The head of the worldwide Anglican Communion said Thursday that the issue of women priests and bishops need not divide Anglicans and Catholics.
In a candid speech at the Gregorian University in Rome, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams said the Catholic Church's historic prohibition against women in holy orders had become a "clear obstacle" to Catholic-Anglican unity.
And while he didn't want to go through the arguments for and against the ordination of women, the Anglican leader challenged the Roman Catholic Church to consider how the prohibition against ordaining women enhances the life of communion and how its breach would compromise the purposes of the Church.
"And do the arguments advanced about the 'essence' of male and female vocations and capacities stand on the same level as a theology derived more directly from scripture and the common theological heritage such as we find in these ecumenical texts?" he posed.
In the introduction to his speech, delivered as part of celebrations marking the centenary of the first president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Williams said the central question that believers must grapple with is whether and how they can properly tell the difference between "second order" and "first order" issues.
If the issues that divide believers are not bigger than the ones on which there is already agreement, why do they stand in the way of fuller visible unity, posed Williams.
And if the issues are bigger, how do they make a difference to the basic understanding of salvation and communion?
"As ecumenical statements in varying words agree, the ongoing debate is not about these fundamentals, but about where the fullest realization of communion is to be found," Williams stated.
"I am asking how far continuing disunion and non-recognition are justified, theologically justified in the context of the overall ecclesial vision, when there are signs that some degree of diversity in practice need not, after all, prescribe an indefinite separation," he said.
Williams gave the address in Rome Thursday as the guest of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the ecumenical arm of the Catholic Church. The address was part of a symposium being held at the Gregorian University, to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Cardinal Willebrands, the first president of the council.
Williams is currently in Rome for his first visit to the Vatican since the announcement of a new structure to incorporate Anglicans upset over the ordination of women priests and, in the Church of England, the prospect of women bishops. The archbishop is expected to discuss the implications of the Apostolic Constitution with the Pope when they meet Friday.
Christian Today reporter Jenna Lyle in London contributed to this article.