My old boss, the Archbishop of Westminster, will not, unusually, be leading the annual diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes which begins Sunday. This in spite of it being the 150th anniversary of the apparitions, and Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor’s last Lourdes pilgrimage as Archbishop of Westminster: he is expected to stand down next February, with his successor announced in the Autumn.
The reason for foregoing Lourdes is that after he gets back from Sydney at the weekend he will be attending the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops in the company of two Vatican cardinals: Walter Kasper of the Christian unity council, and Ivan Dias of Bombay, who is prefect of the Evangelisation of Peoples.
There has never been a Lambeth Conference with such a strong Roman delegation, and underlines the story I posted previously that the Pope is doing what he can to shore up the unity of the Anglican Church worldwide. That is also the interpretation of the Times and the Telegraph which followed up the original story.
But does this mean that the Pope is discouraging a mass exodus of disaffected Anglo-Catholics through some kind of structured “Anglican-rite” provision? The Catholic Herald’s editor-in-chief, Damian Thompson, is adamant that it means nothing of the sort. He cites a speech last week by Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark, who oversees “Anglican Use” parishes in the US. Myers told the Anglican Use Conference in San Antonio last week that “We are working on expanding the mandate of the Pastoral Provision to include those clergy and faithful of ‘continuing Anglican communities’”.
According to Thompson, Myers’s speech makes “nonsense of the claim that Pope Benedict wants to dissuade Anglo-Catholics from converting” and claims that it proves that traditionalist Anglicans “will eventually be given [their] s own Catholic parishes which use a Eucharistic Prayer incorporating Cranmerian language.”
But this doesn’t follow. The further expansion of the American ‘Anglican Use’ model – which has been available since the 1970s – tells us very little about whether the Vatican is laying plans for a group conversion of British Anglo-Catholics.
Vatican policy towards North-American Anglicans is quite different, because the US Episcopal Church (TEC) is not – to put it mildly – an instrument of communion in the Anglican Church. Which is why the then Cardinal Ratzinger was happy to send a personal message of support to conservative Anglicans meeting in Dallas in 2003.
In contrast, the Church of England – and this Archbishop of Canterbury especially – are crucial to the future unity of Anglicanism.
The speculation is anyway academic, because all the indications so far from the Anglo-Catholics is that any kind of group conversion would depend on Rome accommodating or giving some recognition to Anglican orders. Unless or until that happens, they prefer to fight for living space within the Anglican fold. Unlike the conservative evangelicals boycotting the Lambeth Conference, the Anglo-Catholic bishops are attending – characteristically refusing to take part in liturgies presided by women. This is hardly the behaviour of people waiting to jump into the arms of Rome.
But the main reason for being sceptical about a Vatican announcement on an English “Anglican Use” fellowship - at least for the foreseeable future -- is that it would contradict Rome’s longstanding aim of helping the Anglicans to forge an authentic communio.
Dr Williams told the 680 bishops of the Anglican Communion meeting at the Lambeth Conference that his hope was “not that after two weeks we will find a solution to all our problems but we shall in some sense find the trust in God and one another that will give us the energy to change in the way God wants us to change."
In other words, communio starts with the kind of fellowship which divisions over women bishops and homosexuality have made difficult. The Anglican Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury told Conference participants as they went into retreat yesterday, is a “wounded body”. While building relationships is not enough to overcome the divisions, he said, “ the nature of our calling as Christians is such that we dare not pretend that we can meet and discuss without attention to this quality of relation with each other, even if we disagree or find ourselves going in different directions."
For the Pope to announce that he was bending over backwards to allow disaffected Anglo-Catholics to be reconciled to Rome would throw a hand grenade into Dr Williams’s relationship-building programme. It would be seen as exploiting Anglican disunity – the very opposite of Vatican policy.
On that policy there is nothing that divides Cardinals Murphy-O’Connor and Kasper from Pope Benedict. Which is why the Pope is sending them as delegates, along with a cardinal who is a seasoned Vatican diplomat. Their presence is a sign of the strong trust which Dr Williams has built up in regular visits to Rome in recent years.
Catholic-Anglican ecumenism is a long game. Rome’s interest is in seeing the Anglican Church acquire proper borders and genuine communio. That way they have a Church to dialogue with, and seek unity with. In the current crisis that may seem far off. But in the meantime the Catholic Church has nothing to gain from a Balkanised Anglican Church, and everything to gain from being a supportive partner -- which means shoring up Dr Williams’s heroic efforts to build unity, not undermining them.