Dr Carey's pilgrimage of peace

The Archbishop's trip to Rome will help to smooth ructions between the churches, says Andrew Brown
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Heigh ho, heigh ho, it's off to Rome we go! The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, is to pay his first official visit to the Vatican in December.

One wonders why he bothers. There are, in fact, good reasons for him to go, but they have nothing to do with any hope of union between the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion. These have been comprehensively shattered over the past 10 years, and one of the first and most decisive blows was struck the last time an Archbishop of Canterbury paid a formal visit to the Holy See, in 1989.

In an extraordinary sermon from the pulpit of the church from which St Augustine had set off in AD597 to convert Britain, the Pope made it clear that so far as he was concerned, any future Archbishop of Canterbury returning to that church should also be returning to obedience to Rome. The Archbishop thus rebuked was Dr Robert Runcie, who had received Pope John Paul II in a historic ceremony in Canterbury Cathedral in 1982, the first time a Pope had ever visited Britain.

The particular point disputed between the two men was the ordination of women which, as head of the Anglican Communion, Dr Runcie was obliged to defend. But this was only an instance of the general tendency that constitutes, to the mind of Pope John Paul II, the underlying obstacle to Christian unity - the tendency of other Christians to disagree with him. Christian unity has long been a preoccupation of this Pope; and the more deeply he has considered the subject, the more clearly he has come to understand that the key problem is the refusal of other churches to acknowledge the authority of his office.

Last year, he issued an impassioned encyclical, Ut Unum Sint, which was widely interpreted as an appeal for unity between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches by the millennium, especially by people who had not read it. It did contain these passionate, pious hopes, but it also contained an unequivocal declaration that the authority of the papacy in any united church would cover every important aspect of Christian practice and belief.

In a similar, though less dogmatic, vein, Dr Carey has been explaining on a recent tour of America, how the Anglican Communion, the loose agglomeration of 70 million Christians world-wide which he heads, can by its disagreements over every important aspect of Christian practice and belief stand as a model for unity to the world.

The fall-out from the Church of England's decision to ordain women in 1992 was so bitter and prolonged that when Dr Carey last visited the Pope, in 1992, this was formally part of a visit to the Italian Catholic church and not to the Vatican. Even then the Archbishop let it be known on the eve of his visit that he would upbraid the Pope for his reactionary beliefs about contraception.

For 30 years, it seemed as if the tide in interchurch relations was bringing the two communions closer. Now that tide has clearly turned. The ructions over the ordination of women have brought home to ordinary members of both churches just how much they disagree with each other.

This disagreement is friendlier, perhaps, than it was. It is also better informed. Dr Carey's visit is not going to bring about an outburst of unity, but it may be necessary to keep visible disunity under control.