Pope Francis and Anglican Archbishop Welby Commit to Christian Unity

The two signed a joint declaration this week.

Pope Francis and Anglican Primate Archbishop Justin Welby walk into the Church of San Gregorio al Cielo to pray First Vepsers together.
Pope Francis and Anglican Primate Archbishop Justin Welby walk into the Church of San Gregorio al Cielo to pray First Vepsers together. (photo: L'Osservatore Romano)

VATICAN CITY —  Pope Francis and Anglican Primate Archbishop Justin Welby have signed a joint-declaration emphasizing that while topics such as homosexuality and the ordination of women still constitute points of division, they are committed to working together in their pursuit of full unity.

“The declaration is a forward-looking commitment to doing everything we can together, and continuing to struggle without fear, but with determination for the things that divide us,” Archbishop Welby told CNA Oct. 5.

He said he doesn’t know if Catholics and Anglicans are closer to full unity than they were 50 years ago, but stated simply that “we are where we are.”

One thing that is certain, he said, is that “we serve the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, which means we are always full of hope.”

The archbishop and Pope Francis met to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the landmark encounter between Blessed Paul VI and Archbishop Michael Ramsey, as well as the institution of the Anglican Center of Rome.

In 1966, Blessed Pope Paul VI met with Dr. Michael Ramsey, who was archbishop of Canterbury at the time, at the Roman Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.

Until 1960, when St. John XXIII met with Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher in a private encounter, there had been no meeting between a pope and an archbishop of Canterbury since King Henry VIII broke with Rome in 1534.

The 1966 meeting, however, was the first public meeting that had taken place.

This meeting and declaration led to the eventual creation of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission, which was responsible for theological dialogue between the two churches. It also marked the opening of the Anglican Center in Rome, which serves as not only the headquarters of Rome’s Anglican community, but also as a center committed to advancing dialogue between the two churches.

The current director of the Anglican Center, Archbishop David Moxon, serves as Archbishop Welby’s personal representative to the Holy See.

Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby prayed First Vespers together in the historic Roman church of San Gregorio al Cielo Oct. 5, during which, in addition to signing their own joint declaration, commissioned 19 pairs of Catholic and Anglican bishops who will symbolically serve together throughout the world.

It was from San Gregorio that Pope Gregory the Great sent the monk Augustine with 40 companions to evangelize Britain in 597. Because of its historic roots, Anglicans widely consider this church to be their “motherhouse.”

In their joint declaration, Archbishop Welby and Pope Francis recognized that both Catholics and Anglicans “are heirs of the treasure of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the call to share that treasure with the whole world.”

They noted that since that first public meeting in 1966, “much progress” has been made, in terms of overcoming the obstacles that stand in the way of unity.

However, the modern times have led to new hiccups in the process, particularly surrounding the topics of the ordination of women and “more recent questions regarding human sexuality.”

“Behind these differences lies a perennial question about how authority is exercised in the Christian community,” the declaration read, recognizing that these concerns constitute “serious obstacles to our full unity.”

Yet while solutions to these questions remain in question, the pope and archbishop said they are “undeterred” in their quest for unity.

These differences “cannot prevent us from recognizing one another as brothers and sisters in Christ by reason of our common baptism,” nor should they “hold us back” from discovering the faith and holiness of each other’s traditions, they said.

Neither should differences get in the way of common prayer, the prelates cautioned, and urged their respective clergy and faithful “not to neglect or undervalue that certain yet imperfect communion that we already share.”

A shared faith and joy in the Gospel are stronger than the differences, they said, stressing that “the world must see us witnessing to this common faith in Jesus by acting together.”

Common points of collaboration mentioned include working together to protect creation and promote “a sustainable and integral development for the good of all and to uphold the dignity of the human being in all states and stages of life.”

Centuries of painful separation have been “partially healed by 50 years of friendship,” they said, adding that “we have become partners and companions on our pilgrim journey.”

As fellow Christians, the churches are facing the same difficulties, while also strengthening each other “by learning to value the gifts which God has given to the other and to receive them as our own in humility and gratitude.”

The two prelates made reference to the 19 pairs of Catholic and Anglican bishops commissioned during the vespers ceremony, praying that their ecumenical mission would be “a witness to all of us.”

“Let the message go out from this holy place, as the Good News was sent out so many centuries ago, that Catholics and Anglicans will work together to give voice to our common faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, to bring relief to the suffering, to bring peace where there is conflict, to bring dignity where it is denied and trampled upon.”

The two exchanged gifts at the close of the ceremony. Pope Francis gifted Archbishop Welby with a replica of the hook-like head of the crozier of St. Gregory, while the archbishop, in a strong show of unity, took his pectoral cross made out of nails from the roof of the Anglican Coventry Cathedral and gave it as a gift to Pope Francis, who kissed it.

Both Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby gave homilies during vespers, which was prayed in Latin. The prelates both emphasized that while their traditions might be different, a shared baptism and commitment to spreading the Gospel unites them.

Pope Francis, in his homily, prayed that the encounter would give rise to “a renewed impetus toward communion and mission,” while Archbishop Welby, for his part, noted that while it might be tempting to look back, the prophets “compel us to look forward. ... We cannot be bad shepherds.”

In a follow-up to vespers and the signing of the declaration, the two met privately at the Vatican Oct. 6. Archbishop Welby has already met with Pope Francis twice in the Vatican, the first time being June 14, 2013, and the second June 16, 2014. He was also a special guest at the World Day of Prayer for Peace held in Assisi Sept. 18-20.

In his brief speech during the meeting, Pope Francis focused on the importance of prayer, witness and mission between the two churches.

“Let us never grow tired of asking the Lord together and insistently for the gift of unity,” he said, stressing that “ecumenism is never an impoverishment, but a richness.”

“Now is the time in which the Lord challenges us, in a particular way, to go out from ourselves and our own environs, in order to bring his merciful love to a world thirsting for peace,” he said, and he encouraged members of both confessions to help one another “to keep at the center the demands of the Gospel and to spend ourselves concretely in this mission.”

In his own speech, Archbishop Welby thanked the Pope for his “leadership and example” given throughout the world, particularly when it comes to care for the poor, the enslaved and those suffering from human trafficking, as well as care for the environment.

However, despite the mutual concern for these and other threats to modern society, the lack of full unity between the Catholic and Anglican Churches “grieves” God and damages “every aspect of our lives in Christ.”

Yet it is Christ who “breaks down divisions,” he said, and noted that, despite the things that divide them, the churches are “publicly determined to press forward where we may, together with all other Christians.”

“Jesus has gone before us. He calls us to be courageous. Let us walk closer together so the world sees new life and energy in the Church’s worship, mission and witness.” 

Pope Francis waves to pilgrims during his Angelus address August 30, 2020.

Pope Francis: The Path to Holiness Requires Spiritual Combat

Reflecting on Sunday’s Gospel, the pope said that “living a Christian life is not made up of dreams or beautiful aspirations, but of concrete commitments, in order to open ourselves ever more to God's will and to love for our brothers and sisters.”