■ Anglican and Catholic scholars reach landmark agreement on the Virgin Mary ■ Pope Benedict says he is ‘looking forward’ to receiving long-awaited ARCIC report
BY FREDDY GRAY
A 500-YEAR-OLD disagreement over the Virgin Mary’s role in Christian faith and life could be resolved when Anglicans and Catholics release a joint statement later this month.
On May 16, the Anglican-Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) will meet in the American city of Seattle to release the first ever ecumenically agreed text on the Mother of God, entitled Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ.
The new Pope is understood to be particularly excited about the document which is the result of five years discussion and study. He told ecumenical delegates the day after his inauguration Mass that he was “looking forward immensely” to reading it.
Since the Protestant Reformation Marian devotion has been one of the great obstacles to CatholicAnglican dialogue. Protestants do not accept the Catholic dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption.
But Canon Gregory Cameron, deputy secretary general of the Anglican Communion and director of ecumenical affairs, said he hoped that the statement would clarify misconceptions about Anglican Marian spirituality. He argued that the division was not as unbridgeable as most people think it is.
“One of the interesting things we found looking at history was that even though Mary has been a source of controversy particularly during the Reformation – the Anglican Church has quite a rich tradition of Marian Anglican spirituality,” he said.
“The ARCIC document would not claim to have found complete agreements on these issues, merely that we have found ways to approach them that are acceptable to both traditions.” After the launch in Seattle, ARCIC is expected to formally submit the statement to the Anglican Communion and Rome.
Since it was established in 1970 ARCIC’s success has been extremely limited. None of its previous 12 statements have won approval from the Vatican. Ecumenical dialogue has so far failed to solve the key disagreements on the Eucharist, the primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Marian devotion.
Canon Cameron said he was curious as to how Pope Benedict would react.
“In the past, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, he has made some harsh comments on ARCIC. So it will be interesting to see how he responds to this statement,” he said.
In his former role, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger rejected ARCIC’s claim to have found “substantive and explicit agreement” on several thorny issues of ecumenical dialogue.
However, in 1998 Cardinal Ratzinger is understood to have made important concessions in order to achieve a breakthrough agreement with Lutherans on the subject of Justification – the means by which men and women are saved.
As Pope, moreover, he has given early indications that he is more open to ecumenical dialogue than many people had thought. At his inauguration he spoke about the need for Christian unity. The next day, he held an audience with an ecumenical group, including the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams and Canon Cameron.
“I spoke to him briefly and he said he was looking forward immensely to receiving the statement,” Canon Cameron said. “We said we were the ones looking forward — to hearing his response.” Catholics who specialise in ecumenical matters are optimistic about the document.
“I look forward to seeing this document,” said Fr Bill McLoughlin, a Catholic priest and chairman of the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary. “It is very encouraging and an important step in the process of reconciliation between the churches. The ESBVM has been a behindthe-scenes supporter of the world of ARCIC in this area, having made available to its members the wide range of published material on this aspect of ecumenism.” Sister Cecily Boulding, co-secretary of the English Anglican/Roman Committee (EARC), would not comment on the document because she had not seen it. “But I can say that we are hopeful that it will prove very useful,” she said.
However there are many critics of the Seattle statement. A large number of low-church Anglicans feel sceptical about the dialogue. “What I expect from this document is Catholic doctrine dressed up in evangelical language that is designed to appeal to Protestants,” said Dr Napier Malcolm, editor of the British Church Newspaper.
“A common ground does not exist. The Catholic Church does not accept the Protestant position, and Protestantism does not think there is room for the Catholic position in the scriptures. While I respect the Catholic position, there is no room for dialogue.” The statement will be released in London on May 19 at Westminster Abbey.