Did the Anglicans and Roman Catholics Agree on the Eucharist?

A Revisit of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission's Agreed Statements of 1971 and Related Documents

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Colin Buchanan
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Pickwick Publications
    , November
     226 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


It is not uncommon for people to use the term “ecumenical winter” to describe the current dynamics of relationships between Christian churches. The energy and creativity of the mid-20th century ecumenical movement—which produced the World Council of Churches, the ecumenism of Vatican II, and countless bilateral dialogues—has largely abated in recent years. While this is a cause of discouragement to many Christians, it also offers a time to pause and reflect on what the ecumenical movement has achieved—and to assess what those achievements do, and do not, mean.

One contribution to such reflection is Colin Buchanan’s recent book, Did the Anglicans and Roman Catholics Agree on the Eucharist? A Revisit of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission’s Agreed Statements of 1971 and Related Documents. Buchanan, former Bishop of Aston and later of Woolwich in the Church of England, has a long history of official involvement in matters of ecumenism, doctrine, and liturgy. While not a member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) that produced the Agreed Statement on Eucharistic Doctrine, he was associated with some members, and watched the process and its aftermath closely from the sidelines. 

As he notes in the introduction, Buchanan’s study focuses entirely on the ecumenical question of Eucharistic theology, as treated officially in Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue of recent decades. Other histories, documents, and themes only come up as they relate to the book’s main subject. However, Buchanan also highlights some aspects that are surprisingly absent from the some of the ecumenical discussions and documents, such as the role of liturgical texts in explicating doctrine, and the full breadth of theological diversity within the Anglican tradition. Buchanan notes, correctly, that Anglicans who engage in dialogue with Roman Catholics tend to come from a high church background, and therefore have more natural affinities with their interlocutors—including on sacramental theology—than do Anglicans from the more Protestant or evangelical end of the spectrum.

This book tells a story—the story of the differences in sacramental theology that, in part, divided the Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions at the Reformation; the warming relations between the two churches after Vatican II; the hard work of ARCIC in producing and revising theological statements which both sides could endorse; the processes of reception in each communion; and the seemingly unfinished business that casts the whole process in doubt. Buchanan chronicles how ARCIC’s 1971 Agreed Statement on Eucharistic Doctrine, along with its 1979 Elucidations, were accepted by the 1988 Lambeth Conference as “consonant in substance with the faith of Anglicans” (73), yet received a less than warm reception by the Vatican in 1991. A second ARCIC group responded with Clarifications in 1994, interpreting the Agreed Statement (and historic Anglican liturgies) in accordance with classical Roman Catholic sacramental theology. Cardinal Edward Cassidy, of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, accepted the Clarificationsas sufficient, but no further official action was taken on either side. Since the Anglican Communion neither studied nor endorsed the Clarifications, Buchanan argues that both churches have effectively “agreed” to separate documents.

Buchanan thus concludes, in answer to the book title’s question, that “not only did they not agree, but it is doubtful whether they knew they had not agreed” (152). Such a surprising—and dismal—interpretation is further evidenced by virtual silence on the question of Eucharistic doctrine in the work of ARCIC, and other ecumenical bodies, since the 1990s. It is as if the matter is assumed to be settled by ecumenists, even though the official actions of the two churches never completed the process.

Buchanan’s point, however, is not to be negative for its own sake, nor to criticize ecumenism as such. His concern is quite simply to aid in accurately understanding what did and did not occur in the ARCIC process on the Eucharist. In doing so, he raises a number of important issues. First, there are historical and interpretive questions—such as whether ARCIC and others have interpreted historical texts correctly, especially Anglican liturgical texts from the Reformation. Secondly, there are questions into the ecumenical process: why did the Anglican Communion virtually ignore the 1994 Clarifications?; what status does the original Agreed Statement have?;  and what does official agreement between these two churches even look like? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Buchanan raises some deeper questions about the modern approach to ecumenism as seeking consensus on disputed topics. Do such “agreed statements” attempt to accomplish too much? Have we come into an “ecumenical winter” precisely in that, given an overly ambitious project, the movement simply burned out? What then might intra-Christian ecumenism look like in the future?

The book is very readable for anyone with basic theological vocabulary, and the chronological approach is easy to follow. Buchanan helpfully includes all relevant documents within the body of the text, which makes his argument quite persuasive. My only—admittedly pedantic—criticism is that Buchanan’s evangelical background leads him to take a somewhat minimalistic reading of historic Anglican documents, especially liturgical texts. He criticizes both high church Anglicans and Roman Catholics for trying to read too much into such texts, but it is my judgment that Buchanan often reads too little into them, and likewise, ignores some historical nuance on how they were interpreted and even revised by post-Reformation Anglicans. Though, his point—that any genuine agreement between Anglicans and Roman Catholics must include evangelical Anglicans like himself—stands.

Did the Anglicans and Roman Catholics Agree? is a valuable contribution towards understanding the current state of the ecumenical movement, both as it pertains to Anglican-Roman Catholic relations, and more broadly. As such, it should be of interest to theologians, ecumenists, historians, church leaders, and even laypeople who wish to make sense of—and learn from—this notable episode in the recent history of Christian ecumenism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew Kemp is a doctoral candidate in Theology and Ethics at Loyola University of Chicago.

Date of Review: 
May 9, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Colin Buchanan, born in 1934, trained Anglican ordinands at St. John’s College, Nottingham, until becoming Bishop of Aston in 1985, and Bishop of Woolwich in 1996. In General Synod, he served successively on the Liturgical Commission, Doctrine Commission, and Council for Christian Unity.


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