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Last Updated: Friday, 17 November 2006, 01:30 GMT
A misunderstanding on women priests?
By Robert Pigott
BBC Religious affairs correspondent

The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams
The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was misunderstood
The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says he was wilfully misunderstood by those who reported an interview as suggesting he was having second thoughts about women priests.

Our Religious Affairs Correspondent, Robert Pigott looks at how easy a mistake it was to make.

Rowan Williams said the Anglican Church might one day rethink its hard-fought decision to ordain women.

He also suggested that women clergy had failed to produce the spectacular transformation and renewal of the Church that many hoped for.

Could the Church's leader really have said such things? Well, yes...and no.

Dr Williams has been unerringly supportive of my ministry and the ministry of other women

The Dean of Salisbury, June Osborne

As with so many pronouncements made about the Church - what was meant, and how it could be interpreted, were radically different things.

The Catholic Herald, to whom Dr Williams gave his interview, may not have expected its pre-visit chat to turn into a scoop.

But then Dr Williams said this about ordaining women: "[I could] just about envisage a situation in which, over a very long period, the Anglican Church thought about it again, but I would need to see what the theological reason for that would be."

Superficially, Dr Williams seems to be keeping the door open to reversing the historic decision to make women priests, and doing so just as the Church is poised to allow them to become bishops too.

But there is more to it than that. First of all there is the context.

Dr Williams is about to meet the Pope at a time when attention is focused on relations between the two churches.

His interview with the Catholic Herald was designed to raise the curtain on his papal encounter, coming as it does on the 40th anniversary of a significant rapprochement between the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches.

It was the Church of England's decision to ordain women more than a decade ago that has meant that as Dr Williams put it, Catholic-Anglican unity has "hit the buffers a bit".

So, natural enough for him to address the issue.

Gratify the traditionalists

Secondly, there is Dr Williams himself...the academic theologian taking the long view of church history.

He gave the Herald a reasoned justification for his view that his church was right to ordain women - that a baptised man and a baptised woman related to Jesus Christ in the same way, so either could be called to serve as a priest.

It is a rational, unemotional argument in what has been a highly charged debate.

It would be no surprise if Dr Williams took a similarly dispassionate - even theoretical - view of the potential for future fundamental change in the Church's attitude to women's ordination.

He may have felt that a theoretical view could shed light on long-term change in the Anglican Church and on its relations with its big sister.

Dr Williams' assessment of the effect of women's ordination on the Church of England also shows how easily this scholarly figure can be misunderstood.

He said that he did not think that women clergy had "transformed or renewed the Church in spectacular ways"...though neither had they "corrupted or ruined it".

It seemed a lukewarm assessment, likely to disappoint women priests and gratify the traditionalists who campaigned against their ordination.

But Dr Williams has dismissed such interpretations of his interview in uncharacteristically forthright terms.

'Wilfully misleading'

In a fresh statement, he pointed out that he had never "doubted the rightness of that decision [on women's ordination] or the blessings it has brought", and that he had made clear that he saw "no theological justification for revisiting the question and indicated in the interview three times that I had no wish to reopen it, whatever technical possibilities might theoretically exist".

He said that any other interpretation was "wilfully misleading".

And there has been strong support from senior women clergy.

The Dean of Salisbury, June Osborne, said Dr Williams "has been unerringly supportive of my ministry and the ministry of other women".

"I was thus surprised that there could have been any misunderstanding about his commitment to women priests," she said.

Indeed, no-one can doubt Dr Williams' commitment to the cause, as one of the key campaigners in the long battle to achieve women's ordination as priests, and a steadfast supporter of women bishops.

The difficulty for Dr Williams is that he is a clear-eyed and academic realist for whom the unvarnished truth sets the Church free, and simply saying the right thing risks confusion...while at the same time he is seen by Anglicans as their pastor, inspiration and chief cheer-leader.


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