Pope's visit aimed at easing tensions with Anglicans
Historic tensions and a modern row over women bishops will simmer beneath Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Britain, despite efforts to use the trip as an opportunity for rapprochement with Anglicans.
On the first papal state visit to the country since king Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic faith in 1534, Pope Benedict XVI will make a series of deeply symbolic gestures towards the Church of England.
The pope will attend a service on Friday at London's historic Westminster Abbey -- where British monarchs are crowned -- led by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the spiritual leader of the world's Anglicans.
Benedict will also have a "very important meeting" with Williams at Lambeth Palace, his official residence, said Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales.
The Very Reverend John Hall, the Dean of Westminster Abbey, told AFP he hoped the pope's visit would be a "chance to advance the relationship between Christians and to move us towards reconciliation and church unity."
But the pope's visit comes just 11 months after he shocked the religious world with an offer to take in dissident Anglicans angered by their church's moves to consecrate female bishops.
The announcement last October came as the Church of England edged closer to finally approving the consecration of women bishops, angering elements of the global Anglican community of more than 70 million.
At the time the Vatican's move was described by British newspaper The Times as "potentially the most explosive development in Anglican-Catholic relations since the Reformation".
That was no small claim amid nearly 500 years of strained relations since Henry VIII split with the Catholic faith after Pope Clement VII refused to grant him a divorce from Catherine of Aragon.
It was not until 1982 that a pope, John Paul II, set foot in Britain again. The Vatican says that was officially only a pastoral visit, making Benedict's the first state visit to the country in half a millennium.
But the churches have drifted apart again in the past two decades on the issue of female and homosexual clergy.
Commentators said the Vatican offer would continue to cause strains, despite efforts by both churches to present a unified front on the pope's British visit.
"Certainly the Anglican hierarchy will want to welcome Benedict XVI serenely," Vatican commentator Marco Politi, of the Italian newspaper Il Fatto, told AFP.
"But part of the Anglican world considers the movement of Anglican dissidents to the Roman Catholic community as a sort of annexation by Rome," he added.
A wave of Anglicans switched to Catholicism with its all-male clergy after women priests were approved in 1992.
Even Nichols warned against expecting any major developments when the pope is in Britain, saying it was a "visit to the UK as a whole, it's not a moment in which to explore the relationship between the Churches."
Monsignor Andrew Faley, the assistant general secretary for the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, admitted that the strains were still clear to see.
"There are tensions between us, the Catholic church and the Anglican communion with regard to the ordinariate," he told AFP. The ordinariate is the official name for the intended structure allowing Anglicans to join.
Andrea Tornielli, another Vatican expert and author of a critical book about the pope when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, said the main tensions were within the Anglican communion itself over female and gay priests.
He said the visit would be "marked by fair play, which the English are masters of."
Yet some tensions will be impossible to ignore.
Welcoming the pope to Westminster Abbey on Friday will be Jane Hedges -- a female priest and a campaigner for the ordination of women, the very idea the Vatican described as recently as July as a "crime against the faith."
© 2010 AFP