Thursday, January 7, 2016

A Gesture With Multiple Levels of Meaning

Crozier of Pope Saint
Gregory the Great  

Interesting news today from Rome—nothing overly dramatic but an important symbolic moment.  The Holy See has loaned to the Church of England for a convocation of Anglican prelates, the ornamental head of the crozier of Pope Saint Gregory I.  The connection is that it was Pope Saint Gregory who sent Augustine of Canterbury to England as a Missionary to the peoples of Southern England. 
Christianity existed in England before Augustine’s mission in the year 597.  The Christian faith had come to England with the Romans, certainly as early as the second century and probably even the end of the first century.  While the Anglo-Saxon invasions of the fifth and sixth centuries had driven much of the surviving native Christian population out to the wilds of western Britain and the moors of the north, the faith had survived.  Contact with Rome had long been lost, however, and the British Church was independent with many unique customs, including a different calendar for Easter.  (Much of this is handled in more detail in my series on the history of the Anglican Church.)  It was only with the Synod of Whitby in 664 that the native British Church of the North and West, the Ecclesia Anglicana,  was reconciled with the Rome-leaning Church of the South-east, headquartered at Canterbury.  The English Church always stood in a somewhat unique relationship with the papacy—loyal but quasi-independent—until the break under Henry VIII in the 1530’s. 
Today the Anglican Communion has become quite a fragile union as the Anglican Churches of the Northern hemisphere and the Anglican Churches of the Global South are in great tension about many issues including the ordination of women bishops (and in some cases, priests) and the place of gays in the Church.  There are a variety of non-theological points of tension as well as some of the Southern Primates seem to want to replace Canterbury as the nexus of the Communion.  The next Lambeth Conference—a meeting of Anglican bishops from around the world—which would normally be held in 2018 has not yet been announced and it is rumored (actually more than rumored) that Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has no intention of calling such a potentially divisive meeting until the various primates (heads of the various national or regional Anglican Churches) can agree on a structure that won’t break apart under the strain.  The primates are expected to meet this month and it is to this meeting that Pope Saint Gregory’s crozier is being sent.  It is a lovely gesture of course, but also a subtle reminder to the Church of England of its long-time-ago ties to Rome and the papacy.  

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