The Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury

This Wednesday, the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury will meet in Rome. Rocco Palmo has pointed me to an article in the Tablet about the historic March, 1966 visit of Archbishop Michael Ramsey with Pope Paul VI. That visit, the first reception of an Archbishop of Canterbury by the Pope since the Reformation, resulted in the formation of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. But the most memorable aspects of that visit occurred during or after acts of prayer. The then-seminarian Chris Larkman recalls a service at the Sistine Chapel, presided over by both the Pope and Archbishop. At its end, the Pope wanted the surprised Archbishop to give the blessing. Larkman writes, “the pope then calmly took hold of Archbishop Ramsey’s arm and moved it into a blessing.” After another service, Pope Paul VI movingly gave the Archbishop the ring from his own finger. Later, the Senior Student of the English College asked the Archbishop of Canterbury for a blessing. Chris Larkman writes, “We all knelt down to receive it. As you read this you are probably thinking this was no big deal. But this was 1966 and here were 90 Catholic seminarians in Rome, all in their cassocks, kneeling down to receive the blessing from the Archbishop of Canterbury.”

It is hard to know what to expect from Archbishop Williams’ visit. I will assume that everyone knows about the difficulties. They certainly shouldn’t be ignored. But perhaps we can hope for at least two things. First, that the meeting will be prayerful. If anything memorable happens, one might think, it will once more occur in thanksgiving during or immediately after common prayer. At the ecumenical meeting in Cologne on August 19, 2005, the Pope commended dialogue and said about it, “More than an exchange of thoughts, an academic exercise, it is an exchange of gifts, in which the Churches and the Ecclesial Communities can make available their own riches,” in common prayer and a joint seeking for conversion and sanctification. He went on to say, “It is obvious that this dialogue can develop only in a context of sincere and committed spirituality,” for unity is truly a gift of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, we might surmise, an unexpected gift.

Second, and not unrelatedly, we can hope that the Pope and Archbishop will be able to really listen to and learn from one another. In a 1993 interview, the then-Cardinal Ratzinger said about the relationship of Catholic with other Christians, himself referencing a Lutheran theologian:

I think the vision of Oscar Cullman can really help us in this matter. To live unity in separation, in difference, we must learn to accept others in their otherness and precisely in this accomplish communion. We must learn to understand the objection of the other as our own problem. When this and similar things occur, when we can turn toward each other in our differences and let ourselves be refined by each other, as it were, then division can in its way be fruitful – more fruitful than superficial unity.

In the interests of maybe turning “toward each other in our differences” and letting “ourselves be refined by each other” in a small way, I’d finally like to point out a very interesting interview in the Church Times with Archbishop Williams. Let me end with a couple of excerpts from the interview, after I ask you to pray for Wednesday’s meeting:

From what you know of Pope Benedict’s theology, what do you think you have in common?

We both have a fairly solid formation in Patristics, and he did his research on Augustine; so at least we have Augustine to talk about. We both have a critical but none the less quite enthusiastic acquaintance with Hans Urs von Balthasar’s theology — I think he’s probably more critical than I am of von Balthasar. So I think there’s what you might call a broadly classical and sacramental theological perspective, shaped very much by mid-century, just-pre-Vatican II French and German thinking.

Will you be talking theology do you think?

Yes, I hope so. We’ve got some private time, as well as the negotiating time [Laughs].

You’ve talked about “visible steps”. . .

ARCIC is the main one: what should be the agenda of a new ARCIC, if there is one, and, I suppose, what’s the timescale, what would a good outcome look like — given that full organic unity is not going to arrive in the next 18 months.

From another angle, if the Pope asked you why you persisted in remaining an Anglican, what would you say to him?

I’d say that I don’t believe the essential theological structure of the Church is pyramidal: that it has one absolute touchstone embodied in a single office. I’m certainly prepared to believe that there’s a role for the Petrine ministry of conciliation, interpretation, and mediation in the Church. I don’t see that as an executive centre; so I’d start from what would historically be called a conciliarist position.

And the thing that always held me back from becoming a Roman Catholic at the points when I thought about it is that I can’t quite swallow papal infallibility. I have visions of saying to Pope Benedict: “I don’t believe you’re infallible” — I hope it doesn’t come to that. [Laughs]

That’s how I’d answer, I think: that I’m wary of loading too much on to an individual office.

That’s why you’re not a Roman Catholic. Why are you an Anglican?

I’m an Anglican because this is — it’s what I learnt in Sunday school, really — this is the Church Catholic in this place, gathered around the word and the sacrament, exercising a canonically continuous, recognisable form of the threefold ministry, structurally slotting in with how Catholic Christianity works.

If you were starting from scratch, do you think the Anglican model works better than the Roman one?

Pwff! — by what imaginable standards would you answer that, I wonder? I don’t know, but the argument I’d give, I think, is not unrelated to what Vincent Donovan says in his book Christianity Rediscovered, responding to mission in East Africa, where he says, in a sense, you’ve got to let Churches grow out of their local setting, discover the need for recognisability, and build outwards from that. He describes the process by which some of his converts in East Africa almost invented the idea of Catholic ministry for themselves, the idea that if this is the kind of community that we are, if this is what the eucharist means, then we need that to be recognisable, and we need to know that, when we travel, it’s the same Church that we belong to, gradually accumulating like that. I think that’s a bit more Anglican than someone saying, “We’ll decide from the centre what the shape will be.”

Finally, do you envy him anything? Wouldn’t it really be rather nice to have that sort of authority?

No, I don’t envy him. I really, really don’t envy him. I think that the way in which the papacy has been constructed over the last couple of centuries has loaded on to the person of the Pope far more than ought to be loaded on to the person of a Christian leader. And that’s a crushing burden for a person. It’s remarkable that so many preserve the level of holiness and integrity they do in that position, like Pope John Paul II, obviously, and Paul VI, who is a great hero of mine.

No, I don’t envy him. There is that process of colossal projection on to the person of the Pope. It’s bad enough on to the archbishopric of Canterbury.

UPDATE: For more background, there is a thorough article in the Tablet here, and the “Credo” column in the Sunday Times written by Archbishop Williams’  fellow Anglican bishop, Geoffrey Rowell. Bishop Rowell, like Williams, an Anglo-Catholic and a scholar, writes:

The life of the Church is characterised by a deep communion, an internet of belonging. It has a structure, and within that structure, an authority. Those things have often divided Christians, but the body of Christ is not an amoeba, and the ordered pattern of the ministry of the Church is to serve its living in unity. And it is when Christians do that, that the world can believe in the transforming reality of the grace of God in changing individual human lives and society.

When Pope and Archbishop meet, as Christians sharing a common baptism, and professing so much of a common faith, it must surely be a meeting that is a sign and sacrament of the imperative call to unity, witnessing to the peace of God, which passes our human understanding and which is yet the community of love for which at the deepest human level each one of us longs.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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