Welby: we must work to end the ecumenical winter

Image credit: Anglican Centre, Rome

The Archbishop of Canterbury has admitted to shame and failure in his time in office — over what he sees as his poor record on ecumenical relations with other churches.

While attention was focused in the past week at the Lambeth Conference on his leadership of the Anglican Communion on issues such as same-sex marriage, poverty and climate change, Justin Welby surprised people by his admission that he feels that the most problematic area for him has been bringing the communion closer to other Christian denominations.

On Wednesday 3rd August 2022, Archbishop Welby led a press conference at Lambeth Palace on the environment and climate change but at the end took questions on other issues too. Asked about reconciliation with other churches, he said “it’s the area I feel most ashamed about” and went on to describe the habit of division that the churches had got into since the time of the Reformation.

“We need a fresh impetus,” he said, “in what has been described as an ecumenical winter. I don’t feel any pride in what has been achieved in ecumenism.”

“I don’t feel any pride in what has been achieved in ecumenism”

– Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby

Relations with some other Christians, such as the Methodists and the Lutherans, have been relatively easy. But big sticking points remain with the Roman Catholic Church, particularly on issues of sharing holy communion and women’s ordination. And it was noticeable that the address written for the Lambeth Conference by Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Promoting of Christian Unity, was similarly downbeat.

According to Koch, we now have an “ecumenical emergency”.

Welby’s and Koch’s commentaries may surprise people used to seeing pictures of the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Francis together, often warmly embracing at their encounters. They are also told a different story by some of those involved in ecumenism. On Thursday morning, for example, Archbishop Ian Ernest, the director of the Anglican Centre in Rome, spoke at a press briefing in advance of the conference’s session on ecumenism, praising the progress made in ecumenism, saying that “we cannot let it go”.

In fact, both perspectives are true. On the one hand, relations between Anglicans and Roman Catholics are warm at all levels, from the grass roots and the parishes, through to the level of diocesan bishops and theologians and all the way to the top, with Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby planning an historic visit together to South Sudan. There are plenty of examples of Anglicans and Catholics, across the globe, working together to help to address homelessness, poverty and the refugees. Practical ecumenism is how it is viewed.

But the hard issues — such as on the eucharist — remain in the ecumenical pending tray, as unresolved now as they were 50 years ago. As the Lambeth Conference call document on ecumenism put it: “In recent years, progress in bringing forward unity in matters of faith and order has slowed … we regret that divisions between the baptised lead to estrangement … such division weakens the church’s witness to the gospel of reconciliation.”

An example given by Gregory Cameron, the Bishop of St Asaph in the Church in Wales — who formerly focused on ecumenism when he held the post of the Anglican Communion’s director of unity, faith and order — highlighted both the progress made and the problems remaining.

He cited the example of a joint Roman Catholic/Anglican school in Wrexham. He talked about the children learning to live together and said it was “a practical engagement that I wholeheartedly recommend”. Yet for all the progress made, the school’s community is not fully together. As Bishop Cameron said: “They cannot yet share communion.”

The importance of relations between the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church was highlighted by the size of the Catholic delegation: six representatives were due to attend, making it the largest visiting denomination, although illness forced Cardinal Koch to pull out at the last minute.

Another of the Catholic church’s most senior representatives attending was Bernard Longley, Archbishop of Birmingham, who also co-chairs the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC). The body, which was founded in the 1960s in the days of greatest hope for full unity between the churches, is responsible for deep theological discussion about important issues. Archbishop Longley highlighted the way that ecumenical guests had been invited to participate in the Lambeth Conference was in itself ecumenically hospitable. He also highlighted the shift in thinking on ecumenism in the past 50 years — from what he described as “face-to-face” dialogue to “side-by-side” encounters, working together on justice and peace, the environment and climate change.

But there are still the elephants in the room — holy communion, women’s ordination — and even Rome’s stubborn refusal to approve any Anglican orders at all. At ARCIC’s last plenary meeting, held in Rome in May, its Anglican co-chairwoman, Archbishop Linda Nicholls, the Primate of Canada, raised the issue of Anglican orders, saying that the Catholic church’s non-recognition of them continued to be a wound for many Anglicans.

“We have always considered that our liturgical and sacramental life and traditions demonstrate our place within the Church Catholic, and it is our earnest hope that this would be recognised by you, our brothers and sisters in Christ,” she said.

Some observers of ecumenism say that the tension over Anglican orders was made worse by the admission of women to first the priesthood and then to the episcopacy. In 2008, at the last Lambeth Conference, Cardinal Ivan Dias, then a key Vatican official, warned in remarks that were accepted as being about female episcopacy that those who live “short-sightedly rooted in the fleeting present, oblivious to our past legacy and apostolic traditions” are suffering from “a sort of spiritual Alzheimer’s”.

Dias thrived in the Vatican during the pontificate of Benedict XVI. Since Pope Francis was elected in 2013, dozens of women across the Anglican Communion have been appointed bishops, with many, including Archbishop Nicholls, attending meetings in Rome and sometimes being at the altar for services. They report being treated with respect — and yet they know the day when the Catholic church appoints women even as deacons, let alone bishops, still remains far off.

Some say that the reason for slow progress in Catholic-Anglican relations has been the amount of energy expended on dealing with both churches’ internal problems over factionalism.

Yet Rev Will Adam, who until recently was Justin Welby’s ecumenical adviser the Anglican Communion’s director unity, faith and order, remains chipper about where ecumenism has got to, talking about “unity on the way”, hinting that the goal can yet be achieved, although he also admits that “we’ve got to the point where the rubber has hit the road”. Meanwhile others — including Cardinal Koch — seem less ambitious. In his address to Lambeth, Koch talked of the progress made in the lesser aim of “reconciled diversity”.

That could mean listening to one another and learning from different ideas of what it means to be a church. Both the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches share a structure — the bishop is in charge of his diocese ­— but in other ways they are quite different. The Catholics attending the Lambeth Conference, for example, were mystified that the Anglican bishops’ powers are so restricted to their own dioceses that when they gather together, they have no binding authority. And people in Rome are often mystified that the Archbishop of Canterbury cannot enforce decisions across the communion — in other words, that he is not more of a pope.

Yet as Pope Francis pulls the Catholic church towards more involvement of the laity, there has been consultation with Anglicans about how they engage more members of their churches in decision-making. Meanwhile, according to Archbishop Welby, talking to journalists on Wednesday, most Anglicans in England now recognise the Pope as “the father of the church in the West”.

For young people, though, the heady days of the 1960s, when Catholics and Anglican thought it was really possible that full unity would happen, now seem ancient history. Instead, says, Bishop Cameron, they are focused not so much on differences but on what spiritually feeds them. “They should encourage us to be more relaxed about our boundaries,” he said, “and look for deeper truths.”


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