Searching for clues from the Roman Catholic-Anglican summit

November 23, 2009


There wasn’t much information in the official communique after Pope Benedict and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams met at the Vatican on Saturday. The terse text mentioned “cordial discussions” about challenges facing Christians, the need to cooperate and their intention to continue bilateral theological dialogue. The only reference to the issue of the day, Benedict’s offer to take alienated Anglicans into the Catholic Church, was mentioned in passing as “recent events affecting relations between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion.” Hmm, pretty thin pickings….
The Pravda-like opaqueness of the communique (read it here) prompted me to zoom in on the photographs we got from the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano for any other clues there. Let’s see if they help as we go along. The “pope’s paper” (here in PDF) published the communique at the bottom of its front page, below two articles on the pope’s meeting with artists and one on Iran’s nuclear program. An interesting hint at the Vatican’s priorities that day.


Given this thin statement, our news story led off: “The archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Benedict agreed the need for closer ties between their churches on Saturday, in their first meeting since last month’s surprise Vatican offer to disaffected Anglicans.” Read the whole story here.


Williams later spoke to the BBC (starting at 33:19) and Vatican Radio. He told the BBC that the meeting “went as well as I could have hoped, really.” He said he expressed Anglican concerns at the way the pope’s offer — officially called an “apostolic constitution” — was handled and the two then looked ahead to future ecumenical discussions.

On Vatican Radio, he said at the start of the interview: “Clearly, many Anglicans, myself included, felt that he put us in an awkward position for a time. Not the content so much as some of the messages that were given out. So I needed to share with the pope some of those concerns andI think those were expressed and heard in a very friendly spirit.” The pope’s main message to him, Williams said, was “that the constitution did not express any change in the Vatican’s attitude towards the Anglican Communion as such.”

“The presentation of the constitution as a kind of dawn raid on the Anglican Communion misunderstands the process that happened and the actual nature of the constitution. People become Roman Catholics because they want to become Roman Catholics, because their consciences are formed in a certain way and they believe this is the will of God for them. I wish them every blessing in that. But I don’t think it’s a question of the Roman Catholic Church, as it were, trying to attract by advertising or by special offers. I don’t see that as the purpose at all. In that sense, I don’t particularly worry about it.”


Williams said they didn’t talk about the ordination of women bishops, the issue that has prompted some orthodox Anglicans to consider “swimming the Tiber”. This is all the more curious because he delivered a provocative speech on Thursday at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in which he stood up for women’s ordination and asked whether the Vatican should consider it the roadblock to greater unity that it does.  Our news story on it said:

“Roman Catholics should look beyond the divisive issue of ordaining women to see how much they share with the world’s Anglicans and work toward greater Christian unity, the head of the Anglican Communion said on Thursday. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, whose own Church is split over female priests and bishops, said the Vatican’s ban on ordaining women was not as solidly grounded theologically as the core Christian doctrines the two denominations agree on.

Williams said decades of Catholic-Anglican dialogue had achieved wide consensus on core Christian teachings and left only lesser issues of church organisation and authority open. “The question … is whether this unfinished business is as fundamentally Church-dividing as our Roman Catholic friends generally assume and maintain … Do the arguments advanced about the ‘essence’ of male and female vocations and capacities stand on the same level as a theology derived more directly from scripture and (our) common theological heritage?”

The speech is quite interesting for its theological reflections on the nature of ecumenical dialogue. Read the whole text here.

Williams said he gave Benedict a copy of the speech but they did not discuss it. Although the Vatican photos show him gazing with appreciation at the gift of a golden pectoral cross from the pope, none of the nine shots that we ran show Benedict thumbing through — or even holding — the text of the archbishop’s challenge to Rome’s all-male clergy.


They ended up with the standard pose, the one photographers call the “grip-and-grin” shot. Apart from not  showing the pope holding the Williams text, I’m not sure we’ve learned much more from these pictures. Or have I missed something?

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The Pope gave Mr Williams an episcopal cross. What could be the meaning?

Posted by Javier | Report as abusive

Good question, Javier. There’s normally an exchange of gifts like this when prominent personalities visit the pope. When he went to the Vatican, Saudi King Abdullah presented the pope with a sword ( On his 2006 visit, Williams gave Benedict a crucifix. The fact that Williams gave him a copy of his speech defending women bishops this time caught my attention. But was there a hidden meaning behind the choice of an episcopal cross? An invitation to swim the Tiber? It crossed my mind, but I thought that was overinterpreting a standard gift. But it’s an interesting question…

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

BTW, the cross is in that white box Williams is holding under his arm in the last photo.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

Entering the spirit of this exercise in computer forensics, I have a question — does Pope Benedict wear reading glasses? If he does, they don’t seem to be on his desk. So it’s possible that he could not have read the Williams speech — even if he wanted to.Elizabeth

Posted by Elizabeth | Report as abusive

The Archbishop of Canterbury is holding the gift box containig the gold Pectoral Cross given him by the Pope. The Cross is a Bishop’s Cross.

Posted by Jack Powers | Report as abusive

One can only hope that comments like Javer will end.. Rowan Williams is THE Most Reverend And Right Honourable Rowan Williams < Archbishop of Canterbury.He is NOT a Mr WilliamsCourtesy goes all around .. this discourtesy indicates an attitude long gone one would hope.

Posted by Father Brian Hatherly | Report as abusive

Elizabeth, his glasses are in a dark case on the desk, in the middle of the first picture. But we didn’t get any pix of him wearing them!

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

perhaps the gift of the pectoral cross (despite apostolicae curae and all that), was that if one is the archbishop of canterbury and considers oneself a bishop in the one, holy, catholi, and apsotolic church, as anglican bishops endlessly assert (dare i say protest) they are, then one should behave like one and conduct oneself accordingly, standing up for catholic faith and tradition, and enabling visible ecclesiastical unity rather than enabling even more departure from these in one’s brief tenure than was already the case prior to it. just a thought. Perhaps a challenge to do the job.

Posted by a | Report as abusive

The Catholics should stay well clear of the Anglicans,they would like to think that they are still significant but because of moves into a progressive doctrine,they have lost their way.It would be like adding water to wine if there was any connect,and when you have priests like Bishop Tobin who are prepared to step up to the mark with his decision regarding the Kennedys and their support for abortion, it is important that the wine is full strength.In Tobin we are looking at possibly the first American Pope,God bless this brave Bishop.

Posted by brian lee | Report as abusive

This diologue between the Roman Church and the Angican is very interesting. Does it have anything to do with the real Christ and His Body, the Church?It was my privilege to have the time to research some of the fundamental beliefs of the Roman Church and compare them to what God has revealed in His Owners Manual, the Bible. It was so intriguing that I wrote a book about it: Escape From Paganism. You can review it at www.escapefrompaganism.comLarry Ball

Posted by Larry Ball | Report as abusive