A January gathering in Rome featuring the Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury might have been expected to spark controversy, as the Pontiff and Primate jointly blessed a group of 25 couples who were of the same sex.
After all, Pope Francis has attracted much attention himself after approving the release only a few months ago of the document Fiducia Supplicans by Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. This document gave permission for Roman Catholic clergy to give blessings to same-sex couples.
As it turned out however, media interest was only modest, since the couples in question at this event were all bishops taking part of an ecumenical gathering for the 20th anniversary of the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue, which is known by the initials IARCUM. First launched in Mississauga, Ontario, in 2000, the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission’s mandate is to help give tangible expression to the formal agreements reached between the two communions of churches over the past 60 years.
On this occasion, 50 bishops (two of whom were women) drawn from from 27 countries where Catholics and Anglicans live side by side in significant numbers, spent a week gathered in Rome and then Canterbury on what was described as “an ecumenical pilgrimage of common prayer, relationship building, discussion, and discernment about how we can be better witnesses of reconciliation in our own lands and in the world.”
The striking modesty of this agenda and careful emphasis on local expressions of unity was a far cry from the spirit of optimism that characterised such endeavors only a few decades ago. Then, overt hopes were routinely expressed of seeking full visible unity between the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches. A significant part of the cooling atmosphere has been the decision of some parts of the Anglican Communion to ordain women and to consecrate some as bishops, something that the Roman Church continues to reject firmly. This has meant that with no realistic prospect of substantive unity being even open for discussion, the official ecumenical dialogue processes have been dramatically scaled back.
Indeed, it is only a matter of months since another, this time private, tour of Anglicans visiting Rome, comprising 50 Anglican clergy led by Anglican Bishop Jonathan Baker, concelebrated a Mass (by arrangement) at an altar in the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran on April 18, 2023. This was subsequently labeled an “unfortunate episode” by Bishop Guerino Di Tora, vicar of the Archpriest of the Archbasilica.
One Father Gerald Murray further explained to the National Catholic Register later that, “Objectively speaking, the Anglican communion service is the simulation of the Mass, and the Anglican minister, who is not a validly ordained priest, does not have the power to do what a Catholic priest does when he consecrates the bread and wine.” This reflected an unquestioning adherence to the Pope Leo XIII’s 1896 papal bull Apostolicae Curae, which declared Anglican orders “absolutely null and utterly void.”
A difficulty with this document later emerged for Rome that some of the features it declared to be necessary for valid ordinations were in fact missing from the earliest rites later found to have been used in the early church. Accordingly, Pope Leo’s own ordination, by his own criteria, was probably equally invalid.
But the ironies do not end there. Currently, it is clear that the Pope shares with liberal Anglicans and seemingly Archbishop Welby himself a desire to find ways to bless same sex couples, while at the same time leaving undisturbed the church’s historic teaching on marriage.
In sharp contrast, conservative Anglicans who object to such endeavors also commonly reject too the possibility of ordaining women. This rejection invites speculation that there may yet be a revival of more substantive dialogue arranged independently of official structures between both conservatives and liberals with their respective opposite numbers in the Anglican and Roman churches. After all, it may well be that such groups will have more in common across the divides of history than either easily feel with the more liberal (or Conservative) extremes within their own church!
It is also worth bearing in mind that those who do not accept the ordination of women in the Anglican church could almost certainly show that sufficient Old Catholic or former Catholic bishops participated in the chain of apostolic succession of those who ordained them, as to entirely get around the concerns of Apostolicae Curae. Hence such conservatives could be more directly able to participate in substantive ecumenical discussions with conservative Roman Catholics than the official official dialogues currently can, much as liberals may well be able to do as well with those of like mind.
The upshot of these paradoxical considerations is the complex and sometimes counter-intuitive nature of ecumenical dialogue. Official channels for the exploration of unity suffer from the internal problems of their respective communions—while dialogue in charity between believers can yield unexpected results.