LONDON (Reuters) - The leader of the Catholics in England in Wales rejected accusations that Pope Benedict was fishing for converts and said “delicate and difficult” issues existed between his church and the Anglican Communion.
His comments come two weeks before Pope Benedict’s four-day trip to England and Scotland, the first papal visit since John Paul II’s pastoral visit in 1982 and the first-ever official papal visit to Britain.
Relations between the two churches have been tense since the pope offered disaffected Anglicans opposed to their church’s ordination of women and homosexual bishops the chance to convert to Rome while keeping some of their traditions.
“There are delicate, difficult issues between our two churches at the moment,” Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, head of the 5.2 million Catholics in England and Wales, told Reuters.
But, Nichols said the offer came after groups of Anglicans repeatedly asked for a response to their request for special provision to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church.
“Sometimes people want to say ‘oh, this is the initiative of the pope who is going fishing for Anglicans’. That is not true. He is responding to requests that he has received, and those requests we have to handle sensitively on both sides.”
Pope Benedict is due to meet Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, spiritual head of the Anglican Communion and leader of its mother church, the Church of England, during his stay.
Many Anglicans believe Williams was humiliated by last October’s offer, which was made with little advance warning, while some Catholics are unhappy at the terms of the offer, which would allow married Anglican priests to convert.
Nichols said that although the issue was sensitive it would not break the strong relationship between the two churches.
“We have work to do, but we will do it together,” he said.
“We will not be having harsh words with each other.”
It is not clear how many intend to convert, he said. The lack of financial provision is likely to be a stumbling block, but in July the traditionalist Anglican Bishop of Fulham, John Broadhurst, suggested several hundred clergy and many laity would leave in the next three years.
Nichols also suggested the pope would not be affected by the adverse media attention ahead of the trip and the protests planned by secularists, gay rights groups, women ordination campaigners and those angry at the child-abuse scandal which has spread throughout the Catholic Church globally.
He pointed to recent papal visits where intense media criticism dissipated, he said, when people listened to what the pope had to say.
“I don’t think they will affect him deeply. No. Because I think he is a man who intelligently studies the world, and he knows the ebb and flow of opinion,” he said.
Meanwhile, he said the cost of the pope’s visit between September 16-19 was likely to rise above 9 million pounds ($13.92 million) — higher than the initial estimate of 7 million pounds.
The state’s share of the bill is likely to rise by 50 percent to 12 million pounds.
The Church has raised nearly 6 million pounds, and Nichols was confident of raising the outstanding sum.
He also rejected media reports that there was a lack of interest in tickets for the public masses in Glasgow, London and Birmingham, saying “they are pretty well packed out now”.
* For a fuller version of this interview click on blogs.reuters.com/faithworld/
(Editing by Jon Hemming)