Bishop Tim Thornton of the diocese of Truro in the Church of England is the co-chair for the Anglican-Roman Catholic Committee in England, and serves on the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Council for Unity and Mission. Last October, he travelled to Rome to observe the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops on the Family as one of the 14 fraternal delegates—members of other denominations invited to observe the synod. In an interview with the Anglican Journal, he talks about what he experienced. Excerpts:
How did you become a fraternal delegate?
When the Pope calls a synod, he for some time now has graciously invited ecumenical delegates to…observe and to some extent participate…An invitation came from the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity to the Archbishop of Canterbury to send somebody [to represent] the Anglican Communion, and the Archbishop asked if I would take that role.
It is not an ongoing responsibility…It is a great privilege.
What was your experience of the synod?
It was a very interesting experience to…observe another denomination at fairly close quarters.
Was there an interest in hearing your perspective on conversations now happening in the Anglican church around human sexuality and church order?
Yes…I felt…people were pleased that there was an Anglican observer there. All the fraternal delegates were given, as with every other synod, a three-minute opportunity to speak in the main synod hall…All were of the small groups.
This time around…small-group work took a high role in the whole synod, and in those groups I was able to speak just as openly as anyone else.
What is the value of observing and participating in other denominations’ synods?
It builds relationships; it helps people understand each other and how different churches understand different ways of working…I think it’s very insightful for all concerned…It’s very honest of the Roman Catholic Church to want to hear other Christian denominations speaking into their context.
Do you think the Anglican church can learn from conversations the Catholic church is having?
Yes…we can always learn from each other! I was particularly intrigued by the universality of the Roman Catholic Church. One thing I learned…was that in my world, in the Church of England…our horizons are too narrow. I was really struck by the fact that—I think, apart from mainland China—the whole world was gathered there.
The moderator of our small group was an archbishop from Ireland, and he asked some very perceptive questions of some of the Nigerian bishops in the room—and other African bishops…We really got into the question of how marriage works in some of the African countries. I think just hearing carefully what is going on in different cultures is clearly very important, and stops you from…making wrong assumptions about why people are saying what they are saying.
In your experience, has Pope Francis had an impact on how Anglicans and Roman Catholics relate ecumenically?
I think the extraordinary thing about Pope Francis…is that he understands the role of gestures. The way he does things, what he chooses to do and then how he uses sometimes relatively few words are all very important to notice and reflect on. At the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, he had an Orthodox metropolitan and Bishop David Moxon, who is the Anglican Centre director, giving a blessing together. Now, that’s an extraordinarily powerful gesture and symbol.
[At] the event to mark the 50th anniversary of synod of bishops, Pope Francis gave this speech in which he stressed the importance of synodality…of walking together…of actually listening to other people, and the importance…of seeing his role as Pope at the bottom of the pyramid rather than the top…All of those things show the humility of wanting to listen, under God, to other people—not imagining that you are the only person or the right person to say anything. And then, of course, the importance of actually sticking together even when clearly you disagree.
Where did your personal interest in ecumenism come from?
TT: When I was 16, I went to Taizé, the ecumenical community in France…It was an eye-opener… seeing the brothers praying together—praying together across the…Protestant-Roman Catholic divide was, for me, a very significant moment in my formation.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.