Pope Francis and the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, are on a pilgrimage together. It’s a long one – measuring in distance the thousand and more miles from Canterbury to Rome and a journey of more than 500 years in the making, but the two religious leaders hope that their respective churches will follow in their footsteps to a new, closer, relationship that heals ancient hurts.
“New Steps on an Ancient Pilgrimage: Walking Together from Canterbury to Rome”, is the title of the ecumenical summit between the Anglican and Catholic churches, involving meetings in both religious centres. The pope and archbishop appointed 19 pairs of bishops tasked with going out and spreading the unity message.
The timing could not be more appropriate, as the communion among the Anglican church itself is under severe strain over ordination of women and gay clergy, while the Catholic community faces serious allegations about child abuse and related cover-ups. What began as a joint statement of unity made in 1966 by Pope Paul VI and the then archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, has taken on more concrete roots in terms of the two churches strengthening each other’s perceptions of their shared faith.
Half a century of ecumenical pilgrimage has been littered with difficult conversations around doctrine, tradition and holy orders – many of which have been addressed, including some of the difficult questions around the understanding of the sacraments, scripture and priestly authority. Statements in the past have stressed the common understanding of baptism and eucharist (the taking of communion) and have encouraged Catholics and Anglicans to explore the possibility of worshipping together.
There have also been efforts in the past at co-operation between the two communities, particularly over social justice issues such as poverty and care for the environment. This was stressed in a 2007 Growing Together document, released to mark four decades of this ecumenical pilgrimage.
In the joint statement Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin frankly admitted the serious obstacles to unity among Catholics and Anglicans: the acknowledgement of committed same-sex relationships and the ordination of women. These are going to be thorny issues for both the heads of the church and neither is going to go away any time soon.
There have been several changes in the postures from the hierarchy with regards to the ordination of women. In the past those opposed to the ordination of women within the Anglican Church, the Church of England in particular, sought refuge in the Catholic Church – and the Catholic Church welcomed them into the fold. But since then the Anglican Church has introduced women bishops and even the pope has hinted at plans for the ordination of woman as deacons as a possibility.
As far as same-sex relationships go, the issue is still causing serious rifts among Anglicans, as some of the Anglican provinces have allowed openly gay clergy to be ordained and even consecrated as bishops, while others have condemned such a liberal stance. And while the pope has not publicly condoned same-sex relationships, he has suggested that the church should not discriminate against gay people – instead they should apologise to them. So, by recognising these two issues as the main obstacles to their unity, the archbishop and pope have scored a major victory among the “catholic” (or small-liberal) in both traditions, who share their view.
The biggest challenge facing both churches is the speed at which Western societies are becoming post-Christian – with highly secularised values shaping the worldview of young people. Both churches have been struggling with a steady decline of membership and lack of young people coming forward for ministry. The perception is that the Catholic and Anglican Churches have lost touch with the young generation.
But Pope Francis, in particular, has reversed the fortunes of the Catholic Church due to his pastoral approach to papacy. Welby meanwhile, despite being from an evangelical – or conservative – branch of Anglicanism, has sown the seeds of “renewal and reform” within the Church of England to arrest this decline. The ecumenical summit could be seen as a natural movement towards not just pulpit swaps and shared retreats among the clergy but strengthening each of the two churches’ base communities.
While the efforts of the archbishop of Canterbury for unity have been welcomed by the “Anglo-Catholics”, the more evangelical churches within the Anglican communion, such as the Global Anglican Future Conferences (spearheaded by African bishops who are opposed to women and gay pastoral leaders) will find this dialogue difficult. The pope is also gradually softening some of the hardline Catholic teachings on family and marriage, but not all are happy about his reforms.
So while the ecumenical journey set in motion by the two leaders shows their desire to reconcile the two churches so that together they can address some of the common challenges faced by their communities, they must be hoping that this message for greater unity will be heard by the warring factions in their own churches around the world.