Church As Communion was a report issued by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) in 1991.
It was the second report of what is known as ARCIC II, ie the second phase of the work of ARCIC.
In common with other ARCIC reports it seems difficult to say anything plainly and words are used in ways which are ambiguous.
The report develops one theme, “Communion” and particularly relates this to “eucharist”. Whilst it is reasonable to explore one theme, the conclusions must be compatible with Biblical teaching as a whole and in several important respects the report fails on this count.
Much is said about “eucharist” but it goes beyond what is said in Scripture. We need to remember that later Christians imported ideas about the Lord’s Supper which are not evident in the Bible. The Reformation sought to peal away the error and corruption and return to the Biblical simplicity.
Section 14 illustrates the point, good things are said about being “in Christ”, “the body of Christ” but then this gets focussed on “eucharist” and ends up with the assertion “All who share in the "holy things" of the sacramental life are made holy through them: because they share in them together they are in communion with each other.” Whilst the Bible says much about our union with Christ, it has very little to say about the nature of the Lord’s (and never uses the word “eucharist” in this sense), but later theology has turned this order on its head.
A casualty of the focus on communion is the assertion in our Articles that the Church is where the pure word of God is faithfully preached (Article XIX). We might have expected in a report on Church to find this fundamental point stressed. In addition the Articles and BCP generally preserve the Biblical picture, honouring the Lord’s Supper, but not attaching to it an unbiblical focus.
Ministry and apostolicity
In a similar vein the report gives far more prominence to ministry, and in particular episcopacy. Primacy is only mentioned briefly (s57). Anglican do not accept that episcopacy is of the essence of the Church since clearly in Scripture the terms presbyter and bishop refer to the same people.
Section 33 states ‘succession in the episcopal ministry is intended to assure each communion that its faith is indeed the apostolic faith’. This is misleading. The statement only holds true if a bishop holds to the apostolic faith. If bishops are heretical their succession only perpetuates error. Therefore, the pre-requisite is adherence to the apostolic faith - faith comes first. This means that communion is assured only if we adhere to the same faith. Bishops have a role in defending the faith and helping to facilitate unity but that unity depends on a shared faith not the bishops.
Section 45 states ‘Christ the Lord has provided a ministry of oversight, the fullness of which is entrusted to the episcopate, which has the responsibility of maintaining and expressing the unity of the churches’. Whilst bishops, like presbyters, have such responsibility the idea of the fullness being entrusted to them goes far beyond what can be justified from Scripture and derives from an erroneous understanding of the nature of episcopacy.
The nature of saving faith
A fundamental problem with the report is one of its underlying assumptions, and one now commonly held. It presupposed that the division between Anglicans and Romans is one of two groups of Christians who are part of the Church but who are, for various reasons, divided.
So, section 10 asserts “the failure of Christians to respond to the demands of the Gospel gives rise to division among Christians’. This is no doubt true, but it is not always the reason for division. For example in the fourth century the orthodox divided from the Arians because they considered the divinity of Christ to be a fundamental truth and that the Arians could not be Christians. Exhortations to divide are to be found in Scripture (eg 2 Thess 3.6).
Protestants believe that we are justified by faith alone in Christ alone, that is the heart of the gospel. The Church of Rome teaches that we must trust in things other than Christ - our works, intercession of the saints, indulgences, requiem masses etc. If someone trusts in these things they are not trusting in Christ for salvation, how can we then treat them as Christian brothers?
At the Reformation people on both sides believed the matters were so important that division was necessary (though politics as always played its part). The report fails to accept that there are legitimate causes for division, or to ask whether our forebears were right or wrong to see these issues as grounds for such division. Instead the report assumes that division is always wrong, which is clearly unbiblical itself.
The sacrementality of the Church
Section II dealing with the sacramentality of the Church is misleading. First, because it tends to perpetuate the misleading use of the word sacrament. In Ephesians the Greek word musterion (mystery) is used but the Latin Vulgate used sacramentum as a translation. The common meaning of sacrament as “a visible sign of an invisible reality” is not what is meant in Ephesians. Moreover, much is made of the fact that the Church is to be a sign to the unbelieving world, and yet in Ephesians the Church is actually said to be a sign to the principalities and powers in the heavenly realms and it is a sign of the manifold wisdom of God (Eph 3.1). The ARCIC report builds much on this misrepresentation of Scripture.
Conclusion - the road to true unity
There are different causes of disunity. Some can be the result of secondary issues as Paul seems to imply in Romans 14. But others are due to fundamental matters and Scripture insists on breaking fellowship. It has been the conviction of Christians at the time of the Reformation, and before, that the errors of the medieval Church were so severe that radical change was needed. When many of the churches resisted change and instead persecuted believers division was inevitable. The approach of ARCIC is severely misguided. Re-union is neither justifiable nor desirable unless the errors of the Church of Rome are finally accepted and abandoned. Those churches which were, by the grace of God, reformed under the Word of God, should not abandon what was achieved at such great cost.
David Phillips, January 2009