Trier is famously Germany’s oldest city. It is well known for its Basilica (below), built as Emperor Constantine’s throne room and now a magnificent Lutheran church and world heritage site. Next door to the Basilica stands the Roman Catholic cathedral that goes back in its origins to before Constantine and exhibits in its architecture a melange of styles testifying to the multiple extensions and rebuilding it has seen over its long history.
I was staying slightly outside Trier in a place with significant history too: the Benedictine monastery of St. Eucharius and St. Matthias. The monastery is on the southern edge of the city, outside the original city walls and on the site of the city’s former burial ground – one of the oldest cemeteries north of the alps. The story of this monastery goes back some 1750 years to the very beginnings of Trier’s Christian history. For in St. Matthias’s crypt lie the sarcophagi of two of Trier’s first bishops: Eucharius and Valerius.
But my purpose in being in Trier wasn’t so much historical as ecumenical. In the 1960s St. Matthias was at the forefront of European Anglican-Roman Catholic relationships. This monastery forged a relationship with the Anglican Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield. Bishop Stein (now buried in Trier’s Cathedral) gave permission for full inter-communion between members of these two communities. In a wave of ecumenical enthusiasm, an extensive ‘Anglican centre’ was built – though this closed due to shortage of money to maintain it.
To express their continuing close relationships, and bearing in mind that this year is the special 500th anniversary of Luther’s Reformation, the Anglican Community of the Resurrection and the Roman Catholic Monastery of St. Matthias decided to bring together three Anglican bishops and three German Roman Catholic bishops for a weekend of prayer, fellowship and discussion.
The monks were wonderfully hospitable. It was a personal delight for me to spend a weekend in the spiritually refreshing Benedictine rhythm of prayer. I was greatly privileged to be invited to preside at one of the community eucharists. I enjoyed getting to know the monks – some of whom had livelihoods beyond the monastery – I discovered one was a judge and another a town planner.
The main purpose of the weekend was dialogue between the English bishops and our German Roman Catholic counterparts. It is probably true to say that Anglican-German ecumenical attention is mainly invested in German Protestant Churches. This was my first serious encounter with German Roman-Catholic bishops – and equally, I think, their first serious encounter with Anglican equivalents.
As Anglicans, we had opportunity to rehearse the last 50 years of very significant ecumenical progress. There was, I think, some genuine surprise and delight from the German side at the extent of ecumenical agreements that have been reached between our two communions. Our conversations covered many topics, but particularly the question of the ordination of women. This is, of course, a major sticking point, as a papal pronouncement has declared the priesthood of women firmly off the Catholic agenda. We wondered whether John Henry Newman’s honoured place within Catholicism, and his writing on the development of doctrine might be invoked? Could Catholics and Anglicans together discover in scripture a place for the ministry of women that might go beyond and behind serious difference in our current practice? Unsurprisingly, we didn’t make any theological breakthroughs. But our differences were discussed respectfully and honestly. And the presence amongst us of an ordained Anglican woman (and former Roman Catholic nun) from Mirfield gave those discussions added meaning.
Our meeting concluded with a joint statement giving thanks for the deep sense of fellowship we had enjoyed and expressing the heartfelt desire that the ecumenical progress made between our two communions might be better known and shared. I was thankful for the very kind hospitality of the monastery and for the longstanding good relationships between Trier and Mirfield that had made this warm encounter between bishops possible.