VATICAN CITY — After offering a home in his church to disaffected Anglicans, Pope Benedict XVI assured the archbishop of Canterbury on Saturday that he is still committed to seeking closer relations between Catholics and Anglicans.
Archbishop Rowan Williams said he came away convinced there was no "dawn raid" on his church by Rome, telling Vatican Radio he wishes "every blessing" for those who want to become Catholics.
Williams and Benedict met privately for 20 minutes in what the Vatican called "cordial discussions," as part of what has clearly been a difficult visit by the Anglican leader.
The Vatican said in a brief statement that the two leaders "turned to the challenges facing all Christian communities" and the need "to promote forms of collaboration and shared witness in facing these challenges."
Referring to the recent overture for traditional Anglicans upset over the ordination of women and gay bishops to become Catholics, the Vatican said the talks reiterated "the shared will to continue and to consolidate the ecumenical relationship between Catholics and Anglicans."
Williams' visit to Rome had been long planned but the Vatican overture to conservative Anglicans, for which he admittedly received little advance notice, cast a shadow over the trip and raised questions about the future of relations between Rome and the 77-million strong worldwide Anglican Communion, which includes the U.S. Episcopal Church.
'Awkward position' acknowledged
In the interview after the papal audience with Vatican Radio, Williams acknowledged the handling of the Vatican move put Anglicans "in an awkward position for a time. Not the contents so much, as some of the messages that were given out. So I needed to share with the pope some of those concerns and I think they were expressed and heard in a very friendly spirit."
Williams said he came away assured that it "did not represent any change in the Vatican's attitude to the Anglican communion as such; and a very strong statement came out."
In a personal gesture, the Vatican said the pope presented the archbishop with a gold bishop's cross as a gift.
Since coming to Rome on Thursday, Williams has sought to downplay the implications of the Vatican's unprecedented invitation.
The Vatican says it was merely responding to the many Anglican requests to join the Catholic Church and has denied it was poaching converts in the Anglican pond.
But the move already has strained Catholic-Anglican relations and is sure to affect the worldwide Anglican Communion, which was already on the verge of schism over homosexuality and women's ordination before the Vatican intervened.
'Elephant in the room'
In a speech at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Williams was gracious in referring to the Vatican's new policy, which he called the "elephant in the room." The policy was an "imaginative pastoral response" to requests by some Anglicans but broke no new doctrinal ground, Williams said.
He spent the bulk of his speech describing the progress that had been achieved so far in decades of Vatican-Anglican ecumenical talks and questioning whether the outstanding issues were really all that great.
Anglicans split from Rome in 1534 when English King Henry VIII was refused a marriage annulment. For decades, the two churches have held theological discussions on trying to reunite, part of the Vatican's broader, long-term ecumenical effort to unify all Christians.
But differences remain and the ecumenical talks were going nowhere as divisions mounted between liberals and traditionalists within the Anglican Communion itself.
The new policy allows Anglicans to convert to Catholicism but retain many of their Anglican liturgical traditions, including married priests. The Vatican will create the equivalent of new dioceses, so-called personal ordinariates, for these former Anglicans to be headed by a former Anglican priest or bishop.
Estimates on the number of possible converts has ranged from a few hundred to thousands.
Williams — the spiritual leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion — wasn't informed of the change until right before it was announced.
It remains to be seen how the new policy will affect Pope Benedict XVI's planned trip to Britain next year. Saturday's Vatican statement did not mention it.
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