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.