couple have created a joint life in all that matters most: they have linked their lives together in a sacramental union: why should they not be allowed to share the Eucharist on occasions?
I believe that the time is now ripe for such an advance. It will have to come at some stage if the ecumenical movement is not to lose all momentum and become a dead end.
The joint Catholic-Anglican theological commissions on the Ministry and the Eucharist have reached broad agreement. While these cannot rank as wholly official conclusions they are not private ones either. I hey represent a stage on the road to full reunion, and what I am suggesting here represents another. No doubt there will be objections to the proposal from theologians and others, but there will also be support.
The whole matter should be fully discussed. One of the weaknesses of the present dialogue is that it is largely confined to theologians as such, but if the theologians press on with their discussions without involving others they will find themselves in increasing isolation, and how can the seasus fideliunt be ascertained in such circumstanCes?
Dr Coggan, by his sermon, has brought all these matters to a head. Things can never be quite the same again. Perhaps that is why shock-waves are reported to have reverberated through the Vatican. If we respond to the jolt constructively and prayerfully it may he that Dr C:oggan's visit to Pope Paul will prove as momentous as that of his predecessor, Dr Fisher, to Pope John.