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Church of England bound for Rome

By Rushworth M. KidderStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 9, 1980


It has been called "the Tory party at prayer." It is, a woma communicant told a Daily Telegraph correspndent, "the religious expression of that tremendous English reserve which means you don't smile anyone on trains."

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Yet it still provides the religious home for some 30 milion Englishmen and for as many more worshippers throughout the world.

It is the Church of England, split off form the church of Rome in the 16th century by Henry VIII and now, apparently, heading along the road to reconciliation and eventual reunion with Roman Catholicism.

That, at least, is the desire of its new leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie. At a luncheon for American journalists, he described himself as a "Liverpool Scot" -- and, more significantly, as a "radical Catholic."

Nobody expects sudden shifts from the 450-year-old church. And the amiable archbishop, who from relative obscurity as bishop of St. Albans has been spotlighted as head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, talks of "the middle way" between the "shoals" and "elephant traps" besetting church policy.

Tall, slow-paced, discursive, he is a tennis-playing, pigkeeping football lover with a chatty disposition, a philosophical turn of mind, and a tolerance so genial that his maid reportedly calls him 'Bish."

He is also straightforward, shying away form platitudes and humorously describing himself as "poised rather uneasily between the cliche and the indiscretion."

But he has made his position clear: The church, under his shepherding, will continue to seek greater unity with Roman Catholicism in such things as theological dialogue, cooperation in the face of common problems, and Eucharistic hospitality (taking communion in each other's churches).

His March 25 enthronement ceremony gave a prominent place to the Catholic Archbishop of Westminister, Cardinal Basil Hume -- the first time since the Reformation that a Roman Catholic cardinal has attended an enthronement.

And he has already met Pope John Paul II in Ghana for a 45-minute tete-a-tete. He thinks this is a first, since similar Anglo-Roman meetings in the past have been formal affairs builging with official delegations. He describes the Pope, whom he obviously admires, as "less interested in ecclesiastical negotiations or theological dialogue than in common witness and in human dignity," although he would not call him "anti-ecumenical."

Not all Anglicans applaud his Rome-ward view. Leading a pilgrimage to the Roman Catholic shrine at Walsingham, in Norfolk, the archbishop was recently met by members of the Protestant Reform Society, whose placards read "Pray to Christ and not to Mary." Such resistance is not surprising in a country that coined the phrase "Popish plot" and in its history has executed sundry Catholics including Mary, Queen of Scots.

But many Anglicans see themselves as "part of the one holy Catholic and Apostolic church," says the archbishop in words from the Book of Common Prayer.