Less a Roman holiday, more an Italian job

16 November 2006

Dr Williams visits the Pope next week. He talked to Paul Handley about relations between their two Churches

WHAT would be your definition of a successful visit?

A successful visit would be one in which, first of all, we simply got to know each other a bit; secondly, one which issued in some visible steps forward in the dialogue process, getting ARCIC [the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission] moving on a bit; thirdly, one which established a wide range of relationships with the Roman institutions, not just the Council for Christian Unity, working, for example, on how we collaborate, say, on the development agenda, because in Africa quite frequently the two Churches are working in the same general territory.

It’s going to be a full week in which we meet not just the Unity Council, but the Secretariat of State, the Congregation for Evangelisation, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Are you aware that Rome is asking questions of you, too?

Yes, very much so. And I don’t know what they think a successful outcome would be. Quite clearly, the Communion will be under the spotlight; but, equally, I think I’d want to come back and say, the Communion is not just what you read on the websites: it’s also what happens in Sudan, in term of collaboration about secondary schools in Juba.

From what you know of Pope Benedict’s theology, what do you think you have in common?

We both have a fairly solid formation in Patristics, and he did his research on Augustine; so at least we have Augustine to talk about. We both have a critical but none the less quite enthusiastic acquaintance with Hans Urs von Balthasar’s theology — I think he’s probably more critical than I am of von Balthasar. So I think there’s what you might call a broadly classical and sacramental theological perspective, shaped very much by mid-century, just-pre-Vatican II French and German thinking.


Will you be talking theology do you think?

Yes, I hope so. We’ve got some private time, as well as the negotiating time [Laughs].

You’ve talked about “visible steps”. . .

ARCIC is the main one: what should be the agenda of a new ARCIC, if there is one, and, I suppose, what’s the timescale, what would a good outcome look like — given that full organic unity is not going to arrive in the next 18 months.

But the problem with ARCIC has always been how its reports have been received.

Reception — precisely. One of the things that I’ve been talking a bit about recently with the bishops of the Church of England is the need for the whole women-bishop discussion to keep resourcing itself from ARCIC, as well as other places, so we don’t lose sight of what there is in the bank about agreed theology.

I think we’re in a reasonable position to say, yes, we do want to stick with ARCIC, but, when we made the first agreements about ministry, I don’t think anyone could have predicted at that point just how important the gender issue was going to be in the relations between the Churches.

On the issue of women priests and bishops: it’s odd that a week ago you were talking to Katharine Jefferts Schori and next week you’ll be talking to the Pope. These are givens, aren’t they? There can’t be any retreat from the Anglican position.

Well, we can’t turn ourselves overnight into a different Church that would be more acceptable. We are where we are, and we negotiate on that basis.

The Anglican Church has acquired a reputation in some quarters of being un-unifiable with. . .

[The question] who are you talking to? That’s right. And I never quite know how to answer that. I have a very strong commitment to the idea that the essential identity and unity of the Church just is the sort of sacramental givenness of the eucharist and the ministry, and if you want to know who you’re discussing or negotiating with, that’s who: the community around the bishop and the sacrament.

But I know that that’s not quite enough, because how people understand that varies. Not every bit of the Anglican spectrum would assume that that’s the central point. So, yes, it’s harder than it was — which is one reason why I think something like the Covenant proposal needs to be under discussion.


The reason I’ve given such support as I have to the Covenant as an idea is, it just seems to me a natural vehicle for autonomous Churches to make voluntary, corporate commitments to each other, and say, “This, at least, is how we recognise each other.” And that may help other Church recognise Anglicans.

But the problem with the Covenant is that you need a degree of friendship from both sides: people can volunteer to be part of the group, but if the group doesn’t want to accept them . . .

That’s right. It’s got to be an opt-in thing.

But who’s the gatekeeper?

I think that’s one of the biggest challenges. We haven’t got a very clear answer to that. It could be me, but I don’t think that it’s either sensible or theologically defensible to have an individual whose relation to the Communion is a contingent historical one having that kind of sole authority. I would like to see a more conciliar structure — which we haven’t quite got: the Primates’ Meeting isn’t quite it, the Lambeth Conference isn’t quite it, and the Anglican Consultative Council isn’t quite it.

The problem with any conciliar structure is that it’s open to manipulation and lobbying.

I think that’s one of the biggest challenges. We haven’t got a very clear answer to that. It could be me, but I don’t think that it’s either sensible or theologically defensible to have an individual whose relation to the Communion is a contingent historical one having that kind of sole authority. I would like to see a more conciliar structure — which we haven’t quite got: the Primates’ Meeting isn’t quite it, the Lambeth Conference isn’t quite it, and the Anglican Consultative Council isn’t quite it.

The problem with any conciliar structure is that it’s open to manipulation and lobbying.

So are individuals. Archbishops are fairly open to manipulation and lobbying. I’m sure I remember reading Church Times articles on the subject.

From another angle, if the Pope asked you why you persisted in remaining an Anglican, what would you say to him?

From another angle, if the Pope asked you why you persisted in remaining an Anglican, what would you say to him?

I’d say that I don’t believe the essential theological structure of the Church is pyramidal: that it has one absolute touchstone embodied in a single office. I’m certainly prepared to believe that there’s a role for the Petrine ministry of conciliation, interpretation, and mediation in the Church. I don’t see that as an executive centre; so I’d start from what would historically be called a conciliarist position.


And the thing that always held me back from becoming a Roman Catholic at the points when I thought about it is that I can’t quite swallow papal infallibility. I have visions of saying to Pope Benedict: “I don’t believe you’re infallible” — I hope it doesn’t come to that. [Laughs]

That’s how I’d answer, I think: that I’m wary of loading too much on to an individual office.

That’s why you’re not a Roman Catholic. Why are you an Anglican?

I’m an Anglican because this is — it’s what I learnt in Sunday school, really — this is the Church Catholic in this place, gathered around the word and the sacrament, exercising a canonically continuous, recognisable form of the threefold ministry, structurally slotting in with how Catholic Christianity works.

If you were starting from scratch, do you think the Anglican model works better than the Roman one?

Pwff! — by what imaginable standards would you answer that, I wonder? I don’t know, but the argument I’d give, I think, is not unrelated to what Vincent Donovan says in his book Christianity Rediscovered, responding to mission in East Africa, where he says, in a sense, you’ve got to let Churches grow out of their local setting, discover the need for recognisability, and build outwards from that. He describes the process by which some of his converts in East Africa almost invented the idea of Catholic ministry for themselves, the idea that if this is the kind of community that we are, if this is what the eucharist means, then we need that to be recognisable, and we need to know that, when we travel, it’s the same Church that we belong to, gradually accumulating like that. I think that’s a bit more Anglican than someone saying, “We’ll decide from the centre what the shape will be.”

It’s just that one of the criticisms at the moment is that Anglicanism seems to be heading more towards a centrist approach, through the Windsor-report process. Is that fair?

No, I don’t think it’s fair at all, actually. The problem is the opposite, if anything [Laughs]: that cultural differences, theological differences, are so much wider than even 30 years ago, that how Anglicans in different parts of the world are recognisable to each other is a much tougher question. You can’t just answer it now in terms of the Prayer Book, or a faint aroma of wax polish on the pews, a sort of diffused Englishness. You’ve got the linguistic variety: you’ve got the fast-growing French-speaking, Portuguese-speaking, Spanish-speaking elements of the Anglican Church. So there’s got to be a more serious way of answering the question: “What makes us recognisable to each other?”


But that is a different question from — back to the gatekeeper — “Do we need a supreme curia?” I hope we don’t, and I don’t want to see centralising. I do want to see a degree of convergence, and how to achieve that without centralising, without again loading something on to a set of central institutions that’s very unclear. But it seems to me, that’s one of the big bits of the agenda for the next few years for the Communion.

The other approach is to have a credal focus.

— which of course we have. As we’re often reminded, we do say the same creeds. But it seems, with the widening gaps about culture and theological understanding, we need something a bit more intentional than that, a bit more expressive of responsibility to and for one another. So that’s why I don’t think a credal focus alone will do it.

And yet there is no cultural difference between a Roman Catholic and an Anglican in, say, Milton Keynes; and yet, even there, the closest they can get is sharing the same building — which at least they do. How important to you is the goal of eucharistic sharing?

I do find it strange, when I look at communities side by side, in Milton Keynes or almost any other context in England today. The forms of the eucharist look the same, sound the same; if you ask the average person in the pew in both congregations, they’ll almost certainly say, “Well, it feels the same.” I guess the answer that would be given by Roman Catholics on this would be: “At the end of the day, we don’t quite know what you believe is focal about the eucharist.”

I went a few months ago to give at talk at the Roman Catholic cathedral in Southwark, just down the road. And, interestingly, I was asked what I believed about the eucharist. I think my questioner was a bit surprised when I said: “Of course I believe in the real presence. I believe that Christ is active in the sacrament, and that it’s not something we do, as an act of mental remembrance. And I think he rather had the impression that that was all Anglicans ever believed. I suspect a number of Roman Catholics do think that.

But, given that the Anglican Church allows even certain bishops to believe just that, perhaps they’re right?


It’s not a thing we’ve specified very closely, but it’s one of those areas where [in] the actual wording of what we say, in spite of Cranmer’s best efforts to make it a bit memorialist, we have ended up with — even in the Book of Common Prayer; certainly in more recent liturgical documents — a structure, a form, a rhetoric of eucharistic worship which pulls very firmly away from the idea that it’s just a mental act.

And, of course, it doesn’t matter what the celebrant thinks.

Yes, what the celebrant thinks is neither here nor there, in one way. What’s done is done. And I’m tempted sometimes to say, however much a celebrant might want to keep the real presence out, it’s still capable of coming in. [Laughs]

What about the relative size of the two different Churches?

Does size matter? [Laughs] Do you mean, should we be worried that they’re bigger? Should we take ourselves less seriously?

No, but is there any correlation between size and truth?

Only a very complicated one, I think. The Reformation, I think, assumes that majorities can be wrong. To the extent that we are a reformed Church, we say that “We stand here because, we know nearly everybody thinks we’re wrong, but we can’t see our way to that.”

So, although occasionally you think emotionally: “Ah, goodness, they’re so big, they’re everywhere, and why aren’t we?” — I think, theologically, we have to say, well, we do have reasons for saying we are where we are, and we need to be argued out of them.

But this question of relative size has been brought into the debate on women bishops, for example: that the Anglican Church is too small to make this sort of decision.

— Who are we to make this decision? Yes.

But we’ve made those decisions because we don’t believe that it touches the fundamentals that we share with the Roman Catholic Church.

That’s a bit of a circular argument, because the Roman Catholic Church can turn round and say, as it rather has said, “Yes, but these are fundamentals.” And we say, “How do you know they’re fundamentals.” And they say, “Because we’re the Roman Catholic Church.” [Laughs]

It’s a difficult one, but we do have to say, fairly clearly and seriously: we are where we are on the ordination of women because of a theological conviction, and we really are not just being fashionable feminists: we believe that it’s something about the baptismal gift of being in the priestly people of God that is at issue; and that something is lost if that priestly identity of the whole people of God doesn’t find its expression in, potentially, any one of the baptised, man or woman. That’s quite a fundamental thing in its way, but it does mean that we can say: admitting women to the ministerial priesthood is not something that is intended to unscramble the whole understanding of priesthood itself, and of the body of Christ. The argument continues. We had this argument with Cardinal Kasper in the House of Bishops a few months ago, and very helpfully so.


There are other issues around. Another thing, of course, is that you’re going to Rome with Jane. Is there a similar argument about married priests?

I don’t think so. The Roman Catholic Church has married priests, and I don’t just mean convert Anglicans, I mean the Oriental rites. That is recognised, I think, as a discipline issue, not a doctrine issue.

I was asked recently, what did I think of celibacy for the clergy? I said I thought it was a wonderful idea, if that was the calling of the priest. I didn’t think it was such a good idea if it was imposed.

Another issue is homosexuality, of course. Are you aware of a difference between the Anglican and Roman Catholic understanding?

In all the formal statements that have been made on this, and the public declarations of the Anglican Church, there actually isn’t a difference, given Lambeth 1.10, and so on. The difference is, I think, that we’ve gone a great deal further in the Church of England and, obviously, in other Churches, in accepting (a) that it is discussable, and (b) whether a pastoral or disciplinary approach is a better way of dealing with individual cases. Obviously, the Episcopal Church [in the US] has gone a great deal further than that.

Now, from the Roman Catholic side, this looks like selling the pass, and that’s the message we’re having loud and clear on the subject. The fact is that attempts simply to close down discussion in the Roman Catholic Church have not been conspicuously successful. Part of the challenge, for us and for them, is to be able to recognise it as discussable.

Tempting, though, isn’t it, to want to close it down?

Very tempting; but we can’t, and neither can they.

Another issue is relations with other faiths.

Where again, in practice, there’s not very much between us. Because of the Pope’s immense concern about the Christian heritage of Europe, he has had a lot more questions to ask about Islam than we might from here in the British experience. Interestingly, he has been reported to me as saying that the British experience, and the British management of interfaith issues, is different from what he’s used to thinking about in Europe, and it might be very interesting just to explore what that’s about.

Finally, do you envy him anything? Wouldn’t it really be rather nice to have that sort of authority?

No, I don’t envy him. I really, really don’t envy him. I think that the way in which the papacy has been constructed over the last couple of centuries has loaded on to the person of the Pope far more than ought to be loaded on to the person of a Christian leader. And that’s a crushing burden for a person. It’s remarkable that so many preserve the level of holiness and integrity they do in that position, like Pope John Paul II, obviously, and Paul VI, who is a great hero of mine.

No, I don’t envy him. There is that process of colossal projection on to the person of the Pope. It’s bad enough on to the archbishopric of Canterbury.

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