Advanced search Click here for the website of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby

This is an archived website containing material relating to Dr Rowan Williams’ time as Archbishop of Canterbury, which ended on 31st December 2012

Skip Content

Presentations made by Cardinal Walter Kasper and Archbishop Rowan Williams at 'Mary and the Unity of the Church' Ecumenical Conference

Wednesday 24th September 2008

Hosted by Bishop Jacques Perrier of Tarbes and Lourdes, during Archbishop Williams' visit to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes.

Presentations made by Cardinal Walter Kasper and Archbishop Rowan Williams follow.


Mary and the Unity of the Church

Presentation by The President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

Cardinal Walter Kasper

I extend my warm greeting to you all, and also a heartfelt greeting from the Holy Father, who was here in Lourdes only some days ago. A greeting to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the bishops with him, to the Catholic bishops and not least to the Bishop of Tarbes-Lourdes, who has so hospitably received us.

Lourdes is known for its miracles; today we too are witnesses of a miracle of a particular sort. Who could have imagined only twenty or thirty years ago that – as is happening today – Catholic and Anglican pilgrims would undertake together a pilgrimage from the National Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham in Great Britain to this internationally recognised site of Marian pilgrimage for the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady, and that on this occasion a Roman Catholic Cardinal and the Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Anglican Communion, together with seven other Anglican bishops, would worship together? For those who are aware of the disputes and the polemics of the past about Mary between Catholics and Christians from non–Catholic Churches, for those who know of the reserves in the non–Catholic world towards Marian pilgrim sites such as Lourdes, for all these people this unprecedented event today is a kind of miracle.

Yes, indeed, we could even say that the whole ecumenical movement could be classified among miracles. After centuries of division and often of enmity between Christians of many denominations, our modern times have marked the beginning of a common pilgrimage towards the unity that Jesus prayed for on the eve of his death, when he asked His Father that all his disciples may be one. The Second Vatican Council was right when it affirmed that the ecumenical movement is not a merely human enterprise and effort, but an impulse of the Holy Spirit to fulfil Jesus' testament at the end of his earthly life. So since the Second Vatican Council the Church is in mission for the unity of all Christians, as you highlight by your pilgrimage, and I congratulate you for this wonderful idea.

So let us reflect this afternoon on a theme which is not a usual or obvious one among ecumenists, but which is nevertheless an important one. Let us talk about Mary and the unity of the Church, Mary and the ecumenical movement towards full visible unity.


This is not such a hopeless issue as some may think. There has been Marian devotion in all periods of Church history, as Our Lady herself prophesised: 'From now on all generations will call me blessed!' As Catholics we share the veneration of Our Lady especially with our Orthodox brothers and sisters, who praise her in many wonderful hymns as the Theotokos (Mother of God), the Aeiparthenos (Ever virgin) and the Panhagia (the All-holy).

But there was Marian devotion also at the time of the Reformation. Martin Luther in 1521 wrote a wonderful and admirable text on Mary's famous canticle, the Magnificat, a text which only 17 years later was published also in English. Luther remained all his life a fervent venerator of Mary, whom he confessed with the ancient Creeds and Councils of the undivided Church of the first millennium as virgin and Mother of God. He was critical only about some practices, which he believed to be misuses and exaggerations. There are also many other texts from the Reformers of the 16th century, which in the last century were collected and published under the title Das Marienlob der Reformatoren (Mary's praise by the Reformers, 1987).

In the English Reformation of the 16th century we find the same phenomenon. Though the medieval Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham dating from the 11th was sadly destroyed by order of King Henry VIII, the English Reformers themselves continued to receive the doctrine of the ancient church concerning Mary – Mary as ever virgin, as Mother of God – because they considered these doctrines both scriptural and in accord with ancient common tradition. So the Anglican Common Prayer Book of the 16th century maintained the traditional Marian feasts during the liturgical year: Conception of Mary; Nativity of Mary, Annunciation, Visitation and Purification/ Presentation.

But sadly – especially since the time of the Enlightenment – there has mainly prevailed a spirit known as mariological minimalism in Protestant and also in some Anglican circles. Our Lady was often neglected and the biblical witnesses about her overlooked; some have even believed that they have to complete the Reformation by rejecting what the Reformers still maintained from the ancient and common tradition.

In our times through a renewed and fresh reading and meditation of the Holy Scriptures we see a slow but decisive shift. There are today not a few Evangelical and Anglican women who discover Mary as their sister in faith. In the official German Evangelical Catechism for Adults published exactly 20 years ago in 1988 one finds the interesting and to some extent surprising affirmation: 'Mary is not only 'catholic'; she is also 'evangelical'.' She is evangelical because she occurs in the Evangelium, in the Gospel. A further Lutheran-Catholic statement Communio sanctorum [Communion of Saints], (2000) and a statement of the famous Group of Dombes in France Mary in God's Salvation Plan and in the Communion of Saints (1997) deepened this view and brought further progress in a common understanding and believing.

Finally, of special importance in our context there is the latest document, an agreed statement, of our common Anglican / Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), issued in 2004, which bears the significant title Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ. While this agreed statement did not reach full consensus, there was an unexpected very high degree of consensus about the special place of Mary in salvation history, in the life of the Church and in Christian discipleship.

This short account of our ecumenical dialogues tells us: Mary is not absent, she is present in the ecumenical dialogues; the churches have made progress in rapprochement about the doctrine on Our Lady. Our Lady is no longer dividing us, she is reconciling and uniting us in Christ her son. Especially the result of our Anglican / Roman Catholic dialogue, in the midst of some sad turbulences and disappointments in other fields in our relations, we can nonetheless see as a positive and encouraging hopeful sign, perhaps even almost a small miracle, for which gift we cannot be grateful enough to the Lord. There is reason for hope, that Our Lady will help us to overcome the present difficulties in our relations so that with God's help we can continue our common ecumenical pilgrimage, which we started by the impulse of God's Spirit and which up to now has been blessed with so many good fruits. I am really convinced: as has happened often in the past, Mary will also in our times and in the future be the helper of Christianity in situations of need, as we experience today in our ecumenical pilgrimage.


In what follows I do not intend to give a full account of all the abovementioned documents, and even less a full account of the whole theological debate on the doctrine on Mary in the present ecumenical context. Here I want to deal with the theme 'Mary and the Unity of the Church' only from a Catholic perspective, and I can do this only in a fragmentary way. But I will take some inspiration from the title of the abovementioned Anglican/Catholic agreed statement 'Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ'. For this title tells us that Mary is a unique sign and a unique witness of what is the centre and the heart of the Good News of the Gospel; she is a unique sign and a unique witness of what is central in Christian discipleship; finally she stands for what we today lack and what we need the most: grace and hope – grace and hope also on the way to the unity of the Church: grace and hope.

First, grace. The evangelist Luke in the beginning of his Gospel tells about the annunciation of the coming of the Son of God in the flesh of our world. The angel greets the virgin Mary, 'Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you'. In the Greek text we read, Hail Mary, kecharismene, which in English is often translated as 'You are favoured', i.e., God has a special eye for you, he has favoured and elected you from all eternity, he has blessed you and prepared you with the fullness of his grace in order that you without any stain of sin would be prepared for your unique vocation and your unique mission to become the mother of the Lord, the Son of God and the Saviour of all mankind. With you, the salvation of the world enters its final step; you, full of grace, are the dawn of the new mankind, of the new creation.

To look at Mary means to cast our minds on eternity and to see the eternal plan of God for the salvation of mankind and to know God's abundant grace by which He did not want that after the fall into sin and all its tragic consequences, the alienation between men and women, between the different ethnic groups, the alienation within us which followed from the alienation from God, He did no want that we should be lost for ever. It is only by God's Yes to us and to the world, it is only by His grace that mankind can survive.

In this eternal plan of salvation Mary has her place and her mission. She stood at this moment of the annunciation vicariously for the whole of mankind. By her Yes, 'Yes, here I am; I am the servant, the handmaid of the Lord', by this her Yes the eternal Yes of God could take place in our world. She spoke this humble Yes on behalf of us all, on behalf of all mankind. But she did it not for herself, as she did nothing for herself, she did it as the kecharismene, as blessed and as full of grace. So she could magnify God: 'Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord; rejoice, rejoice, my spirit in God my saviour.'

Thus, Mary is sign, witness, prophet and receiver of God's grace. She tells us: Nothing is possible, nothing can be done, neither we nor the whole world could survive, without God's grace. For all we are, we have to thank God; for all, we have to praise God, our creator and our redeemer. We too have to rejoice for his gracious Yes, which He speaks to every one of us. We exist also only by grace. In each moment of our life God has to say to us: Yes, I want you to be. And above this, we are saved not by our modest merits and efforts, not by our more or less decent moral behaviour or our human deeds, but only by grace, sola gratia. In this fundamental truth Catholics, Anglicans and Protestants no longer have any controversies; in this fundamental truth they can witness and proclaim together to a world which needs this message, because it is wrong when it thinks that with our scientific and technical skills we ourselves can manage our happiness. No, we are not the makers of our own happiness. We live and we are saved out of grace.

What is true regarding every one of us, is true also for the whole community of believers, for the Church. The Church is not only a socially constructed body, not merely the result of human willingness to live, to work and to be together. If the Church were to have survived only from her human potentialities, she would have collapsed long ago. No, the Church exists and lives because she, represented by Mary, is the kecharismene, the favoured, the elected, convoked, blessed and filled with grace by the Lord. As Church we are God's people and his temple.

Therefore, we cannot 'make', organise or manipulate the unity of the Church. The full unity for which we look and pray is – as is all salvation history – God's work, God's gift and God's grace. The very heart and core of ecumenism is therefore spiritual ecumenism, which makes ours the prayer of our Lord on the eve of his passion: 'That all may be one.'

The great master of spiritual ecumenism, the French Abbé Paul Couturier, formulated the goal of the ecumenical movement not as a unity understood as our project but a unity when, where and how God wants it to be. Ecumenism is not a matter of our projects. It is God's project. We are not the masters of this process. But we know that whoever prays in the name of Christ can be sure that their prayer will be granted. To make ours the prayer of Christ for the unity of his disciples holds the promise that unity will come – when, where and how God's sovereign providence has disposed.


This brings me to the next point. Mary – as we said – is a sign and a witness of God's Yes to our world, to every one of us and to the Church. But now we must complete this first thesis with a second one. Mary answered to God's Yes with her Yes. 'Here I am; I am the servant, the handmaid of the Lord.' So as the Mother of God she became the entrance of God in our world. She donated Jesus Christ to us and to all mankind. But motherhood does not end with giving birth to a child; a mother remains a mother forever. So Our Lady accompanied with her motherhood the whole existence of her son till the end of his earthly life. With sorrow she searched for him when as a twelve year–old he seemed to be lost, and she followed him till the cross. She stood under the cross suffering with him and adding her suffering to his own, becoming the mother of sorrows. She stood not only physically under the cross, for with her stood the Yes she spoke in the beginning. She remained faithful to her vocation and her mission.

Also under this aspect Mary is an example, a model, a type of our discipleship. God wants our Yes in response to his Yes; Gods wants us to be – inspired, sustained and empowered by his grace – co-workers and co-operators in his salvific work. Or as Saint Augustine put it: 'He who has created us without us, does not redeem us without us.' Every one of us has his or her personal vocation and mission, his or her personal charisma, everybody has his or her place. These are not always and normally are not great, generally noticed, powerful, spectacular vocations and missions. Mary does not stand for the mighty, the haughty and the rich; she stands for the little ones, the powerless, the poor, the meek, the humble. She is tender with the sick and the disabled, tender also with the sinners. All these are children of God. So every one of us has his or her task, his or her momentum in the world and in the Church for the realisation of God's plan of salvation.

Each of us has also the mission to work for the realisation of Christ's last will, the unity of his disciples. There are many ways to cooperate, more than we normally think: by prayer as we have already said, by suffering, by a life of purity and holiness, by dialogue of life and love, by interest and respect for the faith of other Christians, by solidarity also with the internal problems of other Christian communities, as brothers and sisters in Christ we should help each other; then we can cooperate by giving witness of our Catholic faith and by patiently and with love explaining our position, when others have difficulty in understanding it; so we can learn from one other, what Pope John Paul II called an exchange not only of ideas but of gifts. In all of this we should not forget: unity can be brought about by love and by truth. Both are intimately linked. Truth without love can be harsh and repelling; but love without truth becomes dishonest; so we should tell the truth in love, i.e., not with arrogance but with respect, sensitivity and patience.

Finally we can and we should give witness together on what we have in common, which is much more than what divides us. Our modern world needs our common witness. And when we speak in common our voice will be much more convincing. So wherever possible we should speak with one voice and should work together for the coming of God's reign in our world.


Let me now come to a last point, and perhaps the most important point. We started with the annunciation, the beginning of our Lady's mission. Now we turn to the end of Jesus' earthly life: Mary under the cross. From the cross Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, and spoke the famous words: 'Mother, here is your son', and to the disciple: 'Here is your mother'.

The disciple whom Jesus loved is in the fourth Gospel the representative of all disciples. He stands for us all. So Jesus, when he left this world, did not want to leave us as orphans. He left us his mother as mother of us all. He made her in a certain and correctly understood sense mother of the Church. And as normally every mother is the centre of unity in a family, so also our Lady was made mother of the unity of the Church.

First – as the Second Vatican Council with reference to a saying of Saint Ambrose told us – she is typos, type of Church unity. She – the first of all disciples of Christ – represents what the Church is or should be: the faithful undivided Yes to God's Yes in a life of purity and holiness, a life of prayer and love. She tells us what to do. At the wedding of Cana-in-Galilee she told the servants: 'Do whatever He tells you!' She does not point to herself, she points to Jesus!

For what other reasons have there been and still are for the divisions in the Church, than that we have not and still do not live as Jesus tells us, than that our love and our faith have been weakened. There are growing rifts also today, because many do not listen to what Jesus and the Holy Scriptures tell us, but what in modern and post-modern culture seems to be pleasant. Always when worldly thinking and measures of this world make inroads into the Church, then the unity of the Church is at risk. Mary guides us not to what pleases everybody, but she guides us sometimes also under the cross. So there is no other means to retrace our way back to full unity than to be, as Mary was, i.e., steadfast followers of her Son. We will find Church unity by unity with Him; and to the degree we are united with Him, we will be united also among ourselves. Therefore, let us choose Mary as example, as model and type of our life and of Church life, then we will make steps forward on our ecumenical pilgrimage.

Second, Mary is mother of the Church and of Church unity, because she is our restless intercessor to her Son. To her we can trust our prayers. I know that this is a difficult point for our Protestant and also for many Anglican brothers and sisters. They have problems with the intercession of the saints and also with the intercession of the queen of all saints. They fear that by our prayers to Mary and the saints the unique role and place of Christ as the only and very head of the Church and the only source of all grace could be put into question.

The Second Vatican Council highlighted that our veneration for Our Lady and our trust in her does not diminish or undermine but wants to underline Christ as unique head and the only source of grace. And Mary does not want to be anything apart or without Christ; she is his first disciple and God's humble handmaid. But as any mother would intercede for her children, and any mother after her death would not cease to intercede in heaven and from heaven, so also Mary accompanies the Church in its pilgrimage and its journey on an often stormy sea with her motherly care. And I am convinced she accompanies the Church also on her way and pilgrimage toward full communion. In her, our mother we can trust. She stands with us under the cross and feels with us all the suffering of our divisions; she guides us from Good Friday to Easter and to Easter new life and light. She is the mother of hope.


We started by saying that Mary is for us a witness of grace and hope. So let me say as a conclusion some words on hope. Mary is the woman of blessed hope. In good hope she carried the child in her womb through the mountains to her cousin Elizabeth; under the cross she did not despair; she did not run away as the male disciples except John did; steadfast she stood under the cross, because she believed that nothing is impossible for God. So she with the other women was among the apostles and disciples after the ascension of the Lord praying for the coming of the promised Spirit. She remained till the end the woman of hope for the final coming of the kingdom of God. She knew: not the powers of evil, of injustice, hatred and falsehood, God only will speak the last word and then justice will prevail over injustice, love prevail over hatred and truth prevail over all falsehood.

Such hope, founded not in superficial optimism but in God's fidelity is what we need on our ecumenical pilgrimage. We cannot run away and give up when difficulties arise and immediate success is not at hand. In ecumenism as well as in all Church life we have to pass often the tunnel of darkness in order to come to Easter light. So we need Mary's hope. Hope we need also in our world today. Hope today has become in short supply. There is a lack of perspective and we walk often in the fog and in the mist. But without hope, nobody, no people and the Church neither can live; without hope there is no enthusiasm, no courage for the great goals and great aspirations.

Let us therefore look to Our Lady, the woman of blessed hope, let us learn from her, let us pray to her, let us follow her, because she points and guides to Jesus her son as the light of the world, the way, the truth and the life. She is the dawn and the morning star, announcing the rising sun. She is accompanying us, helping us, guiding us, encouraging us to what Jesus prayed for and left us as his testament: that all be one.

© Walter Kasper 2008


Presentation by The Archbishop of Canterbury


The Most Revd Dr Rowan Williams

In his two works about the beginning of the Christian Church, St Luke starts by focusing our attention not only on the figure of Mary but on the Holy Spirit. When the angel comes to make his annunciation to Mary, he promises that the Holy Spirit will overshadow her; and when at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles the disciples gather in the upper room to await the promise of the Father, the Holy Spirit, Mary is in the midst of them. St Luke seems to wish to underline for us that somehow there is a connection between understanding the role of Mary and understanding the Holy Spirit.

Why might this be? St Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit is the creator of koinonia, the creator of communion. The Holy Spirit creates in us relationship with Jesus Christ and thus creates in us relationship with one another. As we are bound together in the Spirit we are bound to Jesus Christ: as we are bound to Jesus Christ, we discover our eternal union with God the Father, through the prayer of Christ shared with us in the Holy Spirit. And that may give us a clue to understanding the significance of Mary in St Luke's two texts. The Spirit overshadows Mary, creating in her body a relationship with Jesus. The first human relationship with Jesus Christ is a material one; it is the child growing in Mary's womb. As soon as that relationship with Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate, is there in the flesh of Mary, Mary goes to share that relationship as she travels to visit Elizabeth. Mary, in receiving relationship with Jesus Christ, receives the possibility of creating relationship with others in Christ to the Father through the power of the Spirit. Mary extends that reality of relationship to those around her. I believe that that is why at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, we are given that apparently casual reference to the Mother of Jesus, just to remind us that as the disciples wait for the Spirit, for the promise of the Father, Mary is among them. Her relationship with Jesus continues to be a relationship with the disciples as they wait for the gift of the Spirit; she who has known the fullness of the Spirit's gift, waits with them and, we might say, in her prayer and her attention, prepares the way in the whole fellowship of the disciples for receiving the Spirit at Pentecost. And if we turn to the gospel of St John the same principle is evidently at work. As Mary stands under the cross, it is her relationship with Jesus, that by Jesus' own gift is shared with the 'beloved disciple', who stands for the Church.

So if we are to think about Mary in relationship to the unity of the Church, I believe we need to think about Mary in relation to the Holy Spirit. We need to see this in the gift of the Spirit to Mary -- both at the Annunciation and as she prays among the apostles at Pentecost – as the one in whom relationship with Jesus takes its root and begins to spread. It's significant, I believe, that after the story of the Annunciation we do not in any of the Gospels simply meet Mary alone: we meet her with Jesus' family, we meet her among the women and with the beloved disciple at the cross, we meet her in the midst of the apostolic band. But it's as if we never meet her without communion, without her living in communion with all those others called by the Spirit, transformed by the Spirit into friendship with Jesus Christ. So that is my first point. Unity is of course never an abstract reality, it is the community of persons; and therefore to think about unity in connection with Mary is to think about Mary's very specific very material relationship with Jesus, which then is shared with others.

And so let's focus just for a moment on this significance that is to be found in the relationship with Jesus not being abstract. When God's people relate to Jesus Christ, they do not relate to an idea or an ideal, they don't even relate to a distant memory: they relate to a bodily person in material history; and unless there is that relationship with the material, historical actuality of Jesus, our faith is thin and empty, it becomes a faith which is essentially just about our ideas (and the one thing the Gospel is not is a reaffirmation of the brightest and the best ideas that human beings have had!) And in this respect once again we are reminded, perhaps rather uncomfortably, that the unity of Christians is much more than a unity of ideas. It's no accident that the greatest New Testament image for the unity of Christians is the Body of Christ: because that first relationship with Jesus that we encounter in the New Testament is the deeply material relationship of Mary to the child she carries. And whatever is true of our unity and our relation with Christ and with one another in the Church, it is somehow more like that kind of unity, that kind of blood within an organism, than it is like the agreement of individuals about their ideas. Our Lady becomes both the supreme example and the supreme symbol of life shared with Jesus Christ, a life shared not in the mind but in flesh and blood, not by hearing words alone, but by that sacramental life of the Church which binds us together as we eat the same food and are held together in that organic reality which is Christ's body.

So as Mary tells us something about communion and its centrality in the communication of Christ's life, and as Mary shows us a pattern of the outpouring of the Spirit immediately creating relationship with Christ in those around, so too Mary reminds us that that relationship is deeper than ideas alone. Mary points us towards that sacramental life in which we truly become Christ's body, over and over again becoming what we already are, becoming what (as St Augustine says) is 'on the table and in the cup', that single reality is both what we are and where we are.

And so, from our contemplation of how Mary is portrayed to us in the New Testament, we can deduce a number of significant points for our understanding of our faith -- our faith in common -- and what we can hope for in the future in the faith of a Church drawn together in true unity. We can rightly be reminded; first of all, that faith is never an individual matter. When the Spirit kindles the life of Christ in us it is at once a life that is shared and always to be shared: never a possession to be clung to, a talent to be buried in the ground, always a gift to be given. Which of course reminds us of something human beings in their ordinary pride and self-satisfaction don't very much like: we don't really enjoy being dependent. Indeed, in our culture, the greatest value that some people believe in is independence, a total autonomy, not being in debt to another for anything. And yet, of course, we are always as human beings in debt: in debt for our very lives to our parents; in debt for all we understand of humanity or divinity to those around us; in the debt of love to all those who matter to us; and in our life of faith, in debt to the Incarnate Word, born of Mary. Mary does not let us get away with fantasies of independence. As St Paul well knew (and it's an image he uses more than once) our faith needs 'mothering', and to be born afresh of the Spirit, requires that human love, consent and solidarity which brings us as believers to maturity.

What unites us as Christians, is the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ. Our unity is not a matter of the plans we formulate, the forms of words we can manage to agree about. We need that work – and heaven knows we need it in our day as much as ever, if not more – and yet the unity that matters, the unity that Mary has with Jesus and with Jesus' friends, depends on the Spirit and is deeper than any human achievement. As we pray and search for unity, we have to do it in the openness of prayer, not in the anxiety of planning alone. If our unity rests in the Spirit and is renewed by the Spirit, there is a certain insecurity (which again we know very well) which means we have not to rely on what we can do, but on what God alone can achieve in the Spirit.

Our unity in and through the Spirit is a unity with the Jesus of actual material history, a Jesus truly born of the Virgin, truly vulnerable and human, truly walking in flesh and blood the roads of Galilee, truly and terribly suffering, truly risen from the dead in glorified bodily form. Our union with Jesus is neither the memory of a distant figure in the past now unfortunately dead, or a unity with some idealized humanity which mysteriously mirrors only our own best ideals. It is a union with the strange, transcendent, sometimes frightening, eternal life of this human being in whom the life of the Second Person of the Trinity was completely alive. So, we are united, Mary reminds us, in relation to that reality and no other. And when any Christian family loses sight of that deeply specific anchored reality of the Incarnate Christ, then I'm not at all sure we can have any vital theological view of our unity at all. And we will end up with an idea of the Church that is a great deal less than it should be. United in dependence; united in the Spirit not by our own effort; united in relation to Jesus as material, historical and actual: and if all that seems to imply a certain doctrine of the Resurrection then the seeming is quite accurate. I don't think we can have any doctrine of the Church unless we believe in the Resurrection as portrayed for us in the New Testament: an empty tomb, and no dead body but a living person.

To hold us to this and remind us of this constantly, we have to think of our unity as bound up with the sacramental and visible society that mediates and tells this history over and over again, and that brings us into relationship day by day with the actuality of Jesus, incarnate and risen. Our unity is about a sacramental, visible, historical and material set of relationships. And that means that our quest and our prayer for unity has always to be a quest and a prayer for visible unity. There are times – and perhaps our own times are among them – when it's almost tempting to say, 'If only we were not bound to a quest for visible unity.' It would be so much simpler if we could just say that we all have the same ideals and the same general aspirations, but we don't really have to get to the point where we have to share the same table and the same actual fellowship. How much easier, and sadly, how much less than the New Testament sets before us!

If we take seriously the role of Mary in our thinking about unity, we are bound, I believe, to consider how her model of relation with Christ in the Spirit, drives us back to that conviction that we have to seek, however hard, however long the way, for a unity that is indeed organic and real and visible. We may again at times have very little clear sense of what that might be, let alone how to get there, yet that is our prayer.

And so, in conclusion, I would sum up by saying that thinking about Mary in relation to the unity of the Church is one essential way of breaking down false spiritualization and pseudo-spirituality – a reminder that the Holy Spirit is mysteriously much more interested than we often are in bodies and history, in Mary and the disciples, in the suffering and risen flesh of Christ, in the sacraments. That is how and where we encounter the Holy Spirit – not in the privacy of our own skulls, let alone our own feelings. Breaking down that false spiritualization takes us back to seeing how the unity of Christ's people springs to life in the human actuality of the Visitation (the gospel at the Eucharist earlier today) and Pentecost, Luke's two great images. Mary, overshadowed by the Spirit, rushes to communicate with her cousin; Mary in the midst of the disciples waits for the promise of the Father that will break down the boundaries of understanding and racial and ethnic and linguistic difference; Mary waiting for and acting out the new world, the new humanity that the Spirit brings to being, the incarnation and death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

© Rowan Williams 2008




A brief period of questions began with the Bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes inviting both speakers to comment on the prophecy spoken by Simeon of Mary, 'A sword shall pierce through your own soul also' (Luke 2.35) and its connection with the unity of the Church.

Cardinal Kasper:

First of all I want to thank His Grace for his words: I have nothing to add. These are additional points to what I had to say and I think we totally agree and I also wanted to underline the relationship between Mary and the Spirit, which is very important. The Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus Christ and a concrete sacramental reality: therefore we are aiming for complete visible and sacramental unity of the Church. As the words of old Simeon tell us, Mary's heart is pierced by the sword and she suffers also. She suffered with her son, she is suffering with the mystical body of her son which is the Church. Therefore we must not be content with the reality of divisions within the Church: this must be a reality of suffering for us all. Everybody must do all they can in prayer and suffering, towards the full, visible unity of the Church. I am so happy to see this pilgrimage of Catholics and Anglicans, and we cannot regard division in the Church as normal, ordinary or 'business as usual'.

Archbishop Williams:

I think the words of Simeon to Mary about the sword are indeed a kind of prophecy that if the Incarnate Son of God is indeed an incarnate body, that body can be wounded. And if that is true of our Lord in his earthly life and his passion, it's true in a sense, of his mystical body, also. And I know there have been theologians in the past who have written and reflected about the wounds of the Church (Rosmini in particular, The Five Wounds of the Church, for example), but without wanting to go into the historical detail of that set of ideas and debates, I think we have to be aware that on the one hand the Church is always capable of being wounded by the infidelity and the betrayal of its own members, by division, by the heightening of hostility and suspicion and violence between believers: and yet always capable of being wounded, always capable of being healed because it is what it is because it is the Body of Christ. And once again our hope has to rest at that level, and we don't simply shrug our shoulders and say 'The Body of Christ is vulnerable: what did you expect?' This is a body that has within it a constantly self-renewing life, moving us more deeply than we can often tell.

The Revd Prebendary David Houlding, one of the Anglican pilgrims, asked:

Your Eminence, Your Grace: you have spoken about the miracle of ecumenism and those of us who were present this morning certainly felt that something very extraordinary was happening. To see you and our Archbishop together in that way was very moving, as well as having one of our newest Church of England deacons vested and reading the Gospel. We're deeply grateful to you for that and I'm sure I speak on behalf of everyone here today.

As you know, Your Eminence, we are a group of Catholic Anglicans who hold the great tradition of the first millennium of the Church most dearly. And it's to that tradition that we seek to witness within our Church of England.

But as you are both aware, we are at this present moment in deep travail, and I know that Archbishop Rowan is particularly sensitive to where we are at the moment, he understands the nature of our predicament. But you've also given us a vision of a common table between Roman Catholics and Anglicans, of communion, that must be at the centre of our ecumenical vision. And I wonder if you could both address a word of hope to us in our present difficulties and suggest how we might renew that vision for a common table and shared communion between us.

Cardinal Kasper:

Well I think what we all experienced today is already a sign of hope, because I could not imagine such an event twenty or thirty years ago. Praying together is very important: the fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury and myself could celebrate – even if not in a full sense – together this morning, is a sign of hope. The ecumenical movement is a pilgrimage and we have to go on in prayer and trust in the Spirit, and also Our Lady will help us. The ecumenical movement is not a means of empire-building, but a movement in the Holy Spirit united with Jesus Christ in his commandments, his life: and sharing his cross and resurrection which will unite us. We need to learn again what Mary told us and go back to the gospels and to the Fathers, which we have in common. We Catholics have a thousand years in common with the Orthodox, but fifteen-hundred years with you, and we should renew our common heritage of the Fathers.

Back at the Lambeth Conference, I spoke of a new Oxford Movement as not only a liturgical movement but a theological movement, to go back to the Fathers. That's our common ground. And from this common ground we can come together at the first millennium which links us also with the Orthodox brothers and sisters. Also at the Lambeth Conference, I was impressed by the attitude of listening to each other. These indaba groups listening to each other, I found very moving, and in listening to each other they listened to the Spirit and the good news of the Gospel. The Spirit of Christ guides the Church in the development of dogmas, and we have to regain all this richness and not run off into narrow positions. We must open our hearts for Christ and for the whole of our common tradition, and if we do this, and we do it in a humble way as Mary did, I would trust in the future of the ecumenical movement.

Archbishop Williams:

I think that we mustn't lose sight of the fact that between the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church there remains, as the Cardinal has said, a real and substantial body of agreed method and vision in theology. It's what is represented by the ARCIC documents right from the beginning to the most recent (though I think some would have questioned aspects of the method of some of the more recent ones, but that's another story.) There remains that heritage which we have acknowledged in common and I've said more than once – so forgive me for saying it again – that it's very important that, in our current debates, developments and experiments towards change, we should constantly be asking the question 'Are we still using the same method of theology? Do we still hold ourselves accountable to the same standards of revealed truth or are we saying theological discussion is a luxury?'

I think we are rather in danger at times of losing sight of that, and failing to ask whether we are still using the same methods. Because once we've stopped speaking the same language in some way, we can't have the debates. Now I think it's important that the Roman Catholic Church and other churches including ours, go on having a real and vigorous debate about the nature of the Petrine office: but in order to have that debate we need to be able to recognize in each other the same language, idiom and rhythm of argument. If that's not there, we can't even begin to have that encounter. And so that means we more and more isolate ourselves from each other.

So, if I'm speaking of hope, I would tell you not to underrate the amount we do have from the last few decades in terms of agreed method and vision, even on the contested subject of ministry: but also on authority and tradition, on many ethical issues, and on Mary; don't underrate that. It needs defending and fighting for within our Anglican context at the moment, but there it is and it hasn't been overturned. I would also say in terms of hopefulness, that the ways of God are deeply mysterious in the economy of the Church: that just as one bit of the Church seems to be losing its nerve about something, some other bit of the Church is discovering it.

It is premature to believe that God has given up on the Anglican Communion, and so if what I've said about the gift of God and the commitment of God is true there will be something that has been given to us as Anglicans historically that we can with humility share with the wider Catholic Christian fellowship. But for that to happen we do need to draw back from those hasty, exclusive often reactive policies and moments where we seem to be veering towards losing the common language. It's a cliché but I think it's true, 'You can only have a useful disagreement when you're speaking the same language' and our danger in Anglicanism is very often that we're losing even the language in which to disagree and that is tragic because it's not only Anglicans who suffer, it's the entire fellowship of all those with whom we would want to have an engaged and robust conversation about all manner of things.

But finally, our hope lies in God's commitment to the Church. Who knows how that will work out in our Anglican context? But it's there, always, and it's expressed in that deposit of common thinking and praying and vision that is still established within our Anglican spectrum. God grant it stays there.

Back · Back to top