When the leaders of the 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion gather in Canterbury next week, they will have among them a visible sign of the long history of the English church.
The ivory head of a crozier associated with St. Gregory the Great, the pope who sent the first missionaries to England in the sixth century, has been loaned to Canterbury Cathedral by the Roman Catholic Church to coincide with the Primates’ Meeting, according to a report from the Primates’ Meeting website.
Canterbury Cathedral’s Dean, Robert Willis, said the cathedral was “very pleased to receive the crozier as a symbol of ecumenical encouragement at this time of the meeting of Anglican Primates.” He noted that it was “a link with St. Gregory, whose vision of the conversion of England caused Augustine to found the community at Canterbury.”
While the roots of Christianity in Britain go back to the time of the Roman Empire, subsequent invasions by Germanic tribes in the fifth century all but destroyed the church. In 597, Gregory sent Augustine, a Benedictine monk, to the court of the Anglo-Saxon King Æthelberht. Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Church of England dates its formal foundation from the date of his arrival.
The crozier is kept by the monks of San Gregorio Magno al Celio, a monastery church in Rome that has ancient connections to the English church. Pope Gregory once served as its abbot, and before departing for his mission to the Anglo-Saxons, Augustine of Canterbury served as a prior there. To this day, San Gregorio remains committed to fostering Anglican-Catholic relations.
The Rev. Marcus Walker, associate director of the Anglican Centre in Rome, who was involved in facilitating the loan, told international Catholic weekly The Tablet that “the lending of these items is symbolic of acknowledging our shared inheritance,” noting that it spoke to the deep sense of mutual affection that exists between the two churches.
The Tablet said that the idea of loaning the relic to Canterbury arose following a cricket match between the Vatican and the Church of England in 2014, which Father Robert McCulloch, an Australian priest and organizer of the Vatican team, said was “the product of growing ecumenism and cricket diplomacy” between Anglicans and Roman Catholics.
According to the official website of the Primates’ Meeting, the crozier is “accompanied by the promise of the prayerful support from many in the Roman Catholic Church” during the difficult conversations the primates will be having about the future of the Anglican Communion.
The crozier will be displayed in the cathedral’s crypt, and open to the public before and after the Primates’ Meeting.
The loan was made possible by the Italian government’s Fund for Religious Buildings, administered by the Ministry for the Interior and with support from the British government.