Ambivalent archbishopCatherine Pepinster
- 9 December 2006
Rowan Williams' recent visit to Rome was to develop relationships and seek progress on ecumenical dialogue. Both were achieved, as he tells Catherine Pepinster, but his own response to the Vatican seems a combination of pleasure and misgiving.
From the rooftop terrace of the Villa Pallavicini, home of the British Ambassador to the Holy See, there are views right across Rome, dominated by the dome of St Peter's. It was here on the evening of 23 November that the Anglican delegation, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, who were visiting Rome for talks and to mark the fortieth anniversary of Michael Ramsey's visit to the Vatican, were entertained to a state dinner, their purple finery complementing the scarlet of six Catholic cardinals, together with assorted bishops, monsignors, priests and diplomats.
If the grandeur of Rome seen from the rooftop needed to be emphasised, then it was endorsed at the end of dinner in a speech by the ambassador's ecclesiastical adviser, Mgr Charlie Burns, who as a veteran of the Vatican archives gave guests a verbal tour of British history through the papers held there. Mention of letters sent to Rome from England at the time of Alfred the Great drew a gasp from guests; then there was the note hidden in a shoe and successfully despatched to Italy from the men of Charles I during the siege of Oxford. As Mgr Burns ended his talk, recounting the relationship between England's established Church and Rome he said of it: "A mother never forgets her children."
To a Catholic, it seemed a most poignant description of the connection between the two Churches. But to the Anglican delegation coming to visit Rome at a difficult time in their Church's history, seeking ways forward for their Communion on issues such as women bishops and homosexuality, while also trying to maintain ecumenical progress, would it have seemed an appropriate summation of the relationship? It turns out, when I raised it with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, back home in Lambeth Palace after a gruelling five days in Rome, that it was a comment that had struck him too.
During those five days, the Archbishop had attended several services, held talks with the Pope, and with Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, and participated in the celebrations for the fortieth anniversary of the Anglican Centre. But this metaphor of Mgr Burns had particularly resonated.
"For an Anglican there would be two kinds of response. One is that this is the mother church that sent the mission to England, and when you are in the catacombs you sense Rome is where it really all began. And then there is the other Rome - the renaissance Rome, the Counter-Reformation Rome - which doesn't feel exactly like home. But it doesn't feel like the enemy any longer, as people might have felt in the nineteenth century. But it does feel like another world."
These remarks suggest that Dr Williams has a complex response to the Catholic Church. It seems to both attract and repel him. A curate's egg might even be an appropriate description of his reaction. His anxieties about it reflect Anglican difficulties over what they perceive, to use his own words, as "the Pope as the supreme magistrate of a superstate" perhaps laying too much emphasis on Petrine office rather than the Petrine service. But he finds himself deeply attracted by the fact that the Catholic Church "knows how to pray", and by its universality.
His complex response also reflects the different aspects of his life: from his early interest in spirituality, highlighted by his study of Teresa of Avila, to theological research which brought him into contact with Catholic thinkers such as von Balthasar. But there is also his earlier radicalism, highlighted by his support of women's ordination, and his current position, held since 2002, as leader of a Communion grappling with problems which will define its future. And while it does grapple with them, will the Catholic Church, in its motherly role, let the Anglican Communion find its own way, even if that means making mistakes, and support its decisions, even if it disagrees with the conclusions?
Dr Williams laughs. "Everyone in Rome was aware of the challenges. Cardinal Kasper was perfectly frank about them. If I had an anxiety it was not about how we were going to be received but at what level the dialogue would continue. That's the point at which I felt most reassured and encouraged. As long as there is an Anglican Communion the dialogue with the Anglican Communion continues."
The purpose of visiting Rome was threefold: to develop personal contacts, particularly with Pope Benedict; to build relationships with individual Vatican curial departments; and to establish progress on ecumenical dialogue. But Cardinal Kasper and Pope Benedict were frank in their admission of difficulties, speaking of serious obstacles to ecumenical progress thrown up by liberal attitudes to homosexuality and to women's ordination. However the Pope also confirmed the friendship between the two Churches and that the work of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) would resume.
Those involved on both sides of the discourse have spoken of the personal chemistry between Pope Benedict and Dr Williams. While the past 40 years have been marked by several meetings between Popes and Primates of the Anglican Communion, this was the first time that each office holder was also a notable theologian. To what extent was this an encounter as much between theologians as between two leaders of two Churches?
"Almost without preliminaries we got down to talking about the lecture I had given on St Benedict [delivered at Sant'Anselmo on 21 November; an edited version appeared in The Tablet on 25 November] and the concept of obedience - about the difficulty of that in the modern world - and the conversation unfolded from there. There was a strong sense of the two of us being able to talk about what enthuses us theologically," recalls Dr Williams.
The conversation, he says, went on to the subject of the sacramental heart of the Church. The Eucharist, of course, remains a sticking point for Roman Catholic-Anglican relations, and that was apparent during the visit to Rome, with no combined Eucharist service. Yet the Catholic Church made another gesture of fellowship and recognition of its special relationship with the Anglican Communion, following the gifts of the papal ring by Paul VI and the pectoral cross by John Paul II. This time it was the suggestion by the Secretariat of State that Dr Williams celebrate the Eucharist at the papal altar of the Dominican church of Santa Sabina.
Lack of progress, despite these significant gestures, is, says Dr Williams, something he finds painful - sharing "the feelings of unhappiness and frustration" that many experience over this continuing, profound division. At the moment he admits that he sees the issue as "not much further forward".
"I understand what my Roman Catholic friends are saying. The theology makes sense, although it is not a theology I sign up to. But it is very painful.
"For me the heart of the Eucharist is that we are drawn into the eternal prayer of Christ and that's what unifies us: that we are standing where Christ stands and praying what Christ prays. It's not only the prayers but also the shape of the action that tells you that."
What the two Churches do share at the moment is common prayers - the same vernacular English of the Gloria, for instance, so that those attending one another's Eucharist can at least pray together. That will change, of course, should the new translation of the Mass into English, as seems very likely, comes to be used. Dr Williams is too diplomatic to comment on any internal divisions of the Roman Catholic Church caused by its liturgical texts, but it is apparent that he finds some of the intricate squabbling over literal translation a rather curious and not entirely appealing characteristic of the Catholic Church - "one of those Counter-Reformation things", as he puts it.
"I do find the ideas of translation puzzling, and what communicates itself as a level of anxiety about getting the words right. It isn't characteristic of the early or medieval Church: there's not a fear of getting it right nor even is there is a sense of one model against which everything else has to be tested."
But what will be tested in the next few months is the Anglican Communion's desire to remain exactly that - a Communion. The Windsor Report, published two years ago following highly charged disputes over gays in the priesthood which led to bitterness, conflict and misunderstandings, called for a moratorium on the election to the episcopate of those living in same-sex unions, and also asked national Churches not to go ahead with public blessings of same-sex unions. The emphasis was on the Churches acting interdependently, not independently. During the talks in Rome, it was clear that the Roman Catholic Church wants to see if the Anglican Communion can build on the recommendations.
"Nobody has been making conditions or setting a timetable," said Dr Williams, "but if the Communion were to fragment further or if we were either explicitly or implicitly to say we can get on with being a confederation of local churches or less than that, then I think our Roman Catholic colleagues would say, ‘We can't deal with you as a Communion because there isn't anything there.'"
The key point that did emerge from the talks was not so much the issues that have caused so many of the rows in Anglicanism - the role of gay people in the Church or the role of women - but that the Catholic Church is concerned about the way Anglicans make decisions and about Anglican standards of theology. Making appointments to the office of bishop is not just a question of justice but is about a sign of the koinonia or communio at the heart of the Church.
But, as far as ecumenical dialogue is concerned, the difficulty for Anglicans on women's ordination, says Dr Williams, is not entirely of their own making. There is a growing feeling among them, as the Church of England considers women bishops, that the Catholic Church has moved the goalposts, even though, logically, the appointment of women bishops would follow on from Synod's decision in favour of women priests 14 years ago.
"When the ARCIC statement on ministry was agreed it looked as if the gender of ministers was a second-order issue. It wasn't declared at that time to be a matter of divine law. As the Eighties and Nineties moved on, more and more moved into place to suggest that it was a much higher-level theological issue than I think the composers of the ARCIC statement had thought," said the archbishop.
Prior to Dr Williams' trip to Rome some newspaper headlines suggested that he was less than enthusiastic about female priests. He is at pains to point out that he does support women's ordination, but acknowledges that the change was not without problems. "For women the feeling has been one of immense affirmation and liberation, whereas for opponents it has been distress and dispossession. We hadn't done it to bring about spectacular change but it was transforming for women in the Church."
The visit to Rome was not just about struggling to deal with the difficult issues. It was also a time to find common ground, as the two Churches pledged themselves to work together, reaching out to the poor and the persecuted, promoting respect for life from conception to death, care of creation and offering a message of hope. It is a message that Rowan Williams particularly wants to convey to the world at Christmas, and one senses that it is something of a relief to the 56-year-old archbishop not to have to focus on crisis management but instead turn his attention to what he does best, making a convincing exposition of Christianity.
"Entering into what may look like the rather odd and marginal world of the Churches is to go into a larger reality," he said. "That's Christmas' good news. A purely secular Christmas which is just consumption, or a Christmas which is unwilling to even use the word Christ - that is so small and so boring by comparison with what the Christmas story is really about."
The other commitment the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches made jointly was the pursuit of peace in the Holy Land, and in a few days time Dr Williams and Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, with other representatives of Churches Together, will visit Bethlehem. Dr Williams stresses that it is a pilgrimage, but he realises, as someone who has learnt through sore experience, how actions and words can be interpreted as a political gesture by the media and by politicians.
"We are trying to stay focused on where we are going. The goal is to pray at the Basilica of the Nativity. People are leaving Bethlehem in large numbers. It is now very difficult to get in and out of and we thought we could go there, and do what we can to encourage that very beleaguered community, and remind others that it matters that there are Christians in the middle of that conflict."
That solidarity with the people of Bethlehem causes Dr Williams to challenge the Israeli Government. He is careful in his choice of words, but he asks, in these days leading up to Christmas: "I would like to know how much it matters to the Israeli Government to have Christian communities in the Holy Land. Are they an embarrassment or are they part of a solution? That's a question."