There’s excitement in Christian circles today about the first meeting of Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby. The two men have important things in common. Both reached their positions of power from unusual backgrounds: Welby from the evangelical HTB movement; Francis from the Society of Jesus. Both have spent quite a lot of time attacking unregulated financial capitalism. Both shun traditional pomp. They both speak to a charismatic Christianity, modern and global, which stresses social justice and proselytisation above theological rigour and tradition. They are also Christians with whom secular liberals can do business.
But will having such apparently compatible leaders make any meaningful difference to Catholic-Anglican relations? The Catholic blogger William Oddie says no. ‘Why do we continue talking to the Anglicans after they have so wilfully made unity impossible?’ he asked, in a blog post that has irritated senior bishops.
‘Why does the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) still meet, as though Anglican ordinations to their episcopate of openly gay men living with their partners, and also of women to their priesthood and episcopate, despite the warnings of successive popes of the fact that these steps would erect insuperable barriers to unity with the Catholic Church, why do we still carry on with the farce of behaving as though these insuperable barriers just did not exist at all?’
Well, yes. But just because Christian Unity is a long way off doesn’t mean that Welby and Francis won’t forge a bond. We might be about to see a new level of Anglican-Catholic co-operation and a shared stress on charismatic renewal ahead of theological agreement. No wonder the evangelicals are excited. I asked one conservative Catholic friend how the Pope and Archbishop might pray together today. ‘Oh Lord, they might even hold hands’, he said.