‘Unity with Anglicans would take a miracle of epic proportions’: an interview with Stephen Walford

Pope Francis and Justin Welby at Vespers in the church of San Gregorio al Celio in Rome last month (AP)

Whenever I see photographs of the Pope smiling alongside Anglican bishops, I am reminded of the general enthusiasm for Christian unity of earlier decades and how this now seems a forlorn and distant prospect. Stephen Walford raises this vexed question in his book The Communion of Saints, about which I blogged earlier this week. So I ask him how likely he thinks unity between the Christian churches is.

He tells me that “barring a miracle of epic proportions, I don’t see it as realistic. The differences – women priests, theological issues etc – are too great. Also, Protestantism is so fragmented and so varied that it is very difficult to see how all these could come together.” He thinks “unity with the Orthodox at some stage has much more of a chance.”

What can Catholics can do in this unpromising situation? Stephen is clear that that the answer lies in “praying to the Holy Spirit for hearts to be opened to the fullness of truth and living the Gospel as an authentic witness that will attract non-Catholics to the truth.”

He emphasises: “Within ecumenical dialogue, whilst always being charitable, we must not be afraid to propose the full richness offered through the sacramental life of the Church.” This tactful rejoinder brings back memories of ecumenical gatherings in which I once participated, where the wish to be nice always seemed to get in the way of truth.

So how does Stephen interpret the controversial phrase, sidelined since Vatican II, “Outside the Church no salvation”? He is clear that it is “only through the Church with Jesus as the head can salvation be found. I obviously accept the teaching that Pope Benedict reiterated: that non-Catholics can reach heaven – but that crucially, if this happens, it is because in a mysterious way they are somehow united to the Catholic Church: imperfect yet real.” This teaching “must be understood clearly but not in a way that dismisses the faith that others have.”

Finally, I am curious to know why he has written on such a profoundly Catholic doctrine as the “Communion of Saints”. Stephen explains that he wants to shed light “on the reality of the Church in its entirety. There has been too much emphasis on the “justice and peace” aspect of the Church, while the supernatural reality has been diminished.” He believes this has resulted in a “fragmentation of sorts, especially in relation to the flow of prayers from us to the Holy Souls and supplication to the saints in heaven. That cannot be good for the ability of the Church on earth to evangelise and to propose the entire truth of the Gospel.”

Stephen tells me that all proceeds from the sale of his book will go to Aid to the Church in Need, for the persecuted Christians in the Middle East.