Christian Unity – Possibility or Mere Aspiration?

Is Christian unity anything more than a pious aspiration?

2014 JUNE 21
by Paul Vallely

Something significant happened in Rome this week when the Archbishop of Canterbury met the Pope for the second time since the two men took office, within days of one another, just over a year ago.

They have agreed a joint project to use the worldwide reach of their churches to combat the global trade in human trafficking. They discussed how to pressurise 50 top multi-national companies to render their supply chains free of forced labour by 2020 – and ensure they “slavery proof” the investments and purchasing of their own churches. There were other areas of practical co-operation, including peace-building in areas like South Sudan. As he left Rome, Archbishop Justin Welby hinted that other new initiatives had been discussed.

But what was also striking was the renewed commitment the two men made to the idea that their two churches should merge. Pope Francis said that “the goal of full unity… remains the aim which should direct our every step along the way”.

This is a process which many assumed had stalled. The decision by the Church of England to ordain women in 1992 caused a theological rift between Canterbury and Rome.  The ordination in the wider Anglican communion of openly gay bishops, like Gene Robinson in 2003, created another obstacle. And next month the General Synod is likely to vote for women bishops – something Rome sees as a greater theological problem even than female priests.

Yet in the background heavyweight theological discussions, on what unites rather than divides the two churches, have been continuing. One of the purposes of Archbishop Welby’s visit to Rome was to launch a new website ( dedicated to implementing better ecumenical relations.

Such a small step is a far cry from the early heady days of ecumenism when it was widely assumed that unity was just a few years away.

Things had moved swiftly after the meeting by Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher and Pope John XXIII in 1960 – the first time an Archbishop of Canterbury had visited to the Vatican for 600 years.  Pope John asked when the Anglicans would return to the Catholic fold. Archbishop Fisher replied: “It is not a question of returning, but going forward together.” His words became the model for a new relationship which was affirmed when John XXIII’s revolutionary Second Vatican Council (1962-65) recognised the validity of baptism by other Christian denominations.

In a gesture of massive significance, in 1966, Pope Paul VI gave an episcopal ring to Archbishop Michael Ramsey – which Archbishop Welby wore this week on his visit to Rome.  A year later an Anglican–Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) began unity talks. By clarifying old misunderstandings and embracing new scholarship it resolved many of the divisions which had bedevilled the two churches since the Reformation.

Much of ARCIC’s work is safely banked. When Rome’s top ecumenist, Cardinal Walter Kasper, called a meeting of Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and Reformed churches in 2010 it found, one insider said, “not one single area of theology in which we do not have some measure of agreement”.  This was not just a clever repackaging of old disputes. It is a real growth in understanding.

But until recently ARCIC had hit the buffers. When Rome took an extraordinary 10 years to respond to one key ARCIC agreement many Anglicans lost patience and went ahead with the ordination of women and more liberal attitudes to gays.

In response the Vatican pulled the plug on the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity and Mission (IARCCUM). Pope Benedict XVI’s unilateral decision in 2009 to set up an Anglican Ordinariate to poach dissident Anglicans to Rome caused further resentment.

Yet things have clearly begun to change. Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby have similar visions. Both are no-nonsense characters with a “sleeves rolled up” approach to making change happen. Yet both see theological union as crucial. They have no patience with the “let’s agree to disagree on theology and just open a food bank together” approach.

In Rome Archbishop Welby – who despite his evangelical background, has a Benedictine spiritual director and has invited a French Catholic religious community, Chemin Neuf, to live in his home in Lambeth Palace – said that Anglicans and Catholics had to “get away from being quite comfortable with the fact we live separately”.   Without theology, he said, the churches will become “just another NGO with a lot of old buildings”.

The renewed talk of unity is more than a pious aspiration. A third round of ARCIC talks has had meetings so far in Bose, Hong Kong, Rio and Durban. They have shifted the focus away from what divides the two churches to “receptive ecumenism” – what each side has to learn from the other.

At the heart of their discussions is how the two Communions go about making decisions. There are huge contrasts: Catholicism is heavily centralised whereas in Anglicanism authority is dispersed between many churches in many nations. Division is part of the Protestant DNA. And Anglicans are more divided among themselves now than ever before.

But Pope Francis clearly wants to change the governance of the Catholic Church so it is less like a mediaeval monarchy and more open to the wisdom and insights of all its members.

Given the practical difficulties posed by issues of gender and sexuality it is hard to see what unity between Catholics and Anglicans might look like – certainly not uniformity.  But if the intellectual difficulties are greater now than 50 years ago, emotionally the two churches are closer than at any time since the reign of Henry VIII.

Archbishop Welby this week presented Pope Francis with a cutting from the giant fig tree planted in Lambeth Palace by the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, Reginald Pole (1500-1558). What fruit it will bear, and when, is hard to predict. But hope is a theological virtue. For the past five decades the two churches have been moving on parallel lines. It feels as though, at last, those lines may be once more converging.


Journalist Paul Vallely, of The Independent’, ponders on the possibility of progress in the pathway to unity for the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches. In the wake of the recent visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Vatican, it is revealed that both Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby were intent on initiating means of cooperation in the field of human rights – especially in the area of people-smuggling, which has caused great suffering for those concerned in trying to achieve freedom from endemic poverty and strife.

It has become obvious that these two leaders in the Church are intent on re-vitalising a relationship which had started well but which has undergone strain in recent years, in the wake of new initiatives by Anglican Churches in the realm of gender and sexuality. Whatever their private conversation included, it must have at least been accepted that justice needs to take priority over denominational division that has plagued the devout yearning for convergence in the part of our two world-wide Christian communities.

One obstacle to organic unity between Roman Catholics and Anglicans is the extant non-recognition by the Vatican of our Orders of Ministry. There can be little doubt that Pope Francis, at least, is cognisant of the fact that the technical differences are not insurmountable, and could easily be overcome by an eirenic agreement between the two Churches. However, their are matters like the mutual recognition of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist – and, at the moment, the matter of married and female clergy – that will require a great deal of study and adjustment before full reconciliation could be achieved. However, where the Spirit of God is, there is always the possibility of ‘finding a way’.

The great wonder is that – despite recent movement in the Anglican Churches that have seen internal division over the ordination of women and gay clergy, and the issue of same-sex marriage – Pope Francis is still open to the prospect of further cooperation in matters involving the problems of the outside world. There is hope!

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand 

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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5 Responses to Christian Unity – Possibility or Mere Aspiration?

  1. murraysmallbone says:

    It is heartening to observe Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin dialoguing and initiating action on human need fronts,thus demonstrating the primacy of Christian Mission thus a return to Christ rather than the tribal/institutional matters of difference.
    It is to be hoped that such initiatives will filter down to local involvement,as localism is what people can understand and act upon.
    Mankind is by nature such a tribal creature, that any Christian action which crosses this natural divide provides common purpose and thus a greater centreing on Christ.
    The healing of Christian division can only come from Christ,so any moves by Christian leaders to draw us back to Christ are the way forward. In being centred on Christ we shall be healed, rather than hiding in our safe and comfortable closets of tribal allegiance.
    Constant prayer ought to be the daily diet for every Christian, so that it is Christ who speaks rather than our cherished beliefs.

    Jesu mercy ! Mary Help of Christians, pray.!

    • kiwianglo says:

      Murray, I wholeheartedly agree that our unity is only ‘en Christo’. There is not other basis. However, the world can hardly detect that convergence – because of our individual intransigence. However, I have every hope in the reality that God is ultimately in charge of all of us. Agape, Fr. Ron

  2. Michael Primrose says:

    Hi Fr. Ron,

    It is possible that I may have blinked, and missed a passing moment of theological consensus, but aren’t there still issues between the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches over the questions of contraception, abortion and divorce? Perhaps these issues, which would be of more practical concern to the laity than they would to theologians, may simply not be seen as great impediments on the path to Unity.

    Whilst some parts of the Anglican Church have taken slow and accommodating steps, in order to retain relevance with and influence in the Modern World, I would be worried that these “minor” changes will be the first to get thrown off the Troika, so that the desired destination may be reached with greater ease.

    The question is, I suppose

    “Does the Church move with the Times, or does Time progress forward without the Church?”

    Michael Primrose, Christchurch

    • kiwianglo says:

      Michael, while I agree that there are still extant barriers to organic union of our two communities, at least the two current leaders seem open to greater convergence than had been possible under their predecessors. This is something to be thankful for.

  3. kiwianglo says:

    Well, Michael, I think that, with the arrival of Pope Francis, whose management of the papacy seems very much like that of John XXIII, will be advancing the cause of unity in whatever way he can. The problem is, he seems to overwork and gets tired quite easily – not a factor in the reign of his immediate predecessor, apparently.

    Both Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin are pragmatic leaders of their ecclesial communities, and are obviously in synch with the need to update the situation of the Church v. the World, on all the important issues of our day.

    While++ Justin has little power over the shenanigans of world-wide Anglicanism, I think the Pope has a little more sway with his lot. Rome is still in awe of the occupant of the Chair of Peter. It’s all those fuddy-duddy recalcitrant cardinals who hold things back.

    Both need our constant prayer at this important juncture in their leadership.

    Agape, Fr. Ron

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