Pope rides to Rowan's rescue

Exclusive: Vatican shuns defectors and backs calls for Anglican unity

The Pope is leading an unprecedented drive by the Roman Catholic Church to prevent the fragmentation of the worldwide Anglican Communion ahead of the once-a-decade gathering of its 800 bishops, which begins today, The Independent has learnt.

In his first public comments on the Lambeth Conference, Pope Benedict XVI has warned Anglican leaders that they must find a "mature" and faithful way of avoiding "schism". On top of this the Pope has:

* Sent three cardinals to the conference in Canterbury, including one of his top aides from the Vatican, to act as personal intermediaries between the two churches;

* Let it be known that he does not support the defection of conservative Anglicans to the Roman Catholic Church;

* Given behind-the-scenes support to the Archbishop of Canterbury's attempts to hold together the conservative and liberal wings of the Anglican Church, including at face-to-face meetings in Rome.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, faces a near-impossible task as he prepares to preside over the conference, at which bishops from around the world are gathering today for prayer and reflection. The Archbishop is hoping to keep the conference focused on substantial issues facing the church and the world, but it is overshadowed by disputes over women bishops and homosexuality.

The latter issue looms large after Gene Robinson, the Bishop of New Hampshire and the church's first openly gay bishop, timed a well-publicised visit to the UK to coincide with the conference, to which he was not invited. Church of England figures are privately dismayed that the bishop is highlighting divisions over homosexual clergy and that the media seem determined to derail the conference by granting him disproportionate publicity. "He's one of 800 [bishops]," one said.

Although the Vatican was concerned by last week's General Synod vote formally paving the way for women bishops, the church leaderships in London and Rome are keen to help Dr Williams hold the Anglican Church together. The Vatican has helped Anglican leaders with the preparation of key documents in the run-up to Lambeth.

Roman Catholic insiders say there are two motives behind the Pope's concerns. A decision has been taken within the Roman Catholic hierarchy that it is in its interests for the Anglican Church to maintain unity. Despite speculation about a group of conservative bishops breaking away to the Roman church, senior Catholics say such a move would be "premature", and that they are not encouraging defections. The other reason is that the Pope has developed a strong personal relationship with Dr Williams. "They get on, they are both theologians," a source said last night.

The Pope, who arrived in Australia on Sunday for the World Youth Day gathering of young Catholics and others, publicly expressed support for Dr Williams while remaining careful not to "intervene". The Pope added that the Church needed to avoid "further schism and fractures".

"We cannot, we must not intervene in their discussions and their responsibilities we respect," he said. "The words and the message of Christ are what offer the real contribution to Lambeth and only in being faithful to the message and only in being faithful to God's words can we find a mature way, a creative way, a faithful way to find a road together."

As the Roman Catholic church reaches out to Anglican leaders, it also emerged last night that Dr Williams has invited Muslim scholars to a conference in October to discuss elements of Christianity which he admist may be "offensive" to followers of Islam. That meeting will address issues of religious freedom and religion-inspired violence.

In a demonstration of the strength of relations between the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, Pope Benedict has sent Cardinal Ivan Dias, the head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, and the man who appoints all the bishops in Africa and Asia, to Lambeth from Rome.

He has also sent the theological heavyweight Cardinal Walter Casper who is said to be the "key man" in forging ever-closer relations between the churches.

Also attending will be Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, who has spent the past two days with the Pope in Australia. This is the first time that three cardinals will attend a Lambeth Conference.

Some Roman Catholics fear that unless divisions over issues including homosexuality can be healed, they will act as a forerunner to a similar battle in Rome. The Roman Church's apparent unity masks long-running splits over birth control, priesthood celibacy and the interpretation of Scripture in the modern world.

Catherine Pepinster, editor of the British Catholic newspaper The Tablet, said: "The last thing that Rome wants is a lack of unity in the Anglican Communion, however difficult it finds ecumenical relations with that Communion."

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