Pope Paul VI to the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Michael Ramsey

"(B)y entering into our house, you are entering your own house, we are happy to open our door and heart to you." - Pope Paul VI to Dr Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Dr Rowan Williams stands down, Coptic Pope Shenouda passes away

The biggest ecumenical news in the past two weeks are the resignation of Dr Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury beginning next year and the death of Coptic Pope Shenouda. Both events will have ecumenical ramifications.

Dr Williams resigned as Archbishop largely because he wasn't able to hold the Anglican Communion together. A brilliant theologian and a man of deep spirituality, Rowan seemed to be the wrong man for the job. His waffling on many issues did not get him support from the conservatives who accused him of favouring gay unions and from the liberals from his backing down from supporting  liberal positions like his alleged waffling on the Church of England's decision to ordain women as priests.

However it wasn't completely Rowan's fault. The fracture lines in Anglicanism had been there ever since the church province by province decided to ordain women starting in the 1970s. The more traditional provinces in Africa and Asia dominated by an evangelical ethos, still do not ordain women. In Australia, the Sydney diocese refuses to ordain women. Debate on women's ordination hasn't died down in the Anglican Communion since then. The Church of England is likely to pass legislation allowing women to be bishops. The conservative evangelical and Anglo Catholic parties of the CoE demand that a structure be in place for Anglicans who for good conscience cannot accept women clergy.

The tragedy here is that the Anglican Communion wasn't able to fully benefit from Rowan's intellect, charisma and good naturedness. If he were Archbishop of Canterbury in a more genteel age, he would have brought the Anglican Church even closer to the Roman Church. While this was Rowan's vision, it did not make much headway due to the divisions within the Anglicans themselves even with Pope Benedict XVI's direct encouragement for the Anglicans to stay as one communion. In the end Vatican ecumenists have concluded that the unity game was lost and Rome offered a lifeboat to fleeing Anglicans in the form of an Anglican Ordinariate.

Rowan Williams will take on the mastership of Magdalene College, Cambridge. We hope that he finds peace here after all academia is where he feels most at home and a college fits his contemplative call. The next Archbishop of Canterbury has the huge task of keeping the communion together while making sure those who do not share the general theological sentiments of the majority have a place to stay.

Pope Shenouda is one of three bishops today who can be legitimately called "Pope".  The Coptic Church is one of the oldest in Christendom and has 11 million members in Egypt.  Shenouda was on the Coptic papal throne for 41 years. He opposed President Sadat's policies in the 1970s leading to his internal exile. Pope Shenouda also made historic visits to the Vatican thus cementing ecumenical relations. He also forged close relationships with the Mubarak regime and the Islamists who in later years became a significant voice in Egypt.

With the Mubarak regime gone and the parliamentary rise of Islamist parties, the next Coptic pope is likely to play a significant moderating influence in Egyptian society.