An odd couple: Pope Francis and Katharine Jefferts Schori

Pope Francis and Justin Welby hung out at the Vatican today. It’s easy to miss the significance of this. Less than 50 years ago, then pope Paul VI and then-Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey met in Rome. It was practically a revolution that the meeting should take place. Paul VI couldn’t really recognize Ramsey as a bishop—what with Apostolicae Curae declaring Anglican orders “absolutely null and utterly void”—but he did famously give Ramsey his ring, a de facto acknowledgement of Ramsey’s position.

Really, Paul VI gave him the ring because he had dared Ramsey to wear the most ridiculous piece of headgear he could find.

Today, Welby wore that ring and Francis kept calling Welby “your grace,” a different way of acknowledging Welby’s position. No one is surprised by this anymore. Of course, the pope and the archbishop of Canterbury would get on. It’s just how it goes.

I’m as happy as anyone else that the two of them spent some time together and I hope there is more to come. But it doesn’t seem like enough anymore. Since that Paul-Ramsey meeting, there’s been a major change in Anglicanism—we ordain women on a regular basis, and some women are now bishops. As I’ve argued before, Anglicans should not see women’s ordination as an obstacle to unity, but as a gift to the relationship.

Just waiting for that invitation, Francis

So the pictures of Pope Francis and Justin Welby are great, but here’s the picture I want to see: Pope Francis and Katharine Jefferts Schori praying together, him in his white and her in a purple cassock. It would be as significant a moment as Paul VI giving Ramsey his ring. (I’d settle for any other woman bishop out there, actually. If Francis wanted to stay in the British Isles, he could go with Jana Jeruma Grinberga, whom Welby highlighted at his enthronement.)

You bet! It’s in the mail.

What Paul VI seemed to understand is that sometimes the rules and regulations are a bit outdated. You might not be able to change them, but you can, you know, circumvent them to acknowledge a present reality. I wonder if Pope Francis can see the same thing about women’s ordination.

Obviously, I’m not holding my breath on this one, but this pope has been full of surprises. Maybe he has one more up his sleeve…

How the One China policy provides a model for thinking about women bishops and Christian reunion

Back when I studied International Relations—before I was introduced to the glories of theology—there was an aspect of American foreign policy I found perplexing: the U.S. supports democracy in Taiwan, arms the country, and makes it clear that a mainland take-over of the island is unacceptable. At the same time, the U.S. officially supports a One China policy. That is, the U.S. supports the reunion of Taiwan with the mainland. How can this be? How can a democratic Taiwan reunite with a Communist mainland?

It took me a while but I eventually realized that reunion can happen when the mainland becomes democratic. For the two to be reunited, both have to change: Taiwan by sacrificing its independence from the mainland, China by changing its political system. Such changes may seem a long way off, but the policy is at least minimally coherent.

One of the arguments catholic-minded types use in opposing the Church of England’s move towards women in the episcopacy is that it would harm chances of reunion with Roman Catholics. Basically, the argument goes, if we have women in the episcopacy, Rome will never talk to us again.

Readers of this blog will know that I take the unity of church seriously, and I take this objection seriously. There are profound historical, theological, and spiritual reasons why Anglicans should be seeking closer relationship with Roman Catholics, and ecumenical reunion is something for which all Christians need to pray.

But I’m not convinced by this catholic-minded argument against women in the episcopacy. There is an important and deeply true argument for having women in all orders of ministry, which I won’t rehearse here. It is one that needs to be affirmed by the church. Let’s do it already!

But what about Rome? Well, it’s kind of like China and Taiwan, Rome being China, and Anglicans being Taiwan. Reunion will come, but it will come when Rome comes to accept the validity of the argument about ordaining women. It’s not that the Anglicans need to knuckle under, sacrifice their principles, and reunite with an unchanging monolith. That monolith needs to change to make the reunion possible.

This points to a larger objection I have to the catholic types in Anglican circles, a tendency to deny the charism of Anglicanism. I don’t see the role of the Anglican churches to be to emulate Rome as closely as possible in the hopes we can rejoin them. Instead, I see that Anglicans have a unique role to play in the family of churches, one that, for instance, upholds a middle way between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism and combines a catholic ecclesiology with an evangelical commitment to the faith. Ordaining women as bishops is part of that role and helps churches around the world see larger truths of the gospel, just as Anglican learn others of these truths from other Christians.

Some people see Anglicans as little more than warmed-over Roman Catholics. Rather than acquiescing to this view, I’d like to see Anglicans fill their role in the body of Christ and share their gifts with the greater church—Rome first among them. That way, we can all as Christians move towards a greater embrace of Gospel truths, first among them “that they may all be one.”

“So that the world may believe”

It is an often overlooked fact that Jesus’ prayer for unity among his followers—”that all may be one”—is, in fact, a missional prayer: one of the next phrases in the verse is “so that the world may believe.” (John 17:21) Jesus connects our unity with our witness to the world. Indeed, it seems that the pattern of relationship among believers is central to that community’s ability to share the good news of Jesus Christ.

Why might be this be? I don’t want to make any guesses about what Jesus was thinking but it does seem to me that in our present environment, unity is a counter-cultural value. We live, as I have written, in an age of “I have no need of you”—politically, economically, socially. We are sorting ourselves into ever smaller groups of like-minded people. The presidential election, which has become more about turning out the base than winning over swing voters, is a paradigmatic example. For the church to live in unity in this context is intensely counter-cultural. This is why I think unity is missional; I want people to look at the church, see a different pattern of relationship than that which obtains in our day-to-day life, and think, “How do I become part of that?”

Unfortunately, of course, this is not quite how things work. Churches are divided within themselves, both at the congregational and denominational level. There are often good reasons for this—people of good faith can disagree on what it means to follow Jesus—but often these disagreements seem to swamp any mutual recognition that the other is a fellow member of the body of Christ.

These thoughts have come to mind in recent weeks as I have read, first, of the way in which the Episcopal Bishop of California was excluded from the consecration of the new Catholic archbishop and, second, the apparent expulsion from the Episcopal church of the bishop of South Carolina. Each of these events is the product of a long and complex chain of events, which I won’t claim to understand. Nor do I want to make it seem as if either is easy to resolve or that I’m saying, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could all just get along?” I am saying neither.

But at a time when the word “mission” is constantly being invoked by Episcopalians (with good reason) these events are for me moments of great sadness because they represent lost missional opportunities. When I hear people (from any number of sides in church debates) exulting at the “purity” of the church, I think they sound a lot more like members of a political party than the body of Christ. I find these news items to be deeply mournful and pray that we can have the grace to see others as equally baptized children of the same God. If we really believe in our baptism, it seems like we have no other choice.

It won’t solve all our problems—or even any of them—but I think it would make us more like a church than anything else we could do.