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Correspondence between Canterbury and Rome. 1975-1976 An exchange of letters took place between Donald Coggan, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Pope Paul VI.

Correspondence between Canterbury and Rome


An exchange of letters took place between Donald Coggan, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Pope Paul VI. The texts of these four letters, two of Pope Paul Vl and two of the Archbishop of Canterbury, were made public during the course of the 1976 General Synod of the Church of England.

We list the four letters:

First Letter of Donald Coggan to Pope Paul

First Letter of Pope Paul to Donald Goggan

Second Letter of Donald Coggan to Pope Paul

Second Letter of Pope Paul to Donald Goggan

Numbering of paragraphs by John Wijngaards

Letter of Donald Coggan, Archbishop of Canterbury, to Pope Paul Vl, 9 July 1975

Canterbury Archbishop

1. After our predecessor’s visit to Rome in 1966, together with him you inaugurated a ‘serious dialogue’ between the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion. The Agreed Statements of the consequent Anglican/Roman Catholic International Commission on the Eucharist and the Ministry are not authoritative statements of faith of either the Roman Catholic Church or the Anglican Communion; nevertheless they do bear witness to the steady growth of mutual understanding and trust developing between our two traditions.

2. It is with this in mind that we write now to inform Your Holiness of the slow but steady growth of a consensus of opinion within the Anglican Communion that there are no fundamental objections in principle to the ordination of women to the priesthood.

3. At the same time we are aware that action on this matter could be an obstacle to further progress along the path of unity Christ wills for his Church. The central authorities of the Anglican Communion have therefore called for common counsel on this matter, as has the General Synod of the Church of England.

4. Thus in view of our concern, both for the truth as it is understood within the Anglican tradition, and for ecumenical counsel, we are already in correspondence with His Eminence Cardinal Jan Willebrands, President of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, and with the Right Reverend Bishop John Howe, Secretary-General of the Anglican Consultative Council, and we anticipate mutual discussion on this question in the future.

5. It is our hope that such common counsel may achieve a fulfilment of the Apostle’s precept that ‘Speaking the truth in love,’ we ‘may grow up into Him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.’

Donald Coggan, Archbishop of Canterbury

Letter of Pope Paul Vl to Donald Coggan, Archbishop of Canterbury, 30 November 1975

Arms of John Paul II

1. We write in answer to your letter of 9 July last. We have many times had occasion to express to your revered predecessor, and more lately to yourself, our gratitude to God and our consolation at the growth of understanding between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion and to acknowledge the devoted work both in theological dialogue and reflection and in Christian collaboration which promotes and witnesses to this growth.

2. It is indeed within this setting of confidence and candour that we see your presentation of the problem raised by the developments within the Anglican Communion concerning the ordination of women to the priesthood.

3. Your Grace is of course well aware of the Catholic Church’s position on this question. She holds that it is not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood, for very fundamental reasons. These reasons include: the example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his Apostles only from among men; the constant practice of the Church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God’s plan for his Church.

4. The Joint Commission between the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church, which has been at work since 1966, is charged with presenting in due time a final report. We must regretfully recognize that a new course taken by the Anglican Communion in admitting women to the ordained priesthood cannot fail to introduce into this dialogue an element of grave difficulty which those involved will have to take seriously into account.

5. Obstacles do not destroy mutual commitment to a search for reconciliation. We learn with satisfaction of a first informal discussion of the question between Anglican representatives and those of our Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, at which the fundamental theological importance of the question was agreed on. It is our hope that this beginning may lead to further common counsel and growth of understanding.

6. Once again we extend every fraternal good wish in Christ our Lord.

Pope Paul VI

Letter of Donald Coggan, Archbishop of Canterbury to Pope Paul Vl, 10 February 1976

Canterbury Archbishop

1. It is now almost ten years since our beloved predecessor visited the City of Rome. On 23 March 1966, in the Sistine Chapel, Your Holiness and His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury met to exchange fraternal greetings; this encounter was of profound significance for the future relationship between the Churches of the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church. For this we thank God.

2. We also recall with deep gratitude that on 24 March, in the Basilica of St Paul-Without-the-Walls, Your Holiness and His Grace made your Common Declaration announcing your intention to inaugurate the serious dialogue between our respective traditions which has already borne notable fruit in the work of the Anglican/Roman Catholic International Commission and the Anglican/Roman Catholic Commission on Mixed Marriages.

3. As Your Holiness recalled in your letter of 30 November 1975, which we were most grateful to receive, the goal which we jointly seek is that visible unity of the Church for which Christ prayed. We believe this unity will be manifested within a diversity of legitimate traditions because the Holy Spirit has never ceased to be active within the local Churches throughout the world.

4. Sometimes what seems to one tradition to be a genuine expression of such a diversity in unity will appear to another tradition to go beyond the bounds of legitimacy. Discussion within the Anglican Communion concerning the possibility of the Ordination of Women is at present just such an issue. We are glad that informal discussion between Anglicans and Roman Catholics has already taken place about this matter at the Vatican Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. We hope such dialogue will continue in order that our respective traditions may grow in mutual understanding.

5. While we recognize that there are still many obstacles to be overcome upon that road to the ‘restoration of complete communion of faith and sacramental life’ called for by my predecessor and Your Holiness, we nevertheless believe that in the power of the Spirit Christ’s High Priestly prayer for unity will be fulfilled.

6. We humbly make this prayer our own as we offer Your Holiness our warm greetings and recall that historic meeting in Rome ten years ago. Moreover we look forward to the day when we too shall be able to meet Your Holiness so that together we may take further steps upon the path to unity.

Donald Coggan, Archbishop of Canterbury

Letter of Pope Paul Vl to Donald Coggan, Archbishop of Canterbury, 23 March 1976

Arms of John Paul II

1. As the tenth anniversary comes round of your revered predecessor’s visit to Rome, we write to reciprocate with all sincerity the gratitude and the hope which, in recalling that historic occasion, you express in a letter recently handed to us by Bishop John Howe.

2. It is good to know that the resolves taken, the dialogue entered upon ten years ago, have continued and spread to many places, and that a new spirit of mutual consideration and trust increasingly pervades our relations. In such a spirit of candour and trust you allude in your letter of greeting to a problem which has recently loomed large: the likelihood, already very strong it seems in some places, that the Anglican Churches will proceed to admit women to the ordained priesthood. We had already exchanged letters with you on this subject, and we were able to express the Catholic conviction more fully to Bishop John Howe when he brought your greetings. Our affection for the Anglican Communion has for many years been strong, and we always nourished and often expressed ardent hopes that the Holy Spirit would lead us, in love and in obedience to God’s will, along the path of reconciliation. This must be the measure of the sadness with which we encounter so grave a new obstacle and threat on that path.

3. But it is no part of corresponding to the promptings of the Holy Spirit to fail in the virtue of hope. With all the force of the love which moves us we pray that at this critical time the Spirit of God may shed his light abundantly on all of us, and that his guiding hand may keep us in the way of reconciliation according to his will.

4. Moreover, we sincerely appreciate the fact that you have expressed a desire to meet us, and we assure you that on our part we would look upon such a meeting as a great blessing and another means of furthering that complete unity willed by Christ for his Church.

Pope Paul VI

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