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The Pope's gift to Rowan Williams

Let the Anglo-Catholics go. Time for C of E liberals to assert themselves

The Pope's "helpful" offer to Anglo-Catholics to leave the Church of England and form a special Anglican province under Rome provoked some interesting responses over the weekend. Writing in the Independent on Sunday Peter Stanford, a former editor of the Catholic Herald, asked if after 500 years the Pope had finally "outfoxed" Canterbury's archbishop, while in the Sunday Times the historian David Starkey implicitly answered "yes" to that question.

Both look back to that half-millennial landmark, the accession to the throne of Henry VIII - the monarch without whose marital difficulties there would have been no Church of England. And it is that fact, that decidedly shaky and non-theological reason for the C of E's foundation, that leads to the sense among some Catholics that it should never have really existed in the first place. Time for those great Gothic cathedrals to come home, to echo once more to the sung Latin Mass. The Pope's crafty move could be the first step.

But perhaps there's an opportunity here for Anglicans, too. What exactly do they stand for? And has it really been that useful having to accommodate all those Anglo-Catholics within their broad church? A few have converted along the way in any case, notably the former Telegraph editor Charles Moore and the paper's former proprietor Conrad Black. Another writer from the Telegraph stable, Mary Wakefield, wrote thoughtfully about her own conversion in the Indy on Saturday.

The strand that seems to me to be most attractive, and most distinctively Anglican, is the liberal tradition. It has, unfortunately, long appeared also to be the most apologetic strand in the church. Caught between the twin certainties of conservative evangelicals (no gays) and Anglo-Catholics (no women), it has failed to articulate itself; in fact, it has too often seemed embarrassed to assert itself in the face of accusations that it is merely "woolly". Its virtuous uncertainty was easily turned against it, most memorably in an episode of Yes, Prime Minister from 1986 when the PM, Jim Hacker, was presented with a choice of two candidates for a vacant Anglican bishopric. When the cabinet secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, mentions the first, Hacker expresses outrage. "But he doesn't even believe in God!" he says. "Yes, Prime Minister," replies Sir Humphrey smoothly, "but he doesn't have anything against him."

I laughed at the time. As someone brought up in a more obviously rule-based church - you must go to Mass on Sundays, you must go to confession etc - I was puzzled by this faith that seemed to make so few formal requirements of its members. Yet in the years since I've come to appreciate and admire that sense of questing, searching, rather than hastening to firm rulings, that prelates like Robert Runcie, David Jenkins and Rowan Williams exemplify. And I think with Archbishop Williams at its head the C of E is in a much stronger position to form and assert that identity than it was in the days of George Carey, a man so devoid of charisma and authority that AN Wilson's caricature of him as "Mr Blobby" seemed devastatingly apt. (That may seem cruel. But it is also true that Carey always came across as far lesser a figure than Cardinal Hume: quite a humiliation for an Archbishop of Canterbury to be overshadowed by a cardinal in his own land.)

Rowan Williams, on the other hand, has that unmistakable air of piety and humility that gives him dignitas. His careful statements (such as about sharia law, for instance) will always be too careful for some. He should shrug those oversimplified criticisms off, just as he should let the Anglo-Catholics go.

He reminds me of that wonderful last verse in the hymn Dear Lord and Father of Mankind:

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.

An Anglican church that stopped bending over backwards to compromise with those who are unwilling to do so might be a much smaller body. If it cleared away much of the noisy argument, however, maybe its true strengths would be more apparent. That "still, small voice of calm" is a deeply valuable part of our national life.