Paul J. Griffiths on Rowan Williams and "Ecumenical Obedience"

Catholic theologian Paul J. Griffiths pens a good response to Rowan Williams on the Catholic-Anglican divide:

This past Thursday (19 November 2009), Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, gave an address at the Gregorian University in Rome as part of an event celebrating the centenary of the birth of Cardinal Willebrands, the first President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. In it, he made a distinction between first-order theological understandings of the Church, on which he thinks that there has been considerable convergence between Anglicans and Catholics since the Second Vatican Council; and second-order questions, the answers to which still divide, but consensus about which, he thinks, is not as “vital for its [the Church’s] health and integrity” as is that about first-order questions.

He distinguishes three putative second-order topics: the question of authority in the Church; the question of Petrine primacy; and the question of the relations between local churches and the universal Church. And he notes that the fundamental issue is the importance of these (and perhaps others), because it is about them that Anglicans and Catholics are divided. How can we, he asks, “properly tell the difference between ’second order’ and ‘first order’ issues”?

This is the right question. Williams clearly thinks that the three divisive topics he identifies are second-order, and that in light of agreement about the first-order theology of the Church differences about them should not remain a barrier to (some form of) sacramental unity. He asks of those who disagree with him that we provide a theological account of why what he thinks are second-order questions have sufficient theological importance that they ought to remain church-dividing.

I think he is wrong. … [More]

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