Carey and the Pope agree to differ

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Pope John Paul II and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, yesterday met for an unscheduled lunch following 30 minutes of talks in which the two men agreed a friendly restatement of their differences over papal authority and women priests.

Dr Carey suggested at a press conference after the meeting that women priests might yet be rejected by the Church of England, but added hastily that he thought this was most unlikely.

The archbishop also listed the functions and authority of the papacy, the role of the Virgin Mary, and papal infallibility as areas in which the two churches were still far apart. "In the history of Christianity we have found ways of overcoming very difficult problems. We ... have to trust God for the future," he said.

The Pope, 76, appears to be suffering from Parkinson's disease. When greeting the archbishop he shuffled along without ever moving one foot completely in front of another. Once a man of commanding presence, he now seems squashed rather than stooped. His head is held to one side, and he reads with agonising slowness from prepared texts. However, he is still capable of moments of spontaneity in speech, according to members of the archbishop's party.

In a clear reference to the Anglican ordination of women priests, which threw up an unexpected obstacle after serious talks about church unity started thirty years ago, the Pope told Dr Carey that: "These difficulties seem to loom large on the way to the reconciliation which dialogue intended to promote. The path ahead may not be altogether clear to us, but we are here to recommit ourselves to following it."

Pope John Paul also restated his own interpretation of the importance of his office. Although Anglicans have expressed themselves willing to accept a symbolic papal primacy, he demands that it have real powers: "Our shared desire to respond to the Lord's will cannot fail to lead us to a common understanding of the mind of Christ in every crucial aspect of the constitution of the Church."

Dr Carey was equally uncompromising in restating his own positions. He referred to the rejection by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's watchdog of orthodoxy, of one of the agreements reached by Arcic, the committee which is trying to establish theological agreement between the two churches. This is still a sensitive subject.

Preaching after his meeting with the Pope, at the church from which St Augustine set out in 597 to reconvert the British Isles, Dr Carey even praised the Reformation, when the Church of England split from the Roman Catholic church. "The Reformation was not a tragedy so much as a rediscovery of the Bible and its authority, of the importance of justification by faith. To be sure, all those things were there in the ancient Church, but they needed a rediscovery."

Dr Carey suggested that the Roman Catholic church had, since the reforming Second Vatican Council in the Sixties, caught up with these Protestant discoveries of the Reformation.