The following article appeared on pages 26 and 28 in last week’s edition of The Tablet www.thetablet.co.uk
by Simon Sarmiento
Anglicans will be wondering what Benedict himself made of his two encounters with the Church of England on day two of his papal visit, first when he went to Lambeth Palace, where the Great Hall was filled with diocesan bishops of both churches, and later in Westminster Abbey, where the ecumenical service of Evening Prayer deployed the full resources of the “Anglican Patrimony”, with glorious music and clouds of incense.
At both places, he saw a self-confident Church of England, happy to extend Benedictine hospitality to him, and eager to join with ecumenical partners to proclaim the Gospel. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, later told Vatican Radio he thought it had all been “enormously happy” and “hugely positive”, but would all Anglicans agree? One Church of England bishop that I spoke to the next day had absolutely nothing good to say about the Pope and was not the only one absent from the Abbey service.
Certainly the visit got off to a bad start, for Anglicans in particular, with the revelation that Cardinal Walter Kasper, recently retired head of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, whom they had regarded as their best friend in the Vatican, was not coming. In addition to his critique of Britain (or was it just Heathrow?) as a “Third World Country”, he had told the German magazine Focus that the “Anglican Church” had nothing to offer Roman Catholics in respect of either a married clergy or the ordination of women. Clearly neither of those things represents our “patrimony”. “He is not usually so gauche,” said another C of E bishop.
The Pope’s words, however, were far more nuanced and, to assess them, one needs to lay them alongside the equally measured remarks made by Rowan Williams at Lambeth and the abbey.
During the first formal encounter, at Lambeth, Dr Williams welcomed the Pope, saying that “we do not as Churches seek political power or control”. He noted that no obstacles stand in the way of the bishops from both Churches seeking more ways to “build up one another in holiness”. In fact, joint meetings of Roman Catholic and Anglican bishops are already a regular occurrence in most parts of England today.
By contrast, the Pope declined to speak at all about the specific difficulties of ecumenical dialogue, while emphasising the “remarkable progress” of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (Arcic) during the past 40 years. Instead he focused on the need for Christians to co-operate with other faiths “in promoting peace and harmony in a world … at risk of fragmentation”.
However, he did say, that “the Church is called to be inclusive, yet never at the expense of Christian truth”, which Anglicans will interpret as a negative reference, not only to the ordination of women, and the place of homosexuals in the life of the Church (issues which of course still divide Anglicans) but also to a married clergy and remarriage after divorce.
On the other hand, he referred to John Henry Newman as one “nurtured by his Anglican background” who can serve as a model for modern ecumenical dialogue. As Dr Williams noted in his Vatican Radio interview, Anglicans do not object to his beatification, though some will certainly feel miffed by the decision not to follow Anglican use and adopt 11 August as his feast day, rather than institute 9 October, the day of his conversion to Rome.
What was undoubtedly reassuring to Anglicans was the joint communiqué issued later that “reaffirmed the importance of continuing theological dialogue on the notion of the Church as communion, local and universal, and the implications of this concept for the discernment of ethical teaching”.
At Westminster Abbey, it was the Pope’s turn to speak first. He chose to recall St Bede the Venerable (always a popular choice for Anglicans) who, he said, “understood … the need for creative openness to new developments”, perhaps an unexpected turn of phrase from this Pope. Dr Williams, in turn, recalled Sts Augustine of Canterbury and Gregory the Great, but also noted that “Christians have very diverse views about the nature of the vocation that belongs to the See of Rome” He went on to quote John Paul II’s encyclical Ut Unum Sint, saying that “we must all reflect together” on how the Petrine ministry may speak to all Christians. A partial agreement here perhaps between these two, but many Anglicans hold dissenting views.
Only at the very end of the visit did the Pope mention Anglicanorum Coetibus, the apostolic constitution to enable Anglicans to join the Roman Catholic Church through a special structure, and then to his own bishops, not those of the Church of England. In his radio interview, Dr Williams said: “A relatively small number of people in the Church of England have wanted to explore this. I hadn’t ever expected it to be a huge number.”
So, overall, did the Pope surprise Anglicans? Most people I asked said that his remarks were softer in tone than they expected. Does this mean that any fundamental changes are likely? No, but it might mean that dire predictions being made earlier for the future of ecumenical relations were not accurate. A more interesting question might be whether the image of the Church of England among Roman Catholics has been affected by the obvious warmth of feeling that Pope Benedict has displayed on this visit. Yet a concern remains for Anglicans that Rome does not perceive a need for any fundamental rethink of its own position on the divisive issues.