Since their inception 50 years ago, ecumenical dialogues between Roman Catholic and Anglican churches have often focussed on arcane points of doctrinal similarity and difference.
But there is a growing desire in both churches to see unity as more than an end in itself, said Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, reflecting on his recent trip to Rome.
“The unity of the church is not for the church itself, and if it is, we might as well stop talking,” Hiltz said in an interview. “The unity of the church has to be in the interest of a common and faithful and united witness to the gospel, and the gospel is clearly for the world.”
Hiltz travelled to Italy October 4-6 as part of a delegation of Anglican primates and bishops led by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Anglican Centre in Rome. It was his first time in Rome, and his first time meeting Pope Francis, whose work he admires and often quotes.
“It was an amazing experience,” Hiltz said, noting how impressed he was by the pontiff’s humility and grace.
He recalled one particular moment, when Welby and Francis had just entered the courtyard of a church and were about to proceed into an ecumenical service together when there was a burst of applause. Assuming it was for the Pope, Welby stepped back. Francis, however, gestured for him to continue to walk shoulder to shoulder with him.
“[Francis’] first words to Justin Welby when Justin made his first visit to Rome were, ‘we must walk together,'” Hiltz explained. “There is such integrity to the man-you know, we must walk together literally as well as figuratively.”
The leaders of both churches later exchanged gifts. Welby received a crosier modelled after the one given by Pope Gregory the Great to Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, in 595. In return, he gave Francis his trademark pectoral cross of nails.
During the visit he was also struck by the comparison between the current Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope-both of whom are similarly interested in the practical ways the church can shape the world-and their predecessors, Rowan Williams and Benedict XVI, who were more scholarly and contemplative in their approach.
“Justin and Francis have a very different style [from Rowan and Benedict],” he said. “It is very relational, and it is very, if I can put it this way, worldly. When they talk about unity, they always talk about it, really, for the sake of our common witness in a world of division and a world of great tragedy.”
It was a point underscored by the joint declaration signed by both leaders on October 5, which highlighted common views on issues like poverty and the refugee crisis.
But the service leading up to the signing of the joint declaration was only one part of the three-day trip.
In addition to touring the Anglican Centre, which serves thousands of pilgrims every year, the bishops participated in a colloquium of Anglican and Roman Catholic theologians discussing the history and future of ecumenical dialogue between the churches.
Hiltz said one of the most stimulating talks was by the Rev. Étienne Vetö, a Roman Catholic priest from France, on the future of the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches.
Vetö noted that in the next 50 years, both churches would be facing similar changes. For example, in addition to issues around gender inclusion, Anglicans and Catholics will both have to adapt to a change in the centre of gravity away from traditional European cities like Rome, Canterbury and Geneva and toward metropolises in the Global South like Buenos Aires, Manila and Mombasa.
While Hiltz found Vetö’s points compelling, he said he was left wondering what Jerusalem’s role in the global church will be.
“It would be interesting to see what the relationships between places like Canterbury and Rome, 50 years down the road, what will their relationship with Jerusalem itself look like?” he said, noting he would also like to know more about what, if any, relationship the Anglican Centre in Rome has to Jerusalem.
Hiltz noted that the bishops also learned a little more about the future direction the ecumenical dialogues will be taking. While questions about the doctrinal differences between the churches remain important, the dialogues themselves are shifting to discussions about how the churches could “live out” the statements of agreement they already have.
Hiltz added that the Anglican and Roman Catholic ecumenical dialogues are shifting away from doctrine to discussions about how the churches could “live out” the statements of agreement they already have.
This shift comes at a time, however, when points that both churches once agreed on relating to marriage have collided.
For example, the Anglican Church of Canada’s move toward solemnizing the marriages of same-sex couples puts it at odds with Roman Catholic teachings on marriage. However, Hiltz said it was not an issue that came up for him or for any of the leaders of provinces that have made similar decisions.
“There was no kind of public calling into question the integrity of the Canadian church, or The Episcopal Church, or the Scottish Episcopal Church,” he said. “The focus was elsewhere.”
He acknowledged that this topic might have been discussed in the meeting of the bishops who are part of the International Anglican Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission (IARCCUM), which took place during the delegation’s visit. Bishop Dennis Drainville was the Canadian representative at this IARCCUM meeting, but was unavailable for comment at press time.
Hiltz said that one of the themes that emerged from the conference was the sense that “ecumenism has to be built on relationships…if it is built on relationship, then it is not what I bring to the table to correct you, it is what do I have to learn from you, and what do you have to learn from me?”
This approach, called “receptive ecumenism,” highlights differences between denominations not to try and overcome them, but to learn from them, he said.
For example, Hiltz said that one of the things Catholic theologians identified as an area where they could learn from Anglicans is the inclusion of laity in conciliar structures and electing new bishops. Their Anglican counterparts, on the other hand, said the Communion might be able to learn something from Catholicism’s non-parliamentary approach to decision-making to strengthen the instruments of communion.
In addition to discussing the current status of unity between the two churches there were also practical expressions of it, according to Hiltz.
On the night of October 5, ecumenical vespers were held at the Basilica of San Gregorio al Celio, where the choirs of the Sistine Chapel and Canterbury Cathedral sang together. During the service, 19 pairs of Anglican and Catholic bishops were commissioned for united mission. The next day, they were presented with Lampedusa crosses during a service at San Francesco Saverio del Caravita.
Named after an island between Sicily and Tunisia, Lampedusa crosses are made of wood from the wreckage of boats carrying migrants and refugees that capsized between North Africa and Europe in 2013.
Hiltz said the crosses were given “as a reminder to us of our call to unity and mission, and that mission is for the sake of the world, and the suffering peoples of the world.”
For him, it was yet another reminder that ecumenical dialogue is not only a matter of discussing doctrine.
“What is the point of our unity?” he asked, letting the question hang in the air. “Is it for the sake of the church alone, or is it for the sake of the world and a common witness to the gospel?”