What should ecumenical unity look like?

57f68a4ch-300id-15198m-fillw-540Last the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, meets Pope Francis in Rome, their third meeting since taking office. There was a time when such meeting at all, let alone with this frequency, would have been considered unthinkable, and this meeting will celebrate the first meeting of an Archbishop of Canterbury with the Pope since the Reformation—that of Michael Ramsey and Paul VI in 1966. It was a time of historic change in the Church of Rome, following the Second Vatican Council ( or Vatican II, held between 1962 and 1965) which introduced major changes in Catholic practice, including saying Mass in indigenous languages around the world. It was hoped that further changes might follow, including perhaps a review of the understanding of priesthood and whether that could be opened to married men and even, in due course, women, but more conservative popes (including John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who were both part of Vatican II) put paid to such hope.

The thawing of relations between Rome and Canterbury was of historic significance, and led to the founding of the Anglican College in Rome, as a permanent Anglican presence in proximity to the Vatican, as well as the series of meetings known as the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), now in its third phase. Some of the early statements signalled important clarifications of shared understanding of salvation and the church, the meaning of Holy Communion, and the nature of ordained ministry. But there was always some ambiguity about the extent to which both parties involved really represented the positions of their respected churches, and several clarifications were issued following a number of reports. As part of the discussion of papal authority in ARCIC II, the late Ian Cundey, then Bishop of Peterborough, suggested that Anglicans did not, in principle, have difficulty with the idea of a pope. This provoked a robust response from the Bishop of Woolwich, Colin Buchanan, who published a Grove booklet pointing out that this was very far from the case.

Despite the thawing of relations, and the considerable energy invested in these talks over the years, significant differences remain—which some would call ‘fundamental.’ The root of these is the Catholic conviction that the teaching position of the Church has equal authority with the teaching of the canonical Scriptures, something which the historic position of the Church of England (expressed in the XXXIX Articles) vociferously rejects. Differences in ministry centre around the meaning of Holy Communion, which in the Catholic liturgy is clearly referred to as a ‘sacrifice’ (‘May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands, for our sake and the sake of all the Church), language that, even with some ambiguity around the edges, the Church of England carefully avoids. And this implies significant differences in understandings of ministry, both in terms of its purpose and focus and who is eligible to be ordained. One of the arguments in the Church of England in relation to the ordination of women was that it would put us further away from the possibility of unity with Rome.

One of the curious dynamics here is that, whilst Rome refuses formally to recognise the ministry of the Church of England, the same is not true in reverse. I was brought up Roman Catholic (by my Irish mother) and so was baptised, received First Holy Communion and was confirmed all within the Catholic church. Since the Church of England recognises Catholic ministry, when I came to be ordained in the Church of England, I simply need to be ‘welcomed’ by my vicar; my baptism and confirmation were accepted—indeed, some Anglo-Catholics seemed rather jealous of the ‘true’ rites that had been administered to me! In 1896, the papal bull Apostolicae Curae stated forcefully why Anglican orders of ministry (and so their sacraments) are null and void. At its anniversary, in 1996, many hoped that Pope Benedict would repeal this—but in fact he reiterated it as formal teaching of the Catholic Church. Strictly speaking, Pope Francis was last week just meeting some chap called Justin.

If relationships are so cordial, whilst being formally rather cool, it is worth asking whether institutional unity is actually that important?

This is not just a question for churches; it also applies to political parties and other institutions. Political historian Dr Robert Crowcroft of Edinburgh University comments in relation to divisions within the Labour party:

…”unity” is not a good in itself, and to call for it is little more than tribalism of the most unthinking sort. Patriots should not “unite” with people who back Britain’s enemies abroad and who pursue a style of politics at home that is little more than malice in the guise of virtue.

Crowcroft believes that, if there are irreconcilable differences, then the honest thing to do is to split, rather than imposing unity and being caught up in a ‘pathological, increasingly pathetic, fixation with “betrayal”. In anticipation of last week’s meeting, Adrian Hilton carries this proposal over into the question of relations between Canterbury and Rome:

Is spiritual division necessarily wrong when it concerns what might be termed the “betrayal” of eternal salvation? If one Christian preaches the sufficiency of Christ crucified once and for all, while another preaches Christ and him crucified over and over again, is such hinished, surely our worship is enlarged and amplified by the conscience-affirming voice of Jesus which speaks of love with truth, and of truth with mercy? Love and mercy may ignite candles of peace, but what manner of peace is it without a thirst for truth?

The church is not a political party, and so the argument does not carry over perfectly. But a recent paper from the Church of England’s Faith and Order Commission (FAOC) makes some observations about disagreement which are pertinent. It quotes from a World Council of Churches report that articulates different forms that ‘unity’ can take, and these include:

communion in the fullness of apostolic faith; in sacramental life; in a truly one and mutually recognized ministry; in structures of conciliar relations and decision-making; and in common witness and service in the world.

Commenting on unity within the Church of England, FAOC notes:

The sequence should not be read hierarchically, as if composed in descending order of significance. Witness and service in a particular place in the world has shaped and indeed defined the Church of England and the way that it has lived communion in Christ. The strength of commitment here has been another crucial factor alongside common forms of worship in forming the distinctive manner in which the Church of England has held diversity in unity and pluriformity in unanimity.

But the same applies to relations with other denominations. It is perfectly possible for Anglicans and Roman Catholics (along with Christians from other denominations) to express ‘common witness and service in the world’ without any formal agreements—and many would argue that this is the most important form of Christian unity, and contributes much more than decades of debate about doctrinal difference in the form of ARCIC.

And perhaps, as Hilton comments, it is rather important to be honest about our differences rather than try and cover them over. The constant refrain is a text that Hilton, too, cites, from John 17.21: ‘…that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.’ But this is only the second half of Jesus’ prayer, and his central request to his Father comes in verse 17: ‘Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.’ In the long term, complete unity will only come by means of agreement on the truth. But in the meantime, good relations and shared actions testify to the truth of God’s grace more than any form of institutional unification.

In the light of all this, I think the joint statement issue by Archbishop Justin and Pope Francis makes fascinating reading, and includes some impressive observations. Firstly, the opening emphasis is on faithful witness, highlighting the fact that unity is not an end in itself. Secondly, it is very clear that unity is tied to truth, and that there are a range of issues on which the churches do not agree. ‘Behind these differences lies a perennial question about how authority is exercised in the Christian community.’ Thirdly, it recognises that, whilst formal relations are some way apart, personal and practical working together can have a powerful effect and contribute to the effectiveness of mission.

Wider and deeper than our differences are the faith that we share and our common joy in the Gospel. Christ prayed that his disciples may all be one, “so that the world might believe” (John 17: 21). The longing for unity that we express in this Common Declaration is closely tied to the desire we share that men and women come to believe that God sent his Son, Jesus, into the world to save the world from the evil that oppresses and diminishes the entire creation. Jesus gave his life in love, and rising from the dead overcame even death itself. Christians who have come to this faith, have encountered Jesus and the victory of his love in their own lives, and are impelled to share the joy of this Good News with others. Our ability to come together in praise and prayer to God and witness to the world rests on the confidence that we share a common faith and a substantial measure of agreement in faith.

My hope is that the meeting of the two leaders will encourage this kind of mutual respect and shared action by local churches and Christians of each denomination around the country—which will have made it a worthwhile meeting.

(An earlier version of this post was published last week on Premier Christianity’s blog.)

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13 thoughts on “What should ecumenical unity look like?”

  1. I really don’t want to turn this thread into another sexuality debate, but… I was intrigued by Welby’s claim that one of the areas in which our churches differ in their teaching is in sexuality (alongside women’s ministry) – what is he referring to here do you think, since as far as I am aware Anglican and Catholic teaching on sexuality is currently in its essentials identical? Or have I missed something?

    On the main point: I think there is strength in unity (including institutional and doctrinal unity) and it is desirable – I wouldn’t, for example, want to see the Church of England or the Anglican Communion split – but I don’t think it is essential, especially where truth it at stake. It comes back to the ancient question: is schism worse than heresy?

  2. Very minor correction – Catholics accept Anglican sacraments when those sacraments are ones which can be performed by a lay person. As in the Anglican church, baptism can be performed by a lay person in emergencies therefore Catholics accept Anglican baptisms (or rather view them as valid Catholic baptisms). In fact, the only time they distinguish is to discriminate against Catholic baptisms; to become a priest in the ordinariate you’re supposed to have been baptised in a non-Catholic church (although the rule appears to be waived whenever it comes up)

  3. “It was a time of historic change in the Church of Rome, following the Second Vatican Council ( or Vatican II, held between 1962 and 1965) which introduced major changes in Catholic practice, including saying Mass in indigenous languages around the world. It was hoped that further changes might follow, including perhaps a review of the understanding of priesthood and whether that could be opened to married men and even, in due course, women, but more conservative popes (including John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who were both part of Vatican II) put paid to such hope.”

    Three points
    Well, you could start off by using the term that ‘the Catholic Church’ uses to describe itself: the Catholic Church. That would be a good start if you want to practise ecumenism. Catholics always refer to the Church of England, never ‘the Church of Canterbury’ or any such nonsense. ‘Church of Rome’ is, quite honestly, a throwback to the pre-ecumenism days.

    It is a total myth that the Second Vatican Council authorised the use of the vernacular in the entire liturgy of the Mass. On the contrary, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy said that the language of the Mass should remain predominantly in Latin. Have a read of the actual document.

    Nor was there anything in any Council document which ‘hoped for further changes’, especially those which you assert. Certainly there have been, and are, people who have called for such changes but they do so on their own authority, not that of the Council. Moreover, they are a small minority within the Church.

  4. Thank you for this. I was hoping that ++Justin and Pope Francis’ meeting would prompt a post on Anglican and Roman Catholic relationships.
    I agree that institutional unity is less important than “common witness and service…” I would make a distinction between witness and service though. We can serve together with those with whom we disagree, (that includes those of other faiths as well as other churches) – community service and speaking out for justice is, of course, good. However, we witness to the truth, and when we have significant disagreements (about, for example, justification as well as about authority of the Church, priesthood etc) that is surely a problem? Your pointer to Jn 17:17 is important.

  5. Something went wrong in transcribing your Adrian Hilton quotation (‘hinished’ looks a lovely word, but I cannot discover it exists, and it was not in any case used by him)!

    In the first part of it, it is unclear to me what he means by “one [and “another”] Christian preaches”. Does he mean someone in Holy Orders (and licenced to preach)? Does he conceive of them preaching in accordance with formally promulgated teachings of their Churches? I know of no Church which affirms “Christ and him crucified over and over again”. (There is a striking poem by Edith Sitwell (an Anglican) called ‘Still Falls the Rain’ which may be relevant here, yet that is quite a different matter than someone in Orders formally preaching.)

    Your speaking of “the Catholic conviction that the teaching position of the Church has equal authority with the teaching of the canonical Scriptures” – which I understand to mean ‘can be authoritatively exegetical’ – reminds me of a bit of Richard Hooker’s maginalia (c. 1599): “Two things there are which trouble greatly these later times: one that the Church of Rome cannot, another that Geneva will not erre.” Such humbly disclaimed but de facto enforced authority seems no exclusively Genevan problem in these days.

  6. Thank you for writing this piece. My only comment is that we must never underestimate the power of personal relationships; Pope Francis and the Anglican bishop Greg Venables developed a very strong and warm spiritual friendship in Argentina when the Pope was the Cardinal Archbishop.

    By the way, it’s the Anglican Centre in Rome not the Anglican College (and the English College is something else entirely).

  7. On a point of fact, the meeting between Michael Ramsey and Paul VI was the first official public meeting. Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher had already had a private but publicised visit in 1960 that was the first since the Reformation.

  8. Hello,

    two little things: first, picking up on Adrian Hilton’s comment – who is preaching “Christ and him crucified over and over again”? Perhaps I’ve missed something (wouldn’t be the first time…) and granted, I may be asking the question on the wrong blog…

    Secondly: Will, you say that “as far as I am aware Anglican and Catholic teaching on sexuality is currently in its essentials identical” but (and this is only guesswork) perhaps Justin Welby was thinking of the differences in teaching on contraception? And/or the fact that (following 1991’s ‘Issues…’) the C of E allows lay people conscientiously to enter same-sex relationships, which the Catholic Church officially does not?

    in friendship, Blair

  9. Yes, that meeting Doug Chaplin describes between Fisher and John xxiii was hugely significant and much overlooked.
    There was a moment in the conversation when Pope John said he anticipated a time when Anglicans would “return” … only to find Fisher interjecting that there would be no return as the two Churches were on a parallel course and most likely would meet up at some time in the future, good Pope John graciously concurred.
    And as Tony Roake points out it is the Anglican Centre in Rome which is housed in a wonderful palace by the grace and favour of Prince Jonathan Doria Pamphilj and his husband and children. So gracious of them not to take umbrage at the machinations of those Anglicans who would like to see their family pulled apart and the parents in prison ….. Amazing really!

  10. Martin Reynolds,

    Thank you for drawing to our attention the complicated situation of the Palazzo Doria-Pamphili and the House of Doria-Pamphili-Landi. In a very interesting 2009 BBC article by David Willey, in which he speaks as someone knowing both Gesine Margaret Orietta Mary Pogson Doria Pamphilj and Jonathan Doria Pamphilj well and having formerly been “one of 250 tenants in their sprawling [1000-room]16th-Century palace,”, he notes, “Same-sex marriages are not recognised in Italy, which is why he [Jonathan] chose to register a civil partnership in the UK.” At that time, Gesine had attempted to clarify matters legally as (in her words), “He failed to realise that, under current Italian law, if you are a sperm donor, you cannot claim parentage. Only the mother who actually gives birth to a child has the right – and the obligation – to look after that child.” An unsigned 2010 article in the Sydney Morning Herald (apparently copied from the Telegraph in London) says, “The children were born to American and Ukrainian surrogate mothers through IVF, using the prince’s sperm and the eggs of two other women” and that “Under Italian law, mothers cannot waive their rights to caring for the children they gave birth to, even if it was through artificial insemination.” It also reports, “a tribunal in Rome ruled that the princess had no right to bring the case to court.” The “Doria-Pamphili-Landi” Wikipedia article which links both articles as sources, gives no more recent information. The Wikipedia article, “Recognition of same-sex unions in Italy”, says that the law which went into effect this past 5 June “provides same-sex couples with most of the rights of marriage except parenting (stepchild or joint adoption) and reproductive rights (IVF for lesbian couples).”

    So, in any case, it seems clear under Italian law that Elson Edeno Braga is not Jonathan Doria Pamphilj’s “husband”, and possible that the two children may legally be the children of their American and Ukrainian surrogate mothers, and not their sperm-providing biological father (none of these sources address the possible Italian legal status of their egg-providing biological mothers explicitly). I am not sure where, if anywhere at present, the procuring of eggs and implanting the embryonic babies in ‘surrogates’ and then taking charge of those children after their birth might possibly land
    Jonathan Doria Pamphilj (and Elson Edeno Braga?) in prison, but if there is such a place, I don’t think any notional “machinations” of “Anglicans” would be likely to be a factor.

    • Thank you David, they are a lovely and loving family who have resisted pressure from their friends to evict the Anglicans and continue to show exception grace despite the often vile and deeply offensive remarks levelled at them by Members of that faith.
      I find myself humbled by their condescension, always speaking well of others, quite Extraordinary don’t you agree David, an example, wouldn’t you say?

  11. Martin Reynolds,

    At the time he wrote, David Willey said, “I understand they are no longer on speaking terms because of the inheritance dispute”, but also noted that “Gesine chose to bring up her own family in a country house in the mountains south of Rome, not in the imposing Doria Pamphilj palace, where she retains a suite of rooms but only comes to visit at weekends.

    “Jonathan, on the other hand, lives in the palace in his own apartment and administers the family’s real estate from an office in another part of the palace complex which occupies a whole city block.” He does not say anything about Gesine Margaret Orietta Mary Pogson Doria Pamphilj having ceded all responsibility as to who is or is not a tenant or otherwise occupant of the palace to her brother in the course of his administering the family’s real estate, or not. As this is about all I have read about the situation, it is not clear to me what would be involved in evicting or not evicting, or having invited or admitted the Anglican Centre to what its website describes only as a “space” which is “a continuing, much appreciated gift from the Doria Pamphilji family.” In celebrating its fiftieth anniversary the Centre itself would date to the time of Orietta Doria-Pamphili-Landi and Frank George Wignall Pogson Doria Pamphilj, but the website is either chary of detailed information, or I inept at discovering it there.

    It seems clear that Jonathan Doria Pamphilj has created an extraordinary situation for his children in general and in terms of Italian law specifically and hope his love for them with respect to their biological mothers and the women who bore them is equally extraordinary in its generosity.

  12. David, it might seem that your posts are somewhat gossipy and a not a little churlish. If I were Prince Jonathan reading your posts, and he has the control of the estate, then I might reconsider my generosity, a word that takes on a new, unpleasant meaning at your hand.

    Still, the children’s status seems settled since 2010 and Jonathan has always had the resort of adopting them if there were problems of inheritance.

    Chris and I raised children and we faced legal hurdles too and despite the encouragement and love of their birth parents, Christians seemed to think our family was something to traduce. We received the most vile letters from our coreligionists.
    This spirit, as I said, doesn’t seem to have died. This is why I am extrolling Prince Jonathan’s hospitality ….. Another word you may now transform into something dark? … Perhaps you think that this hospitality should be rejected and the Anglican Communion reject the continued gift ?


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