Pope Benedict XVI will today greet Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, for the first time since the Vatican announced the creation of a canonical structure to receive groups of Anglican converts en masse.
The pair will hold a private meeting at the Vatican at a delicate time for relations between the churches. Last month, Pope Benedict unveiled a special structure to allow traditionalist Anglican ministers, including married ones, and lay people to join the Catholic Church. The decree, for the first time in history, allows the creation of "personal ordinariates" in which Anglo-Catholics can preserve their traditions but in communion with the Pope. Anglo-Catholic leaders have generally welcomed the move as an act of generosity. But it has caused unease within parts of the Church of England because some clergy fear it could further undermine the worldwide Anglican Communion.
What Dr Williams understands more clearly than many in the Church of England is that, although he is being held accountable for many of the difficulties in his church, the creation of personal ordinariates are not a reflection on him. He is not like an Anglican pope, a focus of unity who can hold together 80 million members by clarifying and enforcing doctrine. The ordinariates do not even reflect on the state of the Church of England, troubled as it is. The Vatican has more fertile pastures in mind.
Principally, these can be found in Australia and the United States, both countries in which one in four of the population is Catholic (compared to one in 10 in England) and where the majority of requests for group receptions from Anglicanism and into the Catholic Church have originated.
"This is not about the Church of England," one Vatican insider said. "The UK is just caught in a slipstream. The Vatican respects Rowan but it does no much care what the Church of England bishops – or indeed the Catholic bishops in England and Wales – think. The focus is all on America which Rome thinks is the most important national church, more important than Italy now."
The US Church has "healthy congregations of young people", for instance. It is robust, rich and increasingly influential. And the leaders of this church of some 60 million Catholics have been pushing for changes in the way Anglican converts are received.
This was highlighted by the embarrassment caused to the US Catholic bishops when the Episcopal bishop in New Mexico, Jeffrey Steenson, resigned over the election of Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop, as well as the blessing of same-sex unions.
Bishop Steenson wanted to become a Catholic priest but was made to go back to university in Rome and be re-ordained. Instead of being welcomed as a hero, he was humiliated. This led for an appraisal of the way things were done. As for Rowan Williams, the affection for him within the Vatican is genuine. He will be welcomed as a friend. He can relax. One source said: "Rome has decided to lay out a red carpet that is long and deep for Rowan because they like and respect him personally.
"They know he needs symbolic support. They can see now that he's been badly damaged by all this among Anglicans. He's playing a long game, with an eye to Anglican/RC relations, perhaps even after he and Benedict have gone, but he's being seen as too deferential ... but in the end Rome doesn't much care about England – Anglican or Catholic – they have a much wider perspective."
This insight is certainly shared by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the emeritus Archbishop of Westminster. In a speech last month, he revealed that group reception was first discussed with Cardinal Ratzinger in 1993 and 1994 by the English Catholic leadership, after a request from the Anglo-Catholic group, Forward in Faith. "It was finally decided that it would not be appropriate to take this initiative," the cardinal said.
"The personal ordinariates offered by the Holy Father can be seen not in any way unecumenical but rather as a generous response to people who have been knocking at the door for a long time."
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