The Anglican and Catholic Churches: Friends or Rivals?

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Gregorio Borgia / AP

The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams smiles at the end of his lecture at the Gregorian University in Rome.

Tucked in the archive section of the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams' website, a visitor can find a video of the soft-spoken Anglican leader reflecting on his momentous 2006 visit to the Vatican. Williams had come to meet Pope Benedict XVI to mark the 40th anniversary of the opening of Catholic-Anglican dialogue after five centuries of hostilities between the two churches. The video opens with images of a bustling St. Peter's Square, and Williams' wistful voiceover: "There's undoubtedly something about Rome ..."

Williams' mood is unlikely to be as upbeat when he meets with Pope Benedict on Saturday, just a month after the Vatican's surprise announcement outlining historic new procedures designed to help disaffected conservative Anglicans enter the Roman Catholic fold. Both Anglicans and Catholics are now awaiting the first details of exactly how the Vatican will bring in would-be Anglican converts, groups or parishes. "This announcement from Rome is incredibly messy," says Rev. Jo Bailey Wells, who heads the Anglican Studies department at Duke University Divinity School. "It's confused and confusing."

Depending on who you ask, the two faiths are either closer than ever to bridging their differences or are renewing the kind of mistrust and incomprehension that has marked the relationship since the Anglican Church was formed after King Henry VIII's split from Rome in the 16th century. For those in the 77-million-strong Anglican Church (which includes the Episcopal Church in the U.S.) who are angry at its policy of allowing women and gay priests and bishops, and perhaps attracted by the liturgical and historical links with Catholicism, Benedict's official door-opening is an unexpected godsend that might just allow for the best of both worlds: hanging onto their Anglican culture and parish life while moving under the doctrinally rigid umbrella of Roman orthodoxy.

But the secret negotiations between the Vatican's top doctrinal officials and traditionalist Anglicans took place behind the back of Williams, who is the spiritual leader of Anglicanism (though without the universal authority that the Pope holds in Catholicism) and a longtime proponent of gently moving the two faiths closer together through patient ecumenical dialogue. "They've pulled a fast one over on him," Wells says of Williams. "It makes a laughing stock of those pushing for greater dialogue, who have made great strides in the past 30 years."

Vatican sources say Williams' Saturday morning papal audience, which was scheduled long before the latest move from Rome, is now expected to be kept brief and mostly hidden from the media. Wells is sure the Archbishop of Canterbury will address the tensions created by the Pope's new policy, "but he will be very gracious, as he always is."

Upon his arrival in the Eternal City Thursday, Williams spoke at the Pontifical Gregorian University and tried to put a positive spin on the differences. "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?" he asked.

The answer, at least in the short term, will depend on the Vatican's new policy. Any major move will require the resolution of key practical issues such as who owns church property, who can ordain priests, and other risks of dividing parishes over the desire by some into full communion with the Catholic Church. One conservative Anglican leader preparing to make the leap with his followers is hopeful that the Pope's decision to set up separate Anglican "personal ordinariates" — structurally similar to Catholic dioceses, but with married clergy and more democratic church governance — could attract growing numbers of traditionalists to become the core of Catholicism in the West. But a well-placed Vatican official says the procedures are designed so that would-be Anglican priests would choose celibacy, and eventually begin to blend in with fellow Catholics. Still, others expect the new policy to be a flop, with relatively few Anglicans crossing over.

In a Nov. 15 interview with L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Holy See's office for dialogue with other Christians, said that "to think that the Pope made this decision just to 'expand his empire' is ridiculous. A group of Anglicans freely and legitimately asked to enter the Catholic Church. It was not our initiative."

On the November 2006 video, Williams enters the Sistine Chapel and shares a prayer with Kasper, one of the more progressive figures in the Roman Curia. "We give thanks," Williams says, "particularly for the friendship and understanding between our churches." The question is, can that friendship continue?