Most Rev. Justin Welby and Dr. Aaron T. Hollander

Habits of the Heart: Ecumenical Formation and the Way of Reconciliation

By Justin Welby and Aaron Hollander

The Most Rev. Justin Welby is the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was ordained in 1992 after an eleven-year career in the oil industry. He spent his first fifteen years serving in Coventry diocese, often in places of significant deprivation. In 2002 he was made a Canon of Coventry Cathedral, where he jointly led its international reconciliation work. During this time he worked extensively in Africa and the Middle East. Archbishop Justin has had a passion for reconciliation and peacemaking ever since. He was Dean of Liverpool from 2007 to 2011 and Bishop of Durham from 2011 to 2012, before being announced as the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury in late 2012.

Dr. Aaron T. Hollander is Editor of Ecumenical Trends, Associate Director of Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute, and Adjunct Faculty in Theology at Fordham University. In 2022, he was elected President of the North American Academy of Ecumenists; additionally, he serves on the steering committee of the Ecclesiological Investigations International Research Network and on the faculty of the Summer Course in Ecumenism at the Centro Pro Unione in Rome. He is a scholar of ecumenical theology and lived religion, educated at the University of Chicago (PhD 2018), the Irish School of Ecumenics (Trinity College Dublin), and Swarthmore College.

Aaron Hollander, for Ecumenical Trends: Your Grace, it’s a joy and an honor to have the opportunity to speak with you in the midst of your busy schedule here in Karlsruhe, where we are gathered for the 11th Assembly of the World Council of Churches. In the course of covering the Assembly for Ecumenical Trends, I’ve found that my priority is less to offer any kind of journalistic retelling of the affairs of each day and more to draw out resonances and dissonances between the enormously diverse perspectives of the representatives that have come together here from so many different churches. With this as my goal, I’ve been posing many of the same questions, albeit in different ways, to the delegates and observers I’ve met, and I’m keenly interested in your perspective on the core problem of digesting the Assembly theme – designed to be broadly evocative and with maximum generality across communities – into your own ecclesial context, given that you are a principal leader and ceremonial head of a worldwide communion of more than 85 million people (among whom I count myself).

First, I’m hoping you would speak to the substantial ecumenical challenge of divisions within churches that might nevertheless be expected to engage coherently in interchurch conversations and collaborations. We are here in Germany dedicated to the difficult work of healing relationships and building relationships between our church communities – and yet, within each of these configurations, there are active fault lines of anger and suspicion, betrayals of trust, misuses of authority, incompatible schools of thought, contradictory and disoriented moral and political compasses, and so forth. So I want to ask: what do you see as the relationship between the processes of interchurch reconciliation that have historically dominated the ecumenical movement, and that primarily occupy the Assembly in Karlsruhe, and the profound need for reconciliation within our church communities – which are hurting, and breaking, and failing to enact Christlike love even (or especially) among themselves? What will you, personally, bring back from this Assembly that you hope will be fruitful in your own approach to addressing division within the Anglican Communion?

Justin Welby: I think that I will bring back from Karlsruhe one principle which is not new, and which you’ve commented on: that within every ecclesial body, whether the Roman Catholic Church or an independent Pentecostal church, there will always be tensions. It’s part of being human. And I suppose I would want to argue two things – of one of which the opposite was said this morning, though I can’t recall who it was who suggested that we need to deal with our own problems separately from our interchurch affairs. I’m not entirely sure that I would agree with that – which is an English way of saying that I disagree with that. And I think that the first and most important thing we do is to come back to the mission of God, the missio Dei. It is the call of the Church in its life, its words, and its actions to carry the good news of Jesus Christ to all the world – and to engage the greatest needs of the world, as Jesus himself did. The deepest fellowship I’ve had with the Holy Father, Pope Francis I, and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Rev. Dr. Iain Greenshields, has not been when we’ve been sitting facing each other, it’s been when we were alongside each other engaging with the war in South Sudan. When we look outwards together, we begin to find more ways of reconciliation within our church life. The Spirit works between us to provide healing, which can become a collateral benefit to our shared service to the world. That’s my first answer.

The second thing I would say is – look outward and get on with the work that God has given us, but do the arguing amongst ourselves while we’re doing the work, rather than getting stuck arguing, hoping that within our denomination we will eventually reach sufficient consensus to take action. This is why, at the most recent Lambeth Conference, we described our agenda not as “Resolve all our disagreements so we can finally get around to living the Gospel,” but simply as “God’s Church for God’s World.” In other words, it is a normative part of being church to find that we are in disagreement. Among the key steps to reconciliation is learning the arts, the skills, of being able to create safe spaces where we can disagree strongly and truthfully – and we have often been bad at that. People often think that, by expressing themselves on Twitter in 140 characters, they’ve made a good case for whatever happens to be the issue at hand – anything from same-sex marriage, to changes in the liturgy, to disestablishing the Church of England and getting rid of the Archbishop of Canterbury (quite a frightening prospect!). And I think one of the key things about such a gathering as this – in Karlsruhe, but so too at the sites of previous Assemblies in Busan, Porto Allegre, and so forth – is that the organizers are getting better, having learned some of the arts of creating, even in a huge assembly, good safe space. It doesn’t always work, but it often does. There’s a long way to go, but this is one of the ways that we find resources for inward healing at the very same time that we’re engaged in interchurch reconciliation. We look outwards together, and we learn the skills of reconciliation that can be applied inward – but this won’t just happen. We have to be intentional about it.

AH: This leads directly to my second question. You’ve spoken about disagreeing well, which is such a powerful focusing concept – it’s not stamping out disagreement, but disagreeing in good faith, disagreeing in reciprocal love and commitment in spite of our disagreement. But as you say, such good-faith and productive disagreement is not easy and it’s not going to happen automatically: it’s disincentivized by so much of our culture and by the many pressures we experience to fortify our own identities by juxtaposing them antagonistically with those who do not share them. So my second question is about ecumenical formation – about the cultivation of ecumenical dispositions toward one another that have to come to undergird (even if they do not necessarily precede) any productive engagement. Susan Durber, in her reflection on the Karlsruhe 2022 Assembly theme, wrote about how we need to deal not solely with orthodoxy, in the sense of a reconciliation and alignment of our ideas, nor solely with orthopraxy, in the sense of a reconciliation and alignment of our actions, but also and perhaps especially with what she calls orthokardia: the reconciliation and realignment of our hearts toward one another and toward our understanding of how we fit together with those others, who are unlike us and who yet somehow belong to us as we do to them.1 And so I want to ask about what you see as the way of cultivating such orthokardia. More specifically, what would you identify as some – if not distinctively, at least authentically – Anglican resources, out of your tradition, for inspiring and sustaining that reorientation of the heart toward one another?

JW: Immediately I would point to common prayer, in the way the Anglicans have developed the importance of a non-eucharistic (I should say, not solely eucharistic) pattern of praying together – a pattern derived from the monasteries but significantly changed during the Reformation. My experience as a priest is that communities of people who pray together, whether in cathedrals or parishes, learn to disagree more effectively. One of the first questions I ask when working in a church that is having real problems is: “Where’s your common prayer?” And when they say, “well, we don’t have common prayer,” I know that this is where they need to start. “But don’t we need to solve our problems before we can pray together authentically?” No – you need to pray together or you will never solve your problems.

So prayer is the most important thing. But I would also offer a few modern examples of practices and processes undertaken precisely to cultivate this realignment of the heart, this capacity for good-faith disagreement grounded in love.

First, I would commend people to look at how we have dealt with – or rather, how we are dealing with, and of course I don’t know whether and to what extent this process will be successful – the significant disagreements over human sexuality in the Anglican Communion. Much can be learned from the faults and the successes of the Living in Love and Faith Program (LLF), which is a major theological, pastoral, and, now, parish-based project, which has been running since about 2017. It started with deep work on the theology of human identity and sexuality, in conversation with biological science and biblical studies, and in light of historical, patristic approaches to sexuality and identity. After that we started mixing the groups – taking people from many different social contexts, placing them together in groups, facilitating those groups’ conversations, and from that we produced a book called Living in Love and Faith and a course of the same name.2 All of this will lead into what we do next, after discussion with the bishops; and these studies and conversations will shape our approach going forward, including what decisions, if any, are made at the ecclesiastical level. I’m convinced that there are plenty of faults with this process, but I would still commend it as an example of a carefully structured, carefully executed way of approaching one of the most sensitive issues that is dividing our church.

Second, I would highlight what we call the Difference Course, which has been published by the Church of England – it was designed by colleagues of mine at Lambeth.3 The Difference Course is entirely aimed at changing practices of the heart, changing habits of perception, judgment, and care. I’ve done the course, it had a huge impact on me, and it seems to have a huge impact wherever it is undertaken. We’re developing the course for use across the Anglican Communion – it’s being used in the States, in southern Africa, in east Asia – and while it is certainly Anglican in some areas of its style and ethos, it is not meant to be proprietary but could be an Anglican offering for the sake of addressing a much broader ecumenical need.

AH: This is enormously interesting to us at Graymoor, as we are in the early stages of developing a course in ecumenical formation ourselves, for religious leaders (and those in training for leadership) in New York and potentially more broadly as well. It sounds like we’re thinking about this in similar ways, and that we’re talking at least in part – although it’s not a terribly popular concept and perhaps it needs to be branded rather differently for a formation course! – about asceticism. Do you see a place for ecumenical asceticism, in the sense of spiritual exercise that reshapes our habits of being and knowing and acting in relationship to one another, that helps us get out of the way of ourselves so that the love of God can flow through us and not get jammed up in all our self-serving, acquisitive, prideful instincts?

JW: Yes, that’s certainly one way of looking at it, although the three core practices taught by the Difference Course are by no means limited to the ascetic tradition – they are, first, to be curious about those from whom we are different; second, to be present to those from whom we are different, and third, to reimagine what that difference could look like and what it might mean for us in the future. But you’re right that the ascetic tradition offers a meaningful paradigm, not least when it’s distilled down to this wonderful turn of phrase, orthokardia.

The last example I would give is that we have to learn – and this isn’t solely an Anglican practice either – to tap into the day-to-day ecumenical energy, to recognize it where we see it, to trust it, and empower it to provide organic, living momentum toward the reconciliation we seek. This is not to say that theology is unimportant – quite the reverse. If we force some kind of top-down, administrative unity without deep theological foundations, it will not last, it cannot last. But foundations are not sufficient, no matter how rock-solid they may be. In many countries, we see how people tend to build their houses as the money comes in, so you have a foundation, and then a wall or two, and then after about ten years you’ve got enough money to put a roof on top – what I mean is, we need to be aware that we’ve done a lot of foundation work, but we cannot only invest in that. At some point we have to start putting up the walls.

AH: And that’s going to require not only leaders of communities, not only ecclesiastical hierarchies, but also large numbers of people who are habituated in the way that you’re describing. There are people in our communities who are quietly building forms of reconciled life every day, and their labor, their vitality, must not be ignored.

JW: That’s exactly right.

AH: In this respect, I think we can take heart that creative ecumenical praxis – once we recognize that it has the potential to reverberate on a deeper psychospiritual level than that of our various efforts to reconcile our ideas and our actions, crucially important though these efforts continue to be – has not exhausted its potential to transform lives, to heal relationships, and to build peace in our time. Thank you for all you are doing on this wavelength, for your global leadership, and for taking the time today to speak with Ecumenical Trends.


  1. See Susan Durber, “A New Theme for the World Council of Churches: Towards a Heartfelt Ecumenism,” in Ecumenical Trends 51.1 (2022), 14-17.
  2. See the Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith Resources page, at (accessed 4 November 2022).
  3. See the Difference Course homepage, at (accessed 4 November 2022).

This interview originally appeared in Ecumenical Trends 52.1 (January/February 2023), a publication of the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute. The journal offers distinctive perspectives where the church, the academy, and the interfaith field coincide, and combines reporting on current developments in ecumenical/interreligious affairs with accessible scholarship, interviews, and pastoral reflection on the dynamics of religious difference on common ground. Find out more, and subscribe to Ecumenical Trends (print and/or online), by clicking here.