Skip to content

Can Pope Francis avoid the Welby trap?

Can Pope Francis avoid the Welby trap?

The Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury has said he is willing to remove his office from its role as an “instrument of communion” for the global federation of Anglican communities, after the Church of England announced it will allow church blessings for same-sex relationships.

While Justin Welby has tried to steer a middle course on the issue, trying simultaneously to back traditional Christian teachings on marriage and support progressivist demands for reform, the CoE’s decision on same-sex unions has provoked fierce backlash from other Anglican leaders, and threatens the breakup of the worldwide Anglican communion.

But as Welby’s efforts to keep the traditional and progressive wings of Anglicanism together appear to be failing, can Catholics learn from the Anglican experience — and could Pope Francis face the prospect of a similar crisis?

Subscribe Now

Welby, who as Archbishop of Canterbury both leads the Church of England and functions as primus inter pares among leaders of the global Anglican communion of 42 member “churches,” said Monday that he will not “cling” to his position at the head of the global federation amid growing divisions between the more liberal branches like the Church of England and the larger African Anglican provinces, including countries like Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya.

Welby’s offer is structural, not personal — the Anglican archbishop told a leadership group this week that while the Archbishop of Canterbury has had a historic central role in preserving global Anglican unity, the confederation of ecclesial communities could find unity in different ways.

The Anglican communion recognizes four “instruments of communion” among its member “churches,” including the role of the Archbishop of Caterbury as a de facto global leader, along with three organizations for global consultation and coordination among Anglican bishops.

But this week Welby told one of those bodies, the Anglican Consultative Council, that the “instruments of communion” among Anglicans could be changed, if change is needed to keep the confederation together.

Welby’s role as the leader of global Anglicanism has come under criticism from the leaders of its African provinces, after the Church of England decided last week to allow church blessings for same-sex unions, with the heads of Anglicanism’s more conservative provinces saying “God cannot bless what he calls sin.”

Insisting that “the CoE has departed from the Anglican faith and are now false teachers,” some African leaders have declared that there is now “impaired communion” within their Church.

But while leaders of the largest Anglican provinces have denounced the move as an abandonment of Biblical teaching and the “reality” of marriage, other members of the Church of England have criticized the move to bless same-sex unions as not progressive enough and demanded full recognition of same-sex marriages in the CoE.

Though Welby has offered to step back as the global primate of Anglicanism and said he will not, as Archbishop of Canterbury, personally bless any same-sex unions, many predict these concessions will not be enough to keep the global federation together.

Inevitably, some Catholic commentators will say the Anglican situation seems like an all-too-possible future, as Catholic bishops’ conferences in some countries, most notably Germany and Belgium, press ahead with calls to offer liturgical blessings for same-sex unions, and to press the issue through the ongoing global synodal process.

Like Welby, Pope Francis has at times appeared to try to steer a middle course. The Vatican has issued, in Francis’ name, a blunt rejection of liturgical blessings for same-sex unions, but has stopped short of taking decisive action against clerics who perform them.

At the same time, prominent cardinals and synodal organizers have insisted that such blessings, and other matters of doctrine, are legitimate topics for synodal debate, unchallenged by the Holy See.

For his own part, Francis has seemingly aimed to present the totality of Catholic doctrine: defending human dignity and stressing the need to love all people, and expressing to Catholic moral teaching at the same time.

The pope has in recent weeks denounced laws criminalizing homosexuality in countries around the world, while at the same time reiterating the Church’s teaching that homosexual acts are in and of themselves sinful.

Still, he has not significantly pushed back on bishops charting other courses.

But to many Vatican watchers, the synodal process has often seemed like an exercise in deferring an inevitable confrontation over many divisive issues, including same-sex unions, female ordination, and other doctrinal issues. Some expect that as the synodal process prepares to enter its final phase in October, Pope Francis will eventually have to pick a side.

If and when he does, some Churchmen — including both prominent “liberal” and “conservative” cardinals — believe some kind of schism is a live possibility.

To some, Justin Welby’s current predicament, despite his goal of keeping the global Anglican communion togethery, might seem like a harbinger of Catholic schism to come.

But while comparisons between the current Anglican disunion and the Catholic direction of travel may be understandable, they are inexact.

And Pope Francis has a far stronger position to work from than Welby.

For a start, Francis has the power to decide if and when he has to address an issue. A Catholic synod is a purely advisory body convened by a competent authority — in this case the pope — who sets the terms of discussion and decides which synodal recommendations are to be adopted, and which discarded.

Put simply, if Francis doesn’t want to be put in the position of confrontation on calls for things like church blessings for same-sex couples, he can make it clear they’re simply not up for discussion at the synod.


'The Pillar' covers news you won't read anywhere else. We do it intelligently and reliably, because our subscribers know good journalism is worth paying for. So subscribe today – or upgrade your subscription!

Welby, by contrast, effectively had his hand forced by the General Synod of the Church of England — the body which voted to approve blessings for same-sex couples this month, and which does have deliberative and legislative power. Even if Welby himself warned the CoE about bringing in something he knew would drive a wedge in the global Anglican communion, he was functionally powerless to stop it.

Moreover, while the Archbishop of Canterbury might be a somewhat less prominent religious figure than the pope — both in global terms and in the power and influence he wields within his own religious community — he is subject to considerably more external and political pressure.

Since the CoE synod voted to adopt blessings for same-sex couples, Welby has said he faces a backlash for not going far enough — claiming even that he has been “threatened with parliamentary action” by politicians, in an attempt to force same-sex marriage.

Francis, by contrast, has the international status of the papacy and the diplomatic freedom of the Holy See to insulate him from, for example, the more radical reform campaigners of the Central Committee of German Catholics, whose leadership cadre is largely drawn from that country’s political class.

But while Francis isn’t exactly the victim of Welby’s circumstances, his options are not limitless, either.

For example, if the pope doesn’t want to risk an Anglican-style fracturing of the Catholic Church, he probably can’t get by with doing nothing.

Whether or not Francis intended the global synodal process to become a proxy vehicle for discussion of Church teaching on the nature of marriage, human sexuality, holy communion, and sacramental ordination, for many of its most vocal participants, it has.

Prominent figures like Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego, for example, have said publicly that the upcoming synodal sessions in Rome will have to grapple with “questions” like the ordination of women to the priesthood. While McElroy has suggested that the synod will “likely” adopt an answer in keeping with Church teaching, he has insisted that it is a matter open for “synodal discernment.”

Whatever his private expectations for the synod, some perceive interventions like McElroy’s as stoking expectations that the synod could usher in wholesale doctrinal change. The cardinal and others who have made similar calls have triggered both renewed calls for progressivist reform on one side and heightened suspicion and even hostility to the entire synodal project on the other.

The most likely result would seem to be that a big clash will come in October, either over those issues themselves, or over the mechanics of the synodal sessions to allow or suppress discussion of them.

The signs so far are that the pope has realized this, and is quietly attempting to release some of the building pressure before it explodes. But, while letters to the world’s bishops reassuring them about the synodal process and agenda can help with this, preventing a “big break” confrontation in Rome may require more direct papal intervention.

Here, again unlike Welby, Francis retains the practical and moral authority to act. He could, if he chooses, instruct the synodal participants to avoid discussions of doctrinal change and focus on other issues, and expect little if any dissent in response.

And, if he wishes, the pope could even allow such discussion to happen in the name of a free and frank airing of all that has been said in the global process, but make it clear the synod shouldn’t produce a final document calling for doctrinal change.

Both those options could avoid the synod producing a “crisis of communion” moment, and forcing Francis to either pick a side or risk alienating both — as Welby seems to have done.

Whatever Francis chooses to do or not do, if the synod ends with him forced into the same corner in which Welby now finds himself, two things are certain: it will be a situation of the pope’s own making; and, unlike the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of Rome cannot step back from his role as the point of communion for the Church.

Subscribe Now