Brothers and Sisters on a Pilgrim Journey: Methodists and Anglicans and the Catholic Church

 — Jan. 27, 202327 janv. 2023

From the English Weekly edition of L’Osservatore Romano, 26 January 2023. Also published in Italian in L’Osservatore Romano, 23 January 2023.

The language of walking and pilgrimage has been used for many years regarding the deepening of ecumenical relationships. For example, when Pope Francis received the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, in June 2014, he ended his address by saying, “we must walk together.” Two years later, in the [Common] Declaration issued by the Holy Father and the Archbishop at the Church of Saint Gregory, the two leaders said that fifty years of dialogue enabled their two communions to see themselves as “partners and companions on our pilgrim journey.” Also in 2016, the bishops of the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission (IARCCUM) issued an appeal entitled, Walking Together: Common Service to the World and Witness to the Gospel, declaring that “Anglicans and Roman Catholics walk together by faith, guided and strengthened by our Lord who walks the pilgrim path with us.” In November 2017, when welcoming a delegation from the World Methodist Council to mark fifty years of the Methodist-Roman Catholic International Commission (MERCIC), the Holy Father described Methodists and Catholics as “brothers and sisters on a shared journey.” He concluded with the exhortation: “So let us advance together, knowing that our journey is blessed by the Lord. It began from him, and it leads to him.”

The concept of walking together, clearly integral to these and many other ecumenical relationships, has entered more widely into the day-to-day language of the Catholic Church since the launch of the Synod. The more technical term, synodality, long heard only in theological texts and classrooms, has become a watchword in parishes and dioceses throughout the world, while the Church engages in what the Holy Father described as “a process of spiritual discernment, of ecclesial discernment, that unfolds in adoration, in prayer and in dialogue with the word of God.”

The mandate given to the third Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC III) by Pope Benedict XVI and Archbishop Rowan Williams was to examine “the Church as Communion, local and universal, and how in communion the local and universal Church come to discern right ethical teaching.” Mindful of the significance of episcopal conferences in the Catholic Church and provincial Synods in the Anglican Communion, ARCIC added consideration of the regional level to its work. It is noteworthy that the current synodal process in the Catholic Church also has regional phases, both national and continental, between the local and universal phases. ARCIC III’s first report, issued in 2017, was entitled, Walking Together on the Way: Learning to be the Church – Local, Regional, Universal. This report dealt primarily with the first, ecclesiological, half of ARCIC III’s mandate.

The commission met for the first time after the Covid-19 pandemic in Rome from 7 to 14 May 2022, continuing to work on the second half of the mandate, examining how the Church local, regional and universal discerns right ethical teaching. A number of ARCIC III’s Catholic members and consultants also serve on the Theological Commission of the Synod. Seeing significant intersections between its work and the synodal process, the ARCIC steering committee invited Cardinal Mario Grech and Sr Nathalie Becquart XMCJ, Synod General Secretary and Under-Secretary, to join the commission for an evening of dialogue and discussion.

On 13 May 2022, the members of the commission were received by the Holy Father. Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham (England), the Catholic co-chair, and Archbishop Linda Nicholls, Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, the acting Anglican co-chair, addressed the Pope, explaining how the commission was using the method of ‘Receptive Ecumenism’ in its work. In light of the recent centenary of the beginning of the ‘Malines Conversations’ and the publication of Sorores in Spe, a document of the unofficial Malines Conversations Group, Archbishop Nicholls raised the question of Anglican orders. She noted that the non-recognition of Anglican orders by the Catholic Church continued to be a wound for many Anglicans and concluded, “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.”

Responding to the addresses of the two co-chairs, Pope Francis noted both the subject of ARCIC’s current work on ecclesiological and ethical questions and its method, suggesting that it “requires, as its basic conditions, humility and truth … We must begin, then, by admitting and sharing the struggles we experience. This is the first step: not to be concerned with appearing attractive and secure to our brothers and sisters, presenting ourselves the way we would like to be, but with showing them with an open heart how we are in reality, including our limitations.” Echoing once again the synodal nature of ecumenical engagement, Pope Francis said that Catholics and Anglicans are called to walk together, “moving forward, leaving behind the things that divide, past and present, and keeping our gaze fixed on Jesus and the goal that he desires and points out to us: the goal of visible unity between us.”

Turning to a different kind of ecumenical journey, Pope Francis spoke about the importance of the joint visit to South Sudan, which he was due to make with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in July 2022. The visit had to be postponed but has now been rescheduled for 3 to 5 February next. South Sudan is a land where different denominations evangelized different communities, and many of those communities have been in conflict with each other in recent decades. Catholic, Anglican and Reformed church leaders have played an important role in bringing a degree of peace and stability to the country and are looking to the forthcoming visit to strengthen reconciliation and cooperation in their land. Asking for the prayers of the commission, the Holy Father said: “Ours will be an ecumenical pilgrimage of peace. Let us pray that it may inspire Christians in South Sudan and everywhere to be promotors of reconciliation, patient weavers of concord, capable of saying no to the perverse and useless spiral of violence and of arms.”

The term ‘walking together’ has particular resonance for the worldwide Anglican Communion at this time too. The fifteenth Lambeth Conference took place in Canterbury during the summer of 2022, with the theme, God’s Church for God’s World – walking, listening and witnessing together. Lambeth Conferences, which take place at roughly ten-year intervals, aim to gather all the Anglican bishops in the world for prayer, fellowship and study. However, the Communion is currently marked by very deep disagreement, principally over human sexuality.

A delegation of Catholic bishops appointed by the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity was invited to attend the Lambeth Conference and saw at firsthand the depth of the divisions on the issue within the Communion. A significant number of bishops were not willing to ‘walk together’ with some of the others and stayed away from the event altogether. Those absent included the entire episcopates of three large African member churches. Of those who did attend, some, including the Primates of some member churches, declined to receive Holy Communion at the opening and closing services in Canterbury Cathedral because of the presence of bishops from provinces who had moved to greater acceptance and recognition of same-sex relationships.

Contrary to some people’s fears, there was no explicit schism during the Conference, but the leader of the group known as the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches made it clear after the conference that they remain divided. “Our willingness as orthodox bishops to attend this conference does not mean that we have agreed to ‘walk together’ with the revisionist Primates and bishops in the Anglican Communion.” As Catholics and Anglicans continue to seek ever closer communion on the way to the Father, Catholics would do well to pray for their Anglican brothers and sisters as they seek to address the issues that threaten their own unity as Anglicans.

The Catholic Church’s dialogue with the World Methodist Council has been running continuously since 1967. The report of the eleventh round of the MERCIC dialogue was published in 2022. Here too, the theme of journey is prominent – God in Christ Reconciling: On the way to Full Communion in Faith, Sacraments and Mission. The subtitle, with its reference to the journey towards full communion, reflects the missionary imperative to be fully reconciled so that the churches’ witness may become a more effective sign, instrument and foretaste of the reconciliation that God wills for humanity and all creation. The document was launched on 7 October in the first of a new series of Tillard Chair lectures at the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas in Rome.

The launch of the report coincided with the first meeting of the twelfth round of the MERCIC dialogue, which took place in Rome from 2 to 8 October 2022. The commission developed a schema for its future work, which will seek to chart a pathway towards unity through a missiological lens, taking account of the theological convergence that the dialogue has already achieved. Once again, the Catholic Church’s synodal process was considered very relevant, and the commission availed of the opportunity of an informal meeting with Cardinal Mario Grech and Sr Nathalie Becquart, who explained the progress of the Catholic synodal process and how ecumenical and inter-religious voices constitute an important part of the Church’s listening to the Holy Spirit.

On 5 October, the members of the commission were received by the Holy Father. The Catholic co-chair, Bishop Shane Mackinlay of Sandhurst (Australia), told Pope Francis that “we are committed to continuing to help our respective churches to listen to one another, and to receive from the graces with which the Holy Spirit has blessed the other – graces that are ‘also meant to be a gift for us,’ as you point out in Evangelii Gaudium.” The Methodist co-chair, Revd Prof. Edgardo Colón-Emeric, presented the first copy of MERCIC 11’s report to the Holy Father. Recalling the last time that Pope Francis received the commission, in 2017, when the Holy Father had stressed the importance of praying together, Prof. Colón-Emeric said: “I wanted you to know that before that audience, the members of the commission had the opportunity of visiting the Scavi beneath Saint Peter’s Basilica. Before the tomb of Saint Peter, we prayed the Lord’s Prayer and a miracle happened. We felt that the weight of centuries of separation was lightened. We felt that we were not simply Methodists and Catholics. We were Christians. In the tomb lay our Peter. We prayed to Our Father. We asked forgiveness for our sins. Your Holiness, God gives us signs of full communion along the way. May this text and the work of this committee be a seed of unity, not uniformity, that the world may believe in Christ, our peace.”

To grow in love and communion with fellow Christians from whom we are separated is itself a synodal process. As the Catholic Church seeks to become more truly synodal, we can hope that it will also be a more credible dialogue partner for our Anglican and Methodist sisters and brothers. In the ‘exchange of gifts’ that characterises ecumenical dialogue, our Methodist and Anglican friends, in their turn, can share with the Catholic Church their experiences of synodality.

The Reverend Fr Martin Browne OSB is the official for Methodist and Anglican relations at the Vatican’s ecumenical department (Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity).

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