Page last updated at 16:30 GMT, Saturday, 21 November 2009

Anglicans and Catholics attempt to bridge divide

By Robert Pigott
Religious Affairs Correspondent, BBC News

Pope Benedict, left, and the Archbishop of Canterbury
The meeting lasted just 20 minutes

The meeting between Pope Benedict and the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams had been billed as something of a showdown.

After all, it was the first since the Pope's invitation to disgruntled Anglicans to convert to Catholicism.

Many Anglicans had spoken openly of their concern not only that the invitation was being made, but also about the way it was handled.

It came, earlier this month, just as the Church of England was trying to find ways of keeping those traditionalists on its Catholic wing inside the fold.

There was also minimal consultation with the Church of England.

Rowan Williams himself said he knew about this far-reaching initiative "at a very late stage" - just two weeks before the announcement was made.

Dr Williams is reported to have rung up the cardinal in charge of relations with other churches "in the middle of the night" when he discovered the offer was to be made.

It is, after all, no small offer.

Question of marriage

There will be a special section of the Roman Catholic Church in which former Anglicans will be able to keep some of their own traditions and services, and even be led by former Anglican bishops.

Those bishops can be married - even though Catholic priests must be celibate.

Anglican clergy will be allowed to become Roman Catholic priests even if they are married.

Pope Benedict said he was creating this new enclave in his church only in response to pleas from traditionalist Anglicans, many of whom are unwilling to serve in a church that will, sooner or later, ordain women as bishops.

But the Pope has been accused of riding roughshod over the Church, and even of trying to poach traditionalist Anglican clergy.

So perhaps it was not surprising that there were great expectations for the meeting in Rome.

'Closer relations'

But whatever the irritation Rowan Williams might feel about the lack of delicacy with which the Pope dealt with the Church of England, there is more at stake for both sides than the conversion of a few dozen Anglican clergy to Catholicism.

At just 20 minutes, their private meeting was shorter than some previous encounters, but the official description of it was "cordial", and the Pope presented Dr Williams with a gold bishop's cross.

The Vatican acknowledged that discussions "focused on recent events between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion".

However, the statement said both sides reiterated the "shared will" to achieve closer relations.

Underlying relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion is the Christian duty to work towards unity.

The church word is "ecumenism" - describing the universal values and beliefs that all Christians share.

Forty years ago the Roman Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council seemed to promise a greater readiness to meet other churches half way in achieving greater unity.

But Pope Benedict thinks the Council's deliberations have been misinterpreted, and he wants to put a brake on the modernisation that has taken place in the Catholic Church in recent decades.

Disgruntled traditionalists

A liberal Catholic and historian of the Church, Michael Walsh, said the Pope's invitation to Anglicans was part of this plan.

"He is a traditionalist. He likes the history. He likes the old liturgy (forms of church service). But I think what's going on in this case is that he's trying to attract back traditionalists to the Church, people who have left for traditionalist reasons."

Meanwhile, it seems to many people, Catholics and Anglicans alike, that the Church of England, and the wider Anglican Communion, has become steadily more liberal.

It has ordained women as priests and as bishops, and adopted what some claim is a liberal attitude to homosexuality.

So perhaps it suits both churches to transfer disgruntled traditionalists from one to another.

It seems that the Vatican at least no longer believes that the "full visible unity" between the churches that was once envisaged is now possible.

The Church of England has itself seen that there is almost as fundamental a division between traditionalism and liberalism as there is between Catholic and Protestant.

Indeed traditionalist Catholic and Protestant Anglicans have allied in the battle against women bishops and liberal approaches to homosexuality.

Bar to unity

So today's meeting between Pope and the archbishop might have been the opportunity for discussion of a new model for relations between them.

Archbishop Williams has already suggested one - that bypasses what he regards as issues of secondary importance (such as the ordination of women) and builds on the fundamental beliefs and practices (such as the nature of God and the practice of holy communion) that both churches share.

The old approach has been to pick away at particular theological sticking points - such as the churches' different approach to Jesus' mother Mary - and work out areas of agreement.

In a lecture in Rome, Dr Williams questioned whether the outstanding issues of difference really amounted to much.

But he also suggested that even when Anglicans departed from Catholic tradition as it is currently perceived in the Vatican, they might actually have a greater truth to offer.

Dr Williams boldly used the issue of the moment as his example - suggesting that it was the Roman Catholic Church's refusal to ordain women that was the bar to unity.

"For many Anglicans, not ordaining women has a possible unwelcome implication about the difference between baptised men and baptised women."

In other words, if a church denies woman the role of priest, what is it saying about their status even as ordinary members?

Dr Williams insisted that creating women priests and bishops had actually preserved Catholic values.

The archbishop left Lambeth Palace for Rome refusing requests for an interview about his meeting with Pope Benedict, although he later played down the Pope's offer as little more than a "pastoral response".

The Vatican has presented the invitation as intended to create unity, but it actually seems to entrench the differences between Anglicans and Roman Catholics, even if it does construct a bridge across the divide.



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