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Tomorrow sees the re-convening of bishops in Rome to consider marriage, divorce and sexuality. Last year’s meeting brought bitter disagreements out into the open and the rows have continued to simmer ever since
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After his visit to Rome, the Archbishop of Canterbury tells Christopher Lamb where he finds the most important points of unity between the Catholic and Anglican Churches
One is an Argentine son of Italian immigrants, the other an Old Etonian whose mother worked for Sir Winston Churchill.
Yet despite coming from opposite ends of the earth – both literally and metaphorically – Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury have some uncanny similarities.
The two leaders of Christianity’s largest global communions were both considered outsiders when chosen for their roles, both took up their positions within a week of each other and both are renowned for their no-nonsense, down-to-earth style.
If their immediate predecessors, Benedict XVI and Lord Williams of Oystermouth, had a love of the early Church Fathers in common, with Lord Williams able to read Benedict’s theology in the original German, Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby have decided to roll up their sleeves and put the Gospel into action.
During his two-day visit to Rome on Sunday and Monday, the archbishop’s jam-packed itinerary certainly chimed with Pope Francis’ call for pastors to be familiar with the “smell of the sheep”.
This included going to a street shelter project run by the community of Sant’Egidio, meeting a victim of human trafficking and a trip to a refugee project at the Anglican church, St Paul’s-Within-the-Walls.
Combating human trafficking was a major theme of the visit and one of the first items on Archbishop Welby’s agenda was a meeting with the Global Freedom Network at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. The initiative, founded by the Australian philanthropist Andrew Forrest, hopes to eradicate modern- day slavery by 2020.
But does this focus on joint action now take precedence over the two Churches seeking full, ecclesial unity by solving doctrinal disagreements?
“No,” the archbishop says when we meet at the “ceremoniale” in Rome’s Fiumicino airport, the executive lounge for visiting dignitaries, before he catches his plane back to London.
“I think we’re layering one thing on top of the other. There’s a very good theological foundation and there’s now joint action around what the Holy Father described as the three Ps: prayer, peace and poverty.”
He describes his meeting with the Pope, which included a 40-minute private discussion with just a translator present besides the two church leaders, as “a real engagement of love and not just a business connection”.
The archbishop is wearing the episcopal ring of Pope Paul VI given to Archbishop Michael Ramsey following their meeting in 1966 and which is now worn by Archbishops of Canterbury when they come to Rome. As someone who loves history, Archbishop Welby looks back and points to a “renewal in the relationship” between Catholics and Anglicans that started more than 50 years ago with the 1960 meeting between Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher and Pope, now Saint, John XXIII.
A few years later the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (Arcic) was established whose work Archbishop Welby enthusiastically describes as a “profound theological exploration” that has made “huge progress”. This dialogue has sought to overcome differences between the communions but hit the buffers due to the ordination of women bishops and different approaches to homosexuality. Relations were further strained by the creation of personal ordinariates for groups of Anglicans who wanted to become Roman Catholics, a move about which Lord Williams expressed concern to Pope Benedict XVI. Nevertheless, in 2011, a new phase of Arcic began.
At a reception at the Anglican Centre in Rome on Sunday night, Archbishop Welby launched a new online resource for relations between the Churches, www.iarccum.org, which stands for the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission (Iarccum, founded in 2000) that works alongside Arcic.
The impression, however, is that the archbishop’s passion is for action rather than theological dialogue. Like Pope Francis, and unlike his predecessor Lord Williams, Archbishop Welby is not a professional theologian. (He spent years working in the oil industry before becoming a late entrant to the priesthood; Pope Francis was the Jesuit provincial in Argentina before being appointed a bishop more than a decade later.) And at the launch of the website when speeches explaining the work of Arcic and Iarccum went on over their allotted time, the archbishop moved to wrap up proceedings pointing out to the gathering that it had been a very long day.
When it comes to resolving differences between Anglicans and Catholics, Archbishop Welby is realistic. Next month at the General Synod, the Church of England is likely to vote for legislation allowing women bishops, already permitted in other parts of the Anglican Communion.
Bishop Brian Farrell, the secretary at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said in an interview earlier this year that such a move “weakens” the special relationship that exists between Anglicans and Catholics. Archbishop Welby acknowledges the problem.
“I am very conscious that this is something we have to deal with,” the archbishop tells me. “This is a difficulty but a difficulty that we can handle in the context of a good relationship rather than a pit into which we [are likely to] fall.”
His meeting with the Pope on Monday was the second they have had within 18 months and was described by the archbishop as “very, very honest”.
“The discussion was much more transparent, real about the issues we face, honest about where we go with them.”
Away from doctrinal questions, a pressing matter for both Churches is evangelisation. Accompanying Archbishop Welby when he met the Pope was the Revd Nicky Gumbel, the pioneer of the Alpha Course. The course is an introduction to Christianity which has been adopted enthusiastically in a number of Catholic countries. Archbishop Welby and Mr Gumbel are old friends and the archbishop has close connections with Holy Trinity Brompton church in South Kensington, west London, the home of Alpha.
The archbishop said that the course is now used in more Catholic churches than Anglican ones, a fact that I confirm with Mr Gumbel.
“Every now and then I just like to remind people that it started in the Church of England,” he said, adding that he recently had to convince a French Catholic friend that the course had not originated in France.
“We [Catholics and Anglicans] are working additionally on evangelisation, and that illustrates the breadth of the relationship. The Catholic Church is much bigger than we are and far more widely extended, but we also bring something to the relationship. Alpha is a gift of the spirit to the Church of the world, not merely to the Anglican Communion, let alone the Church of England.”
Receiving from one another’s traditions – described as “receptive ecumenism” – appears to be another way forward for relations. During the visit, the archbishop referred to his appreciation of Benedictine spirituality (he is an oblate of the Anglican Elmore Abbey, Berkshire) and based one of the sermons during his visit on the concept of stability found in the Rule of St Benedict.
He is also influenced by Ignatian spirituality, a driving force for Chemin Neuf, a French Catholic community with an ecumenical vocation. Members of Chemin Neuf recently took up residence at Lambeth Palace, the archbishop’s London headquarters, and during his visit to Rome he met with members of the community.
The charismatic prayer tradition – which spans the denominations and is the umbrella under which Alpha sits – could also be a point of unity between the Pope and the archbishop.
Francis recently became the first Pope to attend a charismatic renewal prayer gathering at Rome’s Olympic Stadium.
“The Pope is clearly charismatic in that one sees the work of the spirit through his ministry and life,” the archbishop says, but stresses the word “charismatic” is a loose term. “I am not ‘naff’ enough to confine how we define charismatic theologically to someone who speaks in tongues and holds their arms up, when you have to say ‘hands down’ [rather than ‘hands up’] to those who are having tea,” he says.
Archbishop Welby has a direct style, perhaps resulting from his time in the corporate world as an oil company executive.
He likes to list the areas of joint cooperation between Catholics and Anglicans, which along with human trafficking now include trying to build peace in areas such as South Sudan. And he hints that new initiatives are on the way. “There are things being discussed, and I’m not going any further than that,” he says, cryptically.
Behind his direct style, however, is a man of emotion. He describes his audience with the Pope as “very moving” and that “it’s genuinely one of the great privileges of my life to have met him”. At this point he pauses, remains silent and appears somewhat overcome by the emotion of the last few hours.
Corporate unity between Catholics and Anglicans may still be an increasingly distant prospect. Nevertheless, their respective leaders appear intent on forging a new friendship, which is already bearing fruit.