Early news coverage suggests that the strategy of the bishops of Westminster and Canterbury of downplaying the ecumenical damage threatened by this morning's announcement by Rome -- see earlier posts here and here -- has met with limited success.
The Times notes how Cardinal Levada, prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), came to London only last weekend to brief Dr Williams and the English and Welsh bishops on what was being proposed, and that the Vatican's Council for Christian Unity had been left out of the plans.
Riazat Butt of the Guardian reported how at the press conference this morning at the Catholic bishops' headquarters in London "the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury and the Catholic archbishop of Westminster sat side by side on the top table in a show of unity, but the choice of location reflected the shift in power."
According to the Telegraph, Rome's announcement "has dealt a serious blow to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has tried to keep traditionalists in the fold despite their bitter disputes with liberals over the direction of the Anglican Communion."
One veteran commentator believes it means that "the Roman Catholic church is no longer even pretending to take seriously the existence of the Anglican Communion as a coherent body", and that it amounts to both "a fairly brutal public humiliation of Rowan Williams" and "a huge coup for Rome".
Another commentator thinks it means "Rome has given up on the Anglican Communion" and interprets Rome's move as a rejection of Anglican-Catholic dialogue: "I suspect that Rome waited until Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor’s retirement before unveiling this plan: the cardinal is an old-style ecumenist who represents the old way of doing things. His allies in Rome, and many former participants in Anglican-Catholic dialogue, are dismayed by today’s news, which clears away the wreckage of the ARCIC process."
Many of these comments are wide of the mark. Seven points:
First, the timing has nothing to do with the departure of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor. It reflects Rome's concern to avoid anything that could interfere with the Archbishop of Canterbury's attempts last year to unite the fissiparous Anglican Communion. By waiting more than a year since the Lambeth Conference, Rome has avoided the accusation of taking advantage of the crisis.
Second, the move does not affect the long-term ambition of both Churches to achieve unity. It makes it easier, by demonstrating to Anglicans that it is possible to be both Catholic and English. Enabling Anglicans to keep their own traditions -- hymnody, services, liturgy -- removes unnecessary obstacles to full communion. In that sense, it is an ecumenical move.
Third, it will be hoped that the process of working out what is compatible and incompatible with Catholic doctrine and practice in the Anglican tradition will be in itself a rich process, that will help to build relationships and cement reconciliation. This process may turn out to be deeply significant for future unity, changing both parties.
Fourth, both Catholic and Anglican churches prefer that disaffected Anglican groups belong to the Catholic Church than float freely. Dr Williams, remember, has a fundamentally Catholic ecclesiology.
Fifth, Rome has not "given up" on the Anglican Communion -- even though it knows that unity is impossible at present. Rome has been closely involved, and remains so, with the "covenant" process initiated by Dr Williams in 2004, which aims at tightening the bonds within the 80m-strong worldwide Communion. Rome cannot dialogue with a fragmented church -- which is why it is in Rome's interests for Anglicans worldwide to integrate more closely with each other, even if that means losing liberal Protestants and conservative evangelicals in the process. Rome is playing a long game.
Sixth, although the Archbishop of Canterbury will grieve at the departure of people he is ecclesiologically sympathetic to, he will probably conclude that uniting his Church will now be easier. He has described Anglo-Catholics in the past as a "necessary abrasion" -- an acknowledgement that they have been hanging half-out. He knows that too much scratching at sore spots has left Anglicanism weak and divided.
Seventh, ARCIC - -the official Catholic-Anglican dialogue -- continues. The next phase is set to resume soon.