Working for Christian Unity - Christopher Lamb -The View from Rome

a former Patriarch of Constantinople who told Pope Paul VI: “Let us make unity together and leave the theologians on an island to think about it.”

WORKING for Christian unity, the late cardinal and committed ecumenist Cormac Murphy-O’Connor often said, is like embarking on a “road with no exit”.

The Vatican is now insisting the world’s bishops book their tickets for the journey. It has issued a new guidebook stressing that ecumenical work is not an “optional extra” but a duty and obligation which “must inform every part of his ministry”. Issued by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the document, a vade mecum, also urges Catholics to “lay aside the polemical language and prejudices of the past” when discussing theological differences and disagreements with other Christians.

Yet anyone travelling on the ecumenical path often runs up against “No Entry” signs. For Catholic and Anglican unity efforts, one of the biggest stumbling blocks is Pope Leo XIII’s 1896 papal bull which ruled that Anglican orders are “absolutely null and utterly void”. Last week, when the Vatican released the document, I asked Cardinal Kurt Koch, the prefect of the pontifical council, about this issue. In light of the call to end polemical language, I ventured at the press briefing, could Leo XIII’s ruling be revised? The Swiss cardinal replied that “we must have a better interpretation” that goes beyond simply asking “Is it valid or is it not valid?” when discussing Anglican orders. He added that the ordination of women priests and bishops in the Anglican Communion had created a “new problem” that further complicates the issue.

Although Cardinal Koch’s response could be seen as a cautious reaffirmation of the status quo, it could also be read as looking for a third way between the simple binaries of “valid” or “not valid”. Three years ago, Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, a now retired Vatican official and eminent legal mind, pointed out that the Church has “a very rigid understanding of validity and invalidity”, and argued that it was too simplistic to bluntly dismiss Anglican orders as “invalid”. Perhaps Cardinal Koch is hoping to create room for development by encouraging the search for alternative language to describe the Catholic understanding of the status of Anglican orders.

Pope Francis’ approach to ecumenism has been to switch the focus away from intractable theological disagreements to finding practical ways to show what unity looks like. Whether it was travelling to Sweden to mark 500 years since the start of the Reformation or cohosting a retreat for South Sudan’s leaders with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Francis has been “walking, praying and working together” with other Christians.

Although the Church’s teaching has stayed the same, understanding of Anglican orders has evolved dramatically since 1896, and much of that is down to the concrete ecumenical work that has taken place between Catholics and Anglicans over the last few decades. Francis is realistic about the limits to finding solutions to theological disputes. He once quoted a former Patriarch of Constantinople who told Pope Paul VI: “Let us make unity together and leave the theologians on an island to think about it.” He added: “It was a joke, but it is historically true.” The Pope is not dismissing the importance of theological dialogue, but has asked that it be taken out of the “laboratory” and that the discussions continue “while we are on the way”. And he urgently wants the Church to get back on the road.

The Tablet - 12 December 2020 (

Back to News