Saturday, July 5, 2008

Anglican bishops in secret Vatican summit

By Jonathan Wynne-Jones, Religious Affairs Correspondent

Senior Church of England bishops have held secret talks with Vatican officials to discuss the crisis in the Anglican communion over gays and women bishops.

Tension rises in York, where the General Synod will tomorrow debate whether to let women become bishops
Feeling the strain: Tension rises in York, where the General Synod will tomorrow debate whether to let women become bishops

They met senior advisers of the Pope in an attempt to build closer ties with the Roman Catholic Church, The Sunday Telegraph has learnt.

Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was not told of the talks and the disclosure will be a fresh blow to his efforts to prevent a major split in the Church of England.

In highly confidential discussions, a group of conservative bishops expressed their dismay at the liberal direction of the Church of England and their fear for its future.

They met members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the most powerful of the Vatican's departments, the successor to the medieval Inquisition, which enforces doctrine and was headed by Pope Benedict XVI before his election.

The names of the bishops are known to The Sunday Telegraph, but they have asked for anonymity because the talks are of such a sensitive and potentially explosive nature.

The disclosure comes on the eve of a critical vote as members of the General Synod – the Church's parliament – prepare to decide whether to allow women to be bishops without giving concessions to staunch opponents.

Up to 600 clergy gave warning in a letter to Dr Williams that they may leave the Church unless they receive a legal right to havens within the Church free of women bishops.

In separate developments, three diocesan bishops wrote to the archbishop supporting the threat and two other bishops have said they are preparing to leave the Church. The letter from the Bishops of Chichester, Blackburn and Europe – seen by The Sunday Telegraph – argues that traditionalist clergy will not be able to "maintain an honoured place" in the Church without sufficient legislation.

"Clearly the ordination of women as bishops would divide the Church of England even more fundamentally than the ordination of women as priests," it says.

"This issue is one which touches all members of the Church of England and not just those with synodical voting rights. In the light of this we are convinced that some form of separate identities will be required to enable the holders of mutually incompatible convictions about the faith and order of the Church to remain in as high a degree of continuing fellowship as possible."

However, while the letter shows that there is deep disquiet in the most senior ranks of the Church, the meetings with Rome will be of far greater concern to Dr Williams.

One bishop involved in the talks, who wished to remain anonymous, said he was left with no option. "The Church of England is becoming more and more like the American Church. Those of us who hold to traditional orthodoxy are very concerned about the direction it seems to be moving in."

The Anglican communion has been arguing over homosexuality since the American Church made Gene Robinson the first openly gay bishop and issued rites for same-sex unions. Conservatives are concerned that gay blessing services are being conducted in Britain and last month this newspaper revealed that a “wedding” ceremony was held for two gay priests. The issue of homosexual priests is likely to feature strongly at this month’s Lambeth Conference of worldwide Anglican bishops.

Now the Church of England is poised to endorse women bishops — a move that will seriously damage its relations with the Roman Catholic Church and could force hundreds of clergy to defect to Rome.

"These are the presenting issues that have made talks necessary, but our concerns go much deeper than these rows to issues of basic doctrine," the bishop said. "I have to be loyal to the parishes in my diocese and to the Gospel and that’s why I felt I had to do something.W"

Another bishop said: "The internal pressure of the Anglican communion has pushed us apart and we’re committed to greater unity with Rome. There can be no future for Christianity in Europe without Rome."

The Pope’s enthusiasm for bringing traditional Anglicans into the fold was shown in 2003 when as Cardinal he sent greetings to a group of conservative churchmen meeting in Texas in protest at the election of Bishop Robinson. The Pope and Dr Williams enjoy a strong relationship, which they are keen to maintain.

However, a former aide to Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, said that the dialogue with the Anglican bishops only started after the crisis in the Anglican communion worsened. "It is obvious things are starting to fall apart and Rome wants to be able to help if it can," he said.

The Rt Rev Kieran Conry, the Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, said: "A number of Church of England bishops are looking at the options open to them should things go wrong at the Lambeth Conference. Some are hoping for accommodation with the Catholic Church, but yet maintaining their Anglican identity."

The Bishop of Beverley, the Rt Rev Martyn Jarrett said: “In the tragic circumstances that the Church of England takes decisions which make it impossible to walk with it anymore we would want to understand more where we are in relation to wider Catholic Christendom.

“Anglo-Catholics have always had a particular concern for re-union with the Holy See. No matter what might happen Anglo-Catholics will continue to be at the forefront of that dialogue and explanation.”

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, used his Synod address yesterday to attack members of the "breakaway" Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans — accusing them of "ungracious" behaviour.

Lambeth Palace declined to comment.

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