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Receiving ministries, Anglican and Roman Catholic

A number of news services have highlighted October 5’s considerable ecumenical events, in celebration of the 50 years of the Anglican Centre in Rome, founded after Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey’s visit to Pope Paul VI in 1966. At that time, Pope Paul gave Archbishop Ramsey his episcopal ring, a gesture of lasting ecumenical significance.

Matt Townsend and I reported at The Living Church on the papers at the symposium, as well as milestones on the way to a new ecumenism (“Ecumenism that Transforms”).

ACNS noted the commissioning of 19 pairs of Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops, as part of a new phase of the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity and Mission (IARCCUM). ACNS also provided further reporting on the bishops’ pilgrimage and the sort of work they hope to do upon their return to their dioceses.

ACNS, ENS, and The Living Church reported on the common declaration of Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby (see here, here, and here).

But none of them offered an interpretation of the numerous, highly significant ecumenical statements and gestures during the events in Rome, not least as they related to the papacy and the status of the Anglican episcopate.

It began in the morning with Bishop Bernard Longley’s statement during the IARCCUM symposium held at the Pontifical Gregorian University. As Matt Townsend and I highlighted, he described Pope Paul VI’s gift of his episcopal ring to Michael Ramsey in important terms, as “Vatican II’s ‘recognition of the continuity of episcopal ministry’ in the Anglican Communion. Longley’s remark is among the most explicit affirmations of Anglicanism’s apostolic succession by a Catholic bishop” (see “Ecumenism that Transforms”).

The significant gestures, implicit statements, and explicit commitments then continued most obviously during the ecumenical service of Vespers, held at the Church of Santi Andrea e Gregorio al Celio, a resonant site for Anglican-Roman Catholic relations. Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine of Canterbury from this monastery to England around the turn of the seventh century.

Image, icon, relic

For those attending the event, the image on the cover of the order of service already hinted at weighty moments to come: it depicted St. Peter’s repentance after denying his Lord three times, with the Latin version of Luke 22:61: Conversus dominus respexit Petrum (“The Lord turned and looked at Peter”). Such a statement of papal repentance, in light of previous statements about the obstacle and scandal the papacy can present to ecumenical unit (see Ut Unum Sint), set the tone from the beginning.

crozierThroughout the service, the crozier of St. Gregory the Great was placed prominently in front of the congregation. This crozier appeared at the recent Anglican Primates’ Meeting, on loan from San Gregorio, as a symbol of Anglican origins and unity. (See Neil Dhingra’s “Justin Welby, liturgy, and orthodoxy in the Anglican future” for a further interpretation of its appearance there.)

Finally, an icon stood up front throughout, directly next to the crozier, depicting Gregory the Great and Augustine of Canterbury standing next to Jesus Christ in postures of prayerful surrender.

Photo credit: Fr. Matthew Olver


The service’s texts addressed the theme of grace, unity, and pastoral ministry in complex ways.

Psalms 125 and 126 were sung in Gregorian and Anglican chant by the choirs of the Sistine Chapel and Canterbury Cathedral:

“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream.”

“Except the Lord build the house, their labor is but lost who build it.”

The canticle from Colossians 1:12-20 drew attention to Christ’s status as the “head of the church,” and as one who holds primacy in every situation: once again, an evocative text for Anglicans and Roman Catholics who have often been divided on questions related to the exercise of authority.

Ephesians 3:20-21 reminded the congregation that God is able to do far more than “we can ask or imagine,” returning to the theme of a prayer Archbishop Welby offered for ecumenical unity after the morning’s seminar, as we reported yesterday.

And Ezekiel 34:11-16 represented a moment not to be missed. The prophet’s text, a favorite of St. Gregory the Great when he preached to bishops and priests, speaks of God’s determination to shepherd his flock well, not allowing them to be dispersed or harmed. The context of the whole chapter involves a polemic against the “shepherds of Israel” who had devoured God’s flock (34:10). In response, God himself will shepherd his people, not least by appointing “one shepherd” who will feed his flock (34:23), namely, the messianic son of David.

Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin addressed similar themes in their homilies, and drew out others, such as the need to see and receive the gifts of our brethren, as well as look outward at a suffering world, whose people are like “sheep without a shepherd.”


But, in the midst of this rich service of prayer and scriptural meditation concerning some of the most significant texts on the Church and pastoral ministry, the most significant moment of the evening came near the end.

The Pope and Archbishop exchanged gifts: Francis gave Justin an episcopal crozier, modeled after the crozier of St. Gregory and a common symbol of the pastoral office of bishops; and Justin gave Francis a pectoral cross, another common symbol of the episcopacy.

Here, we had an occasion in which the symbolic, affective gestures of Anglicans and Roman Catholics ran somewhat ahead of the official dialogues, not unlike previous gestures, as I noted some months ago (“Roman Catholics recognizing the Anglican patrimony”). Here, both communions, in the persons of Pope and Archbishop, received each other’s gifts, in the form of a common episcopate.

No doubt, many Anglicans and Roman Catholics would emphasize the inherent instability or ambiguity of such liturgical action, or question the meaning I have drawn out. After all, is it possible to narrow down precisely what was meant by such a complex gathering of texts, sacred art, and gestures? (I have not even described the music.)

Yet such a dismissal would miss the point. The event indeed points beyond itself and beyond a singular meaning.

Not only did the entirety of the day embody a significant Roman Catholic affirmation of the Anglican episcopate, it visibly demonstrated the affection of both communions for one another; it signaled a living commitment to dialogue and furthering unity in the midst of many difficulties and setbacks; and it charted a course for a renewed spirit of ecumenism — one based not simply on clarity of theological expression, but also on shared action and prayer for the sake of the world.

It highlighted also the rich space provided by joint liturgical celebration, in which we learn to see ourselves differently, rehearse our true character, and experience the transformation that stems from mutual love, prayerfully expressed — love of each other and of the Lord.


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