The Archbishop of Canterbury was plunged into trouble today after suggesting that the Church of England may one day sack its women priests.
Dr Rowan Williams said that he could “just about envisage” a time when Anglicans “thought again” about women in holy orders.
His interview with a Roman Catholic journal ended in an angry row as the Archbishop issued a statement which insisted the reporting of his remarks had been “wilfully misleading”.
Dr Williams’s statement said he had denied three times during his interview that he wanted to re-open the issue of women priests.
And his remarks on women provoked a backlash from feminists inside the Church of England.
One member of the Church’s ruling cabinet, the Archbishops’ Council, expressed “disappointment” with Dr Williams’ apparently lukewarm attitude to women priests.
Dr Williams spoke to the Catholic Herald in advance of a trip to Rome for talks with Pope Benedict. His audience with the Pope is likely to be overshadowed by the continuing dispute between the Vatican and Lambeth Palace over the CofE’s women priests and its intention shortly to appoint a first woman bishop.
During lengthy questioning over his attitude to women priests, the Archbishop was asked whether there would be any going back on the CofE decision 14 years ago to ordain women.
He answered: “I don’t see how there can be.”
But he added: “I could just about envisage a situation in which over a very long period the Anglican Church thought again about it, but I would need to see what the theological reason for that would be and I don’t see it at the moment.
“I don’t think, practically, there is going back.”
Dr Williams also appeared to show a lack of enthusiasm for the work of women priests.
He said of women’s ordination: “I don’t think it has transformed or renewed the Church of England in spectacular ways.
“Equally, I don’t think it has corrupted or ruined the Church of England in spectacular ways. It has somehow got into the bloodstream and I don’t give it a second thought these days, in terms of regular worship.”
The fallout from the interview yesterday, however, was spectacular. Dr Williams issued a highly unusual personal denial of reports saying he wanted to “rethink” women priests.
The Archbishop said: “From the very beginning of this issue I have been a supporter of the ordination of women and have not doubted the rightness of that decision or the blessings it has brought. It has been a difficult road for the Church and the cost of that decision has been a heavy one and that has been a test.
“I made it clear in the interview with the Catholic Herald and will continue to do so that I see no theological justification for any revisiting of this question and indicated in the interview three times that I had no wish to reopen it, whatever technical possibilities might theoretically exist.”
He added: “The presentation of this to mean anything else is wilful misinterpetation. My convictions mean that I feel nothing less than full support for the decision the Church of England made in 1992 and appreciation of the priesthood exercised.”
But the damage to the Archbishop’s reputation among Anglican liberals appeared to have been done.
Dr Williams has lost the support of many since he came to Lambeth Palace nearly four years ago appearing to favour the gay rights agenda in the Church – and then forced gay cleric Canon Jeffrey John to turn down the offer of a bishop’s job.
The Archbishop has since defended the conservative line that active homosexuals may not be priests while the worldwide Anglican Communion has begun to collapse around him.
Now he appears to have offended Church feminists. Christina Rees, a leading campaigner for the consecration of women bishops and a member of the Archbishops’ Council, said yesterday: “I don’t think Rowan would argue with me and thousands of women in the Church that women priests have made a profound and far-reaching difference.
“We all know that it makes all the difference in the world to have a woman priest at times of funerals and marriages. There has been a new light and depth to the ministry that only women can bring.”
She added: “I am disappointed that Rowan has not highlighted the profound effect of women’s ministry.”