John Higginbotham on the recent visit of Archbishop Rowan Williams to Rome


It is only in this contact of little more than forty years of direct contact with Rome that we can assess the latest meeting, between Archbishop Williams and Pope John Paul II. In a way the contrast could not be greater – a new Archbishop, for all his great theological skills still feeling his way, and a Pope completing a rare silver jubilee, debilitated in body, though still alert in mind. And yet it was a meeting of minds.

Clearly Williams, a man of Catholic spirituality like Ramsey and Runcie before him, could be expected to be more in tune with the Holy Father than Fisher, Coggan or Carey. Indeed, the gift of a pectoral cross was one which Williams saw as deeply symbolic (memories of Pope Paul VI giving Archbishop Ramsey his episopal ring in that famous meeting in Saint Paul’s without the Walls) of their shared task in being witnesses in the world of the crux salutaris.

Williams spoke of his very constructive meeting with Cardinal Kasper and their shared vision of Christian Unity, and stressed his very happy relationship with Cardinal Murphy O’Connor who ‘has also


However, inevitably there was a sting in the tail as the Pope spoke of new and serious difficulties which had sprouted up along the path to unity – difficulties which are not of a merely disciplinary nature, but which extend to essential matters of faith and morals. It will one day seem inconceivable that the huge strides made by ARCIC on previously divisive issues such as Eucharist, Ministry and Authority should be brought to naught by issues such as the ordination of women and the toleration of homosexuality.

It is hardly necessary to rehearse wellknown arguments for New Directions readers except to point out (as I remember Edward Cassidy doing to me at a meeting in the Via dell’Erba) that Roman Catholics are bound to have doubts about our ecumenical seriousness when we act unilaterally in matters which need to be the stuff of agreement with our fellow Catholics and the Orthodox Churches. The keynote which permeated the Pope’s welcome was fidelity to Christ and his will for us all which alone is the path to visible unity. Meanwhile we should, through IARCCUM, find appropriate ways of engaging, wherever possible, in common witness and mission.

Hearts and minds

So what do we make of it all? It is necessary to look behind the diplomatic courtesies at the hard-nosed reality of the situation. Has Rome changed anything other than its tone towards other Christian communities?

To answer this one must be aware that there are two sides to Rome (as there are to most of us): the heart (as represented by Cardinal Kasper) recognizes a common baptism and a common faith and sincerely craves an ever-increasing closeness – and indeed the last forty years have shown steady moves towards convergence; the head (as represented by Cardinal Ratzinger) recognizes the gulf that still remains between us on a number of doctrinal issues which all boil down ultimately to the issue of authority. Too often, it seems, the heart emboldens us to take a step forward, only for the head to lead us a step back. Thus the widespread acclaim for the Final Report of ARCIC I was tempered by the coolness with which it was received in Rome.

Perhaps we expected too much. Unity is the mark of the Holy Spirit; all ARCIC can do is a ground-clearing exercise which prepares the way for future advances. I do not suppose that in the foreseeable future we shall achieve complete harmony in doctrine, discipline and morals, particularly in the interface between a centralized, uniform bureaucracy and the diversity of autonomous provinces ranging from Papua New Guinea to the Southern Cone. Both Churches face similar difficulties within and without. Perhaps it is in facing these difficulties together that Pope and Archbishop will draw ever closer.

John Higginbotham is a Lay member of General Synod, representing the Diocese of Leicester and a member of the English Anglican Roman Catholic Committee of the Council for Christian Unity.