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Archbishop: Pope will focus on common Christian mission in Britain

Archbishop Kurt Koch (CNS photo)

Benedict XVI’s trip to Britain will feature strong ecumenical moments, but the focus will be more on what Christians can do together than on issues still dividing them, the Vatican’s top ecumenist has said.

Archbishop Kurt Koch, the new president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said there were problems in the Anglican-Catholic dialogue, “but it is important to speak about what we have in common”.

When Pope Benedict and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, lead evening prayer together on September 17, he said, “the Christian communities will be challenged to work and pray together to ensure that the Christian message is confidently proclaimed so that faith can have a creative involvement in British life”.

Archbishop Koch and other council officials met reporters to discuss the ecumenical importance of the Pope’s visit to Scotland and England, looking particularly at Catholic-Anglican relations.

Efforts to promote full unity have stumbled over the decision of some members of the Anglican Communion to ordain female priests and bishops and to bless homosexual unions; the decisions also have caused tensions within the Anglican Communion and have led some Anglicans to consider joining the Catholic Church while preserving some of their Anglican heritage.

The Pope’s decision in 2009 to allow the establishment of Catholic Ordinariates, special jurisdictions like dioceses, for former Anglicans led to some unease among some Anglicans and Catholic ecumenists who saw the move as running counter to the ecumenical goal of promoting full, visible unity.

“There are difficulties in the Anglican Communion and not all Anglican communities have the same convictions – that’s a great problem for us,” Archbishop Koch told reporters.

“When the Anglican Church decides to have females in the ministry, we must respect it,” he said. But he also said that showing respect for their ministers does not mean Catholics can pretend the practice fits in with the Catholic understanding of ordained ministry.

“However, it is important to see these issues in the broader context of the common witness of Roman Catholics and Anglicans,” the archbishop said, adding that Catholics and Anglicans need to support each other and work together to proclaim the Gospel in “a complex modern society” like Great Britain.

“The Pope’s message is a very positive message for what is common to both churches,” he said. The real problems still existing between Catholics and Anglicans are discussed in the context of the formal dialogues but will not be the center of attention during the trip.

Mgr Mark Langham, the Pontifical Council official responsible for relations with Anglicans, said the fact that the Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury will pray together will send a message “that what we have together is much more important that anything that divides us, and our task together is to proclaim the Gospel and to make a contribution to British society”.

Reporters also had questions about the ecumenical implications of Pope Benedict traveling to Great Britain to beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman, a 19th-century leader in the Anglican’s Oxford Movement before becoming Roman Catholic.

Mgr Langham pointed out that Cardinal Newman already is commemorated as a saintly theologian on the Church of England’s liturgical calendar.

Archbishop Koch said Cardinal Newman’s teaching about the importance of a correctly formed conscience, one which seeks and strives to act on truth, is important for all Christians, especially given the modern debates on a variety of moral and ethical issues.