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Moxon moves on: ‘We’ve experienced an embrace which has encouraged me enormously’

16 June 2017

As he packs up his belongings, Archbishop David Moxon speaks to Philippa Hitchen about his four years in Rome.

 L’Osservatore Romano/PA

Warm relations: Pope Francis greets Archbishop David Moxon

Warm relations: Pope Francis greets Archbishop David Moxon

THE outgoing director of the Anglican Centre in Rome, the Most Revd David Moxon, likes to say that he “hit the ground kneeling” when he took up the post in May 2013.

Although he is obviously keen to underline the need for humility and prayer, it would be fair to say that he also hit the ground running, as he also took up the related appointment of Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative to the Holy See.

A few weeks earlier, on 19 March 2013, he had been in St Peter’s Square for the inauguration of Pope Francis’s ministry, after the surprise resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. Two days after that, he was in Canterbury Cathedral for Archbishop Welby’s enthronement.

In June, just one month into his new post, Archbishop Moxon was on hand to introduce the new Archbishop of Canterbury and his wife, Caroline, to the Pope, during a first official visit to the Vatican.

But the New Zealand bishop is used to taking things in his stride. From serving as head boy at high school in his native Palmerston North to becoming the nation’s youngest bishop in 1993, or co-chairing the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission at one of the most difficult moments in the history of the dialogue, he seems to relish the challenge of turning a crisis into an opportunity.

The hardest part of his new job, as he openly admits, was moving to Rome while the rest of his family stayed on the other side of the world. His wife, Tureiti, of Maori descent, has a demanding job as director of one of the primary health-care providers in New Zealand.

Their four children are grown up, and Archbishop Moxon says that he could not have taken on the position with a younger family. Computer technology has also been a life-saver, he says. “Almost every morning, I make coffee, sit at my kitchen table, and get on my iPhone and chat [via Facetime or Skype]. Every Sunday, [at] family dinners, I can say grace, interact normally; I wouldn’t have taken the job without it.”


WHILE the past four years have brought a significant warming in Anglican-Roman Catholic relations, Archbishop Moxon has also had to weather significant challenges, most notably regarding the anti-trafficking Global Freedom Network, which was set up in the Vatican in March 2014.

Funded by the Australian entrepreneur Andrew Forrest, the network brought together Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Muslim leaders committed to combating modern slavery. That December, an impressive line-up of religious leaders from all the main faiths met Pope Francis to sign an unprecedented joint declaration that was hailed by the UN chief Ban Ki-moon.

The next year, however, the Vatican withdrew from the organisation’s executive board, saying that there were concerns that the Pope risked being exploited to further Mr Forrest’s business interests. It is a sign of Archbishop Moxon’s negotiating skills, and the trust that he had established in Vatican circles, that he was able to calm the waters and advocate continued ecumenical co-operation in this vital work.

Another area that he saw as a priority for both RC and Anglican leaders was that of supporting the huge numbers of migrants and refugees fleeing from North Africa across the Mediterranean Sea, often losing their lives in the process.

In 2016, before celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Anglican Centre, Archbishop Moxon travelled to the Italian island of Lampedusa, close to the Libyan coast, which Pope Francis had visited at the start of his pontificate.

There, Archbishop Moxon prayed at the cemetery, with its section dedicated to unnamed victims of this ongoing tragedy, and brought back with him a simple wooden cross, made of wood from capsized boats that had washed up on the shores (News, 3 June 2016). He also talked to the president of the Federation of Evangelical Churches in Italy about ways of supporting Mediterranean Hope, a joint project with the RC Sant’Egidio Community, which is working to create humanitarian corridors for refugees fleeing from poverty and conflict.


ALONGSIDE these joint justice initiatives, Archbishop Moxon points to a series of significant spiritual developments that he has overseen during his time in Rome. “Just at the point when we thought there were obstacles that might divide us,” he says, “we’ve experienced an embrace, a collaboration, a partnership . . . at the liturgical and theological level which has encouraged me enormously.”

Among the highlights of his last months in office was a historic first celebration of evensong at the high altar of St Peter’s Basilica (News, 17 March): something that he describes as “a remarkable breakthrough for us”. The liturgy — at which he presided, and the Secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the Most Revd Arthur Roche, preached — concluded with a procession and prayers at the tomb of St Gregory, on the day on which Pope Francis marked the fourth anniversary of his election.

Another highlight of the past year has been Archbishop Welby’s visit to Rome in October, to mark the half-century of the Anglican Centre. The visit culminated in the signing of a new common declaration by the two leaders, at vespers, in San Gregorio, on the Caelian Hill, accompanied by the choirs of Canterbury Cathedral and the Sistine Chapel (News, 14 October 2016).

During the service, 20 pairs of Anglican and RC bishops were symbolically sent out on mission together, recalling how Pope Gregory sent Augustine, prior of the monastery on the Caelian Hill, to evangelise the English at the end of the sixth century. It was a moment, Archbishop Moxon recalls, which “moved us to the core”.


THERE is no doubt that the chilly atmosphere of “ecumenical winter”, as Anglicans moved to consecrate women bishops, and the Vatican set up its Ordinariate to encourage Anglicans setting their sights on Rome, has melted into a much warmer relationship.

Pope Francis’s personality, Archbishop Moxon says, has been a key part of this rapprochement, through his “openness” and his “hospitality”, as well as “his ecclesiology and missiology”. Those traits are also reflected in Archbishop Welby’s character, he continues; so “what you see is a common approach to evangelisation, to human vulnerability, an honesty and common approach to celebrating God’s presence among our ordinariness.”

The sceptics, however, continue to point to a lack of progress on theological differences, particularly over authority, and ethical questions that are at the heart of ARCIC III (the current third phase of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission).

As a Primate of the Church in New Zealand, and one of three Primates of the Pacific region, Archbishop Moxon was recruited to co-chair the dialogue before its 2011 inaugural meeting in the monastery of Bose in northern Italy. His RC counterpart is the Archbishop of Birmingham, the Most Revd Bernard Longley, whom he has known since the two were undergraduates together at Oxford. It is a tribute to their leadership that the work of this group has stayed on track, despite substantial differences, and has led to agreement on the first question: how local and universal authority is understood.


WHILE some in ARCIC remain cautious about the pace of progress, Archbishop Moxon has always been determinedly upbeat in his assessment of recent achievements. “[We] have seen incremental progress,” he insists, which is “not dramatic, not overnight, not revolutionary, but evolutionary”.

On the question how authority is exercised in the two Churches, he notes the way in which Roman Catholics, under Pope Francis, have begun “experimenting with a huge synodical process”, while Anglicans are now “experimenting with international communality of a kind”. On the sensitive issue of women’s ordination, he points to the commission that the Pope has recently established to consider “whether Catholic women deacons may be considered for ordination or not”.

Away from the spotlight, Archbishop Moxon has achieved much in terms of grass-roots relationships with RC groups in Rome: in particular, with the English-speaking Caravita community, which has a covenant of co-operation with the Anglican Centre. His simple, powerful preaching, as well as his sense of humour and easy manner with worshippers from all walks of life, has endeared him to many people beyond the ecumenical “inner circle”.

At the Anglican Centre, he has built on the work of his predecessors: the annual residential courses on offer have been increased to 12, and the centre’s reputation as a place of hospitality, worship, and welcome for people of all faiths and backgrounds has been expanded.

The Archbishop also leaves the centre on a firmer financial footing for the next half-century, after a concerted outreach to donors through high-profile events in Rome, London, and beyond.


REFLECTING on what he has found most interesting and enriching during these years in the Eternal City, Archbishop Moxon speaks of “the impact of Catholic spirituality around St Ignatius, St Clare, and St Francis, as I see it embodied in the Pope”. Understanding Ignatian spiritual discernment is crucial to seeing “why he acts the way he does as a Jesuit”, the Archbishop says.

But, at the same time, “he’s chosen the name Francis; so you get Franciscan missiology with that.”

Delving into these two aspects “with friends from Caravita, Colomban Fathers, and others has helped [to] hone up those things in me, and will remain a personal and deep part of me to the end of my days”.

So, what lies ahead at the end of these four years on the coalface of RC-Anglican dialogue? The Archbishop, who was knighted in the 2014 New Year Honours for services to the Anglican Church, smiles broadly, and replies that he is going back home “to be a hobbit”.

Besides being an allusion to his desire to return to the relative tranquillity of his native New Zealand, that is also a reference to a book he wrote more than 20 years ago: A Once and Future Myth: An applied theology of J. R. R. Tolkien’s theology of The Lord of the Rings. Just as Tolkien’s diminutive characters enjoy the simple, bucolic lifestyle of the Shire, so the Archbishop plans (for the foreseeable future, at least) to return to a routine that revolves around “hearth and home, family and friends”.

As he packs up his belongings in the elegant Doria Pamphilj palace, which houses the Anglican Centre, I ask whether he has any recommendations for his successor, the former Primate of Burundi, the Most Revd Bernard Ntahoturi, who will be installed in October. “I would say ‘Hit the ground kneeling’,” he says simply, “because it’s the only way to achieve anything.”

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