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Act of supremacy

Does the Pope really care if he snubs Rowan Williams?

"The Pope -- how many divisions does he have?" is the dismissive question Stalin is said to have asked an adviser. An awful lot more than the Archbishop of Canterbury, is the answer that comes to mind after Rowan Williams's brief audience with the pontiff in Rome this weekend. The Pope may have given Dr Williams a pectoral cross, which, as Ruth Gledhill noted in the Times, was "an indication that he recognises his episcopacy -- in spite of a 19th-century papal bull under which Anglican orders are deemed 'absolutely null and utterly void' ", but the meeting was very short -- only 20 minutes -- and the Archbishop's claim that the Pope was "extremely enthusiastic about the next stage in ecumenical dialogue" seemed a little hollow, given that the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England and Wales is now setting up a "task force" to welcome what it assumes will be tens of thousands of disaffected Anglicans.

Dr Williams gave an interview to the Financial Times on Saturday, in which the writer noted that he is "the senior bishop of the 77 million-strong Anglican Communion". I think this was expected to convey what a large number of followers he leads. What struck me, however, was how small the figure was. The population of Britain is expected to reach that number this century, but this is a total for Anglicans worldwide. Compare that with well over a billion Catholics who, moreover, follow what the philosopher Daniel Dennett would call a more "costly" faith -- that is to say, one that makes greater requirements of its adherents. And as he noted in his 2006 book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon: "The more you have invested in your religion, the more you will be motivated to protect that investment."

Everyone is always in favour of ecumenism. Who wouldn't be? Isn't it all about seeing what people have in common, being friendly, coming together -- no doubt "very prayerfully"? But in this case it is difficult to see what Anglicans stand to gain from such an approach, which seems overwhelmingly one-sided. And there will always be the thought for Catholics, perhaps not stated, but still present, somewhere at the back of the mind, that the ultimate goal of ecumenism with Anglicans is for the Church of England to return to Rome. Only two years ago, after all, the Vatican produced a document in which it said that Protestant and Orthodox faiths were "not proper churches".

This caused some (understandable) embarrassment and indignation to those busy with ecumenical projects. But I rather enjoyed the more forthright response of the Rev David Phillips, general secretary of the Church Society:

"We are grateful that the Vatican has once again been honest in declaring their view that the Church of England is not a proper Church. Too much dialogue proceeds without such honesty," he said. "In their view . . . to be a true church one has to accept the ludicrous idea that the Pope is in some special way the successor of the apostle Peter and the supreme earthly leader of the Church. These claims cannot be justified, biblically, or historically, yet they have been used not only to divide Christians, but to persecute them and put them to death."

Not very diplomatic, but he made his point. In contrast, a couple of weeks ago I attended a seminar Dr Williams gave at the Royal Society of Arts in conjunction with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. The Archbishop was eloquent, erudite, humble and inspiring. But perhaps he should take heed of his own words. At one point he defined "disagreement" as being "the willingness to have arguments with respect". Pectoral cross or not, it doesn't sound to me as though Dr Williams and his church are getting much in the way of respect from the current Pope. In which case, making a rather firmer statement of "disagreement" might not be a bad idea.

We may not be talking about divisions yet, but Pope Benedict's tanks are clearly parked on the lawns at Lambeth Palace. His Grace shouldn't let his natural politeness stop him demanding their removal.

 

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