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Vatican Radio Interview after Evening Prayer with Pope Benedict XVI

Friday 17th September 2010

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, speaks to Philippa Hitchen immediately after the celebration of Evening Prayer with Pope Benedict XVI in Westminster Abbey on Friday evening.

Read a transcript below, or listen to the interview [10Mb]

Q: It's been a historic day for you, welcoming the first pope ever to Lambeth Palace, then praying together at the tomb of Edward the Confessor here in Westminster Abbey. Can you share your impressions?

A: The main thing I want to say is it's been an enormously happy occasion and the reception that he's had from Bishops, from people on the streets and also of course in Westminster Hall, has been hugely positive. And certainly Evening Prayer at the Abbey was intensely moving for everyone who was there.

Q: It exceeded expectations didn't it?

A: I think one of the nice things about today and yesterday has been the sense of so many predictions being proved wrong. In the sense that this has been an occasion greatly blessed and that people have come out onto the streets in favour of faith.

Q: Can you tell us anything about that private meeting with the Pope, whether you discussed any
of those difficult issues that the Pope declined to talk about in public?

A: Thos are issues that get discussed routinely in our formal dialogue and I think it's a shame if we spend our private time just talking about difficulties. So we talked a bit about Christians in the Holy Land with an eye on the forthcoming Synod. We talked a bit about some of the great areas of conflict where we are trying to work together. We talked about how the Anglican and Roman Catholic hierarchies have worked together in Sudan, the witness and peacemaking and how urgent it is to strengthen that. And we spoke about the subject which both of us have mentioned today, the Holy Father has talked about it a great deal, that is: how to engage in a rational dialogue with secularism.

Q: Yes, you both talk about the need for ever closer cooperation and witness to our secular world yet the public perception remains of deep divisions and contrasting viewpoints between the two churches – it must be a great worry to you?

A: It is. And conflict always makes a better headline story than harmony. But as many people have said to me just this evening, when you think of how utterly unimaginable this would have been 40 or 50 years ago, even as the 2nd Vatican Council was beginning, clearly something has happened- and part of that something is a return to the roots, something about which the Pope and I again spoke about privately (some of our theological enthusiasms in common there), the heritage of the Fathers, and again praying together at the Shrine of Edward the Confessor, looking back to that age when the boundaries were not what they are now between Christians – all of that I think is part of a very positive picture. And I think it's a pity the world only sees the quarrels. It's as if that tiny 6 inches about the surface is what matters and the immense weight of routine prayer and understanding and love and friendship just goes unnoticed.

Q: John Paul II's visit back in 1982 was seen as a huge step towards reconciliation. What do you hope might be the lasting impact of this visit to Lambeth?

A: All along part of my prayer and hope for this visit has been that it will help to put faith on the map in this country and help to make people recognize that huge numbers of perfectly ordinary people believe in God, believe ion the sacramental life of the Church, and ground their lives on that. That's not something marginal or bizarre.

Q: The next ARCIC talks will be exploring issues around authority in the church: at the recent synod of the Church of England you proposed changes to draft legislation on women bishops, telling people to vote according to their conscience. But you lost that vote and some saw it as a crisis of confidence in your leadership. How do you respond to that and how do you explain this style of leadership to a Catholic audience?

A: A Bishop, an Archbishop and I guess even a Pope, isn't a party political leader, constantly driving votes to shore up crumbling confidence or security, a pastor is always attempting both to gauge the feeling of the Christian family, and to lead it forward. So, in terms of our synodical system, I think that's part of what the Archbishop of York and I were trying to do (sense where the Church wanted to be) and make no mistake I think the Church of England does want to make to generous provision for minorities and then say: this is the way which might take us forward...So I don't feel that the fact that you don't simply impose authority from the top in the Church of England, that you seek to move things forward gently, I don't think that's a lack of authority, I think it's trying to make it work in a humane fashion.

Q: This question of women's ordination to the episcopacy is still one of the greatest stumbling blocks, isn't it? What hopes do you have for finding a way through this?

A: In the short term obviously very difficult to see, hard to see how we'll find easy common ground. But that being said, of course we have common ground and this is something I've underlined quite a lot in the Church of England recently. We have the early agreed ARCIC statements on ministry, we have a common language for talking about these things. And I would like to see us work hard at that common ground and try and understand better why we reach such different conclusions, so plenty to do then.

Q: The tension between call of conscience and obedience to authority is at the heart of Newman's story – both as an Anglican and a Catholic. I know you're a great admirer of Newman but how do you feel about his beatification and the difficulties this presents for some Anglicans?

A: I think the surprising thing is how few Anglicans I meet really do have any difficulties about it... I can honestly say that nobody in the last year or two has said to me I have great difficulties with the beatification of Newman. People have slightly different views about his legacy, obviously, and whether he was right to do what he did in 1845, but Newman is genuinely part of the common heritage, the work he did as an Anglican before he was received into the Roman Catholic Church, was significant for Anglican theology as well as Roman Catholic theology and what perhaps is less often said: the greatest work of his maturity, "The Grammar of Ascent", was in large part shaped by his absorption of Anglican philosophy of the 18th century. So I don't feel there's any need for tribal wars over Newman.

Q: The surprise announcement by the Vatican of the Ordinariate for Anglicans stands out as one of the most tense moments over the past year – how has that affected your work and what conversations have you had with fellow Anglicans about it?

A: A relatively small number of people in the Church of England have wanted to explore this. I hadn't ever expected it to be a huge number because I think that if Anglicans want to become Catholics, probably the majority would want to do it in the ordinary way rather than in the "ordinariate" way.

Q: So it's not the problem it's being painted as in the media?

A: Once again, a huge story of conflict, tanks on the lawn and all that, which I thought at the time (and think even more now) was preposterous, here was a pastoral proposal which certainly we would have liked to have been more involved in discussing – I've made no secret of that – but not an aggressive act, rather an act which attempted to say: we recognize there are these conscientious difficulties, and this is what we would want to do to help. And conversations with our ecumenical partners in Rome have certainly not been overshadowed by this.

Q: Any plans for a return visit to the Vatican in the near future?

A: I am hoping that I may be able to attend a conference before the end of this year marking the 50th anniversary of the Pontifical Council's existence and that will give me a chance to catch up with theological friends in Rome and do some more exploration with them.

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