The prospects for a fruitful exchange of ideas between Anglicanism and Catholicism have rarely looked brighter. The issues being discussed at the synod now taking place in the Vatican are also key issues in the dialogue regarding Christian unity. Even the word “synod” itself is a bridge between ecumenical partners. The global Anglican Communion has long taken synodality into its system, with the General Synod of the Church of England widely used as a model, though not replicated in every detail. Other Christian Churches also have systems of church government which, like the General Synod, bring ordained and lay members together for decision-making.

The Catholic idea of synodality, which in its current form grew out of the Second Vatican Council, was for a long time confined to bishops, with a scattering of clergy and lay advisers. More than 100 episcopal conferences throughout the world would each send one or two of its members to take part in carefully managed debates in Rome every two or three years. The synod made suggestions which the Pope eventually responded to, but was not obliged to accept.

So when representatives of both communions came together in the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (Arcic) in 1998 to discuss authority and governance in the Church – the ideal Church, that is, not one that actually existed – these were the two contrasting conceptions of synodality they brought to the table. In due course Arcic brought out its agreed statement, The Gift of

Authority, which wove its tapestry of theological argument out of two threads. One was collegiality (in the language of Vatican II) and the other primacy, meaning the role one bishop has above others in expressing the faith of the whole Church. The Anglican Communion has local leaders, one for each province, and the Catholic Church has a college of leaders of local Churches and a universal primate, the Pope. The Archbishop of Canterbury has a special place in the global Anglican Communion, but is not an Anglican pope.

The Arcic formula identified collegiality and primacy as both essential if a Church was to be true to the intentions of its founder. By implication, therefore, the Catholic Church was deficient by virtue of the ineffectiveness of the synod model and by its neglect of collegiality beyond the ranks of bishops. And while the Anglican Communion did tick these boxes, it was defective because of the absence of the unifying principle supplied by a universal primacy. The Gift of Authority reached the surprising conclusion that Anglicanism ought to be open to the idea of a papacy, in the Catholic model. But the idea has not moved much further in the intervening 25 years.

The form of synodality taking shape in Rome also still falls short of the Arcic criteria. It makes a strong case for saying that the sensus fidelium lies within the entire People of God, including the laity, who must therefore have a role in shaping doctrine. That also remains, for now, an ecumenical bridge too far. But it cannot be left uncrossed for ever, and certainly not if the union of the Churches is to become a reality.



It is not surprising that the Conservative Party still feels battered and bruised. Last year was traumatic for it, with the catastrophic final chapter of Boris Johnson’s premiership followed by the brief but disastrous interlude of Liz Truss. Their successor Rishi Sunak is severely handicapped both by this legacy and by the fact he was never elected as party leader but assumed office by a kind of default.

At the best of times, the various components of the Tory mix need careful handling by a strong and respected – or feared – leader, otherwise they are liable to fall apart. Sunak seems to be far from finding the unifying idea or supplying the unifying leadership that the situation demands. Maybe anyone else would have done worse, because they would be likely to have come from one of the various competing factions, and would therefore have alienated the excluded remainder. For instance, a substantial number of members of the Tory party, including many MPs, regard individual freedom as the ultimate value and the growth of the state as a threat to it. They want tax cuts, paid for by slashing public services and pruning the budget for pensions and welfare. Some argue for such measures because they believe they would generate economic growth; some for moral and ideological reasons.

Other Tories consider addressing poverty and reducing inequality as the Conservative Party’s primary goal, echoing Disraeli’s description of Victorian England as consisting of

“Two Nations ... as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets”. A number of Tory MPs in the formerly Labour-held “red wall” seats are committed to improving the lot of their constituents, partly for moral reasons and partly out of self-interest, hoping for re-election.

But these two camps are fundamentally incompatible, and pleasing the one inevitably means displeasing the other. Such coalitions are not unusual in Tory history, but holding them together requires inspired leadership. At their prime, Margaret Thatcher and Boris Johnson both had it. It is possible to see in these two tendencies the two balancing strains present in Catholic Social Teaching: one that emphasises solidarity and one that emphasises subsidiarity. Each on its own leads to unsatisfactory outcomes. The secret of success lies in managing both at once. Greater than both are the paramount principles of serving the common good and upholding personal dignity. What is lacking from Sunak’s political presentation is any sense of a wider philosophical vision – of what a good society looks like and how it can resolve conflicts of interest by finding shared ground. Instead he seems to be presenting himself as who he is not: not Boris Johnson, not Liz Truss, not Theresa May and not Sir Keir Starmer; and illustrating this by lists of things he is not going to do in government. It is the ultimate via negativa approach to politics.


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