Catholics and Anglicans

4 October 2003 • Persistent link:

When Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher returned from his historic visit to Pope John XXIII in 1960 he reported that the Holy Father asked him when the Anglicans would come back to the Catholic Church. Fisher replied: ‘We cannot come back but we can go forward together.’ At the time this revelation stunned and excited both Anglicans and Catholics. It appeared to mark one the most hopeful moments in the 424 bitter years since Henry VIII broke with Rome and changed the ‘Church in England’ into ‘the Church of England’.

On reflection the comment raises more questions than it answers about the one Church that existed before the schism, and about the Churches that might be going ‘forward together’. If there is no going back to the oneness of the Church before 1534, in what sense will the Churches be one in the new togetherness?

A glance at the early Church in Britain, and a more detailed look at some of the various manoeuvrings toward going ‘forward together’ can give us a somewhat better understanding of the difficulties involved.

Previous Centuries

Though the precise origins of Christianity in the British Isles are difficult to pin down, it is certain that Christianity found root in Britain sometime during the Roman occupation (AD 43-400). When the legions were ordered back to Rome, they left a thriving faith among the native Celts. By 450, however, the pagan Saxons occupied England and drove the Christian Celts into Wales, Ireland and Brittany. This setback was partially rectified by Irish missionaries who soon began to re-build the faith among the British, moving down from Scotland into Northern England.

In 597 Pope Gregory the Great sent the monk Augustine to Canterbury and the evangelization of the Saxon tribes rapidly accelerated. The most serious test for the early British Church concerned the different monastic traditions and the contrasting Celtic and Roman dates for Easter. This was settled at the Synod of Whitby in 664, when King Oswy decided to follow Peter and adopted the Roman rule. By 885, when Pope Marinus sent a relic of the true Cross to King Alfred, the Church in England was firmly established and on its way to becoming one of the strongest and most faithful national churches in Europe.

The English kings were loyal Catholics and ironically, Henry VIII in the early years of his rule (1509-47) had the reputation of being a zealous supporter of papal orthodoxy. So important was his championing of Catholicism over Protestantism that Pope Leo X bestowed on him the title of Defensor Fidei (Defender of the Faith). But when the Pope refused to recognise Henry’s divorce the English king made himself head of the Church of England and required every bishop in the country to renounce the authority of the Pope. The state control of the Church begun by Henry was expanded and institutionalised by his daughter Elizabeth I (1558-1603). All connections with the papacy were severed, faithful English Catholics were barred from positions of influence and power, persecuted, and forced underground.

Despite these grim, largely successful attempts to extirpate Catholicism from English soil, the hope for some kind of accommodation with Rome persisted, even among those occupying the throne following Elizabeth’s death. James I (1603-25), son of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, was brought up by Scottish Presbyterians. Nevertheless, he acknowledged ‘the Roman church to be our mother church, although defiled with some infirmities and corruptions…I would with all my heart consent that the Bishop of Rome should have the first seat.’ The Stuart King Charles I (1625-49), whose queen was a Catholic, was very sympathetic to the Catholic cause. His son, Charles II (1660-85), secretly favored the old faith, and on his deathbed was received into the Catholic Church. His brother, James II (1685-88) was actually a Catholic. A monument to these ill-fated Stuart monarchs of England can be found in the North aisle of St Peter’s.

The English monarchs were not the only ones who wanted to ‘come home to Rome.’ In The Stripping of the Altars historian Eamon Duffy shows how the new Protestant religion had to be imposed on the people by force. The longings for reunion with Rome were powerless against the anti-Catholicism of the nation’s ruling Puritan reformers. Charles was beheaded, his son had to remain Protestant to keep his throne, and James II was driven from the throne in the ‘Glorious Revolution.’ As a result, England became ever more intensely a Protestant country, despite occasional expressions of interest in union with Peter’s Chair, even by archbishops of Canterbury.

In the eighteenth century a remarkable correspondence developed between Canterbury’s William Wake and French Catholic bishops, but England was far too anti-Papist for Wake’s overture to succeed. In the 19th Century John Henry Newman’s conversion brought scores of Anglicans into the Church, and for a time rekindled the dream of unity. An Anglican layman, Lord Halifax, hoping for a positive response, pressured for Rome to decide on the validity of Anglican orders but when Pope Leo XIII issued his motu proprio (Apostolicae Curae) in 1896 which declared Anglican orders invalid the prospects for reconciliation dimmed.

This Twentieth Century

About twenty years later Pope Benedict XV made a key move toward better relations. In 1915 he established a British Legation to the Vatican, headed by an Anglican layman, with a Catholic second in command. This was the first institutional contact with England for centuries and laid down the foundation for later developments.

Not daunted by Leo XIII’s negative appraisal, the elderly Lord Halifax went to Malines, Belgium, between 1922 and 1926 to talk with Catholics about reunion. Both Archbishop of Canterbury Randall Davidson and Popes Benedict XV and Pius XI (elected 1921) were informed of these ‘Malines Conversations’ and encouraged them. The dialogue progressed to the point where proposals were drafted for a formal council to consider reunion between Anglicanism and Catholicism. At that point, however, Archbishop Davidson got cold feet. English Catholics also were disturbed. Anglicans, they felt, always found it easier to talk to French and Belgian Catholics than to Catholics in their own country. Memories of mutual persecution were too long. The promise offered at Malines collapsed in 1925, after briefly stirring the centuries-old hope for a reconciliation between Rome and Canterbury.

During the 30s and 40s the Second World War presented far more pressing concerns for all of Europe, but in the latter years of Pius XII’s reign movement towards unity started again. Liturgical experts and bishops on both sides began to talk with one another. They instituted the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity still observed every year. In 1955 Anglican Bishop George Bell of Chichester visited Mgr. Montini–Archbishop of Milan. In 1956 Montini, later to be elected Pope Paul VI, received a delegation of four Anglican priests and a layman who stayed with him for ten days. This was an informal meeting, with Montini doing most of the listening. His English was good, and the delegation thought him not only urbane and educated, but genuinely interested in England and Anglicanism.

An ecumenical spirit filled the air in 1958 with the election of John XXIII, who set up the Secretariat for the Promotion of Unity among Christians in 1960. Anglicans were the first to respond positively. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, decided to visit the Pope. A rambunctious man in frock coat and gaiters, he was the churchman who crowned Queen Elizabeth II.

Forward from John XXIII

On 22 November 1960 Fisher, with his senior chaplain, Frederick Temple, and John Satterwaite, Secretary of the newly formed Church of England Council of Foreign Relations, went on an historic journey. At Jerusalem the Archbishop visited the Anglican cathedral and the holy sites, then continued on to Constantinople to meet the Orthodox patriarch. Fisher had informed the Vatican that on the way back from the Middle East he planned to call on the Pope himself. It would be the first visit of an Archbishop of Canterbury to the Pope since Thomas Arundel’s visit in 1397.

John XXIII’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Tardini, was unhappy with the proposed visit. He blacked out the media and tried to portray Archbishop Fisher’s historic visit as a private call. When Fisher landed in Rome he defied the ban on publicity, announcing to the press on arrival that he was indeed visiting as the Archbishop of Canterbury. The next day he gave a speech emphasizing that while the Church of England had a debt to Rome, the Christian Church must keep diversity within an informal unity. Though Fisher wanted to issue a joint statement, Cardinal Tardini refused. Fisher went ahead and wrote an Anglican statement instead.

So far the Anglicans had done all the running. By 10:30 a.m. on 2 December, Sir William Scarlett, the Queen’s diplomatic representative, still hadn’t won co-operation from the Vatican and Archbishop Fisher threatened to leave without seeing the Pope. Despite the problems, the redoubtable Fisher, clad in purple cassock and Canterbury cap, set out for the Vatican that morning. Only then did he and his party realize that they were being given special honors. The Swiss Guard was arrayed in full dress uniform, the red carpets were out, and he was received ceremoniously by the Chamberlain of Sword and Cape, who a fortnight earlier had welcomed the British Prime Minister.

Archbishop Fisher was alone with the Pope for almost an hour. They spoke of the relations of all the churches, the Pope grouped the Anglicans with other Protestants and the Archbishop suggested there was a difference. The Pope accepted special status for Anglicanism and said how delighted he was, as successor of Gregory the Great, to be meeting with the successor of Augustine of Canterbury. In his meditations he thought of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. At the end the gentle Pope asked the Archbishop when the Anglicans would come back, and Fisher made his now famous reply–that it was impossible to go back; instead ‘we must go forward together.’

Secretary of State Tardini still had his impact. There were no photographs to record the historic occasion and the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano gave the visit one condescending line: ‘Dr. Geoffrey Fisher had an audience with His Holiness.’ However, Pope John had insisted that Fisher should meet with Cardinal Bea–the new head of the Secretariat for Christian Unity. This meant an official channel of communication now existed, and Anglicans would eventually be invited as observers at the Second Vatican Council.

In 1963 John XXIII summed up the mood in the Church in his moto proprio, Superno De Nutu: ‘A new hope arises that those who rejoice in the name of Christians, but are nevertheless separated from this apostolic see, hearing the voice of the divine Shepherd, may be able to make their way into the one Church of Christ….to seek and to follow that unity which Jesus Christ implored from his Heavenly father with such fervent prayers.’

Archbishop Fisher was succeeded by a bishop who had been one of his students at secondary school many years before. Michael Ramsay had served in parish ministry and academia before becoming Bishop of Durham, then Archbishop of York, and finally Archbishop of Canterbury in 1961.

The Church of England has a tradition of letting Anglo-Catholic bishops take turns with low church bishops at Canterbury. Thus the high church Ramsay followed the Protestant Fisher. Yet Ramsay was less favorable towards Rome than Fisher had been. Fisher was a cheery optimist, Ramsay had no such enthusiasm. He disliked the Roman Church’s exclusiveness, her strict rules on remarriage and her insistence that converts had to be conditionally re-baptised. Furthermore, for a high churchman, a visit to Rome would be more risky. Protestant Anglicans would suspect ‘Roman Fever’ in him which they would never have suspected in the robustly low-church Fisher.

Two years after Ramsay went to Canterbury, Cardinal Montini became Pope Paul VI. Because of his visits with Bishop George Bell, Montini knew far more about Anglicanism than John XXIII. Vatican II had recognized a special place for Anglicanism and was open and encouraging to Anglicans. With Paul VI the question was not so much would Michael Ramsay visit the Vatican, but when.

The visit was set for the spring of 1966. On the eve of departure in England, Protestants marched. Ulster fundamentalist, Ian Paisley and a gang of Protestant thugs booked seats on Ramsay’s plane and tried to invade the Archbishop’s special quarters. At the airport the Italians put Archbishop Ramsay into a Mercedes which swept away to Rome while they didn’t allow Paisley out of the airport. Not to be daunted, Paisley and his crew got the publicity they craved by opening their jackets to reveal vests that said, ‘Ramsay a traitor to Protestant Britain.’

This time the Archbishop of Canterbury’s visit was official; he stayed as the Pope’s guest at the English College. Students crowded around the avuncular Archbishop with a warm welcome and offered the captain of their rugby team as a bodyguard against any further trouble from Paisley. The College of Cardinals gave Ramsay a reception in the Borgia Apartments. His appearance was described later: ‘He stood framed in the doorway in Anglican choir dress, buckled shoes, scarlet chimere, lawn rochet, velvet Canterbury cap and on his breast the jewelled crucifix given him by Patriarch Alexie. There was a gasp at his eccentric splendor and he was led to a chair on a dais to receive the members of the curia.’

On the morning of 23 March 1966 Ramsay met the Pope in the Sistine chapel. Paul described the bridge they were building as still rickety: ‘As you cross the threshold we want you especially to feel that you are not entering the house of a stranger but that this is your home, here you have a right to be.’ In their conversation they talked of spirituality and the opportunity to have common forms of prayer. Paul VI suggested the setting up of a joint commission of theologians to look at theological problems. Ramsay asked about the validity of Anglican orders. Paul said he was willing to reopen the subject. Ramsay’s personality and appearance was a genuine sensation.

The next day the Pope and Archbishop, at St. Paul’s Without the Walls, read a common declaration and said the blessing together. The two leaders then exited side by side. As a surprise gesture, the pope took off his episcopal ring of emeralds and diamonds–given to him when he was Archbishop of Milan, and gave it to Ramsay who put it on. Ramsay, who appeared genuinely surprised and close to tears, captured Rome’s heart. When Paul VI died in 1978, Ramsay, now retired, went to the funeral in a private capacity, with no VIP status. But Vatican officials recognized him and gave him the highest seat. He was seen to be wearing the famous episcopal ring.

In July 1975 a new Archbishop of Canterbury, the evangelical Donald Coggan, led the Church of England’s General Synod into a historic decision. They decided that, ‘there are no fundamental objections to women’s ordination.’ With breath-taking audacity they voted to inform the Catholics and Orthodox of their decision and ‘to invite those authorities to share in an urgent re-examination of the theological grounds for including women in the order of Priesthood.’ They made only a token gesture to consult with Rome or the Orthodox on the issue. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Secretary for Foreign Relations had gone to Rome to talk with Cardinal Willebrands–president of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. Rome was diplomatically negative. The Orthodox were negative without being diplomatic.

Despite the women’s ordination problem, the new ecumenism demanded that Archbishop Coggan pay a visit to the Pope. The visit was arranged for the spring of 1977. By this time, at age 79, Pope Paul was too ill for a long formal visit. Nevertheless, there was to be one public occasion with the Pope, a joint declaration and a private meeting with His Holiness. Like Ramsay before him, Coggan stayed at the English College where the rector was a young Cormac Murphy O’Connor (now the Archbishop of Westminster).

In their private conversation Pope Paul quoted from the Malines Conversations about the possibility of an Anglican church that was ‘united not absorbed.’ Knowing Coggan’s preference for Evangelical action, the Pope ended by stressing evangelism, ‘You yourselves, brethren, are concerned that the gospel should be translated into deeds, and renew its significance for a society of Christian tradition. As Pius XI put it, “The church civilizes by evangelizing” … it is equally our inspiration.’

It is sometimes said that Anglican Evangelicals do not so much disagree with Catholicism as that they do not really understand it. Despite his warm welcome, that afternoon at a service at the American Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Archbishop Coggan controversially called for inter-communion between Anglicans and Catholics. The reaction was harsh. Margaret Pawley, the wife of Bernard Pawley, a long-time Anglican observer at the Vatican, says Coggan was unprepared for the degree of shock that followed. This un-preparedness indicates that Coggan didn’t actually understand the principles behind the Catholic discipline of closed communion, and that his gaffe was more out of naiveté than an intention to offend.

A few months after his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1980, Robert Runcie bumped into the recently elected Pope John Paul II in Accra. Both church leaders were visiting Africa when Runcie’s assistants realised they would be in Accra at the same time as the Papal entourage. An informal meeting was hastily arranged at which Runcie informally invited the Pope to Britain. In Robert Runcie the Church of England was once more led by a churchman of the Anglo-Catholic wing. Runcie was an urbane and subtle Archbishop, managing to hold together an ever diffuse communion with a combination of wit, diplomacy, croney-ism and a large measure of shrewd fence-sitting.

Runcie met with the Pope a total of five times during his tenure at Canterbury. By far the most momentous event during this time was Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to Britain in 1982. The whole visit was a triumphant success, but the crowning moment was the Pope’s arrival in Canterbury cathedral. The crowded medieval cathedral erupted into spontaneous applause as Pope John Paul II, dressed in his simple white soutane, processed up the aisle with Runcie. In his 45 minute sermon John Paul said, ‘May the dialogue we have already begun lead us to the day of full restoration of unity in faith and love.’ During the service there was a celebration of the peace of Christ. After embracing Runcie, the Pope recognised retired Archbishops Coggan and Ramsay and came over to give Ramsay a huge bear hug. The crowd roared their approval. As part of the historic service the Pope and Runcie signed a joint declaration, and prayed at the site of Thomas a Becket’s martyrdom.

Runcie’s relationship with the Vatican was an important one. Like his more Catholic predecessor Ramsay, he understood Catholicism and therefore understood the strains and the possibilities of ecumenism. As a sign of continuity with Ramsay, Runcie wore the episcopal ring which Paul VI had given Ramsay, and which Ramsay’s widow had passed on to Runcie.

In his most important formal visit to the Vatican in 1989 Runcie had four meetings with the Pope in five days. He also held high level meetings with Cardinal Willebrands, head of the Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity, and with Cardinal Ratzinger. As part of his visit Runcie accomplished another first on the ecumenical scene. He attended a papal mass, during which he shared the formal kiss of peace with the Pope.

In their conversations they spoke of the need for collegiality in the government of the Church. The Pope punned, ‘Our affective collegiality will lead to effective collegiality.’ For his part, Runcie made an important concession and called both Rome and all other Christians to take a brave step forward. He said, ‘Could not all Christians come to re-consider the kind of Primacy the Bishop of Rome exercised within the early church, a “presiding in love” for the sake of the unity of the churches in the diversity of their mission?’ It is significant that Pope John Paul, in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint six years later would ask other Christians to ‘leave behind useless controversies’ and come together to consider afresh how the ministry of Peter could be exercised as a ministry of service and love for the sake of the unity of the whole church.

True to form, Runcie the Anglo-Catholic was followed by an Evangelical. Unlike his recent predecessors George Carey didn’t rise through the exclusive background of private education followed by Oxford or Cambridge, but through minor educational establishments. He had only been a bishop for a short time before he was thrust into the limelight when chosen by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Many feel that Carey was appointed in a political move: that Thatcher deliberately chose the under experienced Carey to snub the other name on the list–the establishment liberal Archbishop of York, John Habgood.

Carey immediately committed a huge gaffe. In an interview the Archbishop-elect declared that anyone who didn’t agree with women’s ordination was a heretic. A few years later he caused another storm by demanding inter-communion in a speech in a Belgian Catholic Church. Like the Evangelical Coggan before him, it is not so much that Carey disagrees with the Catholic position, but that he doesn’t seem to understand it.

A good example of his incomprehension is the 1992 women’s ordination crisis. Carey led the Church of England General Synod into the decision to ordain women priests despite the fact that both the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople wrote an open letter virtually pleading with the Anglicans not to take such a step because of the huge obstacle it would present in the search for unity. Carey could only have encouraged the Church of England to continue in its path because he took the view that the Anglican Church was Protestant and could do what it liked in their own territory with no recourse to the wider church.

Despite the grave obstacle which now exists, Archbishop Carey has met with Pope John Paul II a total of nine times. The most recent was his visit to pray for Christian unity with the Pope at St. Paul’s without the Walls in February 2000. Carey’s second and most important visit to the Vatican was in December 1996. This visit marked the thirtieth anniversary of ARCIC‘s (Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission) foundation by Ramsay and Paul VI. Archbishop Carey and the Pope met twice, exchanged greetings and after a joint service at the church of San Gregorio, signed a joint statement which acknowledged the progress being made, as well as the new obstacles to unity which women’s ordination had provided.

George Carey presides over an increasingly troubled church. Anglicans world-wide are still bitterly divided over women priests and bishops. Added to their problems are the traditional divisions between Protestant, Anglo-Catholic and liberal opinions in the church. Other modern pressures threaten to divide the church permanently. The homosexual lobby is pushing for acceptance, while others debate over divorce and remarriage, feminism and heretical bishops. In England the Anglican church suffers from being an established church in an increasingly secular culture while abroad third-world Anglicans are realizing their superior numbers and are flexing their muscles in ever greater conflicts with the British and American churches.

Archbishop Carey is due to retire in two years. When he goes it will be the turn of the Anglo-Catholics again. Two of the top bishops in the Church of England, David Hope of York and Richard Chartres of London, are Anglo-Catholics who have refused to ordain women. It seems inconceivable that the next Archbishop of Canterbury will be opposed to women’s ordination, but there is a remote chance that Hope or Chartres will get the job. Would a Catholic-minded Archbishop of Canterbury and a new Pope be able somehow to overcome the difficulty created by the ordination of women? The answer to that question will be the answer to the question John Paul II posed in part III of Ut Unum Sint: ‘Quanta Est Nobis Via? ‘How much further must we travel until that blessed day when full unity of faith will be attained and we can celebrate together in peace the Holy Eucharist of the Lord?’