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We’ve come a long way since Cranmer called the pope the antichrist

In 1971, Hunter S Thompson looked back on his time in San Francisco in the mid-1960s in one wistful passage from his most famous specimen of gonzo journalism, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He recalled it as “the kind of peak that never comes again”. Sixties idealism came and went. In the midst of a hideous drug binge, Thompson stood at his hotel window in Sin City, faced west, and declared that “with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” The counter-culture was quickly absorbed back into the mainstream, bringing escapism devoid of conviction with it.

Thompson was later on hand for a speech in 1974 by Jimmy Carter, the Southern Baptist governor of Georgia, a naval veteran who now had hair down to his collar. The future 39th President of the United States quoted Bob Dylan’s Maggie’s Farm and came into the national media spotlight. At the same time, Dylan, once among the most prominent icons of the counter-culture, was a multi-millionaire and would soon be an Evangelical Christian. Whatever the Sixties were supposed to be, they were over. The outcomes proved to be far different from the original goals.

In March of 1966, around the same time that Thompson was living the dream that would soon fade, Michael Ramsey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Pope Paul VI had a historic meeting in Rome. Ramsey was one of 20th-century Anglicanism’s greatest minds, and a major figure in the ecumenical movement. His influential 1936 book The Gospel and the Catholic Church posited a unifying authority above Scripture and tradition – the Gospel – that revealed the wounds of every ecclesial community, and expressed hope, even expectation, that healing for all of them was on the way.

Six years before Ramsey’s book appeared, the bishops of the Anglican Communion had declared at the Lambeth Conference that Anglicanism was “transitional”, and would one day be “merged in a larger fellowship in the Catholic Church”.

When Ramsey visited Paul VI more than three decades later, he received the gift of an episcopal ring from the pontiff. In word and deed at the highest level, the Anglican Communion no longer agreed with Thomas Cranmer, who went to the stake declaring, “as for the Pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy and antichrist, with all his false doctrine”.

Many Anglo-Catholics inferred that the ring was the Pope’s way of tacitly repudiating Pope Leo XIII’s papal bull Apostolicae Curae, which declared Anglican orders “absolutely null and utterly void”. Whatever Paul VI meant by it, it was a dramatic gesture of the kind of recognition of Christian brotherhood that was described by Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, from 1964. The two men issued a common declaration, and an official Anglican-Catholic dialogue was born. At a celebration in Rome in 2016 to mark the 50th anniversary of the event, Pope Francis gave Archbishop Justin Welby a replica of the crozier of St Gregory the Great, who commissioned Augustine, later the first Archbishop of Canterbury, to re-Christianise Britain in 595.

Gift-giving has become expected. But ecumenism between Catholics and Anglicans has not succeeded in the way Ramsey and his generation originally imagined.

As the last quarter of the 20th century passed into the early 21st, there were some remarkable agreements hashed out by the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC). The 2006 document Growing Together in Unity and Mission begins with the most important agreement of all: “God desires the visible unity of all Christian people and that such unity is itself part of our witness.” But the document also reminds us that Anglican churches continue to innovate, widening the gap between the two sides. Rome scratches its head ever harder over the question of where authority in Anglicanism is located. It is no surprise, therefore, that Catholic-minded Anglicans would lose interest in these discussions and simply convert.

For those still committed to the success of dialogue in bringing about corporate reconciliation, however, individual defections from the Anglican Communion to the Catholic Church are deemed unfortunate. By the end of his life, Ramsey went so far as to tell American seminarians about the “final tragedy” of John Henry Newman’s conversion in 1845. He regarded Newman as having made a selfish, pre-ecumenical mistake in leaving behind the English Church of his baptism and ordination. Strangely, Ramsey imagined the way for Newman to solve the dilemma of not feeling Catholic enough was to double down on being more Anglican. “He had not quite got historic Anglicanism into his bones,” he said, “and he came to it rather as one who is fulfilling deep personal needs of his own.”

What Ramsey did not have “the right kind of eyes” to see was that his meeting with Paul VI in 1966 was the same kind of high-water mark that Hunter S Thompson identified with regard to life in San Francisco before the bottom fell out of the hippy counter-culture. With the advent of the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church in the late 1970s, many faithful Anglicans whose spiritual forebears had remained when Newman left saw the writing on the wall. By the 1990s the same innovations were washing over the Church of England. The high-profile conversion of the Bishop of London, Graham Leonard, was further proof that the result of ecumenism would prove to be different from its original goal. In 2001, the now Mgr Graham Leonard was asked whether “concessions should be made in the ecumenical dialogue to attain unity more easily”. His reply was in the fashion of Newman: “Truth is not discovered through negotiations, but in obedience.”

And yet, Rome has not abandoned ecumenism in favour of conversions. As Unitatis Redintegratio teaches, “When individuals wish for full Catholic communion, their preparation and reconciliation is an undertaking which of its nature is distinct from ecumenical action. But there is no opposition between the two, since both proceed from the marvellous ways of God.”

So what are the goods of ecumenical action from the Catholic perspective? Present circumstances are proving that the ecumenical movement’s greatest gift to Catholics may turn out to be a more generous vocabulary for welcoming newcomers into the one fold – to help make obedience ever more appealing. And in this way, Anglican-Catholic dialogue continues to be a particularly prominent success story.

The publication of Anglicanorum Coetibus in 2009 and the establishment of the personal ordinariates by Benedict XVI have brought the seed sown in the meeting between Ramsey and Paul VI to its full flourish. Even diocesan priests outside of the ordinariates are now able to use the Anglican-influenced Divine Worship where there is a pastoral need.

Today, those with the right kind of eyes can see exciting next steps for Catholic unity in what at first glance appears like a breakdown of ecumenical integrity.

Consider recent comments by Archbishop Justin Welby, Ramsey’s successor in the see of Canterbury five times removed. Far from Ramsey’s description of Newman’s “final tragedy”, Welby finds conversions encouraging. “Who cares?” he told the Spectator. “I don’t mind about all that. Particularly if people go to Rome, which is such a source of inspiration.” Newman re-emerges as a trailblazer, not Ramsey’s sad byproduct of a less understanding ecclesiastical age. The Episcopal Church now even commemorates Newman on its sanctoral calendar.

The Lord has willed what seemed like a new thing, 20th-century ecumenism, to be absorbed into the timeless mission of the Church.

Although Welby demurred when asked in the Spectator interview if he himself was planning to convert, stranger things have happened. In Hunter S Thompson’s reflection on the 1960s, he was puzzled that “the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time”.

For centuries, a unifying principle among Protestant groups, including across the Anglican spectrum, was not being Roman Catholic. The ecumenical movement led by the likes of Michael Ramsey helped change that way of thinking, and blessedly so. The hoped-for outcome of ecumenism seemed miraculously difficult, but history may prove that it was miraculously simple. Remove the “not” and bring your unique gifts home.

Andrew Petiprin, a former Episcopal priest, recently came into full communion with the Catholic Church. He is the author of Truth Matters: Knowing God and Yourself (New Growth Press)