Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of posts reflecting (1) on Covenant’s recent seminar in Rome on Catholic ecclesiology and ecumenism, and (2) fresh approaches to, and promises of, Christian unity in our own time.

By Shaun Blanchard

I was honored to attend the recent Covenant conference in Rome, September 29–October 2. I have been a Catholic admirer of The Living Church for a few years, enjoying the blog posts of Zachary Guiliano and Ephraim Radner, and of old friends and colleagues like Jordan Hylden and Matthew Olver.

I entered the doctoral program at Marquette University in August 2013 in the same cohort as Fr. Matthew, and I quickly discovered a kindred spirit and a brother in the Lord. Very often, I have felt closer in theological, liturgical, ecclesiological, and moral outlook with Fr. Matthew than with some of my fellow Catholics in the academy.

When Fr. Matthew invited me to attend the Covenant conference in Rome, I was delighted. I was also very excited, albeit a tad nervous, to be the only Catholic in attendance at an Anglican gathering devoted to reading and evaluating Catholic teaching documents. The idea that I, a 29-year old from Mebane, North Carolina, could be perceived as speaking “for” a Church that has not ordained me, that numbers over a billion souls, and that has a two-millennia patrimony (and, incidentally, believes itself to have been founded by the Son of God) was somewhat alarming. But I was set at ease by good-natured jokes about my unique position as “Catholic observer.” Thankfully, others understood I contributed only what I took to be official Catholic teaching (or the range of acceptable or debated positions) and occasionally offered my own opinion or my personal interpretation of a document.


The location was too good to be true. After a picturesque dinner in the Piazza Navona on Thursday night, we began our discussions Friday morning in the Centro Pro Unione, a wing of one of the Pamphilij Palaces devoted to ecumenical gatherings and research. We were welcomed by Fr. Jim Puglisi, who informed us that the very room in which we sat was a bustling center of theological and ecumenical exchange during the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), featuring evening commentaries on conciliar schema (drafts) by figures like Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) and great Lutheran theologian George Lindbeck. It was also the room where Vivaldi had premiered “The Four Seasons.”

I was familiar with most of the texts we discussed: Vatican II’s Lumen gentium (the Dogmatic Constituion on the Church) and Unitatis redintegratio (the Decree on Ecumenism), John Paul II’s Ut unum sint, and Benedict XVI’s Anglicanorum Coetibus (which created the “Anglican Ordinariate”) — but I had read them mainly among Catholics, and, in the case of Lumen gentium, primarily to consider the development of Catholic doctrine on the episcopacy and on non-Christian religions. To consider them, not only among “non-Catholic” Christians, but as the only Catholic present, was an illuminating experience.

The first thing I noticed in our discussions was the bewildering frequency of the use of the term Roman: I was a “Roman Catholic”; “Rome” was personified (it could say and do things); there was “c/Catholic doctrine,” there was “Roman Catholic doctrine,” and the two were not always (presumably) the same thing. I was a “Roman Catholic friend,” which struck me as odd, because I would never identify myself that way. I see myself as a Catholic who worships in the Roman Rite.

Someone even spoke, possibly jokingly, of the “Roman obedience.” Contrasted with what, I wondered? Not, surely, the “Bishop Curry obedience,” although the existence of such an “obedience” would lend hitherto unthinkable primatial weight to my home of North Carolina! My understanding of the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury leads me to believe that it would be an inaccurate understanding of primacy to speak of Anglicans and (especially) Episcopalians as in the “Canterbury obedience,” and I suspect all my Anglican friends at Covenant would agree.

I was also bewildered by a multitude of new acronyms, names of local bishops, synodal bodies, and national committees I had never heard of. This made me pity observers of intra-Catholic discussions of this kind, which must be at least equally bewildering. It was also oddly comforting to realize that the juridicism and bureaucratization that Catholicism is so often accused of is probably a necessity for any international organization of millions of worldwide believers. Nevertheless, to see another ecclesial family’s insider talk up close and personal made me reflect on my own.

For me, this intense weekend of shared prayer, discussion, and debate repeatedly highlighted differences in language, and the use of language. This is not because I was especially perceptive, but because our liturgies and ways of speaking share so much in common that any divergence clanged loudly. Participation in the Eucharists we were celebrating brought me back to the pre-New Translation days of the American Catholic Church: “and also with you,” “not worthy to receive you,” etc.

Speaking of language, and our distinctive patrimonies, someone else, echoing the Thirty-Nine Articles in a jokey manner, spoke of purgatory as a “fond thing, vainly invented,” after our discussion of attempts at ecumenical rapprochement on the Eucharistic sacrifice. These differences in language seemed initially like amusing throwbacks to earlier forms of English (such idiosyncrasies are familiar to a graduate student in theology). However, the proliferation of the adjective Roman before Catholic points to a real and very important element of Anglican self-definition, at least of the type of Anglican represented at this conference. This usage asserts, albeit implicitly, that Anglicanism is catholic, even Catholic, and thus, if “Protestant” at all, only provisionally so, and with regret. It was thus a statement — polite but very strong — of ecclesial self-understanding.

Regarding ecclesial self-understanding, I was struck by how carefully, charitably, and exactly Christopher Wells, who moderated most discussions, presented the teaching of the Catholic Church. He always highlighted development of doctrine, and celebrated Vatican II and John Paul II’s profound openness, but emphasized the strong claim of Lumen gentium 8, that the Church of Christ “subsists in” (subsistit in) the Catholic Church. One participant labeled such claims “a kinder and gentler triumphalism,” (and, to be fair, depending on one’s definition of triumphalism, perhaps it is). But I was given the distinct impression that most present did not want the Catholic Church to backpedal on its traditionally strong ecclesiological affirmations. While the memory of Leo XIII’s rejection of the validity of Anglican Orders was painful to my Anglican friends, I sensed strongly that the Catholic Church was seen, at least generally, as a bulwark of Christian truth and witness.

The group’s fascination and general sympathy with Catholic ecclesiology and ecumenical teaching, coupled with their strong commitment to the Anglican Communion made for serious, deep, and rigorous discussion. We were all aware that the last two decades have not, overall, been encouraging for the ecumenical project, but it certainly did not feel like we were in the midst of an “ecumenical winter” in our (mostly) young and (wholly) vibrant group.

There is no need for me to recount the summaries given of the conciliar and papal documents we examined. Our discussions and debates, while incredibly fruitful, mirrored the kinds of productive ecumenical conversations that have been going on for decades. What I hope my brief account can convey is the depth of personal and communal zeal — even conversion — such encounters can engender.

Christopher Wells spoke early on in our conference of the Protestant observers who arrived in Rome in 1962 deeply skeptical. They were set to meet with Cardinal Augustin Bea, who some (perhaps uninformed) had thought would be the typical big, bad “Roman Catholic Cardinal” of Protestant imagination. The warmth, openness, and evangelical zeal of Bea quickly changed their perception. The powerful cardinal became “my brother, Augustin Bea, who believes in the Lord.”

Ecumenism, said Christopher, “cuts its teeth in you” when you can’t share communion, when it’s your family, when it’s your best and closest friend in the Lord. As a convert to Catholicism from the evangelical South, and from a Calvinist family, my heart burned with these words. Christ’s desire that we might all be one “so that the world might believe” (John 17:21) was a constant theme in the documents and our discussion. To be united on the necessity of preaching conversion to Christ to an unbelieving world with my Anglican friends and divided at the altar feels, frankly, like suffering from some sort of dissociative disorder (even as I recognize I am not united with a great many Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, on the necessity of such joint proclamation).

Our Eucharists were spent, as were our later sessions, in the Anglican Centre. A headquarters of Anglican-Catholic dialogue and ecumenical research, it is in a wing of (yet another) Doria Pamphilij Palace, and headed by Archbishop David Moxon of New Zealand. A gentle and kind man who exudes an evangelical zeal, he works closely with Pope Francis, and speaks of the pontiff glowingly. “We must act as if we are unified,” said Archbishop Moxon, “for the sake of mission.”

These Eucharists drove home, for me (the only one not receiving) the concrete reality of division. I could be so close in theological outlook and friendship with Matthew, and with new and old friends like Jordan, Mac, Christopher, and Zack, but cannot now (and, humanly speaking, may never) share in eucharistic fellowship.

I reflected on this sad reality after our first Eucharist, as we walked across the Tiber to visit a beautiful basilica, San Bartolomeo all’Isola. It was this small but magnificent 10th-century church that housed the remains of the Anglican Melanesian martyrs. Recounting their story earlier that day, Christopher — normally intense, rapid-fire, and loud — paused, his voice broke, and he fought back tears as he told of the procession he had attended years before in Rome to house their relics in the San Bartolomeo.

The side altars of this sublime basilica are all dedicated to modern martyrs of the 20th and 21st centuries. There are altars dedicated to victims of the demonic twins of the 20 century — Nazism and Stalinist Communism. There is an altar for our Anglican and Catholic brothers who died witnessing in the South Pacific. On an altar for South America lay the Missal of Oscar Romero, who was shot by a sniper while he raised the chalice of Our Lord’s precious blood. And there, in an altar marked for “modern martyrs of Europe,” was the photo of an elderly French priest, Jacques Hamel, who mingled his blood with Our Savior’s just two months ago, in a former heartland of Christendom.

We are all aware of the grave and serious doctrinal differences and impediments to reunion — divergent views of the Petrine office, ecclesial infallibility, myriad issues clustered around gender, sex, and marriage, the controversy about Anglican Orders, even older controversies about sacraments and soteriology. But we must recognize, with tears and penance, that our greatest enemies are, and have always been, within: apathy, pride, a lack of evangelical zeal, a sectarian spirit.

When all roads to union seem closed, perhaps the only way forward is more blood, more tears, more prayer, and, above all, more love.

Shaun Blanchard is a doctoral candidate in systematic theology at Marquette University. He has degrees from Oxford (MSt, 2011) and North Carolina (BA, 2009). His dissertation explores 18th-century forerunners of Vatican II, including Lodovico Muratori, the Synod of Pistoia, and the English Cisalpines. His work has appeared in 
Pro EcclesiaNew Blackfriars, and the St. Austin Review; he regularly writes shorts essays for The Regensburg Forum. A Smith Fellow for 2016-2017, he is currently doing archival research in England on 18th-century Catholicism. 

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