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Although Pope Paul has given the full weight of his pontificate to the cause of unity, his own view was expressed earlier this year when he told an audience that inter-communion could not be allowed until union in matters of faith had been achieved.
On the other hand Vatican officials are unwilling to be seen to condemn the practice of intercommunion directly, as this would be interpreted as an antiecumenical gesture. This dilemma, it is thought In Rome, will not be resolved in the time of Pope Paul.
Dr Coggan's visit was not a major event on the path to unity, but it represented an important look back and look ahead along that path. Behind is the work of ARCIC (the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission), the three documents drawn up by the two teams of theologians; the Windsor Report on the Eucharist; the Canterbury Report on Ordination, and the Venice Report on Authority in the Church.
In front there are the barriers: the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption — "still presenting great difficulties for Anglicans," according to Dr Coggan — the diversity of Anglican beliefs on the Eucharist, and of course women priests.
There was some talk of the hierarchies removing these barriers when Dr Coggan came to Rome. Others spoke of the need for the Christian people in the parishes to step across the barriers in their own time and the Churches to joyfully acknowledge a de facto unity.
Neither has proved right. The joint declaration issued by Dr Coggan and Pope Paul at the end of the visit recalled the progress that had been made, but stressed the fact that while unity was hoped and prayed for, a lot of work at all levels still needed to be done.
"This collaboration, pursued to the limits of truth and loyalty," the declaration says, "will create the climate in which dialogue and doctrinal differences and convergence can bear fruit. While this fruit is ripening, serious difficulties remain both of the past and of recent origin". The message was clear: there are no short cuts to Christian unity. According to Dr Coggan the most important thing was to prevent any rift occuring between theologians discussing unity, the hierarchies of the Churches mak
ing the decisions, and the people in the parishes and those outside the Churches.
While the issue of women priests was clearly the "difficulty of recent origin" mentioned in the joint declaration, Dr Coggan said that he had not discussed the matter with Pope Paul.
The Vatican recognises that the maleness of the priesthood is only a matter of tradition and ecclesiastical discipline and not of fundamental doctrine, but the subject is even more antagonistic than inter-communion.
Dr Coggan has suggested that the issue of women priests should he discussed by ARCIC when It meets again in September, but the Vatican attitude seems to be that if it were a good idea we would have thought of it by now.
It has also been a major issue in Istanbul, where the Patriarch told the Archbishop that "in order to be fully honest and sincere towards the Anglicans ... we, together with other Orthodox Churches, reject the movement aiming at the ordination of women as ... anti-apostolic."
Dr Coggan replied that the Anglicans did not intend to impose women priests on any part of the Church, but he said: "Those who see this action as being right should be free to do so."