THE Archbishop of Canterbury spent two days in Rome this week, accompanied by 17 leaders from other Anglican Provinces worldwide, as well as pairs of Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops who discussed ways of forging closer partnerships in mission.
At an audience in the Vatican on Thursday, Pope Francis said that it was “a beautiful sign of fraternity” to see the Primates of so many Anglican Provinces celebrating the fruits of the first meeting 50 years ago between his predecessor Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Michael Ramsey.
“Let us never grow tired of asking the Lord together and insistently for the gift of unity,” the Pope said. All church leaders were being challenged to go out and bring God’s “merciful love to a world thirsting for peace”.
Archbishop Welby thanked the Pope for his leadership, and for the important effect that this has had on the Anglican Communion. He said: “You have recalled us afresh to the needs of ministering with the poor. You have set a Christ-like example by your travel to places of suffering and difficulty. You have stood alongside migrant peoples. You have initiated work on modern slavery and human trafficking, and much more.
“You gave essential force to the meeting of nations in Paris on climate change. Your letters and encyclicals have spoken far beyond Rome and her Church, in a manner which is universal.”
The two leaders also spent close to an hour in private conversation, sharing jokes and discussing everything from prayer to peacemaking, from sexual ethics to the personal revelations that Welby made earlier this year regarding his own father’s identity.
It was a relaxed and friendly encounter between two leaders who clearly share many spiritual and practical objectives. On Wednesday evening, they presided at a celebration of Vespers sung by the Sistine Chapel choir alongside Canterbury Cathedral choir in the ancient Rome church of San Gregorio on the Caelian Hill.
On the spot where Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine out on mission to evangelise the English at the end of the sixth century, Francis and Welby “sent out” on mission together the pairs of Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops, before signing a common declaration recommitting their Churches to take the gospel “to the ends of the earth”, and, in particular, “to those on the margins and the peripheries of our societies”.
Significantly, the declaration does not sidestep the “serious obstacles” that continue to divide Anglicans and Roman Catholics (and cause tensions within both Churches), most notably the disagreements over women’s ordination and same-sex relationships.
But these differences, it says, must not hold us back from “recognising one another as brothers and sisters in Christ”, and “rejoicing in the deep Christian faith and holiness we find within each other’s traditions”.
Fifty years ago, Pope Paul VI recognized Michael Ramsey as “a brother in Christ” by placing on the Anglican leader’s finger his own episcopal ring, a gesture which witnesses said moved the elderly Archbishop to tears.
In a reciprocal gesture on Wednesday, Archbishop Welby gave Pope Francis a silver Cross of Nails, based on the Coventry symbol of reconciliation, as a sign of their renewed partnership in the urgent work of reconciliation today. The Pope put it around his neck before the two leaders gave a joint blessing, a gesture that would have been unthinkable half a century ago.
It was a similarly moving moment for all the congregation, in particular for Archbishop Welby, who summed up the two-day visit by affirming that Anglicans and Catholics “have found renewed impetus and momentum” in how they “work and walk together”.