Pope Benedict’s retirement was not such a surprise to the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who had discussed “the pressures of office” with the pontiff during their last meeting a year ago. Bishop Rowan Williams, now the Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, told Vatican Radio that in a private meeting in the Vatican last March, the two Church leaders discussed “the promise of being able to do a bit more thinking and praying”. The former leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion also said he was aware that Pope Benedict was increasingly "recognising his own frailty”.
Bishop Williams revealed that he has written a private letter to the Pope and he says this resignation may have a significant impact on ecumenical relations by “demystifying the papacy”.
Listen to Philippa Hitchen’s interview with Bishop Rowan Williams:
“It wasn’t a total surprise, I think because in our last conversation I was very conscious that he was recognising his own frailty and it did cross my mind to wonder whether this was a step he might think about…..
Can you share any of that conversation with us?
These conversations are private of course…but it was a sense I had that he was beginning to ask the question, ‘is it possible to carry on with a good conscience’, and I’m sure it must be in his mind that for all the previous pope’s immense courage and the example he set in shouldering on to the end, it might not be - now - for the best interests of the whole church.
You yourself were due to retire at the end of the year – did you talk about your own plans, your feelings with him?
In fact I’d spoken to him before I’d announced my resignation earlier in the year, so we shared some reflections on the pressures of office and, yes, we spoke about the promise of being able to do a bit more thinking, and praying…because by the grace of God we’ve enjoyed a warm relationship, so it was possible for me to share that with him earlier in the year
You’ve met regularly over the past eight years – what are some of your fondest memories?
Certainly the most vivid memory is of his visit to the UK and some of the time we had together there – the experience of sharing that great event in Westminster Abbey. But in some ways equally moving was last year when I was at St Gregorio al Celio with him for Vespers, that great monastic commemoration last Spring and afterwards the Camaldolese community there showed us around the sacristy and some of their treasures, and that’s a very warm memory too.
The resignation is being seen as a modernising step for the papacy: do you see it as furthering the call by Johh Paul II in Ut Unum Sint to rethink the papacy in the service of unity for all Christians?
That’s a really interesting question because it does seem to me that an act like this does something to, as you might put it, demystify the papacy, the pope is not like a sort of God King who goes on to the very end. The ministry of service that the Bishop of Rome exercises is just that, a ministry of service and it’s therefore reasonable to ask if there is a moment when somebody else should take that baton in hand. So yes, I’d call it demystifying and in that sense reminding us that the position of the bishop of Rome, the primitive position of the bishop of Rome as the servant of the unity of the Church, of the bishop who convenes, mediates between, manages the fellowship of the bishops, that slightly more functional, slightly less theologically top heavy picture, that may be one of the things that emerges from this…
So do you think it might have a practical impact on relations between his and your successors?
It’l be very interesting to see – I think we have yet to work through all the implications of Ut Unum Sint and if this is a stimulus to do some more work on that, I’d say well and good.
What would you like to say to Pope Benedict as he prepares to make this significant step?
I’ve already written privately and what I’d say publically is that he remains in our affection and our prayers, that we look for some more profound and reflective theology from him, of the kind that’s made his encyclicals so wonderfully fruitful as a resource for the whole Christian family.”