You can read too much into a symbol, especially if it signifies a deep spiritual longing or portends some prophetic fulfilment. What to one person is just the rain, to another becomes life-giving water. Bread can be flour and yeast, or life and salvation. Wine is wine, or it is blood. In the half-light between visions and dreams lie centuries of mystics and religious nutters separated by the faith of their followers or the discernment of their deniers. Whether you believe or not is a question of whether you have eyes to see and ears to hear. Let the reader understand.
The Archbishop of Canterbury visited Pope Francis last week to commemorate 50 years of ecumenical endeavour between the churches of England and Rome. Together they commissioned 19 pairs of Roman Catholic and Anglican bishops (all male) to return to their home countries and work together, pray together and proclaim the Gospel of Christ together. As has become customary since 1966, the Pope and Archbishop exchanged gifts: Justin Welby gave Pope Francis his pectoral Cross of Nails, symbolising reconciliation, and Pope Francis gave Archbishop Justin a crozier, symbolising episcopal jurisdiction.
And it wasn’t just any old crozier: it was a design based on the pastoral staff given by Pope St Gregory the Great to St Augustine. A Roman pontiff has not given a crozier to an archbishop of Canterbury since the Reformation (at least), or (more likely) since Pope Gregory consecrated Augustine in 597. The Apostle to the English and founder of the church in England was a Benedictine prior. The senior Archbishop to the English and leader of the Church of England is a Benedictine abbot. Both hearts beat for peace, prayer and work, as St Benedict would exhort.
“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,” Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin said in their Common Declaration.
The vespers service (in Latin and English) was celebrated at Rome’s Church of St Gregory on the Caelian Hill, whence Pope Gregory sent Augustine to evangelise the English in 597. By gifting a crozier, Pope Francis sends Justin back to England to continue the work Augustine began. Unfortunately, he said, over the course of history, “we have lost sight of the brother who was alongside us, we have become incapable of recognizing him and of rejoicing over the gifts and grace we each have received”. And he urged his fellow Roman Catholics around the world to ask, before undertaking any activity, “Why can’t we do this with our Anglican brothers and sisters? Can we witness to Jesus working together with our Catholic brothers and sisters?”
So Anglican priests are priests equal with those of Rome; not laymen masquerading as prelates? Her sacraments are real? Her salvation assured?
The Pope noted that the crozier has a crook for gathering on one end, and a point on the other “to prod those who tend to stay too close and closed, exhorting them to go out”. But the Archbishop needed no gathering or prodding. In his address, he said, “When we fight among ourselves as Christians, when we lose the obligation of sharing mercy and forgiveness, we not only disobey the explicit prayer and command of our Lord, but also we become shepherds who devour the sheep, the church becomes a circus for gladiatorial combat in which the losers are shown no mercy.”
They acknowledged “serious obstacles” remain on the road to unity, and the referred specifically to the ordination (and episcopacy) of women, and now questions regarding human sexuality. “Behind these differences lies a perennial question about how authority is exercised in the Christian community,” they added, without touching on the universal role and infallibility of the Pope himself, which really precedes secondary issues like gender and sexuality. “The real questions to be confronted are to do with scripture, Magisterium and tradition,” writes moral theologian Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith in the Catholic Herald. And he’s right, of course. How can there be unity when the Church of Rome considers Anglican orders to be “absolutely null and utterly void”? How can there be unity when the Church of England considers that: “The Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of ceremonies, but also in matters of faith”?
The Pope and Archbishop may declare, “we are undeterred”, and they may be trusting in the Holy Spirit that “dialogue and engagement with one another will deepen our understanding and help us to discern the mind of Christ for his church”. But it needs a bit of wrestling with the ultimate source of spiritual authority, the sufficiency of Scripture, and the efficacy and finality of Jesus’s work on the cross. Certainly, bishops can pray and work together as brothers (not sisters – a decision which, in itself, speaks volumes) by reason of their common baptism. And they can preach of justice and exhort mercy and defend the dignity of all people. But.. but..
When it comes to visible unity, the “imperfect communion” is sustained by centuries of dogma. Since neither the Bishop of Rome nor the Archbishop of Canterbury has the authority to change that, they are left with praxis, parables and symbols. Rome’s official line is that Justin Welby is a layman; he is no more a bishop than Theresa May. And yet this Pope bows before him to receive a blessing, and gifts him a bishop’s crozier. By receiving that blessing, the Pope affirms the validity of +Justin’s ordination according to the Anglican rite. How otherwise may he bestow a blessing? By accepting that crozier, the Archbishop acknowledges the authority of the Pope to consecrate and bestow the episcopal ministry. The act is magisterial.
Of course, the crozier is a replica and a gift. It makes a nice photo-op. The fact that it is fake, and that the Archbishop is constrained by common courtesy to accept it, may satisfy robust Roman Catholics and placate staunch Protestants who may have concerns that either is selling out their respective traditions. After all, the Pope is not the Church of Rome, and the Archbishop is not the Church of England: they are just two flawed and fallible men. And yet these two men by their symbolic actions speak louder than all motu proprios, encyclicals, pastoral decisions and ARCIC-inspired common declarations in the world. People look and see far more than they read and understand. It is how Francis and Justin act toward each other and what they do as bishops which teaches their flocks how to act and guides them in what to do. And they have determined that their ministries are founded upon love, mercy, peace and reconciliation. By magisterial act of consecration, the gift of a crozier qualifies or nullifies Apostolicae Curae: the Lord has set Justin apart for a mission, in apostolic succession, with solemn, historical title and valid holy orders. Or, if you prefer, it signifies nothing. Do you have eyes but fail to see?