Monsignor Mark Langham, a priest of the Archdiocese of Westminster who served many years in Rome at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, died 15 January 2021, after a long battle with cancer. He was 60 years old.
By Philippa Hitchen
It’s hard to put into words the sense of loss that so many people are feeling at the death of Mgr Mark Langham, a priest of the Archdiocese of Westminster, who served in Rome at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity as head of the office for Anglican and Methodist relations.
A gifted preacher, prolific writer, talented musician, artist and photographer, he was serving as chaplain at Fisher House, the Catholic Chaplaincy for Cambridge University students, when he lost his battle with cancer on January 15th. His warmth, wit and wicked sense of humour made him the life and soul of every party, as well as an inspiration to young students and colleagues of all denominations. “Thank you for opening the door to my faith,” wrote one Fisher House student in response to Mark’s Facebook announcement that he was moving into hospice care for his final days. “He was a man who made you proud to be a Christian,” tweeted another Anglican colleague.
In typically humble manner, Mark asked the students to respect his wishes for “no fuss” but thanked them for all they had given him in the final years of his life. “I have had a wonderful and varied ministry and priesthood, and undertaken extraordinary tasks,” he wrote, “but none has thrilled and delighted me like the chaplaincy at Fisher House. The opportunity to encounter and influence the finest young people, to be fired by your enthusiasm and holiness, and to build the wider community, has given me great hope for the future of the Church and of our society.”
For the ecumenical world, his death is a heavy blow at a time when all Churches are struggling to cope with the ongoing coronavirus lockdowns. His passing came just as final preparations were being put in place to mark the first online edition of the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Personal relationships are an essential part of the journey to overcome past prejudices and embrace the ‘receptive ecumenism’ model of gift-giving and receiving.
During the five years he spent in the Vatican, it was Mark’s charming manner and welcoming smile, alongside his profound historical knowledge and theological insights, that helped to build personal friendships at a time when the official Anglican-Catholic dialogue was fraught with tensions over Pope Benedict’s establishment of the Ordinariate. Mark worked tirelessly to rebuild trust and help set up the third phase of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), serving as co-secretary for the first two years.
Mark was a close friend of the Anglican Centre in Rome which has been working for over half a century to foster friendships and promote practical cooperation on issues like migration, anti-slavery, education and common worship. His last contribution to the Centre was a presentation in August 2020 for a webinar exploring the history of Anglican-Catholic dialogue, as well as the current obstacles on the path towards full Christian unity. As ever, he did not ignore the difficulties or gloss over differing perspectives – including the ways that Anglican and Catholic leaders in Britain reacted to the initial Covid-19 lockdown. His clear-sighted analysis aimed to inspire the current crop of ecumenists to build on the solid foundations laid by the unglamorous, yet vital and painstaking work of ARCIC and IARCCUM, the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity and Mission.
During his last public Mass in September, live-streamed from an empty Fisher House chapel, Mark celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of his priesthood and preached eloquently about the values and vision that inspired his life and ministry. He recalled the wisdom of an elderly priest who, shortly after his ordination, encouraged him to “love and let go,” trusting God to guide his steps, even if that meant to “lead you where you do not want to go.” (John 21:18).
Listening to those words again with the poignancy of hindsight, I wonder how hard it was for such a convivial, hospitable, party-loving priest to accept his isolation and illness, letting go of whatever future plans he may have imagined for himself. For the rest of us, shocked and saddened by his sudden death, it is a message to guide us on our journeys too, as clergy and laypeople, family and friends, spouses and parents. In particular for those continuing his work of reconciliation within the Christian world, it is a final word of wisdom from a man whose legacy will surely bear rich fruit.
Philippa Hitchen is a journalist with more than 30 years’ experience at Vatican Radio, specializing in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. She has also written and reported for many secular and religious news media, including the BBC, The Tablet, The Church Times and The Messenger of St. Anthony.
Image: Mgr Mark Langham, undtated. Credit: Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity