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When Pope Francis Met Archbishop Welby

When Pope Francis Met Archbishop Welby AFP PHOTO POOL ALESSANDRA TARANTINO


Alistair Macdonald-Radcliff - published on 07/05/14

Welby and Francis share a “down-to-earth directness” in seeking to make the church a more effective evangelizer.

One of the less predictable events arranged during the recent meeting of His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and His Holiness, Pope Francis, was the Archbishop’s meeting with the Vatican’s cricket team which has challenged the Church of England to a match in Canterbury next September. It was pointed out that this would be the first such match in 600 years.

It is certainly striking that the Vatican has now taken up this very British game, whose international reach largely coincides with that of the wider global Anglican Communion. Sadly, neither the Pope nor the Archbishop apparently intends to lead their own team onto the field — even though the Pope would surely have had a head start when it comes to wearing the traditional cricketer’s white. Anglicans and their clergy, it must be said, have tended to be rather good at cricket, perhaps because the game is a slow one with genteel pauses for lunch and tea, though this leisurely pace does allow much room for the strategies of stealth to which clergy are so inclined.

But cricket is not the only borrowing going on from the Anglican world it seems, as among the Archbishop’s delegation was the Revd. Nicky Gumble the lead proponent of the Alpha Course, which originated in the Anglican church of Holy Trinity Brompton London. He made the point that such is the movement’s success in other denominations that more Catholic churches run the program than Anglican ones and many now even assume that it was invented by the Roman Catholic Church in France. This reference, in turn reminds that Archbishop Welby has invited members of Chemin Neuf, a French Catholic community with an ecumenical vocation, to live at Lambeth Palace his residence in London, while His Grace is further said to be much informed by Ignatian spirituality and to have a Benedictine spiritual director.

In addition, both Archbishop Welby and Pope Francis are thought to share a “down-to-earth directness” in seeking to make the church more effective and to promote evangelism. Neither one is primarly a theologian and they even came into office within the same week not much more than a year ago. Accordingly, it is no surprise that they seem to get on well. They were able to unite in giving joint backing to a highly practical initiative aiming to combat modern slavery and human trafficking, a form of injustice which is thought to affect up to 29 million people. The formal agreement had been previously co-signed on March 17th by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Representative to the Holy See, Archbishop Sir David Moxon; the Chancellor of the Pontifical Academies of Science and Social Science, Bishop Sanchez Sorondo and Dr. Mahmoud Azab on behalf of the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Egypt.

This initiative reflects a desire to demonstrate the positive role in building bridges that multi-faith engagement can have in tackling shared issues of practical concern. While there is some added interest here, in the fact that the Pope chose to launch this work through his own personal “think tank” of a Pontifical Academy rather than through the Pontifical Council for Interfaith Dialogue. This working around rather than through the curia has prompted some to wonder if this reflects a certain impatience with the historic structures of Rome. If so, this could prove a harbinger of truly radical upheavals ahead inside the Vatican’s walls.

Yet, aside from all the welcome amity, there are some very large issues involved in the relationship between Rome and Canterbury. In historical terms there has been a really sensationally fast rapprochement, when it is recalled that the first ever visit of an Archbishop of Canterbury to Rome since the Reformation only took place in 1960, when Dr. Geoffrey Fisher visited Pope John XXIII. The Pope was said then to have asked the Archbishop when the Anglicans would “return” to the Catholic fold, to which Archbishop Fisher replied: “It is not a question of returning, but going forward together,” a turn of phrase which has well captured the spirit of subsequent relations. These were further cemented in 1966 by the visit of Dr. Michael Ramsey to Paul VI when the Pope gave an episcopal ring to the Archbishop, which was worn again by Archbishop Welby for his visit to Rome this month.

Indeed the mutual meetings and visits have become relatively normal and have over the decades been accompanied by a complex parallel process of theological engagement, launched in 1967 as the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC). This did much to clarify past misunderstandings and to engage helpful new perspectives opened up by modern scholarship that addressed such major challenges from the time of the Reformation as justification by faith. Thus, Cardinal Walter Kasper (then retiring President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity) at a meeting of Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and Reformed churches in 2010, was reported to have found “not one single area of theology in which we do not have some measure of agreement.”

On the other hand, it has to be noted that the ARCIC process was suspended in 2003 by Pope John Paul II, when the American Episcopal Church consecrated as bishop Gene Robinson, who had left his wife to enter into a committed homosexual relationship. While a further and, in a sense, more institutional issue has caused a systematic problem. This is the ordination and consecration of women as priests and bishops (something long done in some parts of the Anglican Communion but only just about to be approved in respect of Episcopacy by the Church of England itself). In the words of Cardinal Kasper, again, this has “signified a breaking away from apostolic tradition and a further obstacle for reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Church of England.”

Given that such issues go to the heart of the ordering of the church and the theological legitimacy of its leadership, it is all the more striking that while “the goal of full unity may seem distant” Pope Francis nonetheless stated emphatically in his meeting with Archbishop Welby that, “it remains the aim which should direct our every step along the way.” This means that mere practical cooperation and good relations is not enough and so there is talk of receptive ecumenism as a way for substantive advance. Certainly the “tree planting” model of ecumenism will not suffice, but those fundamental shifts in total perspective that can sometimes overcome deep rooted structures of past division are not easily occasioned.

But at a time when Christianity in the West faces profound challenges from the forces of exclusionary secularism, and even other faiths, there is certainly a need to focus on fundamentals. To refashion the sharply practical language of Pope Francis: there is as much need for the church in all its forms and branches “to smell the coffee” as for its pastors (in the Pope’s phrase) “to know the smell of the sheep.”

The Rev. Canon Alistair Macdonald-Radcliff is Senior Advisor to the King Abdullah Bin Aziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue and Director General of the World Dialogue Council. He is based in the United Kingdom.

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