Next month will mark a new era in relations between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion. At least, that is what the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury will be hoping when they meet in the Roman church of San Gregorio Magno al Celio on October 5. The church marks the spot where St Gregory the Great sent out St Augustine of Canterbury and 40 companions to take the Gospel to Britain.
The service that evening will blend Catholic Vespers with Anglican Evensong. The Sistine Chapel Choir and the choir of Canterbury Cathedral will sing side by side. Both Pope Francis and Justin Welby will preach, and then, after a joint declaration is read out, they will send 17 pairs of Catholic and Anglican bishops on missions across the world.
It is good to remind ourselves occasionally just how far we have come since the days of Queen Elizabeth I. In Rome next month, the Archbishop of Canterbury will pray beside the Pope at the tomb of St Peter: an inconceivable act less than a century ago. In this new Elizabethan era, Anglicans and Catholics enjoy better relations than at any time in history.
Yet paradoxically the two communions have never been further apart on certain moral questions. That is why next month’s service is especially significant. The Pope and the Archbishop will not be sending out the bishops to address vexed theological questions. Rather, they will commission them to evangelise and to help the needy.
The two leaders are, of course, implicitly recognising that theological dialogue has reached an impasse (though it continues). With characteristic impatience with ecclesiastical procedure, Pope Francis wants the pairs of bishops to “walk together” as if the two communions were already one. This, he hopes, will inspire both sides to approach unity talks with a new urgency and creativity.
The Pope and the Archbishop should also consider encouraging the bishops to offer practical support to each other. Nothing, after all, builds unity as effectively as mutual service.
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