I was wrong and uncharitable to suggest that the Pope should not be meeting Archbishop Welby. But about our relationship with Anglicanism I got it right

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby (PA)

“On Friday”, I headlined my last piece, “the Pope will meet Archbishop Welby. So, why do we continue talking to the Anglicans after they have so wilfully made unity impossible?”. “Archbishop Welby is to meet the Pope”, I went on to repeat and then declared, “The real question is why?”

These articles (as do most Catholic Herald blogs) attract a certain amount of tiresome attention from trolls, who mainly write to be annoying. This time, however, one of my regulars gave an answer to my question which was absolutely to the point, and to which there could be no convincing riposte. Why was the Holy Father meeting Archbishop Welby? My troll retorted: “Perhaps because the Pope isn’t a bigot with a closed mind?”.

And of course he was right. The Pope has to talk with non-Catholics; it’s part of what he’s there for. Welby seems a sincere and intelligent man, who believes his religion and may well do good in the world by his practise of it. Popes talk to Jews and atheists; and of course they also have to talk to non-Catholic Christians. So I was wrong implicitly (and unintentionally) to criticise the Holy Father for meeting Archbishop Welby at all. I was also uncharitable. But my real point still stands: I just didn’t make it very well (for all that I attracted over 270 replies, mostly agreeing with me).

I’m sorry to go over the same ground again, but it’s important that we should get this one right, and I confused the issue last time. The danger is not that the visit is happening at all: it is that because of the way in which it is taking place, and because of the very dodgy way the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity is handling it, the impression is being given that in some way the Pope and the archbishop are equivalent figures, and that Welby’s beliefs about his Church and his office are understood AND RECOGNISED by the Holy See.

It’s essential to remember what those claims actually are. Catholics believe that Henry VIII invented a new church called the Church of England. But that’s not what Anglicanism claims at all. Anglicanism claims that it is continuous with what came before, that it is THE SAME CHURCH as the Ecclesia Anglicana of the Middle Ages and that Archbishop Welby is the direct successor of St Augustine of Canterbury: the Wikipedia article on him begins with the words “Justin Portal Welby … is the 105th and current Archbishop of Canterbury”. The liturgical book of the church which Catholics believe was newly invented but which Anglicans believe is England’s historic Catholic Church, reformed not invented by the Tudors, described itself as The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and other Rites and Ceremonies of THE CHURCH according to the use of the Church of England (My emphasis).

The consequence of all that is the Anglican claim, explicit or implicit, is that the Catholic Church in England is not what it says it is, because it’s the Church of England which IS in England what the Catholic Church claims to be. In less ecumenical times, the English Catholic Church was sometimes derided as “the Italian mission”.

Those claims are soft-pedalled now, but they are still there. Their modern equivalent is that Anglican bishops, and archbishops, are in some way equivalent and equal to the Catholic bishops: that in these ecumenical times they are somehow in business together.

And that is precisely the message that is being given by the activities of Archbishop Nichols in all this. This is what the Pontifical Council has to say about it: “Anglicans and Catholics also must work together to provide clear moral guidance to society and Archbishop Justin has collaborated closely with the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, to safeguard marriage and other Christian values in society. It is a sign of their close relations that Archbishop Nichols will accompany the Archbishop of Canterbury on this visit.”

The trouble with those “close relations” is not just that they are an implicit recognition of Anglican claims to catholicity: they constitute also in themselves a claim from the Catholic side that we are now a fully functioning subsidiary of the Establishment, that our claims that we are the true Church and that those who claim Catholic jurisdiction over England are emphatically nothing of the kind are being quietly dropped.

The real damage, here, however is not being done by Archbishop Vincent. The damage is being done by the continued existence of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), which is an institutionalisation of our recognition of the equivalence of the Anglican and Catholic Churches, and which is itself a living absurdity since all the subjects ARCIC discusses are between two sets of participants assembled on entirely different criteria.

Those on the Catholic side are there to represent a coherent doctrinal tradition the objective content of which is accepted by all of them. They would all, for instance, without even thinking about it, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church as being an authoritative expression of that tradition. On the Anglican side, opinions differ widely: some would also accept most of the CCC: others would reject much of it, and particularly what it has to say about the sacraments and the nature of the Church. The Catholic Commissioners represent the Catholic Church: the Anglicans represent only their own personal opinion. There is no consensus between them; how could any consensus emerge between them and the Catholic Church? That is why the ARCIC documents are couched in such vague and ambiguous language: and it is why the CDF has accepted none of them as adequately representing the Catholic view of whatever they were claiming to be about: some they have rejected as clearly heretical.

But what actual harm does ARCIC do, you may ask? Doesn’t it serve the admirable objective of fostering charity between divided Christians? Well, the harm it does is the harm indifferentism and reductionist ecumenism always does. We can see what has happened since the Sixties: the faithful in the pews are uncertain what to believe any more. Everyone always used to say, whatever you think of the Catholics, at least they know what they believe. Not any more they don’t. The pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI began to reverse the disaster of indifferentism: but they never disbanded ARCIC, though JPII did suspend it after the ordination to the Anglican episcopate of an openly and militantly homosexual man. As I wrote last time, “It was a moment in which reality asserted itself. What is unclear is WHY that assertion of reality was itself suspended. Why did ARCIC then recommence operations as though nothing had happened, despite the fact that throughout the Anglican communion, openly gay bishops are now seen as quite normal and there are thousands of women priests, several of whom are even commissioners in the new ARCIC?”

I don’t have space to say more about ARCIC here (though I could bore on about it interminably): I said what needs to be said last time. I simply end by repeating what it is that we have to get clearly into our heads: “The absolute primacy of the truth above all things is what we are committed to before all else. To weaken our understanding of THAT is to weaken faith and to undermine the faithful. The continued existence of ARCIC undermines the faithful: it is thus deeply unpastoral. It is cruel; it is uncaring. That is the reality that has to be grasped.”

But will we grasp it?