updated 11/23/2006 1:34:39 PM ET 2006-11-23T18:34:39

Pope Benedict XVI and Anglican leader Rowan Williams acknowledged there were “serious obstacles” to closer ties between their churches, a blunt reference to Vatican disapproval of gay bishops, women priests and blessings of same-sex unions in the Anglican church.

Benedict and the Archbishop of Canterbury, talking privately in the papal library and then praying together in a chapel, came together Thursday to celebrate 40 years of dialogue aimed at uniting the churches split apart in 1534 by King Henry VIII’s anger over the Vatican’s refusal to annul his marriage.

But their frank assessment of where relations stand now underscored the challenges.

'Serious obstacles'
The two men in a joint statement expressed gratitude for the efforts at unity and pledged to pursue the path of continuing dialogue.

“At the same time, our long journey together makes it necessary to acknowledge publicly the challenge represented by new developments which, beside being divisive for Anglicans, present serious obstacles to our ecumenical progress,” Benedict and Williams said.

In his speech to the pope, Williams said that “disputes about how we apply the Gospel to the challenges thrown up by modern society can often obscure or even threaten the achievements of dialogue.”

Williams, who came with his wife and young son, said he was wearing the Episcopal ring which Pope Paul VI had given the archbishop’s predecessor, Michael Ramsey, in 1966, when dialogue was launched after centuries of estrangement, and a cross that was a gift from Pope John Paul II.

Williams told Vatican Radio that, despite efforts at understanding, expectations by some over the last decades for “visible unity in our lifetime” were likely “too high.”

The elevation in 2003 in the United States of the first openly gay Anglican bishop has bruised Anglican-Catholic relations.

The Catholic Church teaches that while homosexuals should be treated with dignity, homosexual acts are sinful, and it is campaigning against same-sex unions.

Last year, the Vatican praised steps by Anglican leaders to discourage the election of gay bishops and the blessing of same-sex unions.

Twenty-six of the world’s 38 Anglican churches — including those in the United States known as Episcopalian — have opened up the priesthood to women. Churches in Canada, New Zealand and the United States have chosen women as bishops, and the Church of England is debating whether to have women bishops.

Cooperation possible in other areas
Other areas for more cooperation, the church leaders said, include helping those persecuted for their faith and promoting respect for life “from conception until natural death.” That phrase in Vatican teaching refers to bans on abortion and euthanasia.

Those same areas for joining forces are also frequently cited by Vatican officials working to improve relations with another church that split from Rome, the Orthodox, as well as with Muslims.

In the speech released by his office, Williams lamented “the tension between the great Quranic insistence that ’there is no compulsion in religion’ and the penalties associated with conversion and the pressures around mixed marriages in the practice of many Muslim states.”

On Tuesday, Benedict flies to Turkey to meet with the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, in Istanbul, as well as with Muslim clerics.

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