The Archbishop of Canterbury met for 90 minutes with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican yesterday and then issued an unexpected appeal that Anglicans and Roman Catholics be permitted to take communion together.
In a brief discourse following their meeting, the pope also referred to "full communion between our churches" but reflected less urgency in his remarks than did the archbishop.
Official sanction for Anglican-Roman Catholic intercommunion would be the giggest step yet in almost two decades of effort to heal the 400-year-old breach between Rome, representing 532 million Catholics, and the 67 million member Anglican communion.
It would also provide a major boost for church unity efforts throughout Christendom.
Archbishop Donald Coggan, speaking to a congregation at St. Paul's American Episcopal Church after his talks with the pontiff, challenged Roman Catholic and Anglican hierarchies to give formal assent to inter-comnunion.
The archbishop pointed out that "without waiting for official sanction --tion -- Roman Catholics are receiving the sacrament of holy communion at the hands of Anglican bishops and priests and the reverse is also the case."
"Has not the time, God's time, for such official sanction arrived?" he challenged, and added: "I think it has."
In his statement following the meeting in his private library with Dr. Coggan, Pope Paul noted that last week Catholics celebrated the feast of St. Anselm, a one-time archbishop of Canterbury.
"At such moment," said the pontiff, "it is natural to think of full communion between our churches.
"However, we must not see such a celebration as mere nostalgia for the past, but rather as a spiritual reality, for the liturgy also prophesies what is to come," he continued.
Pope Paul said that the pace of Anglican-Roman Catholic efforts toward unity "has quickened marvelously in recent years, so that these words of hope 'the Anglican church united, not absorbed,' are no longer a mere dream."
The first meeting between Rome and Canterbury since Henry the VIII broke with Rome over the question of his divorce came in 1960 when Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher called on Pope John XXIII.
Unity efforts did not get off the ground, however until six years later when Dr. Michael Ramsey called on Pope Paul. Out of that meeting came establishment of a joint Anglican-Roman Catholic study commission which has subsequently issued reports on three areas critical to any church union holy communion, the ministry and sources of authority.
The greatest area of agreement was found to be in communion. Both churches believe that Christ is actually present in the consecrated bread and wine of the eucharist, and that partaking of the eucharist, in a spirit of repentance and belief, is a means to eternal salvation.
Anglicans, however, do not accept the authority of the pope. Roman Catholics disapprove of the decision by some branches of the Anglican communion -- including the Episcopal Church in the United States -- to ordain women to the priesthood.
The Pope and the archbishop will meet again today for another round of talks and will pray together in the Sistine Chapel.
They are expected to issue a joint statement about the next steps toward unity.