Pope Warns Head of Anglican Communion About Same-Sex Bishop

VATICAN CITY — The headline was in a quality British newspaper but had an unlikely air of sensationalism: “Pope rebukes Anglican leader over gay clergy.”

“Never before has the Pope criticized the leader of the Anglican Church in such a way,” the paper reported.

However, the reporting was wide of the mark. While his words were forceful, Pope John Paul II's address to the archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, was more cautionary than severely critical.

“As we give thanks for the progress that has already been made,” the Pope told the head of the Anglican Communion on Williams' first visit to Rome on Oct. 4, “we must also recognize that new and serious difficulties have arisen on the path to unity.”

“In light of this,” he continued, “we must reaffirm our obligation to listen attentively and honestly to the voice of Christ as it comes to us through the Gospel and the Church's apostolic tradition.”

Though he made no specific reference to the recent crises over homosexual clergy in the Anglican Communion, it was apparent John Paul was referring to it, most notably the ordination of Canon Gene Robinson, who is openly living a homosexual relationship, as Episcopalian bishop of New Hampshire.

“Faced with the increasing secularism of today's world,” the Pope concluded, “the Church must ensure that the deposit of faith is proclaimed in its integrity and preserved from erroneous and misguided interpretations.”


The crisis regarding homosexually active clergy threatens to cause a schism in the Anglican Communion, which numbers 77 million worldwide, and has led to Williams hastily calling a meeting in London of Anglican primates to discuss the crisis.

At the heart of the debate is the dispute within the Anglican Communion about the interpretation and authority of Scripture. For the Catholic Church, at issue is homosexual practice being contrary to objective moral and natural law.

For these reasons, religious affairs writer Paul Vallely believes the Anglican Church will “not be swayed” by the words of the Pope.

“They're coming at the issue from different angles,” he said. If the Catholic Church does have any influence, he said, it will be “for different reasons” to those based on what the Vatican might say.

After his meeting with John Paul, Williams said he had “listened hard” to what the Pope said.

“I don't think we have had any surprises,” he told a press conference. “We are aware of the ecumenical implications. That will be part of our discussion.”

The archbishop of Canterbury, who has been in office since February, sought to clarify any perceived confusion over the issue, maintaining that the “public teaching” of the Anglican Communion “remains what it has been for the last many decades, in doctrine and in discipline.”

That was sure to please Paul Gardiner, chairman of the Church of England Evangelical Council, an Anglican group opposed to actively homosexual clergy. Speaking to the Register before the Rome meeting, Gardiner said the rift “won't heal without the Church coming out clearly and saying the biblical approach is the teaching we uphold.”

But that depends on an effective, central authority, something generally not favored by Anglicans.

“The danger of that,” Gardiner said, “is if you have a case of Gene Robinson, there is a greater possibility of disenfranchisement as I hear happens in the Catholic Church.”

Williams himself would instead like the authority question resolved through “shared decision making and a shared sense of boundaries,” Gardiner said. Whether that can be achieved without centralization is a “question we all share.”

But, on precedent alone, the chances of sharing authority satisfactorily look slim indeed.

“The Articles of Faith that used to bind us together have been dumped,” Gardiner said. “The Lambeth Resolution on the issue of same-sex relationships in 1998 was one of the strongest statements the conference has ever made … And what's also interesting is that such a staggering majority of bishops supported it.”

That resolution rejected homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture and rejected legitimizing same-sex unions or the ordination of anyone involved in such unions.


So what does all this mean for ecumenical relations? Speaking after their meeting with the Holy Father, Cardinal Walter Kasper, the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said the Church is “deeply concerned” about the issue and warned that future decisions could cause “new problems for our relations.”

Some commentators have gone further, saying the ecumenical discussions cannot continue as the two churches are going in opposite directions.

But the general mood between the archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Kasper and Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of Westminster was fraternal and open.

Also raised at the meeting was the work of two commissions working toward improved relations between the two churches, one of which is preparing an agreed statement on the Blessed Virgin Mary. Williams also said he would respond to the Pope's invitation to church leaders to dialogue about the future of the papacy.

Praising the work of two commissions, Cardinal Kasper said: “Our dialogue has produced many excellent results and we look forward to working together to ensure that it continues to do so … The world needs our common witness.”

Williams' fervent hope was “that none we have achieved over these years of friendship” would be lost.

Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, who for 16 years headed the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, was keen to point out that the road of Christian unity was “a path with no exit.”

Whatever the difficulties, he said, “what unites us is more important than what still divides us, and that's what, with the Holy Spirit, gives us the impulse to continue.”

But as for a papal rebuke to the Anglican leader, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor said it was “an encouragement” to the archbishop “to have a regard for the ecumenical dimensions — which he does do.”

It failed to stop Williams praising John Paul's “extraordinary spirit and indomitable will,” adding that he expected the Holy Father to “express himself forcefully on any subject concerned with witness to the Gospel.”

But whether it was forceful enough may not be seen until the meeting of Anglican primates. That gathering was scheduled to conclude on Oct. 16, the day of the Pope's silver jubilee.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.