Anglican primates embark on Rome pilgrimage, meet with Pope Francis

By ENS Staff
Posted May 2, 2024

From left, the Rt. Rev. Matthias Clement Tze-wo Der, bishop of Hong Kong Island, and the Most Rev. Titus Chung Khiam Boon, archbishop of South East Asia and bishop of Singapore, walk ahead with an interpreter after leaving the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere as part of the Primates’ Meeting pilgrimage in Rome. Photo: Neil Turner/Anglican Communion Office

[Episcopal News Service] For the first time, Anglican primates gathered in Rome, Italy, where they went on pilgrimage, following in the steps of St. Paul. On the morning of May 2, they met with Pope Francis at the Vatican.

“This is the first time the primates have met all in Rome with the pope, and the pope brought a strong message on the desire for Christian unity rooted in love and guided by the Holy Spirit,” Anglican Church of Canada Archbishop Linda Nicholls said in a May 2 press conference.

“Maybe the most moving moment was when the pope said to us, ‘This is a tough job. Please pray for me.’ We were thankful for our welcome there, and we will continue our prayers for Pope Francis, for our brothers and sisters in the community of the church of Rome. And we are grateful for this opportunity to be here in a place of our shared history,” Nicholls said.

Thirty-two primates representing the Anglican Communion’s 42 provinces met in Rome for the 2024 Primates’ Meeting, April 29- May 2. Their Communique is here. Archbishop Ian Ernst, director of the Anglican Centre in Rome, hosted the primates. As pilgrims, they visited holy sites, including the Abbey of Tre Fontane, the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls and the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, before their audience with Pope Francis.

“As reflected in the communique, the meeting had a focus toward Christian unity, and the work of reconciliation within our own church. It was a very positive, collegial and energetic gathering where the Spirit was at work among us,” the Rt. Rev. Mary Gray-Reeves, vice president of the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops, who attended on behalf of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, told Episcopal News Service.

“Rome is a place of shared Christian origins and so is holy ground to meditate on and practice the mission of the church,” she said. “The audience with Pope Francis was an honor and a blessing indeed. In our time together we expressed our shared commitment to reconciliation and Christian unity and pledged to pray for each other as we engage a common ministry, albeit in different denominations of a common faith.”

The pope spoke for an hour on themes of synodality – journeying together as the people of God – unity and the prioritization of relationships, Christian love and service.

It was “a most beautiful address around the nature of unity and synodality and of the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church – which took our eyes away from ourselves and lifted them to the faithfulness of God in Jesus Christ and the gift of the Spirit,” Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said in a May 2 press release.

“Only a love that becomes gratuitous service, only the love that Jesus taught and embodies, will bring separated Christians closer to one another,” the pope said in his address. “Only that love, which does not appeal to the past in order to remain aloof or to point a finger, only that love which in God’s name puts our brothers and sisters before the ironclad defense of our own religious structures, only that love will unite us.”

The Rt. Rev. Mary Gray-Reeves, vice president of the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops, talks with the Rt. Rev. Matthias Clement Tze-wo Der, bishop of Hong Kong Island, during the first coffee break at Casa La Salle on April 29, the first day of the Primates’ Meeting in Rome, Italy. Gray-Reeves filled in for Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. Photo: Neil Turner/Anglican Communion Office

The Primates’ Meeting is known as one of the Anglican instruments of communion, in addition to the Lambeth Conference of bishops and the Anglican Consultative Council, the communion’s main policymaking body. Welby chairs the meeting of primates, calls the Lambeth Conference and is president of the Anglican Consultative Council.

At least nine primates chose not to attend the meeting because of personal or travel-related reasons, or owing to their theological differences with provinces that allow for same-sex marriage.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby delivers prayers during evening prayer at the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere on April 30, day two of the Primates’ Meeting in Rome, Italy. Photo: Neil Turner/Anglican Communion Office

“The presenting issue of that [conscience objection] remains the decision of the Church of England to explore further, the degree to which it will support the blessings of couples in same-sex relationships where those relationships have already been formally established through a civil registration ceremony,” Welby said.

England’s parliament legalized same-sex marriage in 2013. Ten years later, in December 2023, same-sex couples for the first time could have their marriages blessed in the Church of England. They are still not allowed to marry in Anglican churches there, and the debate continues.

In the past, primates from Rwanda, Uganda and Nigeria have been among those boycotting gatherings of Anglican leaders, including the 2022 Lambeth Conference, over issues of human sexuality.

Additionally, the primates who attended the meeting in Rome heard a briefing on a draft document produced by the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity Faith and Order, which serves as an adviser to the Instruments of Communion and member churches on matters of doctrine, ecclesiology, liturgy, canon law and ecumenical relations.

One of commission’s tasks is to “revisit the question of how we understand ourselves as the Anglican Communion,” said Bishop Graham Tomlin, who serves as the chair of the commission.

“For the last 90 years, we’ve used a definition, or description, of the Anglican Communion which was adopted by the Lambeth Conference in 1930,” Tomlin said during the press conference, referring to the statement of nature and status of the Anglican Communion.

“[It described it as] a fellowship within the one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of those duly constituted dioceses, provinces, regional churches in communion with the See of Canterbury,” he said.

Since the adoption of that statement, the communion’s structures have changed. For instance, he said, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meeting have been created.

“The Anglican Communion has changed in all kinds of different ways. Demographically, in terms of the center of gravity … it has changed hugely,” Tomlin said.

“One of the images that we used during our discussions was that in 1930, it felt a little bit like you had the mother church with some sort of small children around it. Now we have a different kind of family with grown-up children. The mother is still there, but with a different position as the family with grown-up children,” he said.

“One of the questions for us on the commission … was what is the ongoing role for the Church of England within the Anglican Communion in a post-colonial world?”

The Primates’ Meeting was unanimous in its desire to rethink the definition, which will require further consultation and discussion. A version of the report for others to read and discuss is expected within a month or two, Tomlin said.

An additional proposal the commission made, but the primates’ rejected, he said, was to elect a primate from among them, who would be the “face of the Primates’ Meeting.”

“There was a real expression of the need for both wider support for ministry of the archbishop of Canterbury within the wider communion, and also for the need for some kind of expression in our structures that expresses the developing nature of the communion, but we’re not there yet,” Tomlin said.

Welby has said he plans to remain in office until 2026, when he will turn 70, the mandatory retirement age. In 2022, the Church of England’s General Synod voted to include a wider diversity of voices regarding the selection of the next archbishop of Canterbury.