Richard Norman wonders why the Archbishop of Canterbury seemed so good at making some connections only to miss others completely

The Archbishop did not expend much effort in keeping from his voice a note of sadness and exasperation: ‘I think there’ll be a few people who take advantage of it [the Pope’s invitation to disaffected Anglicans to join an Ordinariate] … because they believe they ought to be in communion with the Bishop of Rome… I don’t, at the moment.’

It is, of course, unfair to focus too closely on unscripted lines such as these, uttered by Dr Williams in conversation with Andrew Marr on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week on Easter Monday. Moreover, most of the criticism levelled at the Archbishop over this interview was provoked by words spoken earlier in the broadcast, when he suggested the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland had lost ‘all credibility’ in the wake of the child-abuse scandal. But the words here quoted ought also to give pause for serious thought and reflection.

Holy Week

Currently a student at theological college, I was fortunate to have been invited to spend Holy Week and Easter at Canterbury; and so had the opportunity to listen to Rowan Williams preach on a number of occasions in the Cathedral, where he also delivered a series of lectures on St Mark’s Gospel. This Gospel, he argued, was written to call people into relationship with Jesus Christ, a theme which the Archbishop again stressed in his homily to the clergy of Canterbury Diocese at their Chrism Eucharist.

I was put in mind of E.M. Forster’s oft-recalled refrain from his 1910 novel Howard’s End, ‘Only connect…’ The optimistic humanism here articulated by the character Margaret Schlegel is in Forster’s work brought up sharply against the barriers to human interaction and the desperate pathos of what, in A Passage to India (1924), Forster termed ‘our need for the Friend who never comes yet is not entirely disproved.’

Forster seemed to conclude that this variety of ‘connection’ was impossible; Dr Williams, on the other hand, strongly encouraged his clergy to stimulate such connections among those in their spiritual care. The potency of his charge was all the more dramatic in the context of the Chrism Mass, where the Church is seen most vividly in connection, in the communion enjoyed between the bishop and his clergy.

Sacrament of connection

The reason it is peculiarly incumbent upon the Church to call others into connection is that this connection is possible only within the Church’s supernatural communion: the Church, one might say, is the sacrament whereby interpersonal connection is facilitated, the sacrament whereby communion is established.

Similarly, in the divine institution of marriage is the sacramental reality whereby the grace of fidelity is communicated to the whole Church, but only because the One who is ultimately and unswervingly faithful is as present in the marital communion as the human partners. Thus, it is only because Christ, the Friend, is present and living in the Church, that human relationships of connection can prosper thereby. God’s promise of connection within the context of the Church-community enables the possibility of connection between people.

And so it was surprising and disappointing to hear Rowan Williams say, of the perception by some Anglicans of the imperative to be in communion with the Bishop of Rome, that it was a perception he did not share. No doubt there are manifold reasons why one might feel reservations about entering into communion with the Roman Catholic Church, but this is not reason to deny the desire for, or necessity of, full and visible communion between the Churches.

Communion – or at the least the earnest desire for it – must come before connection: moreover, communion is a necessary presupposition, a sine qua non, of connection. Without a minimum mutual recognition of communion as a realistic goal, the Churches have no real hope of constructive engagement over their differences, for in order to meet contemporary ecumenical challenges God must be brought into the equation.

In his address to the Church of England Bishops’ Meeting in June 2006 Cardinal Walter Kasper described how ‘the loss of the common goal [of full communion between the Churches] would necessarily have an effect on [ecumenical] encounters and rob them of most of their élan and their internal dynamic… Instead of moving towards one another we would co-exist alongside one another.’ This co-existence is what Forster feared, and is a far cry from the connection for which he called so plaintively.

More than co-existence

If one possesses the Archbishop of Canterbury’s theological acumen, the extent to which one can engineer a high degree of connection without communion is impressive; however, it is naturally circumscribed by human limitation; nor do many have the Archbishop’s intellectual and rhetorical abilities. Witness, for example, the frustrating debates in General Synod which afterwards are identified as imaginative failures to inhabit the perspective of one’s interlocutor, to conceive of the issue under discussion in terms which make sense to the other person.

What we desire is connection – the fulfilling encounter with the other person as the person he or she is, rather than the empty caricature we are tempted to draw of them. What we need is communion – to invite God into our conversations in order that we might rely on his patience, his fidelity, his love.

Rowan Williams was not wrong to suggest that there are dramatic barriers to restoring communion between the Churches. But only the wholehearted pursuit of this end will allow us to enter the realm where we can at last connect. ND