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The sons and daughters of Benedict: “In Conversation” with two leading ecumenists

Posted on: January 24, 2019 4:40 PM
Roman Catholic biblical scholar Father Henry Wansbrough (left) with the Revd Canon Dr John Gibaut, Director of Unity, Faith and Order of the Anglican Communion.
Photo Credit: Anglican World

This is the second in a new series for ACNS in which we re-publish features which first appeared in Anglican World magazine. This, feature, by Bernadette Kehoe, was first published in September 2017.

In a sermon marking the feast of St Benedict earlier this year, the Director of Unity, Faith and Order of the Anglican Communion, Canon John Gibaut, referred to all Christians as “sons and daughters of Benedict.” This prompted Anglican World to invite Canon John to take part in a conversation on ecumenical progress with a Benedictine monk and leading Roman Catholic biblical scholar, Fr Henry Wansbrough.

The dialogue took place in the glorious setting of Ampleforth Abbey in northern England where Fr Henry has been a monk for over 60 years. Fr Henry has edited the New Jerusalem Bible and was on the Pope’s Biblical Commission for a decade. He regularly leads pilgrimages to the Holy Land and despite being in his eighties he still runs regularly and is also a keen gardener and singer.

Interestingly, Fr Henry’s mother was Jewish before converting to Catholicism; his father was Anglican, his grandfather was an Anglican vicar and his great grandfather was the first Anglican Bishop of Brisbane, Australia. This, says Fr Henry, has given him “well spread tentacles.”

Canadian Canon John Gibaut has served on several national and international ecumenical dialogues and commissions. He spent ten years in parish ministry – “with a distinct ecumenical dimension” and he was a Professor at the Faculty of Theology, Saint Paul University, Ottawa, a Pontifical University. He has also served as the Director of the World Council of Churches’ Commission on Faith and Order: “Ecumenism for me is part of my vocation as a Christian and my vocation as a priest.”

ARCIC, the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission began work in 1967. Canon John is the Anglican co-secretary and Fr Henry is a Catholic member of the dialogue. Ecumenical relations received a powerful, symbolic boost in October 2016 when the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Francis held a joint service of Vespers in Rome. Catholic and Anglican Bishops from all over the world were present. Fr Henry and Canon John began their conversation by contrasting the warmth of that gathering with their memories of how things used to be:

Fr Henry: “When I was young, there was a fierce divide between Catholics and others and it was an act of bravado among Catholic young people to speak of the Archbishop of Canterbury as “Mr” so and so: “Mr Ramsey” for example, was intended as a deliberate insult. When I was a student at Oxford, I formed a rugby club called ‘the Mongrels’, bringing together Catholic and Anglican students. Someone suggested that we should start the committee meetings with a prayer but we as Catholics were not then allowed to pray with non-Catholics so we had to say we could play together but we could not pray together.”

Canon John: “I too remember those days in my neighbourhood in Toronto and the rivalry and little boy violence between the two communities: we didn’t like Catholics! In my mid- teens my parish was invited to a celebration of the Mass and I remember being very very anxious about what the Mass was. It turned out to be such a “let down” because I realised, this is simply the Holy Eucharist! I recognised its rhythm, its structure, its language. For me that was a defining moment.”

Fr Henry: “In the mid ’70s I had never been to an Anglican Eucharist. It came to me as a great surprise when I discovered how beautifully the Anglican Eucharist is celebrated – and particularly by women. It came as a great surprise when I found that there had been a document of agreement about what the Eucharist was.”

Canon John: “After the release of early ARCIC agreements, the ecumenical excitement in Canada in the early ‘80s was almost palpable. We could almost taste and see the unity we assumed was just around the corner. It didn’t happen in that way but the desire was real and there is a great theological value to the desire.”

Fr Henry: “The aims of ARCIC are full corporate unity. I think there are too many blockages for that to be considered as an immediate aim. But, how far we do agree has been an enormous enlightenment to me: on the Eucharist, on ministry, on church structure, on our aims and our theology in general. The greatest difficulty seems to me that within the Anglican community there is a much wider range of belief. The Anglican Communion welcomes any Christian to communion, whereas Roman Catholics regard sacramental communion as a symbol of unity achieved. The second difficulty is women priests and bishops. I know many women priests in the Anglican church who are admirable, prayerful, wonderful at liturgy and in the pastoral sphere and women bishops also. But there are almost insuperable obstacles to accepting women priests and bishops – one being the Eastern churches: can we accept women to priestly ministry in the knowledge that this will be a further obstacle to unity with the Churches of the East? Are we making one union and destroying another?”

Canon John: “I was much heartened last year in Rome at the common declaration between Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin, when, echoing their predecessors, they said ‘we’re pilgrims on the way – and we trust the Holy Spirit.’ So it may not be in my time, or in my son’s time, but the work we do contributes to that working of the Holy Spirit. The non-ordination of women is an obstacle for Anglicans. But I also look at the way that Catholics, Anglicans and others engage in social justice together – advocacy, relief and development. I look at the way that this Pope and this Archbishop engage each other not just as theologians but as people who want to see our churches engaged in action against things such as human slavery. I think of interchurch families. Also theological education. The effects of Catholic biblical scholarship, ecumenically, have been enormous. We may not be able to receive Holy Communion together but there’s a certain biblical communion that we share.”

Fr Henry: “I think the prophetic gestures of Pope Francis have been of enormous importance – the visit to Lampedusa led the Christian world; the gesture by Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin of sending out 19 pairs of bishops together, to spread the gospel of peace; their proposed journey together to South Sudan; their work together for refugees have all been of enormous importance. Archbishop David Moxon (the Anglican co-chair of ARCIC) recently told me how at a Papal blessing, Pope Francis thrust the crozier into his hand and said ‘you do the blessing now!’ What does that say about Anglican orders?”

Canon John: “When I attend Mass, it’s appropriately painful and it should be – but that pain of longing to receive Holy Communion together, I think there’s theological worth to that. If we didn’t care it wouldn’t matter but we do care and it does matter – and that caring is one of the things that pushes me to continue in this work.”

Fr Henry: “When I attend an Anglican service, my feeling now surprises me. My feeling is that Christ is present in that gathering and in the work that is being done and in the Scriptures. I can really participate in an act of worship in an Anglican church – something which I would have never thought possible 20 years ago.”

Canon John: “I have found some of my most inspirational ecumenical thinkers, both Anglican and Roman Catholic, to have been monks and nuns. There’s something in the monastic spirituality of welcome that’s able to cross all sorts of divides. I think of some of the leaders in the ecumenical movement in the early part of the 20th century – so many were Benedictines and Dominicans. So I think there is in the history of the modern ecumenical movement something that is deeply indebted to monastic communities – and to Benedict himself.”

Fr Henry: “I think monasticism has been important for ecumenism, as a testimony that what really matters is holiness. The search for God is common to both our churches; we pray in the same way with the words of the Bible. We are both heirs of the spirituality of the fathers of the desert.”