Anglican head says Catholic merger not on the cards

PRETORIA (Reuters) - The Archbishop of Canterbury said on Friday there was no plan to reunite the Anglican and Catholic churches after a split almost five centuries ago but the two would work to keep a 40-year-old dialogue alive.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (L) and South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki pose for journalists after their meeting in Pretoria, South Africa, March 9, 2007. Williams is in South Africa for an Anglican conference on tackling poverty. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko (

“There is no plan at all (to reunite),” Rowan Williams, spiritual head of the world’s 77 million Anglicans, told Reuters after meeting South African President Thabo Mbeki in Pretoria.

“We will continue discussions as we have for the past 40 years,” he said, when asked whether he wanted the two churches to merge, and whether he expected it to happen under his tenure as archbishop.

Williams, who is in South Africa for an Anglican conference on tackling poverty and HIV/AIDS, has been battling to save the Anglican church from schism amid a bitter debate about homosexual priests and same-sex unions.

The mother church, the heart of the federation of 38 national churches, was founded more than 450 years ago when King Henry VIII broke ties with Rome to divorce his first wife.

Anglican and Catholic leaders said last month a statement was expected to be published later this year about the possibility of reuniting the churches under the pope, although they said merging could be a long journey.

Many outside the church struggle to understand why Anglicans and Catholics remain divided over what may seem minor issues.

But commentators say significant differences on thorny topics could prevent a full merger. Anglicans allow women to be priests but Catholics do not. Catholic priests must remain celibate while Anglicans may marry and have children.

And while some Anglican churches conduct traditional services, other evangelical congregations eschew liturgy and have adopted informal worship styles that are a world away from Catholic ritual.

The Anglican church’s debate over homosexuality could also scupper any hopes of reunification if it opts to allow gay priests who do not remain celibate -- something the Catholic church has clearly condemned.

While the Catholic church is a hierarchical system with Pope Benedict in charge, Williams is only a focal point and each province has autonomy.