A prestigious joint commission of Roman Catholics and Anglicans has recommended that the two churches be united under the supreme authority of the Pope.
The historic proposal to end the 443-year-old split between the two churches - one that is certain to provoke controversy among Anglicans - was made by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission in a document released yesterday in London. The 21 scholars comprising the commission have been studying since 1968 the possibilities of healing the four-century-old ecclesiastical split.
The report of the commission, co-chaired by archbishops from each church, now goes to its parent bodies for study. Pope Paul has reportedly seen the document and approved it in principle.
Neither the present document nor two previous ones - on the eucharist and on the ministry - commit either church to specific action.
The commission's proposal is particularly dramatic because the Anglican Church emerged out of King Henry VIII's rejection of the authority of Pope Clement VII in 1534 when the pope refused to annul Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The king broke off relations with Rome and founded the Church of England.
The commission's recommendation is expected to cause soul-searching among members of the worldside Anglican community, including the Episcopal Church in the country because while there is considerable yearning for reunion with Rome, Anglican's prize local autonomy of the individual diocese.
There is no equivalent to a Pope in the Anglican communion. The Archbishop of Canterbury is considered the titular head of 60 milllion-member Anglican body, but his authority is strictly spiritual.
The 16-page study document, which was completed at a meeting of the commission in Venice last summer, puts the role of the papacy in historical perspective.
In the early church, the statement points out, bishops of prominent jurisdictions were assigned to oversee the bishops of their region in order to keep the churches faithful to the teachings of Christ.
"The bishops of a principal see should seek the fulfillment of Christ in the churches of his region," the statement says. "It is his duty to assist the bishops to promote in their churches right teaching, holiness of life, brotherly unity and the church's mis-[TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]
Both the first and second Vatican councils, the statement continues, stress that "communion with the bishop of Rome (the Pope) does not imply submission to an authority which would stifle the distinctive features of the local churches." Vatican I, which met in 1869, and Vatican II, which met in 1964, were worldwide gatherings of Catholic bishops that set policy for the church.
The document acknowledges that the idea of an infallible Pope presents "difficulties" to Anglicans. But it adds the reassurance that the limitations placed on the Pope by tradition and church council preclude the idea that the Pope is an inspired oracle communicating fresh revelations, or that he can speak independently of his fellow bishops and the church or on matters not concerning faith or morals."
The statement acknowledges that "while it does not wholly resolve all the problems associated with papal primacy, it provides us with a solid basis for confronting them."
Archbishop Joseph Bernardin of Cincinnati, president of the U.S. Catholic bishops, hailed the document as "a cause for rejoicing among those involved in the quest for that unity which Christ willed for the church."
At a press conference in London where the statement was released yesterday, Dean Henry Chadwick of Christ Church College at Oxford, an Anglican member of the commission, said he hopes efforts toward church unity might bear fruit "in poor bloody, torn, divided Ireland" where fighting between Catholics and Protestants has taken nearly 1,700 lives in the last seven years.
The study commission grew out of the visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury to Pope Paul at the Vatican 10 years ago. At its first meeting in 1968, the commission outlined the large areas of agreement the two churches share and set plans to study the major points of disagreement: holy communion, the ministry and papal authority.