Dr Rowan Williams's trip to Rome expected to revive hopes of a thaw between the Church of England and the Vatican, but experts say the Pope is looking East
BY ED WEST
THE ANGLICAN leader Dr Rowan Williams is to visit Rome for his first formal meeting with Pope Benedict XVI as the two communions try to breathe life back into cooling relations and resurrect ecumenical talks stalled by the issues of women priests and gay bishops.
Although Vatican officials are yet to confirm the visit, Dr Rowan Williams's expected meeting with the new pontiff is'being organised to mark the 40th anniversary of Archbishop Michael Ramsey meeting Pope Paul VI, the first formal talks between the Vatican and the Anglicans since the 1534 Act of Supremacy.
Dr Williams still wears the ring that the Pope gave to his predecessor. The visit is thought significant because, while a cardinal, the current Pope was not seen as sympathetic to the Church of England. In 2001 he co-authored Dominus Jesus, a document which stated that the Anglicans and other churches without "valid episcopate" were not "churches in the proper sense".
But the new Pope has shown that he is willing to build bridges within Christianity. As Cardinal Ratzinger, he reached a landmark agreement with Lutherans in 2000 on the issue of justification by faith. And this month the title "Patriarch of the West" was dropped by the Holy Father, a move widely interpreted as a conciliatory gesture towards Eastern Orthodoxy.
But Anglican-Catholic relations have much ground to make up after going through what former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey described as an "ecumenical winter" in the past decade.
Cardinal Walter Kasper of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity spoke last month of the "disillusionment and stagnation" in talks with other communions, primarily about the issue of identity.
But central to the AnglicanCatholic rift is the Church of England's decision to ordain women priests in 1992, and the growing split in the Anglican Communion over the issue of homosexual priests, something that will overshadow Dr Williams's visit as leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
While Anglicans in Uganda and Nigeria generally oppose the introduction of gay clergy, the American Episcopalians moved ahead with the election of Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as Bishop of New Hampshire last year, an event that prompted the winding up of the second round of Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC).
'What decision goes completely against the Catholic position and the historic position of the Anglican Communion as well,' said Lord Carey. "All we can hope for is that Rowan keeps the fire burning." And the possible election on May 6 in California of the Rev Bonnie Perry as the first. lesbian bishop will do little to thaw relations. However, ARCIC IH will focus on matters at "local and universal Church" level, including the growing number of Anglican and Catholic parishes sharing facilities. Mgr Andrew Faley, assistant general secretary to the bishops' conference, said: "It's a great measure of the strengthening bonds between us. The strength of our relationship is the living, pmying and studying together done by people at parish level. It's not about other Christians becoming Catholic. Catholics have to understand what makes Anglicans tick, and vice-versa, and learn together what it means to be a disciple of our Lord Jesus Christ."
But others are not so hopeful. Fr Geoffrey Kirk, of AngloCatholic group Forward in Faith, said the meeting was "not at all significant". He told us: "les a courtesy visit, and not surprising given that it's 40 years since the historic meeting."
Fr Kirk believes that the two communions' differences come down to bigger issues than the ordination of priests and bishops.
He said: "The Holy Father has been set on reunion with the Orthodox Church, so any closer ties with the Anglicans would endanger that.
"And Roman Catholic ecumenists would have to be very stupid to not realise that Anglicans have trouble delivering on their promises in this area, and no one can call Benedict XVI stupid."
During their meeting, Dr Williams and Pope Benedict are expected to discuss the widely reported papal visit to Britain in September next year, a trip that could have significant implications for Christian Unity.