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CHURCH OF ENGLAND/ Sede Vacante, Augustine Edition

ROCCO PALMO comments on theologian Rowan Williams’ retirement from his post as the archbishop of Canterbury at the year’s end, and what it means for the Anglican Church.

Rowan Williams  Rowan Williams

This Friday morning brings significant breaking news on the ecumenical front -- six days after Rowan Williams' latest meeting with B16, Lambeth Palace has announced that the 61 year-old theologian will retire as archbishop of Canterbury at year's end, to become Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge.

The first non-Englishman to occupy the chair of St Augustine since the Reformation, Williams leaves the symbolic headship of the world's 70 million Anglicans after a difficult decade-long tenure marked by infighting between his Communion's branches on issues of teaching and identity, headlined by splits over the ordination of women and, in particular, openly-gay clergy into the church's episcopal leadership.

A keen student of the Benedictine spiritual tradition who (under the tutelage of a monk) reportedly considered becoming Catholic as a young man, despite the internal hurdles of his turn at the helm, the 104th Archbishop departs his post with Vatican-Lambeth ties quite possibly at their warmest since Pope Paul VI famously took the ring off his finger to give to Archbishop Michael Ramsey at the close of Vatican II.

From their first sit-down in November 2006, an ever closer rapport has developed between Williams -- a world-class theologian in his own right -- and Benedict XVI, most recently evidenced by the Pope's inviting the archbishop to deliver a major address at this October's Synod of Bishops dedicated to the pontiff's top pastoral priority, the New Evangelization. While some commentators aimed to interpret Anglicanorum coetibus -- Benedict's 2009 response to requests from Anglican groups to enter Catholic communion as a unit -- as Rome's "parking a tank on the lawn of Lambeth Palace," the Rowan-Benedict bond made for what many Vatican hands considered the emotional high-point of the following year's papal State Visit to Britain as the successors of Peter and Augustine presided together at Vespers in Westminster Abbey, marking a Pope's first pilgrimage to the iconic London church dedicated to St Peter.

In further testimony to the enhanced spirit of goodwill, it was announced earlier this month that the Abbey's choir will make its first appearance at the Vatican later this year, singing alongside the Sistine Choir at an especially conspicuous event: the 29 June Mass for the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, which brings the annual conferral of the pallium on the world's recently-named archbishops.

Adding to the timing's significance, the day likewise marks the music-loving Pope's 61st anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood.