An extraordinary war of words between the Catholic and Protestant churches culminated yesterday in the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, apologising for remarks that are not due to be broadcast until tomorrow.
Catholics in Ireland reacted furiously to comments made by Dr Williams in a pre-recorded interview – but released by the BBC – in which he said that the Catholic Church in Ireland had lost "all credibility" over the way it dealt with paedophile priests.
Within hours, however – but not before the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, said he was "stunned" by the remarks – Dr Williams issued an apology, saying he had "no intention of criticising or attacking" the Catholic Church.
The row overshadowed the most important festival in the Christian calendar, Easter Sunday, which marks the resurrection of Christ, and was threatening to derail the Pope's visit to Britain in September.
"The unequivocal and unqualified comment in a radio interview of the Archbishop of Canterbury that the Catholic Church in Ireland has 'lost all credibility' has stunned me," Archbishop Martin said. "I have been more than forthright in addressing the failures of the Catholic Church in Ireland. I still shudder when I consider the harm that was caused to abused children. But... I have rarely felt personally so discouraged as when I woke to hear Archbishop Williams's comments." His Church of Ireland counterpart, Dr John Neill, said he listened to the words with "deep regret".
Catherine Pepinster, the editor of the Catholic newspaper The Tablet, said many Catholics would be surprised by Dr Williams's "intemperate" and "extreme" remarks.
Dr Williams is said to have telephoned Archbishop Martin to "express his deep sorrow and regret" over the remarks. The Archbishop of Canterbury has a track record for gaffes, and it is likely his latest comments will be considered another clanger.
Before the apology, Ms Pepinster said that there were concerns within the Catholic community that his intervention was a riposte to the Catholic Church's overtures last year to Anglicans who were uncomfortable with gay priests.
"The Catholic Church in Ireland has lost credibility, but to say it has lost all credibility seems a little extreme," she said. "There's been some suspicion that Rowan Williams is so angry about the overtures the Catholic Church made to Anglicans who were uncomfortable with gay priests that this is a response. Perhaps as somebody who himself is a father, these particular cases of abuse revolt him so much that it causes his language to be more intemperate. Lambeth Palace is being consulted on the Pope's visit to Britain throughout. The meeting of the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury is an important moment in the visit."
She added that a dispute between the two branches of Christianity could derail the Pope's visit – the first such visit since John Paul II in 1982.
In the interview recorded last month but to be broadcast on Radio 4's Start the Week tomorrow, Dr Williams said the abuse scandal had been a "colossal trauma" for the Catholic Church.
"I was speaking to an Irish friend who was saying it's quite difficult in some parts of Ireland to go down the street wearing a clerical collar now. And an institution so deeply bound into the life of a society suddenly becoming, suddenly losing, all credibility – that's not just a problem for the church, it is a problem for everyone in Ireland."
The Vatican declined to comment yesterday, as did the head of the Catholic Church in England, Archbishop Vincent Nichols. His spokesman said they wanted to hear the full broadcast.
Trials and tribulations of a prelate
April 2003 Archbishop Williams apologises to the nation's 330,000 Freemasons after saying their beliefs were incompatible with Christianity.
February 2008 Dr Williams faces calls to resign after saying that Sharia law in Britain "seems unavoidable".
August 2008 Nineteen bishops are forced to come to Dr Williams's defence after he said that a same-sex relationship "might... reflect the love of God in a way comparable to marriage".
December 2008 Dr Williams falls out with Gordon Brown after remarking that the PM's plan to boost spending during the credit crunch was like an "addict returning to the drug" and likened the Government's economic policies to those of the Third Reich.
November 2009 Pope Benedict says the Catholic Church would make it easier for disaffected Anglicans to convert, forcing Dr Williams to write to Anglicans: "I am sorry there has been no opportunity to alert you earlier to this. I was informed of the planned announcement at a very late stage and we await the text of the Apostolic Constitution and code of practice in the coming weeks."