From the Thames to the Tiber: Rome Builds a Bridge for Anglicans to Cross Over

Rome’s Secrecy and Haste While Bypassing the Ecumenicals

It was immediately apparent that this Vatican announcement was made over the heads even of Roman Catholic officials involved in ecumenical relations with Anglicanism.  For not one man from the Vatican’s ecumenical office on relations with Anglicans attended the news conference where Romish cardinal Levada made this announcement.  For example, German cardinal, Walter Kasper, head of the Vatican’s Council for Promoting Christian Unity, nominally in charge for many years of Anglican-Roman Catholic ecumenical dialogue, was noticeably absent.  Levada claimed that these men had been invited, but that they were all away from Rome at the time.  That was a very lame excuse.  Why could the announcement not have been delayed until they all got back?  Why the sudden rush to make the announcement?  It was all kept under wraps until the very last moment.  Usually the Vatican gives a week’s advance notice to journalists of any upcoming press conference, but not this time – the conference was announced via a cellphone text message from Jesuit priest Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s press director, sent to journalists’ cellphones only at 5.00pm the day before.[11]

And the timing of the announcement was precisely co-ordinated between Rome and London: in Rome on October 20, at 11.00am, the Inquisitor General, Romish cardinal William Levada, and the archbishop Joseph Augustine Di Noia, Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, held a press conference to announce this unprecedented move on Rome’s part.  At exactly the same hour in London, a parallel press conference was held by Romish archbishop Vincent Nichols, head of the “Church” of Rome in England, and Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, head of the “Church of England”.[12]

In addition, although the conference was called to present the text of the new document, it was not actually presented.  The document was announced, but no copies were handed out as it was not actually completed.[13] It was not, in fact, published until November 9 – many days later!

Precisely why Benedict felt the need to move with such urgency and speed was not exactly clear, not even to seasoned Roman Catholic Vatican-watchers.  One of them, Robert Moynihan, editor of Inside the Vatican, wrote: “What is going on?  Why the evident haste to make this announcement?  Why go ahead and hold a press conference about a document before the document is finalized?  Is someone trying to ‘steal a march’ on someone?  It would seem so.  But who is hurrying, and why?  Is it the Pope himself?  If so, why?  I don’t know.”[14]

It was all very cloak-and-dagger.  As Moynihan summarised it: “the announcement was made in an almost off-hand way, at a last-minute press conference, announced without any description of its content, at 5 pm yesterday, allowing no time for journalists to prepare questions, and without the presence of any Anglicans who might have answered questions from their perspective, and with the text itself still unfinished.”[15]

Sidelining, Undermining and Humiliating the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury

It was also apparent that the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, spiritual head of the world’s Anglicans, was caught by surprise by this Vatican announcement.  It had clearly been a decision made without consulting him.  In fact, Levada visited Williams only the day before to explain to him what the announcement would mean.  Levada then flew back to Rome at midnight, to be there in time for the morning press conference at which the announcement was made.  This again shows that Benedict was acting with extreme haste and urgency.  The decision was clearly taken over the heads of both Williams and even Nichols.[16]

In their joint statement, Nichols and Williams tried to do damage control, saying the Vatican decision to offer Anglicans a home “brings to an end a period of uncertainty” for Anglicans wishing to join Rome, and saying that the decision could not have been made had there not been fruitful dialogue between the two: “The ongoing official dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion provides the basis for our continuing co-operation,” the statement said.  Williams, attempting to downplay the significance of this Vatican move, said it was not a Vatican commentary on Anglican problems.  “It has no negative impact on the relations of the [Anglican] communion as a whole to the Roman Catholic Church as a whole,” he said.[17] But none of this was fooling anyone.  The bottom line is that Rowan Williams was treated as the junior partner that he is.  He was sidelined.  Williams’ own representative in Rome, David Richardson, admitted that the Vatican decision was “surprising”, considering that in the past Rome had welcomed individual Anglicans into its fold without creating parallel structures for entire groups of Anglicans.  He told the Associated Press, “The two questions I would like to ask are ‘why this and why now’.  Why the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [it used to be called the Inquisition! – Shaun Willcock] has decided to embrace that particular method remains unclear to me.”[18]

That Rowan Williams felt humiliated is beyond question.  He wrote an emotional letter to the Anglican priesthood of England expressing what he felt about the Vatican announcement.  It read: “The Vatican has announced today that Pope Benedict XVI has approved an ‘Apostolic Constitution’ (a formal papal decree) which will make some provisions for groups of Anglicans… who wish to be received into communion with the See of Rome in such a way that they can retain aspects of Anglican liturgical and spiritual tradition.  I am sorry that 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 itself and its code of practice in the coming weeks.  But I thought I should let you know the main points of the response I am making in our local English context – in full consultation with Roman Catholic bishops in England and Wales – in the hope of avoiding any confusion or misrepresentation.”[19]

“It is understood that leading members of the council [the Vatican Council for Promoting Christian Unity] and other senior Anglican and Catholic figures tried desperately to block the decree,” wrote Ruth Gledhill, the religion correspondent of the Times of London.[20] This behind-the-scenes attempt to prevent the decree from being announced was also reported by Damian Thompson of the Telegraph Media Group.  He wrote: “This from a good source in Rome: apparently both Lambeth Palace [Anglicanism’s “HQ”] and elements in the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity were ‘implacably opposed’ to Pope Benedict XVI’s dramatic new arrangements for Anglicans.  The source also reports speculation that Archbishop Rowan Williams put pressure on Vatican ecumenists to stop the Apostolic Constitution being issued.”[21] All to no avail; Rome forged ahead anyway.