National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  October 17, 2003

Friendship affirmed despite hints of rift

Crisis over homosexuality clouds Anglican head's Vatican visit


During the Oct. 3-5 visit of the archbishop of Canterbury to Rome, the effort wasn’t so much to pretend that the emperor is fully clothed, as to insist that his nudity doesn’t have to spoil the parade.

There was no effort to deny, in other words, the potential new rift in Anglican-Catholic relations posed by the crisis over homosexuality within Anglicanism, involving the recent appointment of an openly gay bishop in the United States and the approval of a rite for blessing gay unions in Canada. Unusually blunt talk from the pope and other Catholic officials marked this as a major bone of contention.

Yet both the symbolism and the content of Rowan Williams’ visit, the first by an archbishop of Canterbury at the beginning of his mandate, seemed calculated to say: No matter what happens, our friendship will survive.

On Aug. 5, the American branch of the 77 million-member Anglican communion approved the election of Bishop Gene Robinson, who acknowledges a same-sex partner, triggering threats of schism from more conservative factions, especially in Africa and Asia. Meanwhile, the Canadian diocese of New Westminster has approved a rite for same-sex unions. At NCR press time, the leaders of Anglicanism’s 38 provinces were scheduled to hold an emergency summit in Canterbury Oct. 15 and 16 to try to defuse the crisis.

One hint of Catholic-Anglican fallout came in early October in Florida, where Bishop Victor Galeone of the Roman Catholic St. Augustine diocese withdrew an invitation to allow an Episcopal bishop to hold his installation ceremony in a Catholic church ( see Briefs). Galeone acted after the Episcopal bishop who was to preside at the ceremony defended Robinson’s appointment and denied that the Bible condemns homosexuality.

John Paul II, in his Oct. 4 address, laid his cards on the table, using language that was indirect but unmistakable.

“As we give thanks for the progress that has already been made, we must also recognize that new and serious difficulties have arisen on the path to unity,” the pope warned. “Faced with the increasing secularism of today’s world, the church must ensure that the deposit of faith is proclaimed in its integrity and preserved from erroneous and misguided interpretations.”

Cardinal Walter Kasper, who heads the Vatican’s office for ecumenism, was even more blunt in remarks at an Oct. 4 news conference with Williams and English Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, at Rome’s Venerable English College.

“Archbishop Williams knows that this question is more than a little worrying to us, and that these decisions -- depending on how the situation will be resolved -- could cause new problems for our relations,” Kasper said.

Williams said he understood the ecumenical implications of the crisis, and would take to heart input from the Catholic side.

“We have listened hard in these last days,” he said in response to an NCR question.

Despite the tough talk, however, professional ecumenists have long regarded the Catholic-Anglican dialogue as a model of civility, and there was determination on both sides to see this continue.

In December 1960, Geoffrey Fisher made the first visit to Rome by an archbishop of Canterbury since the English Reformation, and since then the visits have become steadily more frequent and extensive. In his Oct. 4 remarks, John Paul called these visits an “anticipation of the full communion which the Holy Spirit desires for us and asks of us.”

The two sides produced a joint statement on leadership in 1999, “The Gift of Authority,” in which Anglicans for the first time acknowledged a role for the pope as an agent of unity among Christians. They are currently preparing a statement on Mary, focusing on the doctrines of the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception.

Murphy-O’Connor, a longtime participant in Anglican-Catholic dialogue who cleared his calendar to accompany Williams to Rome, referred to the relationship as “a road with no exits.”

Both sides took pains to stress what unites rather than what divides.

On Oct. 4, for example, Williams installed Bishop John Flack as his new representative to the Holy See. The Anglican liturgy took place in the Catholic church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, which is Murphy-O’Connor’s titular church in Rome. Williams sat in the presider’s chair, while Kasper and Murphy-O’Connor wore their cardinals’ red and sat in chairs across the sanctuary. After Williams and Kasper exchanged remarks, the two men embraced. At the end of the service, Williams and Murphy-O’Connor jointly delivered the final blessing, tracing the sign of the cross together.

On Oct. 4, John Paul II presented Williams and his fellow Anglican prelates with a pectoral cross commemorating the pope’s 25th anniversary, the same gift Catholic bishops will receive for the occasion. The Anglicans wore the crosses during their Sunday morning services at Rome’s Anglican Church of All Saints Oct. 5, which were attended by Canadian Fr. Donald Bolen, the Vatican’s expert on Anglicanism, and American Jesuit Fr. Keith Pecklers, a liturgist deeply involved in ecumenical activities. Both Anglican churchmen wore liturgical dress, though they did not receive Communion, in keeping with Roman Catholic discipline.

During his Rome visit, Williams also wore the episcopal ring that Paul VI gave to the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, in March 1966 ( see accompanying story).

Both the pectoral cross and episcopal ring are symbols of the bishop’s office, and thus seemingly at odds with a stumbling block in Anglican-Catholic relations, Pope Leo XIII’s 1896 bull Apostolicae Curae that declares Anglican ordinations invalid.

Asked about the significance of these gestures, Murphy-O’Connor smiled and said, albeit somewhat cryptically: “It’s more than nothing.” He added that they suggest, in a way that’s hard to define, that the Catholic church is already beyond the position in Apostolicae Curae.

Williams, who sports a bushy gray beard and speaks in a deep stentorian baritone, went out of his way to underline the warmth of his welcome.

“All our hearts are very full on this occasion,” he said during the Oct. 4 liturgy at Murphy-O’Connor’s church.

At the same time, no one denied that the rift over homosexuality could pose grave difficulties, despite everyone’s best efforts. Some pondered whether the impact would be more serious than the earlier decision of the Anglican Communion to ordain women priests.

Kasper appeared to downplay the present crisis.

“The ordination of women created an institution that is very hard to undo,” he said. “In this case we’re talking about the appointment of one bishop, and you can always appoint a different sort of person next time.”

Australian Jesuit Fr. Gerard O’Collins, a longtime participant in ecumenical dialogue, said there’s a sense in which the homosexuality debate is potentially more serious.

“No one ever claimed the ordination of women is immoral,” O’Collins said. “The Catholic church disagreed with it theologically, but we never said that in itself it’s morally wrong, as we do with homosexual conduct.”

For that reason, as the Vatican gears up for the celebration of John Paul’s 25th anniversary Oct. 16, it will also have one anxious eye on the primates’ summit at Canterbury.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, October 17, 2003

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