Anglican Head Welcomed, Though Obstacles Remain

Church leaders applaud Justin Welby’s esteem for Catholic social teaching.

The appointment of the Rt. Rev. Justin Welby as the new Anglican archbishop of Canterbury has been welcomed at the Vatican, not least because of the new leader of the Anglican clergy’s esteem for Catholic social teaching, his love of Catholic spirituality and reports that he even prays the Rosary.

In a Nov. 12 note of welcome, Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said he was "certain" that under Archbishop-designate Welby’s leadership "excellent relations" between the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church "will continue to bear fruit."

The cardinal, despite noting "points of divergence which still impede fully restored ecclesial communion," stressed that relations "are a hugely important part" of ecumenical dialogue that have resulted in "intense spiritual and human friendship and a shared concern for our Gospel witness and service to the human family."

The Vatican’s delegation to the archbishop’s enthronement will be led by Cardinal Koch. The ceremony will take place in Canterbury Cathedral on March 21, 2013.

One informed Vatican official told the Register he knew colleagues in Durham, England, who had "spoken very highly" of the new Anglican leader and noted his love of Benedictine, Franciscan and Ignatian Catholic spirituality.

Welby has been an Anglican Benedictine Oblate for the past 15 years, and he has won friends in the Church for his frequent praise for Catholic social teaching, from Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum to Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate.

All these factors are "very good bases to begin a relationship," the official said. "It’s very early days, but the initial impression seems to be very good, and we’re looking forward to dealing with him."

Justin Welby, 56, is the son of German Jewish immigrants who moved to England to avoid anti-Semitism in the late 19th century. He was educated at the prestigious Eton College near London before moving on to study history and law at Cambridge University. He then spent 11 years in the oil industry before becoming an Anglican clergyman in 1992. He was appointed bishop of Durham only last year.

A married father of five, he and his wife lost their 7-month-old daughter in a car accident in France — a tragedy that he said prompted him to look towards God. Since becoming a Church of England pastor, he has blended ordinary parish life with ministry in deprived areas, conflict reconciliation in Africa and the Middle East and work on restoring ethical standards to banking practices. "He will bring to this office both a rich pastoral experience and a keen sense of international priorities, for church and world," his immediate predecessor as archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, told reporters.

Archbishop-designate Welby’s evangelical spirituality differs from that of Archbishop Williams, who was from the Anglo-Catholic tradition. "Evangelicals tend to have more common ground on moral issues with the Catholic Church, so that may be helpful to our relations," the Vatican official said. But he added that previous archbishops of Canterbury have tended to "alternate between Anglo-Catholic and evangelical" and that not being an Anglo-Catholic like his predecessor means that "in some senses there’s a bit more distance to cover."

"Anglicans on the Catholic wing of the Anglican Communion have a tradition much closer to the Catholic one, whereas evangelicals are closer to Reformation tradition," he said. "So an Anglo-Catholic naturally has a language and sacramental theology much closer to the Catholic understanding, and this just helps in the way we both look at the Church."

Still, the new archbishop has some opinions that widely diverge from Catholic teaching. He is a strong supporter of women bishops (the Church of England’s General Synod surprisingly voted against the move in November, but it is expected to agree to it eventually), although the Vatican believes this makes little difference to ecumenical relations, as women bishops have existed for some time in other parts of the Anglican Communion. "It’s important in ecumenical relations but doesn’t make much difference because the ARCIC [the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission] has been dealing with the reality of women bishops in the Anglican Communion for many years," the official said.

But in a 2008 article in The Tablet, Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said any hope the Church had in recognizing Anglican holy orders was dashed by the consecration of women bishops.

Cardinal Kasper said that hope of "full, visible communion" had receded and dialogue was compromised now that 16 provinces, including the Church of England, had voted for legislation for women bishops.

"The Catholic Church must now take account of the reality that the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate is ... increasingly the stance of the Communion," said the cardinal.

Archbishop-designate Welby is opposed to same-sex "marriage," but he supports civil unions. He has spoken out firmly against "homophobia in any part of the church," saying at his first press conference that he is "always averse to the language of exclusion, when what we are called to is to love in the same way as Jesus Christ loves us."

The Vatican says his appointment will have no bearing on the Anglican Ordinariate, which is already accepted as "a recognized fact."

"It’s been seen as a very generous gesture by Catholics and Anglicans," said the official. "It’s raised the question of the patrimony of the Anglican Communion, also among Anglicans. What is it that identifies an Anglican? What is it that’s distinctive about Anglicanism? They’ve welcomed it, in that sense," said the official, who pointed out that the Anglican Centre in Rome recently ran a series of lectures on the question of Anglican patrimony.

It has also been seen as generous, in that it allows Anglicans to retain elements of their patrimony: to be recognized as Catholic without being Roman Catholic. "It’s a broadening and enlarging," the Vatican official said, "but it doesn’t really feature in our current dialogue with the Anglican Communion."

Particularly interesting are Web-based reports and rumors that the new 105th archbishop of Canterbury likes to recite the Rosary. Although it’s likely he prays the Anglican version, which is significantly different from the Catholic Rosary established by Pope St. Pius V in the 16th century, Father Robert Gahl, a priest close to the Vatican, told the Register this news was very welcome.

As Father Gahl said, "Praying the Rosary is a very powerful instrument of unity among Christians."