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Archbishop Welby’s liturgical Roman holiday

Ecumenism is not usually a topic that generates excitement online. But Catholic social media was buzzing this week over events in Rome involving the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion.

The Most Rev. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, outside of St Paul's Cathedral, London, on Feb. 4, 2013. © Mazur/ 

What was the Most Rev. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, doing in the Eternal City? What caught people’s attention? And what else happened?

The Pillar takes a look.


Why was Welby in Rome?

Short answer: He was there for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the annual Jan. 18-25 global ecumenical event. 

The eight-day observance culminates with a Vespers service at Rome’s Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, led by the pope and attended by leaders of other Christian communities. 

Welby was there in his capacity as the Archbishop of Canterbury, the senior bishop of the Church of England and ex officio head of the worldwide Anglican Communion. 

Born out of the Reformation, the Church of England is the established church in England and the mother church of the Anglican Communion, the world’s third-largest Christian communion after the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church.

The Anglican Communion is a somewhat loose alliance of tens of millions of people belonging to 46 distinct local churches in more than 165 countries.

What caught people’s attention?

Two events accounted for much of the online discussion. Both took place on the final day of the week of prayer.

The first was a Jan. 25 Anglican Eucharist at Rome’s San Bartolomeo all’Isola, a Catholic basilica located on Tiber island and housing a shrine to the “new martyrs” of the 20th and 21st centuries. 

The shrine honors martyrs from different Christian traditions, including the Seven Martyrs of the Melanesian Brotherhood, who were killed in the Solomon Islands in 2003 and are commemorated annually by the Church of England on April 24.

Welby presided and preached at the service, which was attended by both Anglicans and Catholics. 

According to Michael Haynes, the senior Vatican correspondent of LifeSiteNews, the Anglican leader noted that Pope Francis had given permission for the service to be held at the church, which contains the relics of St. Bartholomew, one of Jesus’ Twelve Apostles. 

In his sermon, Welby said: “The Church is the miracle of unity amidst enormous, inhuman, unimaginable difference, which for the world has always been a reason to conquer and fight one another, not to love and value one another.”

The use of Catholic churches for services celebrated by clergy of other Christian communions is regulated by the “Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism,” usually referred to simply as the Ecumenical Directory

The document says that, while Catholic churches are “generally reserved” for Catholic worship, “if priests, ministers or communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church do not have a place or the liturgical objects necessary for celebrating worthily their religious ceremonies, the diocesan bishop may allow them the use of a church or a Catholic building and also lend them what may be necessary for their services.”

The diocesan bishop in this case was, of course, the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis.

LifeSiteNews published a photo of the archbishop distributing the Anglican Eucharist during the service and said that “Welby used the high altar in the basilica, and the remaining Anglican communion wafers were consumed by Welby and his accompanying priests at the altar.”

The Anglican Eucharist occupies a different place within the Anglican Communion to the Mass with the Catholic Church. The Church of England’s official website says that Anglican Eucharistic services “can take many different forms” and “may be understood … in different ways.” 

The Church of England offers Holy Communion to “baptized persons who are communicant members of other Churches which subscribe to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and who are in good standing in their own Church.”

The Catholic Church, meanwhile, teaches that “ecclesial communities derived from the Reformation and separated from the Catholic Church, ‘have not preserved the proper reality of the Eucharistic mystery in its fullness, especially because of the absence of the sacrament of Holy Orders.’” 

“It is for this reason that, for the Catholic Church, Eucharistic intercommunion with these communities is not possible,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church says.

So Catholics attending the service at San Bartolomeo all’Isola would have been expected to refrain from receiving the Anglican Eucharist.

The event was not the first time that an Archbishop of Canterbury has celebrated an Anglican service at a prominent Rome church. 

In 2006, Archbishop Rowan Williams presided at an Anglican Eucharist in the Basilica of Santa Sabina, the mother church of the Dominican order, causing a similar buzz among Catholics. 

More controversially still, in 2023, 50 Anglican clergy concelebrated a liturgy with their bishop at the altar in the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, the pope’s diocesan cathedral. Bishop Guerino Di Tora, vicar of the archpriest of the archbasilica, issued a statement expressing “deep regret” and acknowledging that the liturgy was in “contravention of canonical norms.” 

The bishop ascribed the “unfortunate episode” to “a breakdown in communications.” In contrast, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s service at San Bartolomeo all’Isola took place with the pope’s explicit approval.

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Sent out from Rome

The second much-discussed event occurred on the evening of Jan. 25, during Vespers at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, which contains the tomb of St. Paul the Apostle. Catholics celebrate the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul Jan. 25, making the basilica an apt place for the week of prayer’s culminating event.

In his homily, Pope Francis referred to the presence in the basilica of Catholic and Anglican bishops taking part in a weeklong “ecumenical summit” organized by the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission (IARCCUM), an official body jointly established by the Anglican Communion and Catholic Church in 2001.

The summit, entitled “Growing Together,” consists of two parts: a Jan. 22-26 pilgrimage to Rome, followed by a Jan. 26-29 trip to Canterbury. 

At the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury commissioned the bishops to go out in pairs (one Anglican and one Catholic) to witness to Christian unity.

As the pope put it: “It is nice that today, with my brother, Archbishop Justin, we can confer on these joint groups of bishops the mandate of continuing to testify to the unity willed by God for his Church in their respective regions, as they move forward together ‘to extend the mercy and peace of God to a world in need.”’

The commissioning of the bishops came at the end of Vespers. According to the service booklet, Pope Francis said: “Fourteen centuries ago, Pope Gregory the Great commissioned St. Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, and his companions, to set out from Rome to preach the joy of the Gospel to the peoples of England.” 

“Today, grateful to God that we share the same Gospel, we send you, beloved co-workers in the Kingdom of God, so that there where you minister, together you may bear witness to the hope that does not deceive and to the unity for which our Savior prayed.”

Welby then said: “Brothers and sisters, God reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. As we send you forth from the tomb of the Apostle to the Nations, we call on you to make this ministry your special care. As you preach and celebrate the sacraments with God’s holy people, bear witness to the one hope of your calling.” 

He continued: “May your ministry alongside one another as Catholics and Anglicans be for the world a foretaste of the reconciling of all Christians in the unity of the one and only Church of Christ for which we pray this day.”

Then the pope and Archbishop of Canterbury said together: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”

The two men greeted the bishops, who approached them in pairs Among them was a female Anglican bishop, whose presence generated online comment among Catholics.

The Catholic Church teaches that priestly orders are “reserved to men alone.” In contrast, women have been ordained as priests in the wider Anglican Communion since 1944 and in the Church of England since 1994. The first consecration of a woman as a bishop in the Anglican Communion was in 1998.

The Catholic Church’s stance on Anglican orders was outlined in 1896 by Leo XIII in the apostolic letter Apostolicae curae (“With apostolic care”). The pope declared that “ordinations carried out according to the Anglican rite have been, and are, absolutely null and utterly void.”

Online observers asked whether the joint commissioning of the Anglican and Catholic bishops this week represented a shift in the Catholic Church’s position. There has been no official change, but it was reported in 2022 that Pope Francis had asked Vatican officials to consider the issue of Anglican orders.

“While there is no sign that Apostolicae curae will be overturned, for several decades Rome has been moving away from the language used by Leo XIII and towards a recognition of the fruits of Anglican ministry,” said the Catholic magazine The Tablet.

In discussion and public comments around the subject of extending diaconal ordination to women in the Catholic Church, as well as calls for priestly ordination of women, Pope Francis has repeatedly stated, in line with his predecessors, that “holy orders is reserved for men.”

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What else happened?

Although it garnered less coverage, another notable Anglican service took place in Rome this week.

On Jan. 23, the pairs of Anglican and Catholic bishops attended Anglican choral evensong (sung evening prayer) in the Choir Chapel of St Peter’s Basilica. 

IARCCUM’s website described it as “an important occasion in ecumenical relations,” noting that an Anglican evensong was previously celebrated in St Peter’s in 2017.

The choir was drawn from Rome’s two Anglican churches: All Saints (a chaplaincy of the Church of England) and St. Paul’s within the Walls (which belongs to the U.S.-based Episcopal Church). All Saints’ chaplain Canon Robert Warren officiated.

Explaining the rationale for Anglican evensong at St. Peter’s, Fr. Martin Browne, O.S.B., an official at the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, said: “The rhythm of daily prayer based on the psalms and other scriptural texts is a precious treasure which Catholics and Anglicans share.” 

“It’s useful to recall that the Catholic Church’s Ecumenical Directory says that the experience of participating in one another’s liturgical celebrations helps Christians to share more deeply in traditions which often have developed from common roots.” 

“Sharing in the service of evening prayer as it has traditionally been celebrated by Anglicans is an opportunity for Catholics to do just that and to give thanks for their shared tradition of prayer.” 

He added: “Choral evensong is a particularly beautiful expression of our shared tradition and we can be very grateful that we have this opportunity to experience it together in St Peter’s.”

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