THERE is a cricket bat on its way to the Pope, signed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is gift from the team who travelled to Rome last week, even though no one expects him to use it. Such unlikely gestures are becoming common: a match between priests and ordinands with different backgrounds, the gift of a pectoral cross, the lending of an ivory crozier, invitations to hold services in Canterbury Cathedral and St Peter’s Basilica, and a further meeting this week between two men who respect each other. Looking at two global institutions divided over centuries, separated by theology and bureaucracy, with a history that includes long violent episodes between their adherents (as the BBC series Gunpowder has reminded us yet again this week), and still believing each other to be in error on such matters as gender, priesthood, and authority, these gestures seem too feeble to have any meaning. Were they all the contact between the two Churches, this would be true. But a new generation is emerging that fails — or declines — to recognise the differences between any who seek to worship and serve Christ.
In his address to those engaged in theological dialogue between Methodists and Roman Catholics, Pope Francis spoke with yearning of the time “when, at last, we will be able to join one another in the breaking of the bread”. There is, though, another approach to unity which begins with the eucharist. This approach has been practised by Anglicans for decades: every Anglican eucharist includes an invitation, sometimes spoken, sometimes implied, to communicants of all other denominations. The argument is that, far from indicating a lack of respect for the consecrated elements, it recognises in them an efficacy that transcends all earthly division, and a need in communicants that it would be a scandal to deny.
It is always a danger to ignore history, but sometimes those who do, give a lead to others, the theologians and diplomats, whose task it is to address the wrinkles in a relationship that have a historical root. These men and women carry the burden of having to attend to the litter left by past generations, preventing the recycling of spent and harmful arguments, but retrieving insights that lead the Churches into truth. Like that of roadsweepers, their work goes largely unseen, and this can be painful; but perhaps it is their gift to the next generation.
Pope Francis appears to acknowledge this new understanding among younger Catholics and Protestants, whose faith expresses itself beyond the bounds set by the Churches of their birth or the denominations in which they were nurtured. He has spoken of participation in the mass as a matter of individual conscience. Many of his followers have consulted their consciences, and found them clear. There is, therefore, a weight off the shoulders of those engaged in ecumenical dialogue, and of church leaders when they meet. They do not have to lead their people towards unity. They have to follow them.