A short history of Catholic-Anglican relations — and the last roadblocks to unity
The Roman Catholic-Anglican dialogue is advancing on the path of reconciliation after four centuries of conflict and separation. This decades-long effort is now moving beyond theological dialogue at the international level to building a movement whose guiding principle is: “The Christian churches should do all things together except where deep differences require that we act separately.”
Canada’s Catholic archbishop of Regina, Don Bolen, and the Canadian British-born Anglican suffragan bishop in Europe, David Hamid, explained this to America at the Basilica of St. Bartholomew the Apostle, on Tiber Island in Rome, on Jan. 25.
The two bishops are the co-chairmen of the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission, which goes by the acronym IARCCUM. Composed entirely of bishops from both churches, the commission came into existence in 2001 and held a two-part summit in Rome and Canterbury during this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Jan. 18-25. The summit brought together pairs of bishops from 27 countries, one from each Anglican province and one from the Catholic bishops’ conference in the same region.
I spoke to them just before the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, celebrated the Anglican Holy Eucharist in the Basilica of St. Bartholomew “with the permission of the bishop of Rome,” he said. (Archbishop Welby’s predecessor, Archbishop Rowan Williams, celebrated the Holy Eucharist in the Basilica of Santa Sabina on Rome’s Aventine Hill on Nov. 26, 2006, with the permission of Pope Benedict XVI.)
An ecumenical journey
I asked them to explain the history of the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission and where this movement is heading. Both presented papers to the summit, which I have also drawn on for this article.
Bishop Hamid, who is the suffragan bishop in Europe, explained that the bilateral commission “is something rare indeed in the ecumenical movement.” While most commissions engage in official theological dialogue, he said: “IARCCUM is a type of commission that has not existed between any two churches at the global level. It is complementary to the theological dialogue that we have between the Catholic Church and Anglican Communion.”
It is a result of an ecumenical journey started in 1966, after the Second Vatican Council, by Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Michael Ramsey of Canterbury, representing the Anglican Communion, he said. At a historic encounter in the Roman basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, on March 24, 1966, the pope and the archbishop signed a common declaration “to inaugurate between the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion a serious dialogue which, founded on the Gospels and on the ancient common traditions, may lead to that unity in truth, for which Christ prayed.”
In a significant gesture on that occasion, Paul VI took the ring off his finger and placed it on Archbishop Ramsey’s finger. The archbishop burst into tears because he understood that the bishop of Rome was, in a symbolic rather than doctrinal way, recognizing his role as archbishop and inviting a deep relationship toward full visible unity. Ever since, the archbishops of Canterbury have worn that ring when they visit the pope, as Archbishop Welby did this year.
After that historic meeting, Bishop Hamid said a preparatory commission was set up and produced the Malta Report in 1968, which identified three areas for joint international ecumenical work: “theological dialogue, a matrimonial commission, and a third area that seemed to involve the bishops working together on areas of joint church activity—prayer, pastoral statements, missionary strategy, practical collaboration on all areas of church life ‘to lead to working together for solutions to the problems of the world.’”
The theological dialogue became the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission in 1967 and is now in its third phase. The Commission on Marriage addressed questions of mixed marriages between Catholics and Anglicans and published its conclusions in 1975. “But the third dimension [of joint action] lay dormant for many decades,” Bishop Hamid noted.
Roadblocks to unity
Things began to change in the relationship between the two churches, however, following the Church of England’s decision to ordain women as priests in 1994. Subsequently, Bishop Hamid said, Canterbury’s Archbishop George Carey visited Pope John Paul II in the Vatican in 1996, and they agreed that “it may be opportune at this stage in our journey to consult further about how the relationship between the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church is to progress.”
This agreement led to a meeting of senior Catholic and Anglican bishops from 13 countries in the city of Mississauga, near Toronto, Canada, in May 2000.
There, the bishops reviewed the joint work in the dialogue since 1966 and concluded that “a very impressive level of agreement in faith” had been reached between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion. They called for a body that would “facilitate the development of strategies for translating the degree of spiritual communion that has been achieved into visible and practical outcomes.”
The Mississauga meeting “did not sweep aside any unresolved challenges,” Bishop Hamid said. Those issues related to the role of the universal primate (the pope), the question of Anglican orders, the ordination of women and differing approaches to certain moral and ethical questions. However, he said, “the bishops declared that these challenges were not to diminish all that we hold in common and all that we might do in common.”
After that meeting, which then-Bishop Walter Kasper, then secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, described as “the best meeting he had ever been to,” a working group visited Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Carey to gain their endorsement for the establishment of a new commission, and thus the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission came into existence in 2001. Significantly, it is formed entirely of bishops because at the Mississauga meeting Anglicans and Catholics recognized that they shared “the common understanding of bishops being the church’s leaders in unity and mission.”
Commenting on establishing a commission of only bishops, Archbishop Bolen remarked, “It’s not that we think that the church is all about bishops, but this is rather to give a nudge to bishops to play their rightful role in helping the churches to take steps towards unity.”
The commission was entrusted with “a threefold mandate,” Bishop Hamid explained: to write a common statement to be agreed and signed at the highest level of both churches to bring the two churches into a new relationship; to promote the reception of the [Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission] documents; and to foster tangible initiatives arising from the level of communion the churches already share.
Since 2001, however, the first task has not been realized because of what Bishop Hamid referred to as “some events” in the Anglican Communion, alluding to the ordination of women as priests and “different approaches to some moral and ethical questions” that led both sides to conclude that “the time was not right” for such an agreement. Instead, the commission published a statement in 2007, “Growing Together in Unity and Mission”; it summarized what has been achieved in the dialogue since 1966 and “what remains for further exploration.” It emphasized that “what we hold in common is not only sufficient but compels us to move forward in tangible communion in life and mission.”
Bishop Hamid noted that the commission’s website has documented what happened at the practical level in the Catholic-Anglican dialogue in the years up to 2016 when pairs of bishops belonging to the commission from 19 Anglican provinces and Catholic bishops’ conferences came together in Rome for a first summit meeting. That summit resulted in an appeal to the bishops and people of both churches called “Walking Together.”
In that appeal, the Catholic and Anglican bishops said:
Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we have caught glimpses of the truth that when we walk together humbly and honestly, the Risen Lord walks with us, and the Holy Spirit, who so deeply desires our reconciliation, guides us. Our walking under the Cross opens to a relational ecumenism of joy and hope. We were also encouraged to remember that it is more important to fail at things that will ultimately succeed than to succeed at things that will ultimately fail. Our pilgrimage is, and always has been, in the hands of God, who is author of time and Lord of history.
The Pope Francis era
In 2016, Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby encouraged the commission on this journey of “walking together,” Bishop Hamid recalled. During that first summit, Vespers were held at the Church of San Gregorio in Rome, from which Pope Gregory sent Augustine to England at the end of the sixth century. At that event, the pope and the archbishop commissioned the bishops “to be artisans of healing and reconciliation in the power of the Gospel, and to go forth as pairs of pilgrims, returning to our home nations and regions to encourage common prayer, mission and witness.”
During that prayer service, Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby showed yet again that progress in ecumenical relations is not just a matter of words; it also involves gestures. Francis gave the Archbishop of Canterbury a replica of the pastoral staff of St. Gregory the Great, a reminder, the appeal noted, “that at the heart of our proclamation as bishops is the love of God made manifest in the crucified and risen Christ, who is the Good Shepherd of us all.” Archbishop Welby gave Francis his own pectoral cross, the cross of nails from Coventry Cathedral, which the appeal describes as “a symbol of the sinfulness of war and violence, and of the new life which is made possible through the reconciling work of Calvary.”
Since 2001, the commission has expanded as a movement, and by January 2024, at the second summit in Rome, it was composed of bishops from 27 countries, including more representatives from Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and Africa.
Archbishop Bolen, who worked from 2001 to 2008 as desk officer for Anglican-Catholic relations and Methodist-Catholic relations at the Pontifical Council (now Dicastery) for the Promotion of Christian Unity, explained that the bishops at the commission’s summit have “an experience” because when they pray, discuss, share and eat together, “they experience the depth of communion that binds us together.”
Moreover, he said, “they experience that the Holy Spirit is at work in the context of the dialogue, at work in our building of relationships, moving past misunderstandings, learning to know and to recognize that the dialogue partner loves God, loves the church, desires to be a community of disciples, just as much as any participants themselves felt.” In other words, Archbishop Bolen said, “we experience that we are in real but incomplete communion.”
He said that this “real but incomplete communion” that Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), the official name of the theological dialogue group, “has registered” over the past half-century “has been profound” but “unresolved differences keep us from being able to take us the full step toward full communion.”
In this context, the commission has an important, complementary role to play, Archbishop Bolen explained, because “the underlying principle of the work of IARCCUM is that we are called to live out that real but incomplete communion in our ecclesial lives as fully as possible, and that we as bishops have a leading role in taking steps to make that happen.”
Put another way, he said, “whatever you hold in common should translate into action and to witness. And so, the more you hold in common, the more you should be able to do together.”
Yet, after more than 50 years of dialogue, he remarked, “there is a gap between the elements of faith we hold in common and the tangible expression of that shared belief in our ecclesial lives,” and in the commission, “we believe that it is time to bridge that gap.” He added, “That gap is for us and our churches to fill, guided by the Holy Spirit, who forms and summons us to be artisans of reconciliation.”
From dialogue to action
At this January’s summit, he said, they sought to bridge the gap by “walking together” and “praying together” in “the holy places” in Rome. He listed among these the basilicas of St. Peter and of St. Paul, the church of St. Gregory, the basilica of St. Bartholomew on Tiber Island, which has become the Shrine of the New Martyrs (among them are seven members of the Anglican religious order, the Melanesian Brotherhood), the Anglican Center, the Centro Pro Unione and finally Canterbury Cathedral, in England, where the Catholic bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Stephen Chow, S.J., preached during the celebration of the eucharistic liturgy.
At the summit, Archbishop Bolen said they also discussed how to bridge the gap in a variety of sessions that focused on such themes as synodality, the pursuit of justice, safeguarding and the exercise of authority.
He recalled that the commission’s working principle states that “Christian churches should do all things together except where deep differences require that we act separately.” Archbishop Bolen said: “This is a principle that has been endorsed by our respective churches, but in fact we don’t do that for the most part. In general, Christian churches act separately except when extraordinary circumstances force us to act together.” But, he said, “we can be part of reversing that. And it will matter to the world. It will strengthen our witness to the world.”
The co-chairs of the commission agreed that Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury gave an inspiring example—“an iconic image”—of the kind of Christian action that the commission is seeking to promote when, together with the moderator of the Church of Scotland, they went on a pilgrimage of peace to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, in February 2023, to give their support to the struggling peace process in that country. Such an ecumenical action by the leaders of those churches is without precedent in history. They blazed a trail of Christian witness for other Christian leaders to follow at local, national and international levels.
Five hours after our conversation, Archbishop Bolen and Bishop Hamid joined the Anglican and Catholic bishops and other Christian leaders for Vespers at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls for the closing of the 57th Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. At the end of this, Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby commissioned the bishops—in pairs of one Anglican and one Catholic—to return to their 27 home countries “to give witness to the hope that does not deceive, and to the unity for which Christ prayed” and to make “this ministry of reconciliation” their special care.
The Catholic and Anglican bishops of the commission concluded their weeklong summit by issuing a statement on Feb.1, in which they said:
After four centuries of conflict and separation, the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion have now been on a walk towards reconciliation for almost six decades. At times the path has been bumpy, but the Holy Spirit has been at work, and our churches have persevered in a dialogue which has been extraordinarily fruitful. As we have walked together, we have come to recognize each other as disciples of Jesus Christ who love God and desire to be faithful to the lead of the Spirit.”
They committed themselves “to engage in common witness, to build relationships of friendship in Christ, to walk a synodal path together, and to share wherever possible in the Church’s mission.”
As part of that mission of reconciliation, they committed themselves “to proclaim the Good News of peace to those in places scourged by ongoing wars, and to those who live under the threat of violence; the Good News of mercy to those who live with want and with guilt; and the Good News of justice and restoration to those who are oppressed or carrying shame inflicted on them by others.”