Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Vatican II - Voice of The Church

Anglican Reactions

By Bishop Christopher Butler

[from chapter 6 of In the Light of the Council, Darton Longman & Todd, 1968]

The views of eight Anglican observers on Vatican II provide us with the salutary and humbling experience of seeing ourselves as others see us.

In The Light

Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council have provoked a tremendous upsurge of interest in regard to the Catholic Church. For this we have to thank the secular press and broadcasting, but also the official non-Cathollc observers. The interest created may be sympathetic or hostile, but in either case it can be preferred to the world's indifference.

To see ourselves as others see us is a salutary and humbling experience. It is also one not normally easy to come by. Catholics should therefore give a special welcome, and pay particular attention, to the book edited by Canon Pawley on the Second Vatican Council [1]. It contains nine studies of the Council by eight Anglicans who were all, at one time or another, present at it in the role of official observers. It should be noted that the viewpoint is not the narrower one of the Church of England, but that of world Anglicanism, and four of the contributors are from North America.

The book is all the more valuable as being addressed in the first instance to Anglican readers: as we read it, we are overhearing what Anglicans have to say to one another about us. It shows an intimate understanding of the Council's efforts and achievements, and offers a shrewd assessment of them from a firmly Anglican—though somewhat 'High Church'—point of view.

In the introduction Canon Pawley rightly reminds his readers that the Anglican Communion has, in the past, kept firmly present to the ecumenical movement its own conviction that 'the Church of Rome' (i.e. our communion) will have an essential part to play in the reunion of Christendom. He holds that John XXIII and Vatican II have given us an attitude towards ecumenism which has created 'an entirely new situation'[2], there has been 'a change of heart' among us, the extent and intensity of which cannot be exaggerated. Obviously he welcomes this change.

But there is much more about the Council which he also approves. He praises its comprehensive agenda, though he mentions 'four notable gaps': eucharistic doctrine, the doctrine of grace, the question of Anglican orders, and mixed marriages (this list of course reveals his Anglican interest - the question of Anglican orders was too particular for the Council, and a notable 'gap' was the question of means of birth control). He suggests that Anglicans, traditionally more concerned with what is workable than with what is precisely definable, have been the most sanguine of non-Catholic Christians in their evaluation of the Council's positive achievements.

He further suggests that the deepest remaining difference between his communion and our own springs from our inclination to treat as 'eternal and sacred' what are in fact 'only human formulations' (what about the three Creeds of the Anglican liturgy, the Apostles', the Nicene and the Athanasian?). I wonder whether this really gets to the heart of our division.

John XXIII, in his address at the opening of the Council, made a celebrated distinction between 'the deposit of faith itself, i.e. the truths contained in our venerable teaching' and 'the mode in which these truths are enunciated, while their sense and meaning remain intact.' Catholic theologians today are ready to recognise that there are contingent elements in doctrinal definitions. For instance, a formula such as that of Chalcedon not only answers questions which may seem less relevant to us than they seemed to the Christians of A.D. 451, but it answers them in language reflecting the thought-forms of its own age. The reformulation of doctrine is not therefore excluded, nor of course the development of doctrine as new questions provoke new answers (in the Council, one sometimes found oneself listening to technically admirable answers to questions that were no longer contemporary).

But the Catholic Church does insist that the old questions were answered correctly, in her earlier formulations, on the presuppositions of the thought-forms of their age. And she insists that these formulations do enshrine elements of 'eternal and sacred truth'; we must beware of disposing of the baby along with the bathwater. To us it is not always clear that Anglican theologians distinguish between the baby and the water.

More broadly, to the extent that Anglicanism rejects the notion of the Church's infallibility - if it does indeed do so - we fear that a door is being opened to a kind of doctrinal relativism that is in the end inconsistent with the biblical insistence on the unchanging identity of the gospel. Dialogue between Anglicans and ourselves might profitably explore these issues of infallibility and of the propositional factor in the deposit of faith. There may be misunderstandings on both sides, and possibilities of mutual enlightenment.

Behind such questions there lurks another, even more basic, issue: that of the essential structure of the pilgrim Church herself in her 'visible' and 'institutional' aspects. Our Anglican brethren - or some of them best qualified to speak for their own tradition - acknowledge with us the permanence in the Church of an apostolic ministry established and endowed by Christ himself. They not only acknowledge the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist but also 'the apostolic ordinance' of holy order (if some of them shrink from calling holy order a sacrament, the issue may be rather one of language than of substance: the Thirty-nine Articles are partly to blame). But manifestly they do not agree that the Church on earth, constituted by and entrusted with such sacraments, is essentially a 'full communion' whose indefectibility as a full communion is guaranteed by Christ.

Professor Root (in his study in this book of the Council's ecumenical pronouncements) is inclined to think that there is in the Council's acts an unresolved tension between this Catholic belief and our acknowledgment of the Christian character of the non-Catholic Christian communions. I personally think that this tension does not amount to a theological contradiction. But my point is that it is here, in our unalterable belief in the unicity and uniqueness of the Church as unified in the actual episcopal college, that the basic issue between us and our Anglican friends is to be found. It is an issue closely related to that of the 'sacredness' of ecclesiastical formulations; and it is because we believe that the Church is such as I have described her that we can distinguish amid the clamour of the age a living voice which speaks the unchanging truth of Christ with increasing articulateness and perpetual relevance. I suggest that this issue might be discussed between Anglicans and our own theologians under the rubric of 'realised eschatology.'

I have already mentioned the episcopal college. Dr Fairweather (on 'The Church,' in this volume) thinks that Vatican II's teaching on this subject has 'revolutionary implications' for 'old-fashioned Ultra-montanism.' I would rather say that it directs a shrewd blow at neo-Ultramontanism. Among the old-fashioned Ultramontanes who guided the Fathers of Vatican I to their teaching on the Pope, there were some who were quite clear that not only the Pope but the collective episcopate has a universal and supreme authority. But Dr Fairweather also holds that Vatican II seems to have left the Pope himself as 'something more than the head of the college of bishops.'

The question here is whether or not the particular powers of the Pope, in his role as successor of St. Peter, are wholly included within the total powers of the Church as a whole and especially of the college of which he is the head. Is there any respect in which the Pope, as Pope, stands outside the college? I believe that this question is quite crucial to ecclesiology, and we may be grateful to Dr. Fairweather for raising it. I am inclined to think that Vatican II does not, on the surface of its statements, provide an explicit answer to the question. But I also incline to the view that it does offer an implicit answer - so implicit that it has escaped the notice of many of the theologians.

The Sacrament of Episcopacy

The Council's explicit teaching that episcopal consecration is a sacrament (the fullness of the sacrament of order), that it confers, along with the office of sanctifying the People of God, the offices (munera) of teaching and ruling, and that these offices can of their nature only be exercised in hierarchical communion with the head and members of the (episcopal) college, suggests to me that all power of 'ruling' in the Church is to be seen not as something extraneous to the sacrament of order but as contained within it. Obviously election to the papacy is not a sacramental rite. If, then, such election confers on the Pope powers which are not intrinsic within the episcopate as embodied in the episcopal college, these powers are nonsacramental in their origin and seem to contradict the general picture of the Church presented by Vatican II.

Very great issues are at stake here, not least the question whether the Church is or is not basically and essentially a sacramental thing. If it could be shown that the papacy falls wholly within the sacramental order, a difficulty, objected against us not only by Dr Fairweather but by Archbishop Ramsey and Dr Mascall, would be happily overcome. It should be borne in mind, however, that Anglicans are rightly sensitive not only to theory but to practice, and it has to be conceded that our practice from 1870 has been largely neo-Ultramontane in its inspiration. We must hope for better times. Meanwhile, Dr Fairweather's article seems to me to be an outstanding contribution to the book we are discussing here.

The value of the book derives in no small measures from its combination of warm sympathy with frank and searching criticism.

In Dr Massey Shepherd's contribution on liturgy, which is truly theological as well as being rich in scholarship, the element of criticism is reduced almost to vanishing point. He sees the constitution on the liturgy as following upon a long process of development from 1903 (the date of St Pius X's motu proprio on church music) to the liturgical and calendaric reforms of Pius XII and John XXIII. Dr. Shepherd is struck by the deep unity of outlook linking this constitution with the best Anglican liturgical tradition, theory, and practice. His article is rounded off with a note underlining some unintentional similarities between the constitution and the preface to the first Prayer Book of Edward VI. It also has a useful bibliographical note.

Religious Freedom

Professor Wolf studies the declaration on religious liberty, and says that had it not been promulgated, or had its contents been unsatisfactory, our programme of renewal would have been impeded. He questions the appropriateness, in its context, of the declaration's passage on the unique claims of the Catholic Church. And he points out that the declaration leaves (it was almost inevitable) some dangerous loopholes both for hard-core conservative Catholics and for unscrupulous Governments. He also regrets that it does not include an explicit Catholic 'confession of sins' in the field of religious freedom. But his general view is the favourable one that the declaration is 'one of the most substantial results of the Council,' and he adds the valuable suggestion that the Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches might now work towards a joint pronouncement on religious liberty.

Canon Findlow's judgment on the constitution on the Church in the world of today is more adverse. He finds its 'matter too piecemeal, its manner too pedestrian and its moral too pedantically pointed.' He suggests that Catholic theology has not yet sufficiently digested sociology. He points out that the preparation of this document was rushed on its final stages: this is quite true.

He also regrets that use is made in it of scriptural or ecclesiastical texts which will not recommend it to the world: this criticism seems to overlook the fact that, while the constitution does address itself to mankind at large, its purpose is partly to educate Christians to the nature of their witness and work in the world of which they form part.

In contrast with these rather sharp but often justified criticisms, Professor Root displays a warm appreciation for the declaration on the non-Christian religions; he wonders whether Christian contact with these religions might help us to resolve our Christian ecumenical problem. It is interesting to bear in mind that some Protestant critics have taken a much more unfavourable view of this declaration - an indication of the closer sympathy of Anglicans as compared with Protestants, with the Catholic view of the operations of grace outside the visible field of the gospel's action.

It may be noted that, of the eight authors of this book, five are members of the Anglican-Catholic preparatory commission, which held its last meeting in the winter of 1967-8. We were assured of a sympathetic hearing from the Anglican side of the commission. Dialogue between the two communions would have been much more beset with problems if the Council had not taken place, or if there had been no observers at it.


[1] The Second Vatican Council. Studies by Eight Anglican Observers. Edited by Bernard C. Pawley. Oxford University Press. 1967.

[2] Bishop Moorman (Vatican Observed p. 204) uses the same form of words.