During his very successful pastoral visit to Britain last month, Pope Benedict XVI met with the chief bishop of the Church of England, Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, in historic Westminster Abbey in London.
Few sites in Britain are more widely known than Westminster Abbey. The monastery’s existence as a Benedictine community can be traced at least to a time before 1000. As history unfolded, England’s royalty came to favor Westminster. King St. Edward the Confessor was one of them. Indicative of this favor is that English kings and queens are crowned in Westminster Abbey, not in St. Paul’s Cathedral.
More broadly, Westminster was one of a number of Benedictine monasteries in England that did very much to elevate the country’s culture. All of this ended, of course, in the 16th century, when King Henry VIII declared an end of English Catholic loyalty to the papacy and shut down the monasteries, in the process transferring their properties to himself.
Westminster Abbey is a strong symbol of the division between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, but also of England’s great Christian past.
Pope Benedict XVI went there perhaps because of the symbolism. His visit included a social, friendly moment, which observers said was very cordial.
Then the two religious figures sat in the sanctuary of the abbey church to preside at Evensong, the Anglican vespers.
There was much to be seen in — and said about — all this. Making clear what genuine ecumenism is, neither Pope Benedict nor Archbishop Williams downplayed or denied the differences between Catholicism and Anglicanism, but they stressed the common faith of both bodies in the Lord Jesus, and in this faith they called Anglicans and Catholics to come together in Christian witness in the world.
This is ecumenism, an attitude and an activity that has never truly captured the minds and hearts of Catholics, and that still bothers and even angers many Catholics.
Ecumenism is not the repudiation or the diluting of anyone’s religion. Instead, it is to say what one group believes, or what another believes, acknowledge honestly and without compromise where differences occur, but its ambition is to build on shared understandings and further, if at all possible, the work of the Gospel.
The goal of this process, certainly for Catholics as well as Anglicans, is genuine unity of faith and worship in the one Church of Christ. At one time, especially about a century or so ago, this goal seemed by many to be within reach.
Over the years, while relations between Anglicans and Catholics became more organized, very serious policies within the Anglican commu-nity make less likely any reunion of Anglicans and Catholics. Certainly no reunion seems likely — or, for Catholics, possible — in the near future.
Pope Benedict’s very symbolic visit to Westminster Abbey and his friendly meeting with the chief Anglican bishop, as well as his other contacts with religious figures, show that ecumenism has a role in modern Catholicism, what true ecumenism is and what it means.
On a less than happy note, it is high time for Christians to get together to more eagerly witness to Christ’s love. The battle that exists is not between various Christian denominations, despite real differences, but between Christianity and no religion. Christians have to convince millions of people with no religion that there indeed is something to the Gospel of Christ, not by arguing or being aloof, but simply by showing themselves truly to be disciples.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is the associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.