ARCIC Agreed Statement on Authority in the Church III

The Gift of Authority

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ARCIC is the official Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue, so one would expect its agreed statements to reflect what is broadly held in common by both communions. However, that is not the case here, as will be seen. This agreed statement would appear to be much closer to the current Roman Catholic postion than to an Anglican one, so much so, that it largely mirrors the content of Lumen Gentium, a detailed critique of which can be found elsewhere on this website. Much of that critique will be seen to apply to this document also. Therefore I do not intend to repeat the comments made there, and shall confine myself to an overview and conclusions, with particular reference to the manner in which the Anglican Communion relates to ecumenical processes.


The Authors make it clear that this is really the third document in a series of statements on the subject, and should be read with the other two in mind. Hence, where there is ambiguity or the details are unclear, it would be appropriate to check the ARCIC I statements Authority in the Church I & II for clarification before complaining. However, there are also places where the current statement contradicts the previous ones, and it is unclear how contradictory claims are to be read together. Presumably, in such cases, it would be reasonable to assume the latter position supersedes the earlier.

The title The Gift of Authority was chosen to reflect the authors’ belief that authority, rightly exercised, is a gift from God. This sets the subject in a positive context, and there is much that is good and positive about the first half of the statement. The positivity is emphasised by the adoption of a theme of “Yes” and “Amen”, based on St Paul’s use of these words in II Corinthians (1.18-20). This is possibly intended to re-inforce the idea of reception which caused so much trouble for earlier ARCIC statements. If so, it is a pity that in the current document the idea of reception becomes more passive as the authority which is received receives greater emphasis.

However, I must question whether this approach is really a legitimate mode of arguing. Words have meaning, and confining meaning within the context of pre-defined words can restrict the range of the argument. Yes and No, for instance, imply a stark choice between two alternatives; most intellectual subjects are not so simple, and their use can hide the subtle range of intermediate or even unrelated positions which might otherwise be considered. Yes and Amen raise the stakes higher by implying a choice between obedience and unfaithfulness. It is fine to use these words in their Biblical context to establish that right authority is legitimate, but repeating them when the argument has moved on to what kind of authority is right becomes heavy-handed and manipulative. It could even be seen as an attempt to exercise authority wrongly.

However, my real problem with the statement comes around half-way through, when the traditional Roman Catholic interpretations of Matthew 16.18 and John 16.13 are used to support the traditional Roman Catholic view that the Church has “the promise of Christ that it will persevere and be maintained in the truth” (Gift 41). In one sentence the great principle which distinguishes Anglicanism from Romanism is conceded, and the single most important insight which Protestants have to offer to our Catholic brothers and sisters is despised and discarded, and with it the prospect of securing a genuine foundation for the rebuilding of Christ’s Church.

No argument is made to support these interpretations. They are simply taken at face value despite their controversial nature. In the preface “The reader is invited to follow the path that led the Commission to its conclusions.” Where then is the path for us to follow to this one? No working is shown, and we are left to guess. Could it be that the Vatican having rejected the conclusions of ARCIC I because they were not identical to Catholic understanding of the Faith, ARCIC II has simply decided to come up with something closer in an effort to please? We must trust not but, if they cannot persuade the bulk of Anglican Christians of the truth of the line they are now taking, they have set a barrier in the way of inter-church dialogue which will be hard to remove.

What naturally follows from the erroneous interpretation of these scriptures is that the Church, “In specific circumstances... is preserved from error.” (Gift 42) and the Commission ascribes the ability to make such error-free pronouncements to the gathered episcopacy. “...the Church may teach infallibly” and “Such infallible teaching is at the service of the Church’s indefectibility.”

The rest of the statement addresses structures and suggested ways forward. There are some things of value there, particularly the call for theological dialogue to continue “at all levels in the churches” (Gift 58), which seems sadly neglected at present, if my own experience is a guide. There is also a call for the respect of conscience in exercising discipline (Gift 49), and for theological enquiry “and other forms of the search for truth” (Gift 61) to be protected so the Church may be enriched and strengthened by the insights gained. The proof of this would depend on where the limits were drawn and the procedures to be adopted.

Nonetheless, the damage has already been done. The central failure of this effort is the failure to stand up for the interpretation of key verses of Scripture, which cannot sensibly bear the weight which is being put on them, by whatever method of interpretation is deemed appropriate.


This is a truly astonishing document. Astonishing because it so grossly misrepresents the faith of the Church of England and of those churches in communion with it. How has this occurred, and what are the consequences for the ecumenical process?

First of all, this is not the end of ecumenism. It is simply a failure, at one stage of the process, to engage with the real issues. We should not mince our words here; the Anglican members of the Commission would appear to be out of touch with those they represent, and have gone in a direction the rest of us cannot follow. The result is a document to which there may be very limited reception indeed, but it is only one document.

Secondly, any rejection by the churches of the Anglican Communion of an ARCIC statement should not be allowed to send shockwaves through the ecumenical process. That is essentially a dialogue in which ideas must be suggested and examined. We should not expect these ideas to be accepted on every occasion. Setbacks are inevitable and actually should be seen as part of the process, because the final agreements will be all the stronger for having been tested. If the statement is not endorsed by the Anglican side this time, further guidance for future ARCIC discussions will result.

That is not to say, however, that this situation does not raise serious questions about the organisation of the ecumenical process within the Anglican Communion. In conjunction with Roman Catholic concerns about the impact of Anglican comprehensiveness (See Church Times reports on comments by Rt. Revd. Crispian Hollis and Cardinal Walter Kasper), it highlights the need to ensure Anglican participation in dialogues with others is broad-based and representative of the whole concensus. Otherwise it will become disconnected from the sensus fidelium and lead to further embarrassment as the Church’s representatives stand where the Church they represent cannot.

The Church of England’s General Synod debated The Gift of Authority on 13th February 2004 and, after taking note of the report, passed the following motion:

That this Synod:
  1. re-affirm the Church of England’s commitment to work with all its ecumenical partners towards the full visible unity of the Church of Christ;
  2. recognise the significant role of the Anglican–Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) and the International Anglican–Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission (IARCCUM) in progressing the search for unity;
  3. recognise the pioneering work of ARCIC in developing an ecumenical method which seeks to get behind the language of division and to express the common faith in fresh ways;
  4. welcome the witness of The Gift of Authority that ‘authority rightly exercised is a gift of God to bring reconciliation and peace to humankind’ and its emphasis on the synodical nature of the Church as the form in which ‘believers and churches are held together in communion’;
  5. acknowledge that differing convictions about issues of authority are best explored in the context of shared church life and collaboration in mission;
  6. believing that any search for theological agreement on universal primacy requires that the contested claim of universal, ordinary and immediate jurisdiction for the Bishop of Rome be resolved, and noting that The Gift of Authority does not refer to this issue, request that it again form part of the agenda of ARCIC;
  7. observing that The Gift of Authority’s treatment of the teaching authority of the Bishop of Rome is not sufficiently clear, request that ARCIC clarify in what sense this is ‘a gift to be received by all the churches’; and
  8. affirm that ecumenical texts proposed for agreement by the Church of England should be consonant with the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it and with existing ecumenical agreements, especially when these have already been agreed by this Synod.

I hope there will now be a review of the system by which the Church is represented in ecumenical processes so future dialogue can proceed more smoothly.

We need to ensure that those who discuss such matters are broadly representative of the diversity within our Communion, and remain in touch with opinion at all levels to ensure what they propose is likely to be acceptable. To the latter end, it is interesting to note the call for theological discussion at all levels mentioned above (Gift 58). Should the Church of England pioneer this as a means of feeding ideas up and down a structure and thus maintaining continuity between those who speak for us at International levels and those for whom they speak?

Ken Petrie

1st Edition
27th February 2004
Your comments welcome