The Bishop of Norwich concludes his thoughts on Anglican Papalism


From the 1960s the Church of England began to re-assess its relationship with the Holy See. The historic visit of Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher to Pope John XXIII in 1960 may have been a relatively quiet encounter; but it was nonetheless unprecedented, and it paved the way for the more significant visit of Archbishop Michael Ramsey to Pope Paul VI in 1966. Not all Anglican Papalists were delighted. Many had seen the Roman Catholic Church, and the See of Peter in particular, as an unchanging bulwark against the modern world; and the Second Vatican Council threw Anglican Papalism into turmoil. The liturgical changes and the new ecumenism so shifted the landscape that most Anglican Papalists could not get their bearings.

Ironically, Anglican Papalism wilted at the very time that the See of Peter was occupied by a Pope who was more familiar with Anglicanism than any other – Paul VI. The young Giovanni Battista Montini had travelled in England, recording visits to no less than nine Anglican cathedrals. He was impressed by these “veritable ships of the Spirit” and by the Anglican choral tradition, describing “marvels that only music can express, and music there is, gentle and grave, and as the great organs resound the entire buildings vibrate with the marvellous sound of hymns and canticles”. He sought recordings of English cathedral choirs from Anglican friends to the end of his life; and even when he was Pope he continued his friendships with people like John Dickinson, historian of the Austin Canons Regular and Chaplain of Pembroke College, Cambridge, and Colin Hickling, a New Testament lecturer at King’s College, London. Such were his Anglican friends – Catholic in churchmanship but not papalist – who gave him an insight into the character of Anglicanism which meant that he never conflated it with European Protestantism. Other senior Anglicans had visited him when he was Archbishop of Milan, and so when he received Michael Ramsey at the Vatican in March 1966 it was as a pope who was already experienced in hosting Anglican visitors.

While the Second Vatican Council was convened by Pope John XXIII, it was Paul VI who guided the discussions and fashioned the comprehensive teaching which flowed from it. His address on 29 September 1963 included an aside directed towards the fifty or so non-RC observers who were given a place of honour near the main altar of St Peter’s Basilica:


If we are in any way to blame for our separation we humbly beg God’s forgiveness and ask pardon of our brethren who feel they have been injured by us […]  for our part, we willingly forgive the injuries which the Catholic Church has suffered, and forget the grief endured during the long series of dissensions and separations.


He had the opportunity to put his words into practice when receiving the Archbishop of Canterbury in March 1966, not long after the closing session of the Council. Archbishop Fisher had been received in the Pope’s private library; whereas Archbishop Ramsey was welcomed in the Sistine Chapel. Paul VI said to him “by your coming you rebuild a bridge, a bridge which for centuries has lain fallen between the Church of Rome and Canterbury. As you cross our threshold, we want you especially to feel you are not entering the house of strangers, but that this is your home, where you have a right to be.”

Pope Paul VI is perhaps the most underestimated of all modern popes, and overdue for significant reassessment. A recent essay on him by Bishop Stephen Platten, currently chair of the governors of the Anglican Centre in Rome, may assist in creating a fresh perspective. It was not corporate reunion with the Holy See that was achieved in the 1960s, but a radical change of relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the world beyond it – a radical change in relation to other faiths too, and in listening to and discerning God’s Spirit at work, not least in other Christian churches. Many Anglican Papalists were disappointed by these changes, but without their witness – and that of the wider Anglo-Catholic movement of which they were part – I doubt the Church of England or the wider Anglican Communion would have been in quite such a receptive mood.

In the present pontificate, the receptive mood has widened further. A recognition of the role of the Bishop of Rome as universal pastor and teacher is embraced by sections of the Christian Church which would have once rejected all papal claims. It is a remarkable turnaround in the relationship of the Roman Catholic Church with the wider world. In relation to the Church of England, the often despised and frequently ignored tradition of Anglican Papalism had an honourable part to play. But, as so often, things did not turn out in the way they expected. God was, and is, working in his usual mysterious way.