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

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