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 and theologically challenging for the Catholics. In a speech at a symposium in Rome on 19 November 2009 to mark the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Cardinal Willebrands, the first president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, he said there was broad agreement between the Churches on what he called “first order” issues: “The various agreed statements of the Churches stress that the Church is a community, in which human beings are made sons and daughters of God, and reconciled both with God and one another. The Church celebrates this through the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion in which God acts upon us to transform us ‘in communion’.”
As for issues where there was disagreement, such as papal primacy and the ordination of women, he suggested these were “second order” issues and that a model for unity existed between Churches that took different views of these. A Catholic insider said this idea is a non-starter because the Catholic Church considers a male-only priesthood part of the doctrine of ordination and this cannot be left to one side. Nevertheless Dr Williams won respect in Rome for posing such a challenge.
It was Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain in 2010 that did most to further the rapprochement. Prior to this, one person who observed events closely from the Anglican side felt some of the most influential figures at the Vatican – including the Pope – had not properly understood the Church of England. The source pointed out how the Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC) – a breakaway group from Anglicanism – made a lot of the running in seeking refuge in the Catholic Church, and enjoyed access to senior figures at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) prior to the announcement of the ordinariate. The CDF, said the source, had been “culpably ignorant” in treating the TAC as legitimately Anglican.
Then, during the papal visit, Pope Benedict was exposed to an authentic vision of Anglicanism at its best. There was his meeting with the bishops at Lambeth Palace and more importantly Evensong at Westminster Abbey. Here the Pope and his entourage witnessed a liturgy that took their breath away. There is a consensus among close observers that the standard of music, the beauty of the language and the surroundings and the air of reverence matched absolutely their ambition for liturgy in the Catholic Church. “They realised they had not got to grips with the kind of institution they were dealing with,” said the source.
Pope Benedict has long held Rowan Williams in high esteem. Catholic and Anglican observers of Dr Williams’ most recent visit to Rome said the respect they have for one another was apparent not only in the words they exchanged but by the body language and how they interacted. On 9 March, the second day of his four-day visit, the Pope and Dr Williams had a private meeting and led evening prayer together at the Church of San Gregorio Magno al Celio to mark the one thousandth anniversary of the Camaldolese order, which is part of the Benedictine family.
(Continued on page 17.)
‘Williams came across the Christian encounter with the religious other as spiritual exchange’
During his time as Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams has had to respond to the great challenge of relations between Christianity and other religions, despite coming to the post without significant knowledge or experience in this field, writes Anthony O’Mahony.
Williams has a profound understanding of the Christian theological tradition and a strong spiritual inclination, as demonstrated by his abiding interest in the American Cistercian Thomas Merton. One could surmise that it was through Merton that Williams came across the Christian encounter with the religious other as spiritual exchange. Merton showed a deep interest in Asian mysticism, guided in his reading by the French Islamicist and Melkite priest Louis Massignon. Williams studied the Desert Fathers, but, unlike his fellow Anglican scholar-bishop Kenneth Cragg, not in the Arabian deserts of Islam. Cragg has often been seen as the Massignon of Anglicanism and Dr Williams has drawn on his legacy.
When he responded to the “Common Word” document issued by a range of Islamic authorities, which was itself a treatise addressed to the leaders of the Christian world in the wake of Benedict XVI’s Regensburg address, Williams would have been aware that the primary “other” for Islam was Judaism. Before he issued his response, he called together a wide range of church leaders and Christian theologians and experts from all traditions to discuss the issues and inform his own answer, which drew deeply on the Second Vatican Council document Nostra Aetate (“Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions”, 1965).
Those involved in interreligious dialogue have grown aware of the need for a Christian response to Islam to be wider and deeper than in the past, and Williams has encouraged an “ecclesial turn” in Anglican approaches to the religious “other”, away from a more pluralist perspective. This has been influenced by his own interest in Eastern Orthodox theology, especially that of Russia, where the Church has given a determined Trinitarian shape to its ecclesiology.
Dialogue with Islam has also been shaped by the shift in global Christianity from the north to the south. The demands of being primate of an international communion, which had emerged along lines sketched by colonial Britain, found Williams engaging equally with the difficult situation of Christians in Pakistan and Sudan.
A growing Islamic presence in Britain and the significant reality of Christian-Muslim relations for the Anglican Church in Africa, particularly the 20-million-strong Church in Nigeria, has led to the Church moving from a missionary historical relationship to one based on common concerns and challenges. The next office holder of Canterbury will certainly note this for the future.
The Church of England has developed its own path for interreligious relations, in the “Presence and Engagement”process at home for Church of England parishes that exist in multifaith contexts, or in international dialogue with the leading the Islamic university, Al-Azhar in Egypt.
In recent years official relations between the Church of England and Judaism have received much attention. Williams always did have a keen sense of the importance of Judaism for Christianity.
While Middle Eastern politics has often been the backdrop, Williams, like the modern popes, has also understood the importance of Jerusalem for the encounter between the monotheistic religions. The consequence for Christianity of the loss of Christians in the Holy Land and the wider Middle Eastern region has become a preoccupation for the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Church he has led.
■ Anthony O’Mahony is reader in the History of Christianity at Heythrop College, University of London.
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