Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury sought to bypass doctrinal disagreements over female ordination by not including a single woman among a group of Catholic and Anglican bishops being sent out to work on joint mission projects together.
Both leaders admitted in a joint declaration that the obstacles to unity over women and gays are currently insurmountable although stressed they would continue “undeterred” with plans to bring their churches close together.
The exclusion of women during a vespers service in Rome this evening comes despite the fact that Canadian Bishop Linda Nicholls is a member of the official Catholic-Anglican dialogue body and that female bishops were first ordained in the Anglican Communion back in 1989.
In a joint declaration, Francis and Archbishop Welby said that there are “serious obstacles” to full unity between Catholics and Anglicans which they argued have their roots in how authority is exercised in the Church.
While the Anglicans have ordained women as priests for many years the Catholic Church has ruled out the possibility with John Paul II saying it could not happen and that the matter should not be discussed.
And along with female ordination the decision by American Anglicans recognise same-sex marriage and gay ministers is at odds with Rome’s position and has in turn brought the Anglican communion to the brink of schism.
“We ourselves do not yet see solutions to the obstacles before us,” the Pope and the archbishop said in a statement released this evening.
Nevertheless, the leaders pushed forward plans for a deeper collaboration on non-contentions issues of social justice with Catholic and Anglican bishops from India to Brazil being commissioned to work together trying to bring peace and care for the environment.
They were “mandated” during a liturgy at San Gregorio Magnio al Celio - the church where St Augustine of Canterbury was sent by Pope Gregory to evangelise England - which was sung by the Sistine Chapel and Canterbury Cathedral choirs.
During the vespers the Pope and the archbishop also made a symbolic exchange of gifts: the Pope presented the top part of Pope St Gregory's crosier while Welby gave Francis his pectoral cross, made out of nails from the roof of Coventry Cathedral bombed during the Second World War - a symbol of the international reconciliation movement started in Coventry.
In his homily the Pope said Anglicans and Catholics needed to tap into the “fire” of the original ecumenical movement which had torn “down the fences that isolated us” while Archbishop Welby, who celebrated the service with a women priest, Rev Julia Pickles, his interim chaplain, by his side, said when Christians fight among themselves the Church descends into a “gladiatorial circus.”
The pairs of bishops come from across the globe such as Malawi, Ireland, Pakistan and Papua New Guinea and in the case of New Zealand include a cardinal with John Dew to work with the Bishop of Auckland, Ross Bay. From England the Bishop of Plymouth, Mark O’Toole will join forces with his Anglican counterpart in the west country, the Bishop of Truro, Tim Thornton.
“The world must see us witnessing to this common faith in Jesus by acting together,” the Pope and Archbishop Welby said.
Tomorrow the pair will meet one-to-one which marks their third formal meeting in Rome and this time the archbishop will be accompanied by sixteen primates of the Anglican Communion.
The archbishop’s visit also marks the 50th anniversary since the official dialogue between Catholics and Anglicans was set up after the Second Vatican Council and while the churches agree on the vast majority of doctrinal issues, women’s ordination remains the major sticking point for Rome.
Catholic reformers, on the other hand, hope that a growing closeness to the Anglicans might help open up the ordination of women in their own church.Kate McElwee, the co-executive director of the Women's Ordination Conference, said: “During this time of unity, I pray that our shared Gospel value of justice deepens to equally include ordained ministers of all genders and traditions.”