Church of England: Imperial Rome
“It is not an act of aggression,” the Archbishop of Canterbury insisted as the Vatican’s metaphorical tanks drew up outside Lambeth Palace on Tuesday. Not even his admirers quite believed him, and few saw Pope Benedict’s back-channel deal with Anglo-Catholics opposed to women bishops as “not a vote of no confidence”. It looked much more as if the Pope had launched a small craft to ferry the disaffected back across the Tiber, a move to asset-strip the Anglican communion of those bits the Vatican might find useful. It was an uncompromising recognition of the fissiparous state of Anglicanism and the failure of Rowan Williams’ long, hard struggle to hold it together.
Lambeth rightly insisted yesterday that until the publication in February of the terms of the dispensation by which Anglican priests – and perhaps their congregations too – can be admitted to Rome while retaining much of their own liturgy, it is impossible to predict what its impact will be. They also have a case when they point to the wild predictions of mass migration to Roman Catholicism after women were first ordained in the Church of England 15 years ago.
In the event, perhaps a total of 400 Anglican priests either converted, or left the church altogether, joined by Ann Widdecombe and John Gummer. Perhaps yesterday’s reports of 50 bishops leaving, taking with them congregations in the thousands, are similarly overheated. Lambeth was on dodgier ground trying to explain why the Vatican should appear to ride roughshod over 40 years of ecumenical work, and why it was given only a fortnight’s notice, leaving a visibly uncertain Archbishop of Canterbury to lean on the protection of the Archbishop of Westminster at their joint press conference.
Pope Benedict’s Vatican is not diplomatically sure-footed, as the recent decision to readmit a bishop with a record as a Holocaust denier shows. The Pope is driven by an urgent search for unity against liberalism and the rapid rise of secularism. But preserving space for faith is one of Rowan Williams’ central concerns, too. It lies behind the thoughtful and well-received speeches he has made on the economic crisis and the environment, as he tries to show Anglicanism’s potential to contribute to public debate. Now the Vatican has shaken the ground beneath him, and by diminishing him risks diminishing his power to persuade. But perhaps it will also liberate him a little. His fiercest critics, the most bitter opponents of women bishops and gay priests, are not the Anglo-Catholics but the evangelicals. If the Pope’s wooing were successful, the evangelicals would be on their own in their disaffection. And they have nowhere to go.
* guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009