Having dinner with an Anglican clerical friend the other night—in fact one who is considering whether or not to accept Pope Benedict's Ordinariate proposal—our conversation ranged broadly over the recent happenings.
It is clear that, for many, The Holy Father's idea represents the ending of all the ecumenical hopes: Rome ceases to dialogue with Anglicans, and simply reverts to You-come-in-ism, delighting in poaching converts at whatever price. The word 'poaching' has been used even in so-called 'quality' journalism.
The trouble is that, as far as mainstream Anglicanism is concerned, ARCIC is dead in the water. The achievement of ARCIC, while not perfect, did actually go a long way towards representing Anglicanism and Catholicism to each other, finding common ground and common expression. Anglo-Catholics in particular were encouraged to hope that this might be the beginnings of a model whereby they might find Anglicanism 'united with but not absorbed by' the larger Roman Catholic body.
What was not remembered (or perhaps it was convenient to forget) is that the Church of England regards itself as being both Catholic and Reformed, and that it has a substantial number of adherents who would describe themselves as Protestant and a larger body who would, in their own probable words, put people before dogmas, and whom we call Liberals—liberal-protestants, and liberal-catholics, depending on the flavour of the worship. To these, there was nothing sacred about ARCIC. Interesting, perhaps, (indeed there were Liberal and Protestant representatives on ARCIC), but not in any sense binding for the Church. Just a statement of where we were then. Now we've moved on. Time to dialogue again.
The trouble is that the Catholic Church is not a moving-on sort of institution. It has never regarded itself as floating around, blown by the spirit of the age, as have both Protestantism (except in its most traditional forms) and certainly Liberalism. So, the Anglo-Catholics, with one foot in the floating-off Anglican Communion, and the other on the Catholic bank, became increasingly distressed by the painful splits that began to result, and have been on the point of collapse into the water.
Now, in the nick of time, Pope Benedict has offered them an arm to grasp, with relatively few conditions attached. He has, in other words, again taken up the ARCIC idea, and though the mainstream Anglican Communion is no longer interested, he offers it to those who were hoping for so much from it, and who approached him in this spirit.
So, money in the bank, or dead in the water? Well, both; it depends on your perspective. There is a television programme (they tell me), in which someone called Anne Robinson is nasty to a group of people who, when they have saved up enough points, shout out 'Bank', which saves what has been achieved such that it can no longer be jeopardized by future speculation. A lot of good stuff has been achieved ecumenically. It would be a great shame if it were to be lost just because most of the Anglican Communion no longer thinks that way.
The idea that Pope Benedict's offer damages ecumenical relations only holds water if you presume that, in order to pursue dialogue with the Anglicans now, you must despise the group that they despise, which is to say, the dogmatic Anglo-Catholics. If that new sort of 'dialogue' is pursued, then the loss would be major. Not only would we have cast off a group with whom we have been in discussions for some forty years, and who share the overwhelming majority (if not the totality) of our beliefs (and what would that say about our own faith?) for the sake of some external observances and different traditions, but we would also have to begin again on the new pitch with the substantially moved goalposts; something we would have had to do anyway.
What Pope Benedict and the Anglo-Catholics have done is shout 'Bank!' Before further damage is done, the achievements of ARCIC have been banked. Now dialogue with the more unified Anglican Communion can proceed (or start again from the beginning)—and one may presume that this dialogue will be in time more fruitful, as we will be talking to a group whose views will be more homogenous than heretofore—though, being liberal-Protestant, the dialogue is less likely to be fruitful in our lifetimes. Who knows, in a hundred years or so? But the dialogue must be pursued.
In the meantime, just look where we have got to! The Bulgarian, Russian and Romanian Orthodox are all now actually interested in ecumenical dialogue, not just being grumpily reactive. That's progress. In the West, there is a genuine realignment, with the Protestant Communions dissolving and resolving into a broad liberal consensus. The Catholic end is coalescing, too, with Anglo-Catholics and Lefebvrists in sensible talks to pursue full visible oneness.
This is ecumenical progress. And it is largely thanks to the Pope of Christian Unity who has pursued this goal, as Benedict and as Cardinal Ratzinger, for at least thirty years. Seen in this light, his much-resented rejection of parts of ARCIC, too, can be seen as money in the bank; a real commitment to making sure that the faith expressed in those documents really did provide a solid foundation for unity.
Such, no doubt, are the workings of Divine Providence.