A PLENARY session of the Lambeth Conference is a sight to behold. Used to the solemn secrecy of the Roman synod, the Catholic journalist constantly attempts to tune into those undercover machinations that reveal the true issues at hand.
At Lambeth what you see is what you get. Informally dressed bishops (Dr Habgood, Archbishop of York was dressed in the sort of linen suit that made Evelyn Waugh famous) gather together for a consideration of where the Anglican Communion is going and how many toes it is going to have to tread on to get there (the ordination of women would be a case in point).
The atmosphere is informal and relaxed, the press are given as much access to the proceedings as is politic, and Dr Runcie, though technically the "Pope" in the whole affair, acts as a kind of compere, introducing the new speakers as the debate unfolds.
Into this scenario on Tuesday stepped Fr Pierre Duprey, Secretary of the Vatican Secretariat for Christian Unity. His task, to deliver an official response to Dr Runcie's ecumenical speech "The Nat:_re of the Unity we seek", of the day before.
Fr Duprey's contribution, very probably vetted by the Pope beforehand, was characteristic of much ecumenical debate in that it lasted for ages without saying very much of any consequence. Distinctions were blurred and difficulties passed over so that one wasn't sure exactly what religious tradition the speaker came from.
Journalists who hoped that the speech may be a tantalising insight into just how serious Rome is about links with the Anglican church were sorely disappointed. There was no specific reference to the one issue that could seriously damage ecumenical relations in the future, namely the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Church of England.
One pointer to the Vatican's opinion on the matter was just discernible, however, though only after much careful searching of Fr Duprey's speech. He spoke of the dangers of a Church that set its agenda according to the spirit of this world". "In the face of new questions which may divide if they are posed . . . must we not urgently ask whether their newness belongs to this world or the world to come?". It takes no great leap of the imagination to see exactly what subject Fr Duprey was referring to here. That the Church disagrees with adapting its structures to "secular feminism" has been made obvious in the past.
Dr Runcie's speech was far more decisive in that he was ready to tackle head on the question of papal primacy, a subject which will come under particular scrutiny when the Lambeth fathers come to consider again ARCIC's findings on the matter later in the proceedings.
Although he made it clear that there is a place in a unified church for a form of primacy, it would have to do away with many of the overtones of sovereignty and power which pertain to the See of St Peter today.
Dr Runcie explained his vision of a revised primacy to the Lambeth delegates: "At Assisi (the forum of international religious leaders summoned by the Pope in 1986 to pray for peace) I saw the vision of a new style of Petrine ministry. Pope John Paul welcomed us . . . but then he became, in his own words, 'a brother among brothers'. And at the end we all bundled into the same bus and the Pope had to look for a seat". A far cry from the days when the Holy Father was carried about in a litter!
If one thing has emerged as crystal clear from the Protestant side of the debate on unity so far, it is that there is at Lambeth a healthy respect for the institution of the papal primacy, but a keen distrust of its capacity to upset that balance created by the establishment of a true "unity in diversity" represented by the Anglican Communion joining with Rome.