Growing mutual trust: The path of relations with Anglicans and Methodists

10 June 2020 • Persistent link:

Originally published in Italian in L’Osservatore Romano, 10 giugno 2020

On 1st December 1960 the Right Reverend Geoffrey Fisher flew from Jerusalem to Rome and the following morning was received in private audience by Pope Saint John XXIII. It was the first visit of an Archbishop of Canterbury to the Pope since Archbishop Arundel in 1397. It was also the first visit of its kind, that of a head of a Christian communion to the Pope, with which the newly formed Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity was involved. The extent of that involvement is difficult to establish. The Secretariat’s first secretary, Mgr Willebrands, had met Archbishop Fisher at a meeting of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches in St Andrew’s, Scotland, in August 1959. Shortly afterwards Pope John communicated his willingness to meet the archbishop leading to speculation that Willebrands and Fisher came up with the plan at the WCC meeting. The use of WCC meetings to establish bilateral relations was frowned upon and so Fisher firmly denied that the visit was anything other than his idea and initiative.

Despite Willebrands meeting with Fisher, no one at the SPUC had specialist knowledge of Anglicanism or the archbishop, and so in preparation for the visit the Secretariat contacted the British Jesuit Bernard Leeming who had taught at the Gregorian but had since returned to Oxford. Leeming wrote three times giving his appraisal of Fisher and his communion. In these early days the Secretariat was on a steep learning curve.

Lambeth Palace announced the archbishop’s trip on 3rd November: he would be travelling to Istanbul to visit the Ecumenical Patriarch, then to Jerusalem and finally to Rome where he would visit Pope John. The news was greeted enthusiastically by some but with suspicion by many others, both Anglican and Catholic. Anglicans and other British Christians of a more evangelical or Protestant stripe opposed the visit fearful that the archbishop was selling out. On the day he arrived in Rome Fisher preached at Evensong in All Saints Anglican Church. The sermon unfavourably contrasted the papal monarchical governance of Catholicism with the more collegial structure of Anglicanism. This was political move on Fisher’s part to assuage fears in his own communion. When asked at a press conference later about the criticism of his visit he invited those critics to read his sermon and be reassured of his commitment to Anglicanism.

There were also considerable anxieties on the Catholic side. Cardinal Tardini, the Secretary of State, had opposed the visit and was determined to minimise its impact in the press. No one from the Vatican greeted Archbishop Fisher when he landed at Ciampino. Instead he was met by Sir Peter Scarlett, the British Minister to the Holy See, who gave Fisher Tardini’s conditions for the visit: there were to be no photographs at all; Fisher should not visit the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity; there should be no press release, and no Vatican officials should be invited to the reception for Fisher at the British Minister’s house.

Notwithstanding the concerns on both sides, Fisher was well received by Pope John and the two Christian leaders spoke for over an hour. Later Fisher would recount some details of the conversation. He thanked the Pope for the establishment of the new Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, and Pope John responded that Fisher would be meeting with Cardinal Bea that afternoon, directly countermanding Tardini’s instructions. That meeting, which also included Mgr Willebrands and the Revd John Satterthwaite, General Secretary of the Church of England’s Council for Foreign Relations, gave an opportunity to talk about relations between the two communions and about the process of nominating observers to the forthcoming Vatican Council.

An immediate fruit of the visit was the appointment of Canon Bernard Pawley as a permanent personal representative to the Holy See. When the SPCU sent out invitations to World Communions for observers to the Council it was the Anglican Communion which was first to respond nominating three theologians led by Bishop John Moorman and accompanied by Pawley.

Amongst the observers one of the most enthusiastic was the Methodist Church historian and ecumenist Professor Albert Outler from Southern Methodist University, USA. Outler would later recall that there were a broad range of opinions among the observers which he categorised into camps of “skeptics”, “realists” and “visionaries”. Seated beneath the statue of St Longinus the observers had an excellent view of proceedings and were provided with texts, translations, and meetings with periti all organised by the staff of SPUC. The event of the Council enabled the new dicastery to establish excellent relations with other Christian communions through the observers. Outler described “the supernatural charity of our hosts in the Secretariat that gathered and held us together”. However, in distinction to the earlier visit of Archbishop Fisher this hospitality now extended beyond the staff of the secretariat. Outler talked of the observers being overwhelmed by the “warmth and breadth of Catholic hospitality” and not only from SPUC, “but from everyone in Vatican City, from the Swiss Guard to the Vatican Infirmary to the Pope himself”.

Three months after the close of the Council Archbishop Fisher’s successor, Archbishop Michael Ramsey visited Rome and met with Pope Paul VI in the Sistine Chapel and in St Paul’s Outside the Walls. In contrast to the 1960 visit this meeting of two Christian leaders received unrestricted media attention, there was a Common Declaration announcing the intention to begin a “serious dialogue” and there were bold gestures, none more memorable than Pope Paul’s gift of the episcopal ring he had worn as Archbishop of Milan.

In October 1967 the Methodist-Roman Catholic International Commission met for the first time in Ariccia, outside Rome. In the same year the Anglican-Roman Catholic Joint Preparatory Commission met three times. The Malta Report which it published laid out the three subjects which ARCIC I was to address: Eucharist, ministry and authority.

The Common Declaration of Archbishop Ramsey and Pope Paul noted that there were serious obstacles to unity between our two communions. Developments in the last sixty years, particularly the ordination of women and questions of human sexuality, have brought new difficulties. Nevertheless, as Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby made clear in their Common Declaration of 2016, such obstacles “must not lead to a lessening of our ecumenical endeavours” nor alter our commitment to dialogue.

Today we recognise that behind our differences lies the difference in governance referred to, albeit polemically, in Archbishop Fisher’s All Saints sermon. The dispersed authority structures of the Anglican Communion have led to enormous tensions which threaten its integrity and challenge it to find structures which can maintain its unity. The Catholic Church also recognises the need for reform of its own structures, the need to become a more synodal Church as articulated by Pope Francis on numerous occasions. The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission has addressed these issues by adopting the method of Receptive Ecumenism. Recognising the other as a community graced by the Holy Spirit we are able to discern “what the Holy Spirit has sown in them [our dialogue partner], which is also meant to be a gift to us” (Evangelii Gaudium 246). In its agreed statement, Walking Together on the Way, the commission envisages our two communions as pilgrim companions and as resources for one another as we reform and renew ourselves in fidelity to Christ. Walking together in this way we also grow together, becoming more recognisable to one another as authentic Christian communities.

After Archbishop Fisher’s visit to Rome one English newspaper featured a cartoon of the Pope and Archbishop with the caption, “So long, see you in 2360”. However, Fisher himself addressing the Church of England Assembly had opined, “in time it ought not to be more unusual for Christian leaders to meet in this way”. Happily the Archbishop’s words were the more prophetic. It is now expected that Christian leaders meet in this way, exchange warm fraternal greetings, pray together, and give common witness to the Christian faith. The most recent example of such common witness was given in Pope Francis’s video message recorded to be broadcast as part of Archbishop Justin Welby‘s Pentecost liturgy. In the message Pope Francis prays that Catholics and Anglicans together might be “witnesses of mercy for the human family” because “We cannot ask others to be united if we ourselves take different paths.” Sixty years of fostering relations between our churches has done much to unite our Christian witness to the world.