Roman Catholic relations with the Anglican Communion in 2016

25 January 2017 • Persistent link:

The following report is adapted from an article prepared for L’Osservatore Romano by the Rev Anthony Currer, PCPCU official for Anglican and Methodist dialogue.


When his Grace, Archbishop Justin Welby, visited Rome in June 2014, Pope Francis, in his address to the Archbishop said, quite simply, “We must walk together.” The image of the journey undertaken together was already a theme common to a number of papal speeches, and part of Pope Francis’s vision of the Church. Addressing clergy and lay-people in Assisi on 4 October 2013, he said, “I think this is truly the most wonderful experience we can have: to belong to a people walking, journeying through history together with our Lord, who walks among us! We are not alone; we do not walk alone. We are part of the one flock of Christ that walks together.” This conception of the Church has much to offer our ecumenical relationships. The image has now been used in a variety of different contexts and has been enthusiastically taken up by other Christian leaders. However, two moments in Anglican-Catholic relations that occurred in 2016 have given a fuller sense to its meaning and enable us to discern with greater clarity what walking together with our ecumenical partners might mean.

These two moments came at the beginning and the end of a vespers service celebrated by Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby at San Gregorio al Celio on 5th October. The vespers celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the historic meeting between Blessed Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Michael Ramsey in 1966. On that occasion the first Common Declaration between a Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury was published. It signalled the desire of both communities to work towards a “unity of truth”.

In like manner Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby signed a new Common Declaration directly upon entering San Gregorio and before vesting for the liturgy. This is now the seventh such declaration, and these statements have become an accepted means of defining and directing ecumenical relations between Catholics and Anglicans. At the conclusion of the liturgy an unprecedented gesture gave further powerful expression to future hopes for our “walking together”: Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby jointly commissioned pairs of Anglican and Catholic bishops representing nineteen countries or regions around the world. These bishops were mandated to “be united in preaching the gospel in word and deed and united serving those who are most vulnerable and marginalised”. The bishops all belong to the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission (IARCCUM) whose task it is to promote reception of the theological dialogue by translating agreed theological statements into concrete actions of witness and mission to the world. These two events provide a lens through which we can view a busy year in Anglican-Catholic ecumenism and understand how Anglicans and Catholics might walk more closely together.

The first thing that must be said is that “walking together” takes seriously theological difference. It does not give way to a “false irenicism” (Unitatis redintegratio, 11). Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby noted that their predecessors fifty years earlier had recognised “serious obstacles” to the restoration of full unity in faith and sacramental life. However, they also noted that such obstacles had not deterred their predecessors from founding a “serious dialogue … founded on the Gospels and on the ancient common traditions”. Today those obstacles centre on the issues of the ordination of women and moral questions related to human sexuality, and behind both of these, the issue of how and where authority is exercised in the Christian Community. “Walking together” implies that though we do not yet see a solution to these obstacles, nonetheless we know that we share all that is most central to Christian Faith and so we are unavoidably fellow pilgrims walking the same road. As the Common Declaration puts it,

These differences we have named cannot prevent us from recognizing one another as brothers and sisters in Christ by reason of our common baptism. Nor should they ever hold us back from discovering and rejoicing in the deep Christian faith and holiness we find in each other’s traditions.

For these reasons, and because as pilgrims we recognise in each other the desire to respond faithfully to the Lord’s call, we trust that in walking together we are journeying to a new time and place in which that full unity which the Lord desires for us will be possible. Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby therefore re-affirmed a commitment to our ongoing theological dialogue and insisted that obstacles, however grave, must not lead to “a lessening of our ecumenical endeavours”.

The recognition of each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, and the faith and holiness that we find in each other, must necessarily find expression in prayer: “not only can we pray together,” insists the 2016 declaration, “we must pray together, giving voice to our shared faith and joy in the Gospel of Christ”. Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby’s celebration of vespers in which the choirs of the Sistine Chapel and Westminster Abbey sang hymns and psalms in Latin and English gave eloquent testimony to this spiritual ecumenism. For pilgrims the journey is itself a prayer, and so “walking together” necessarily implies praying together, and not only on special occasions and anniversaries, but at all levels of ecclesial life, and praying together regularly in a way that becomes habitual.

As two pilgrim communities we traverse a country that is in need of the Good News of Jesus Christ, and the healing and hope his victory over sin and death brings. The Common Declaration describes this mission as one we take forward in both word and deed. Our walking together in mission must address “the environmental destruction that offends the Creator”, as it must also challenge both personal and societal sin that offends against the dignity of the human person. The Pope and Archbishop identify a culture of indifference that isolates us from the struggles and suffering of our brothers and sisters, the culture of waste which marginalises and discards the lives of the most vulnerable, and a culture of hate which feeds the violence of warfare and terrorism. Against this, Christians working together can give witness to the inestimable worth of every human life through programmes which bring education, healthcare, food and clean water, and which seek to build peace. The declaration concludes by identifying the bishops of IARCCUM and their commissioning as a means of carrying this joint mission “to the ends of the earth” which it had already identified as meaning “to those on the margins and the peripheries of our societies”.

In 2000 pairs of Anglican and Catholic bishops met together in Mississauga, near Toronto, and it was from this meeting that this Pontifical Council, together with the Anglican Communion Office, decided to found IARCCUM as a permanent commission. The fiftieth anniversary provided to repeat this meeting and to gather all the IARCCUM bishops together. Like ARCIC, the theological dialogue commission, IARCCUM has two co-chairs, Bishop David Hamid (Anglican) and Archbishop Donald Bolen (Catholic), and two co-secretaries, Canon John Gibaut from the Anglican Communion Office and Father Anthony Currer from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The steering group meets monthly by video link and the secretaries maintain contact with the pairs of bishops through email and the IARCCUM website (

The bishops who were commissioned at the vespers service on 5th October had been meeting firstly in Canterbury (30th September-4th October) and then in Rome (4th-7th October). They represented countries and regions from all around the world: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Malawi, England, France, Ghana, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, the Middle East, Melanesia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, South Africa and the United States of America. Their meeting was titled, “New Steps on an Ancient Pilgrimage: Together from Canterbury to Rome“. It was, then, a pilgrim journey, and the bishops prayed together at the shrines of Saint Thomas Becket and Saint Augustine in Canterbury, and those of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Rome. As well as the vespers celebrated at San Gregorio, they joined the community of Canterbury Cathedral for evensong and attended each other’s Eucharists both in Canterbury and Rome. A particularly significant moment of prayer on this pilgrim journey was morning prayer led by Archbishop Welby at the altar of the tomb in St Peter’s basilica.

The IARCCUM bishops attended an academic symposium held at the Gregorian University on the morning of 5th October in which they heard papers from Dr Anna Rowlands and Rev Dr Nicholas Sagovsky about the Social Teaching in both the Catholic and Anglican tradition, they heard about the current work of ARCIC from Professor Paul Murray and Dr Paula Gooder, and about future areas for ecumenical engagement from Rev Etienne Veto. They were also each presented with a copy of Looking towards a Church fully Reconciled, published just prior to their meeting, which collects in one volume the agreed statements of ARCIC II (1983-2005) together with introductions and supporting materials provided by members of the current commission.

The bishops were invited to come prepared to give a brief joint presentation about their respective contexts and the pastoral challenges that they face. From this the bishops thought about the ways in which they could deepen their ecumenical engagement as they address the pressing pastoral needs within their regions. In all of this they were ably assisted by lay theologian, Dr Anna Rowlands of the University of Durham, who accompanied the bishops for the whole of their meeting and gave a theological reflection on their discussions. This process helped the IARCCUM bishops to formulate a statement which was released at the end of their meeting entitled, Walking Together: Common Service to the World and Witness to the Gospel.

In their statement the bishops note that, “in prayer and study together we have noted the complementarity of our social teaching and of our pastoral efforts to live the Gospel of mercy and love,” and commit themselves to seek out ways by which the theological agreements of ARCIC “can further transform our ecclesial life”. They identified an “Ecumenism of the Cross” which unites them and which compels them to stand with the poor and “to reveal Christ’s presence among those at the margins of our world”. In their discussions the bishops had spoken very frankly about the experience of failure in their Christian communities and this was expressed as an “ecumenism of humiliation”. The bishops write,

We lament our failures and share the brokenness of our church communities. We failed to protect vulnerable people: children from sexual abuse, women from violence, and indigenous peoples from exploitation. In this communion of shame, we confess that our own feeble witness to God’s call to life in community has contributed to the isolation of individuals and families, and even to that secularization which removes God from the public space.

The bishops saw strength and healing in this admission made in common, and also saw hope in the many ways in which members of the commission were already collaborating in creative and effective ways in their ministries. As the bishops inspired one another, so they hoped to inspire their episcopal colleagues, their clergy and faithful in their home regions. The final prayer by which Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby commissioned them included the words, “May the ecumenical spirit in which you witness to this gospel be a transformative sign for our communities. And may Catholics and Anglicans everywhere be inspired to give united witness to the world”.

The commissioning recalled St Bede’s description of St Augustine’s mission landing in England under the banner of the cross and the image of the Saviour. Walking together must be something which Catholics, at all levels of the Church, are seen to be doing with their ecumenical partners. That we preach the gospel and serve the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalised together is a vital part of our witness to the world. Walking together implies that, in as many ways as are possible, Christians visibly demonstrate that we are united we are in our faith.

The bishops reflected further on what being true pilgrim companions might mean in their statement. There they quote words of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who said “we become each other’s healers by walking alongside each other in healing the world’s wounds”. This is perhaps the last element to an ecumenism of walking together. To think of ourselves as pilgrim companions means that we understand that we are making the same journey through the same world and that we are confronted with the same problems and challenges. From the bishops’ discussions it was apparent that Catholics and Anglicans share the challenge of being global communions across a world of cultural and political difference. The journey will necessarily involve failure and incur injury. However, “true pilgrim companions” tend each other’s wounds.

This theme is also central to the current work of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC). The commission worked on a draft document in its plenary meeting held at St John’s Convent, Toronto, and hosted by the Anglican order of the Sisters of St John the Divine, 11-19 May 2016. The document has the working title, Walking Together on the Way of Communion: Anglican and Catholic Learning about the Church Local, Regional and Universal. The work is shaped by the method of “Receptive Ecumenism” which is to say that in the document each side admits the struggles and tensions in the instruments of communion that operate at various levels of the Church, and looks to see what can be learnt from their ecumenical partners. Archbishop Justin Welby spoke eloquently about this method at an evensong in Westminster Abbey to celebrate the work of the Anglican Centre which, being a direct fruit of the meeting between Archbishop Michael Ramsey and Pope Paul VI also celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2016. The Archbishop said, “The habits of the centuries render us comfortable with disunity … I pray that ARCIC disrupts our disunity … it must develop its especial genius of a spirit of receptive ecumenism: of asking not what we might give the other, but what we lack that God might give us through the other.”


Right from the beginning of his papacy Pope Francis has demonstrated an impatience for change and an impatience for unity. In the Common Declaration he writes with Archbishop Welby, “We are impatient for progress.” We cannot, therefore, wait for full unity before we begin to share our ecclesial lives with our ecumenical partners. The IARCCUM bishops wrote in Walking Together, “We are compelled to express this real but impaired communion at this stage in our pilgrimage in common service to the world and witness to the gospel.” While we take our differences seriously, we must treat with equal seriousness the Christian faith that we share and that is expressed in the creedal promises that are made at our baptism. Because through baptism we have become brothers and sisters in Christ, we are compelled to seek to resolve our differences, to pray together, to proclaim the saving love of God in Jesus together, and to work together for the good of those who suffer in our world. That the Spirit is alive and active in our Christian brothers and sisters means that they may be the ones to administer a grace by which the Lord heals us. This may surprise us, just as Jesus’ story of the Samaritan who poured oil and wine on the wounds of the man beset by brigands surprised the crowd in Galilee. Pope Francis’s image of walking together is taking shape in these ways in relations with both Anglicans and Methodists. It is a living into the communion which we already share. As Pope Francis said in his homily at the vespers at St Paul’s outside the Walls last year,

While we are on the path towards full communion, we can already develop multiple forms of collaboration, working together and collaborating to promote the spread of the Gospel. By walking and working together, we realise that we are already united in the name of the Lord. Unity is achieved by walking together.