So what does an evangelical Anglican make of spending two weeks at an Extraordinary Synod of the Church of Rome?
I was at a very nice dinner in the English College early in the second week. Cardinal Vincent Nicholls was our host. We were reminded, amidst the splendour of the college and the delights of the hospitality, that forty-one of the first priests who trained here at the end of the sixteenth century were martyred in England. It was a sobering thought. That week, in our calendar we remembered Ridley and Latimer, similarly martyred a few years earlier under Mary's Catholic reign. Then, right at the end of the week, we remembered the Ugandan martyrs and a point was made publicly that Anglicans were similarly martyred; indeed later that day I had a brief conversations with Pope Francis and he wanted to emphasise to me that the Anglican martyrs were equally to be remembered. We shed each other's blood at one stage; we are bound by common shed blood today.
During the meal I was asked by the two archbishops and priest with whom I shared a table about my own Christian journey. I was able to make a comment about how, in my early years, I could never have imagined being where I sat right then; one archbishop quipped back ‘no Christians in Rome, eh?’. It opened up a really good conversation about just how Rome was depicted as almost the great Satan in some pre-millennialist writings of the early 1970s. How the Pope was seen by some as the anti-Christ. But equally how those of us outside Rome were viewed very sceptically indeed. We reflected how much both our personal understandings had changed, but also how much movement there had been at official levels.
One clear illustration was conversations with a variety of those at the Synod about the use of Alpha and the Marriage Course in their many and varied nations. Quite a number had been over for the Alpha Conference and valued it enormously. It was suggested (and it may be true) that around the world more Catholics than Anglicans are engaging in Alpha courses. One archbishop noted how uncertain Nicky Gumbel had been when the idea of Catholics using Alpha was first mooted. How times and events change us.
On the middle Sunday I chose to worship at the English language 'Caravita' Catholic service. Someone described it to me as ‘the best Anglican worship in Rome’. It was ecumenical as members of the Catholic-Methodist dialogue were also present and we sang two Wesley hymns (from the Catholic hymn book). What was most notable though was the sermon. It was one of the clearest and best straight Bible expositions I have heard in quite a while, and it lasted 25 minutes. My Reformed Presbyterian fellow fraternal delegate was bemoaning later that day that the sermon at the Presbyterian Church had been 'all stories and no Bible'. Indeed the amount of use of the Bible, including occasional detailed debate on the Greek text, was a feature of the Synod itself. Yes, reference to the Magisterium was strong, but so too was the desire to get people reading their Bibles and continually remembering that the Scriptures are our foundation.
During the Synod and in times of worship I remain perturbed by the Marian doctrine and how it is expressed. I struggle with the apparent unwillingness to consider changing anything within Humanae Vitae, and indeed some other parts of the magisterium. I find the insistence on the sacramental nature of marriage which leads to indissolubility and the strange handling then of annulment baffling and unconvincing. But I rejoice in the commitment to trying to help ensure marriages work and stick rather than the all-too-easy acceptance of divorce and remarriage which I fear we have slid into ourselves. I find the idea of the family home being a 'domestic church' rich in possibility and one that we as Anglican evangelicals (as well as Protestants of all shades) would do well to reflect on and develop further. Indeed I think we are actually in a stronger position to look to the Holy Family as a model than are our Roman friends. I say this because we believe Mary and Joseph had a full sex life which produced other children. The idea of perpetual virgin risks promoting an unhealthy view of God’s good gift of sexual intercourse within marriage.
During the Synod the lay witnesses - who shared their experiences and work with families in need in every imaginable way - were inspiring. I want to learn more about their work and see what we could replicate; for example, Retrouvaille and their insistence that the only people who can deliver their three-month programme are those who have already had their marriages rebuilt through it. It is absolutely wounded healers offering healing balm to other wounded people. Love for Jesus and his ways shone out so often.
Which leads me finally to Pope Francis. He is truly a remarkable man. He listened so intently and summarised not just what was said but how it was said and the attitudes from which it was said in a masterly way. He is unfussy and unhurried. He is warm and prayerful. He is passionate for the poor and needy. He is insistent on going to the margins and accompanying people in need. He is clear that the good news is all about Jesus Christ and he wants people to know God's love for them found in Jesus Christ the Lord.
During the Synod I wrote to my Dean that I thought I would return 'more Protestant and more Catholic'. I think that is true. I returned loving being an Anglican and convinced afresh of why evangelical insistence on the Cross, grace and the Scriptures matters. I also returned more appreciative of my Catholic brothers and sisters who taught me much in those two weeks and with whom I look to discover ever more the riches of the mystery of the gospel.
Bishop Paul’s reflections during the Synod and other writing can be found on his blog, “Through the Eyes of A Bishop…”.
Paul Butler became Bishop of Durham at the start of 2014. He was previously Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham and Bishop of Southampton. He acts as Advocate for Children amongst the bishops and Co Chairs the Safeguarding work for the Church of England and Methodists. He and Rosemary have been married 32 years and have 4 adult children.