Resignation of the Archbishop of Canterbury – 1
ELENA CURTI AND ABIGAIL FRYMANN
Fellow pilgrims Rowan Williams’ resignation as the head of the Anglican Communion came just days after he returned from his latest meeting with Pope Benedict. While major differences have at times made the relationship between Rome and Lambeth difficult, the personal, spiritual and intellectual similarities between Pope and archbishop have helped bridge the divides
Rowan Williams’ hosts in the Vatican were still recalling the success of his visit to Rome a week earlier when the news of his resignation filtered through to them. His cordial meetings with the Pope, their joint prayers at Vespers and Dr Williams’ lectures had emphasised the closeness between the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion.
For the Catholic observers in Rome, it deepened their sense of loss at his departure and led them to ponder just how far the archbishop has taken the Anglican Communion’s relationship with the Catholic Church despite the considerable difficulties that have arisen during his time at Lambeth Palace. The most significant of these have been the internal rows over homosexuality that have split the Anglican Communion.
As the row raged over the ordination of gay bishops with the consecration of Gene Robinson in the United States in 2003, it seemed that progress towards unity between the two Churches was impossible. Dr Williams’ energies seemed to be consumed with the task of holding the Anglican Communion together. The Church of England’s plans to ordain women bishops was seen by Rome as a further insuperable obstacle.
Far from being a single entity, the Anglican Communion seemed to its Catholic dialogue partners a set of warring factions unable to hold itself together, let alone seriously contemplate the road to unity with the Catholic Church. A particularly low point in CatholicAnglican relations came in October 2009 with the Pope’s invitation for disaffected traditional Anglicans to join an ordinariate – a structure within the Catholic Church in which they could retain their Anglican heritage.
The plan was hatched in Rome with the utmost secrecy and was presented to Dr Williams as a fait accompli just a fortnight before it was announced. Dr Williams was deeply offended, and it was at this point that the relationship could have gone into deep freeze. At least one senior bishop urged him to break off all dialogue with the Catholics.
But Dr Williams was too committed to the ecumenical cause and too steeped in Catholicism himself to accept such counsel. George Pitcher, who was religion editor at The Daily Telegraph at the time and went on to become an adviser at Lambeth, said: “It is a mark of Dr Williams’ archiepiscopacy that he believes there is something bigger at stake
Pope Benedict XVI walks with Rowan Williams at Lambeth Palace during the 2010 papal visit. Photo: Mykel Nicolaou than little personal offences when it comes to co-leadership of the two global Christian Churches.” Even when Dr Williams’ disappointment was at its height he remained on good terms with those in the Vatican whom he trusted. He articulated publicly his disappointment about the lack of consultation over the ordinariate and had a frank exchange with the Pope himself when they next met in Rome in November 2009.
He also had the resources to set out his vision for unity in a way that was both positive
‘The worth of a churchman is not primarily given in human judgements’
When Rowan Williams was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 2002, I wrote him a letter of congratulation, promised him my prayers and added – “We Celts must stick together!!”
So we did through close bonds of Christian faith and friendship during the next seven years. How well I remember so many events in which we shared; our lunch together with Pope Benedict; a private supper at Lambeth Palace with Rowan and his wife Jane, an opportunity to talk over many things; our discussion and mutual agreement in opposing the Iraq War.
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, who worked closely with Rowan Williams during the early years of Dr Williams’ archiepiscopacy, recalls their partnership
There is one particular occasion that I recall vividly. Together with other Christian leaders we paid a joint visit to Bethlehem just before Christmas in 2006. When we visited a Catholic hospital and orphanage, we were greeted by the sisters and presented with two tiny babies abandoned in the street outside the hospital the night before, and now given a name and a home.
Rowan’s affectionate humanity shone through that and through numerous other occasions during that memorable visit.
There have been many tributes to Archbishop Rowan and comments on his leadership of the Anglican Communion during the past difficult 10 years.
He has been both praised and criticised. But for me achievement should not always be measured by success or failure. The worth of a churchman is not primarily given in human judgements, but in the example he gives of faith, courage and Christian courtesy and kindness to everyone in good times and in bad. Rowan will be remembered by people far and wide for those qualities of leadership that endure, the fruit of which is yet to be realised. I wish him well for the rest of his tenure and for the years ahead.
■ Cardinal Cormac MurphyO’Connor was Archbishop of Westminster from 2000 to 2009.
4 | THE TABLET | 24 March 2012