Cheerful news for a Friday: Catholic-Anglican relations are actually in good shape

The Most Rev Justin Welby (Photo: CNS)

Here is some cheerful and encouraging reading for a Friday – the full texts of the official speeches of Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury at their recent meeting. I urge you all to read it in full. It is nice and short too, which is an advantage.

There are several things worth commenting on. First of all, what was not said. There was no mention whatever of the question of women bishops in the Anglican communion. Presumably the reason for this is because the matter is simply not worth discussing, and can be relegated to the realm of things we simply must agree to disagree on.

Second, it is notable that there are matters that are still of mutual interest and where the Catholic Church and the Anglicans can make a difference by co-operating with each other. One such is the question of Syria, which presumably was discussed in greater detail behind the scenes. But there is more to it than Syria. In the whole matter of social teaching, the Catholic Church and the Anglicans can make a combined impact, as well as in the question of moral teaching. The Pope makes a point of referring to the strong defence of marriage recently made by the archbishop.

There is also a reference, which one suspects somehow had to be there, to ARCIC. But ARCIC is not what it once was (or, as some would doubtless prefer to put it, it is dead in the water). But if ARCIC has failed (and all the talk of corporate reunion that it once engendered now seems very odd to contemporary ears), it is important to stress that other things, which were perhaps not looked for, have succeeded. The Catholics and the Anglicans are now more or less singing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to morality. There are several Anglican theologians (as well as some nominal Catholics) who are not doing so, but the Anglican mainstream seems sound on many of the great matters of the day, such as the rights of the unborn, and questions to do with embryonic “research”. Likewise the question of poverty. When Justin Welby says the following, it could be a Catholic speaking:

“That way forward must reflect the self-giving love of Christ, our bearing of his Cross, and our dying to ourselves so as to live with Christ, which will show itself in hospitality and love for the poor. We must love those who seek to oppose us, and love above all those tossed aside — even whole nations — by the present crises around the world. Also, even as we speak, our brothers and sisters in Christ suffer terribly from violence, oppression and war, from bad government and unjust economic systems. If we are not their advocates in the name of Christ, who will be?”

Not only is this an eloquent exposition of Catholic Social Teaching and moral theology, it goes deeper still, reflecting a lived spirituality that Catholics will recognise. The Cross is real, it is clear, and there is no genuine Christian life without the Cross. This makes a pleasant antidote to those who would give us easy answers or who would tell us that there can be social progress, or progress of any kind, without self-sacrifice.

Indeed, in his remarks, Justin Welby talks of his spiritual links with various Catholics and in particular with exponents of the new religious movements. This, I find, is immensely encouraging. It is not what ARCIC had in mind – in fact it springs from the renaissance of the Evangelical movement in the Church of England more than anything else – but it is fruit worth having all the same, perhaps more than the fruit that ARCIC envisaged. For God, in the end, loves to surprise us.