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ROME (Reuters) - Roman Catholics should look beyond the divisive issue of ordaining women to see how much they share with the world's Anglicans and work toward greater Christian unity, the head of the Anglican Communion said on Thursday.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, whose own church is split over female priests and bishops, said the Vatican's ban on ordaining women was not as solidly grounded theologically as the core Christian doctrines the two denominations agree on.
His speech at a pontifical university in Rome came a month after Pope Benedict invited alienated Anglicans to join the Catholic Church, a move some Anglicans criticized as a bid to woo away those opposed to women bishops.
Several member churches of the 77-million strong worldwide Anglican Communion have women bishops -- the Episcopal Church in the United States has a female head, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori -- and the Church of England is preparing to ordain them.
Williams said decades of Catholic-Anglican dialogue had achieved wide consensus on core Christian teachings and left only lesser issues of church organization and authority open.
"The question ... is whether this unfinished business is as fundamentally church-dividing as our Roman Catholic friends generally assume and maintain," he said.
"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 (our) common theological heritage?"
Williams, in Rome to attend a conference on relations among Christian churches, is due to see Benedict on Saturday for their first meeting since the pope's offer to disaffected Anglicans.
Both sides have tried to present the offer as a normal step, but the Vatican's top ecumenical official, Cardinal Walter Kasper, last week revealed Williams had called him in the middle of the night for an explanation when he learned about the plan.
In his speech, Williams asked whether, since Catholics and Anglicans agreed so much on core theological doctrines, "is it really justifiable to treat other issues as equally vital?"
He said the Anglican Communion showed churches could stay together despite local differences. The Communion has come close to schism in recent years as conservatives, many in Africa, opposed liberal trends in churches in the West.
His argument seemed unlikely to convince the Vatican, which sees the disarray among Anglicans as proof that churches need clear doctrines and firm leadership.
Reporting by Tom Heneghan; editing by Andrew Roche