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Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury must not be afraid to argue

The ecumenical process will be enlivened by the Pontiff and archbishop having some spirited rows

By on Wednesday, 3 April 2013

The Archbishop of Canterbury strikes the West Door of Canterbury Cathedral

The Archbishop of Canterbury strikes the West Door of Canterbury Cathedral

There can be little doubt that the new Pope and the new Archbishop of Canterbury will get along very well. The two men share an admirable concern for the poor and the disenfranchised. They have similar styles when it comes to meet-and-greets and, perhaps most significantly, there is considerable harmony when it comes to the taproots of their spirituality. Welby, the Anglican who has sought spiritual advice from Catholics, is also a fan of Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Pope’s order. Francis, the Catholic who knows the value of grassroots initiatives, will have been impressed by Welby’s pre-enthronement “prayer pilgrimage”.

The similarities can be exaggerated, of course. That puzzling word “evangelical” has been mentioned a lot in recent weeks, but there is room for caution. An evangelical Catholic (and we might as well go by George Weigel’s detailed, but still rather hazy definition) is not the same as a Protestant Evangelical, and I can’t imagine that Francis would be terribly impressed by everything that transpires at Holy Trinity Brompton. Still, there is a lot of common ground, and this is marvellous. There was a time when popes and Archbishops of Canterbury spat anathemas at each other and traded accusations of heresy. It is good that we are past all that: sending congratulatory messages is much healthier for the Christian commonwealth than burning martyrs at the stake or indulging in continent-blighting religious wars. This doesn’t mean, however, that there should be no tension between Rome and Canterbury. It should always be a respectful but slightly awkward relationship, and there must always be an opportunity to articulate profound differences of opinion. This serves to make both communions stronger and lends moments of genuine agreement much greater significance. With some audacity I urge the Pope and the archbishop to bear this in mind whenever they share a pot of tea.

There are obvious reasons why they might resist this plea. They apparently face a common enemy, identified by Benedict XVI (or the Pope Emeritus, as we are now supposed to call him) in his congratulatory note to Welby: “You take up your office at a time when the Christian faith is being called into question in many parts of the western world by those who claim that religion is a private matter, with no contribution to offer to public debate.”

He lamented that “ministers of the Gospel today have to respond to a widespread deafness to the music of faith, and a general weariness that shuns the demands of discipleship”. His parting wish was that Welby’s “apostolate” would “open the eyes and ears of many to the life-giving message of the Gospel”.

This is an eminently sensible goal, and one that is assuredly shared by Pope Benedict’s successor, but how is it to be achieved? One option is to paper over the cracks and, with backs against the wall in this allegedly secular age, to present the most united front possible. I’m all for ecumenism, one of the glories of our time, but I worry that the process can sometimes go a little too far. Paradoxical as it may sound, admitting to the differences and disagreements gives a much more accurate impression of the Christian faith and, I’d venture, would be far more likely to impress the legions of people who assume that Christianity is a doddery, obsolete institution. The more passion and polite squabbling, the better. This denotes vibrancy and intellectual vigour which, in turn, are essential elements of cultural relevancy.

The two new men in the top jobs are well placed to fulfil this task. The relationship between the Vatican and Lambeth Palace is secure and is a case study in how old enemies can heal wounds. How wonderful it would be if the two men planted their respective flags in that rich soil, rejoiced in what they can achieve together, but didn’t shy away from falling out – preferably in public – over this or that issue. This wouldn’t dent the ecumenical project; it would simply be honest. In an ideal world I’d like them to clash about theology: the basics that still, and always will, separate a Catholic and a Protestant vision. This needn’t lead to antagonism and there is no need to be afraid. Modern sectarianism (which every reasonable person wants to eradicate and which popes and archbishops should never encourage) has rarely been about sophisticated theological argument: historical bruises and culturally determined tribalism have been the villains.

There is always room for a calm but strenuous theological debate and, with the 500th anniversary of Luther’s protest just around the corner, now is the perfect time. Perhaps Francis and Welby could co-sponsor the 21st-century equivalent of one of those often-forgotten 16th-century colloquies where opposing camps attempted to sort things out without budging an inch on the fundamentals. There can’t be an Anglican or a Catholic on the planet who wouldn’t welcome an update on the consequences of the Reformation: what have we learned, what do we have in common, what still divides us.

Back in the real world, I’d also like to see Francis and Justin Welby roll up their sleeves and confront the greatest source of tension between their respective communions with a little more vim. We could, of course, cling to the fantasy that the Catholic Church and the Church of England will one day be reunited but, let’s be honest, the chances of this happening are remote. Therefore, an Archbishop of Canterbury is perfectly entitled to be furious when members of his flock go over to Rome and he is bound to be uncomfortable with ordinariates being set up for disgruntled ex-Anglicans. A pope is perfectly entitled to be gleeful and to encourage such developments. A little more rivalry (nothing nasty, of course) would improve the general religious culture. I don’t doubt that some Anglicans who convert to Catholicism (and some of their peers who take the opposite journey) confront deep existential agonies and theological dilemmas and, needless to say, everyone is entitled to switch teams whenever they choose. But I worry that the process has become a little too run-of-the mill.

Rest assured that I am not encouraging a return to the bad old days of bigotry and name-calling. That would be dreadful. I’m delighted that Rome and Canterbury are, the odd scuffle aside, firm friends and I look forward to many positive joint projects in the years ahead. I’d simply welcome a little more healthy competition and Francis and Justin are clearly the men for the job. If you’ve never had a row with someone then he isn’t really a true friend. True friends bicker all the time because they know that, when the dust settles, their affection for each other will emerge undiminished, perhaps a little stronger because of the honest exchange of conflicting opinions. It’s a little more delicate when running churches (millions of people are involved and the risk of rekindling unhappy historical memories is always there), but in our grown-up ecumenical era, I’d like to think that the same logic applies.

Jonathan Wright is the author of The Jesuits: Missions, Myths and Histories (2nd edition, HarperCollins, 2010) and editor of The Jesuit Suppression: Causes, Events and Consequences (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming, 2014)

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald, March 29 2013

  • Peter

    Again do not run down the missionary orders and the work they do, which are increasingly made up of local people.

  • $20596475

    Well I suppose in your inverted world that might be true, so thanks for your thanks. Glad to help you.

  • luay

    All you see is arguments about the several million denominations. Stop crying and realise you are a new creation in christ!

  • $20596475

    They are EXACTLY the people I do work with abroad. It is those Catholics who get their hands dirty, trying to help others, that I most admire. I am in an organisation in which I am the only non Catholic member. I am much respected, indeed I feel a lot of love from the others, who truly appreciate what I do. When they propose impractical ideas it is me who cuts through the nonsense and gets things down to what really can be achieved. Some might call some of it “relativism”, but if it ends up feeding hungry people I really don’t care.

  • Dr Falk

    I agree but the issue was the comment by the poster above that the ‘Church DOES have all the answers’. If it has why these episodes? I’m afraid a Delphic Oracle of the Church won’t work historically or theologically.

  • Dr Falk

    Yes JabbaPapa. But I think we would both agree that parables are there to teach us how to live now. Doesn’t the Lord Himself say at the end of this parable ‘Go and do likewise’?

  • Dr Falk

    Yes I am good. Take care and have a good weekend.

  • Dr Falk

    Dear Peter,
    I’m sorry if you thought I was attacking missionaries. I was trying to point out that often people find a better Christian witness in the world than in the Church. This doesn’t mean there are not millions of good Catholics including missionaries doing wonderful work. My own experience is that I have seen the Presence of Christ many many times outside the visible bounds of the Church as well as many many times in it.

  • Dr Falk

    What would you say if these ecumenical teachings were found before the Council in the highest quarters?

  • Dr Falk

    Dear scary goat,

    Samaritans were regarded by the Jews as believers in false teaching / heretics / enemies of the true Temple. The term ‘Samaritan’ was used as abuse. Jesus was accused of being a Samaritan and a devil in the same breath (John 8:48) For the Jewish lawyer to hear this parable would be a real challenge. It would like telling the story to a strict traditionalist Catholic and putting a Protestant in the place of the Good Samaritan.

    The issue in the story was above love – a deeply theological issue. In fact as you will know one of the three theological virtues.

    We can learn from many sources. We should never limit the working of the Holy Spirit or where he may work. He is sovereign. He doesn’t necessarily work in our boxes. Let’s be open to that voice.

  • Dr Falk

    First on the grace question. The question was the great dispute between the Dominicans and Jesuits. It ended with the commission ‘Congregatio de Auxiliis’ finishing in 1607 refusing to take one side or another. If the Church always has all the answers why no answer here despite 85 conferences in the papal presence?

    On Galileo I am afraid my friend you are not correct. In 1616 a decree confirmed by the Pope said the teaching was ‘wholly repugnant to the sacred scriptures – concerning the mobility of the earth and the immobility of the sun’ ( Addis and Arnold Catholic Dictionary, 1928,p 372-3). Galileo was condemned for teaching against what church authorities thought was true Scripture teaching. So if the Church always has the answer to everything why was it wrong here?

  • Dr Falk

    Yes – God’s grace and goodness works in Anglican people – sometimes to very high degrees. This may circumvent aspects of Anglicanism but it also works through parts of it too such as baptism, spiritual direction, prayer, spiritual reading, etc. So God’s grace works in and through the Anglican Church. Have you ever seen the statement by Cardinal Manning about those outside the Church saying ‘I have intimately known souls living by faith, hope and charity, and the sanctifying grace with the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, in humility, absolute purity of life and heart,in constant meditation on Holy Scripture,unceasing prayer,complete self denial,personal work among the poor: in a word living lives of visible sanctification, as undoubtedly the work of the Holy Ghost I have ever seen’ That’s people outside the Church spoken of here – people who were saints who Manning knew. Did Manning’s example, prayers and spiritual guidance as an Anglican not help them in this? Of course it did.

  • Dr Falk

    Good post. Your focus on obstinacy against the known position of the Faith of the Church and that they could be fallible and inaccurate without being heretical gives us good ground to say that Protestants and Orthodox may be mistaken and inaccurate rather than heretical for as you say pertinacy is the mark of real heresy..

  • Dr Falk

    I think you are right in the sense that The SI was aimed at the Conversos, Moriscos, a few Protestant people and the Alumbrados ( who were a semi Catholic mystical group) along with those who were involved in offences. St John of Avila appeared before the SI for his sermons but was acquitted. The Church was connected with the SI. Many of the inquisitors were secular clergy. The Dominican Grand Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada was a supporter of the Alhambra Decree. The Dominican theologian Diego Deza was also a Grand Inquisitor,

  • scary goat

    I still think you are mixing apples and burgers. If the Catholic Faith is the one true faith, protestants, in the nature of the fact that they protested against the true Faith have nothing to teach the Church….any more than the Samaritan story was about the Samaritan teaching the Jewish Faith. It is a story about kindness and hypocrisy, humanity and hardness of heart, and actions speak louder than words and God sees and knows. As I said, of course we can learn good things from anyone else’s behaviour, that doesn’t mean they have anything to teach us in terms of the Faith.

    I’m a little bit worried about your likening the Traditionalist Catholic to the Jewish Lawyer. Personally I find orthodox Catholics to be some of the kindest people. And I’m not quite sure about protestants necessarily being good Samaritans. I’m a pretty orthodox Catholic and my best friend for donkeys’ years has been a non-Catholic but very spiritual person.(ignorant of the Catholic Faith) I like her because she is a lovely kind person. She has been moving slowly towards the Catholic Faith through me. She has also been “friends” for the last 2 years with a Jehova’s Witness….until she told her that she wasn’t convinced and wasn’t intending to convert….at which point her friend dropped her like a hot brick.

  • Dr Falk

    Dear scary goat,

    Thank you for replying. Thanks also for the sharing about your friends and your friend’s experience with the JW’s. In reply I would say:

    (1) I think we disagree on the relationship between behaviour and belief. You seem to have a wall between the two – oranges and burgers. I see the two as flowing from and into one another. Even when people don’t have an explicit belief in Christ or God good works and kindness are a reflection of God’s image and likeness in them. It is also possibly an implicit faith which they have but don’t see or name. I would respectfully suggest the parable is about theological issues. The lawyer asks about inheriting eternal life. he speaks about loving God and his neighbour and that leads to the story. The end of the story is ‘Go and do likewise’ ( Luke 10 ). I would say this shows how all these things are connected and joined.

    (2) Can those outside teach us anything about Faith? I would say yes. The Samaritan did – he was not only outside but despised. Let me give two other examples. First if you look at Pope Benedict’s books you will see him quoting Protestant theologians and scripture scholars. He does this not to invent new teaching but because their thought and reflection help us better understand the story and it’s meanings. It doesn’t add to the faith but it helps bring out the details,inner meanings, connections with other faith areas and it’s link to the spiritual life and contemporary scene. The second is more controversial. There have been times when the Church has been wrong and the world has been right. The Church eventually caught up. An example is the truly horrific practice of castrati – a form of institutional child abuse. This was practiced with high church approval for centuries. The Italian goverment forbade this in 1861. This was finally ended in the church in 1903 by Pope St Pius X. The secular Italian goverment had a better grasp of what was right than the Church at the time. We can learn from the world and other believers what the Faith should be.

  • Dr Falk

    Let’s rejoice wherever we see the Holy Spirit working. He blows like the wind where he wills. St Justin Martyr the great Christian apologist saw Socrates and Heraclitus the Greek philosophers as Christians.

  • Dr Falk

    Dear Chatry Priest,

    Before calling people heretics perhaps you could offer a canonical definition of heresy so we can see what we are dealing with.

  • scary goat

    Exactly. This is the whole point.

  • scary goat

    Hi again Dr Falk. We seem to be talking at crossed purposes here. You seem to think that I have a wall between belief and behaviour but from my perspective it is you who has that wall. You seem to be assuming that “traditionalists” are too busy fussing about the rules to be kind people, which is a total misconception. You can have both. I would have thought the ideal is to have both. Surely the point being made was that rules without kindness (love) is hypocrisy? And of course, kindness in any person is a good thing. But, if I see human kindness in a strongly anti-theist person (as an extreme example), does it mean he has something to teach me about the Faith? I can admire his kindness, I can look in the mirror and wonder if he has put me to shame and try to do better, but should I incorporate his (non) religious views into mine? Heresy is not a “swear word”. As someone else has pointed out above, it means to be in error, and error should be corrected not pandered to or incorporated. I don’t think Jesus said: Hey, scrap the rules, love and peace man. I think we believe in faith and works. Yes we can learn from the works of others…not the Faith. And there is also the question of “invincible ignorance” as Jabba pointed out, and either Parasum or Mr C pointed out that those outside the Church can be saved in spite of their (other religion whatever that might be) not because of it.

    Your second paragraph you are talking about faith….I was talking about The Faith.

  • Dr Falk

    Hello scary goat,
    I think you are right – we have been talking at cross purposes. I suppose that can happen on blogs. I agree with most of what you say. I’m sorry if I gave the impression that I think traditionalists aren’t or can’t be kind. I have mentioned rules because they become religion for some people and replace love as the centre of our faith. While Jesus didn’t scrap rules he broke them to love and meet human need – that is undeniable – it’s in the Gospels. With all good wishes and prayers.