ROME - Despite strong divisions over the question whether women should be priests, relationships between Anglicans and Roman Catholics got a surprising boost when Pope John Paul II met earlier this month with the head of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
So successful was the meeting that the pope and George L. Carey, archbishop of Canterbury, agreed to enter into further consultations," beginning in January. Their goal will be to explore ways to move ahead together in a quest for full, visible unity.
The two churches, divided since the days of Henry VIII, have begun tentative efforts toward union only in recent years. Those resulted in a promising report from the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, an international dialogue group, which claimed to have reached agreement on theological questions related to Eucharist and ministry.
But relations soon cooled and then grew tense. Some called it "the winter of ecumenism."
First, the response from the Vatican to the international commission's report was disappointing. Then, in a highly controversial move the Anglican Communion, at a Lambeth Conference in 1988, voted to allow its individual member churches to decide whether to accept female priests. The Episcopal church in the United States had already jumped the gun, approving female priests 11 years earlier. The Church of England voted to allow women into the priesthood in 1992.
The pope had strongly urged Anglicans to keep women out of the priesthood, and indeed, some who opposed female priests defected to Catholicism after their view was defeated.
The pope and Carey met privately in 1992 when Carey visited Anglicans in Italy. By all accounts, that meeting was courteous but offered little in the way of progress.
The recent meeting, by contrast, was proclaimed as a landmark.
The climate had begun to change by Dec. 3, when Carey arrived in Rome. The pope, having issued his important encyclical on ecumenism last year, seemed determined to do all he could to promote Christian unity. Cardinal Edward Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, was working hard on many fronts trying to promote the ecumenical dialogue.
The new climate was evident from the beginning. The Vatican provided Carey with a guard of honor and a state limousine sporting pennants of Canterbury and the Holy See. On their first evening in Rome, the pope gave a warm welcome in his private library to Carey and his party. The two men chatted easily, and the pope said such occasions were a reminder that "even in our sad separation, Anglicans and Catholics have not ceased to be brothers and sisters in the Lord."
Friendliness and warmth characterized subsequent meetings as well.
Carey said he affirmed to the pope "the absolute commitment both of myself personally and also of the Anglican Communion to the full, visible unity of God's church."
He and the pope met four times in all, including 45-minute private conversation. In a public exchange of gifts, the pope gave Carey a gold pectoral cross and gave silver crosses to other Anglican bishops.
Carey presented the pope with a communion wafer holder made of ewe wood and inscribed "ln recognition of friendship." The pope then invited Carey and his wife, Eileen, to lunch with him in the papal apartments.
Later, the pope and Carey attended solemn vespers …