When Robert Runcie visited Pope John Paul II in Rome in October 1989 one of his concerns was to elucidate the theme of universal primacy. Just over a decade before in 1977 the third Agreed Statement of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission proposed that a unified Christian Church needed a universal primacy, and the Bishop of Rome was the obvious choice for the role.

The Anglican co-chairman of ARCIC was the Archbishop of Dublin, Henry McAdoo. A couple of years later his fellow Irish Archbishop, John Armstrong, called the Agreed Statement “a time bomb.” But Archbishop Runcie saw potential in the ARCIC statement. Runcie had a vision of a different, reordered papacy exercising a primacy of love and service. Just how much John Paul II comprehended is hard to say.

Pope Benedict XVI’s Sept. 16-19 visit to the United Kingdom, however, offered a series of tasters on what a universal primacy might look like. To begin, even if the British press tried to be cynical, it still gave the visitor acres of coverage. Only a papal visitor on a once-in-a-lifetime journey could achieve that. Inevitably media pundits were talking about how there were things Benedict XVI could do that Rowan Williams could not.

There are other signs that this new kind of papacy is emerging.

Benedict offered apologies. He apologized for the undiplomatic language of Walter Cardinal Kasper, who had told Focus magazine in Germany: “England is a secularized, pluralistic country nowadays. When you land at Heathrow you sometimes feel as though you were in a third world country.” It didn’t mean that he avoided the intent Kasper expressed. He simply found effective ways of putting across the message not to put trust in materialism and secularist ideology.

Benedict offered himself as a voice for the poorest. He said the financial crisis had caused “hardship to countless individuals and families” and expressed concern about growing unemployment, all in a context of British society locked in debate about how best to implement needed budget cuts and government deficit reduction.

While commentators said he did not express enough remorse about child abuse by priests, he neither dodged nor prevaricated. He left the church and the public in no doubt about his convictions. It “seriously undermined the moral credibility” of the Church, he said, and suggested one way the Church could “make reparations” was by sharing further afield the lessons it has learned.

One of the arts of Vatican watching involves interpreting what was not said. In poll after poll Roman Catholics in the U.K. have shown they dissent from aspects of official Church teaching. The Vatican did not try to heighten the temperature on debates about abortion, civil partnerships, or condom usage.

This enabled Benedict to engage with the huge question of the Christian’s role in civil society. What sort of future do British people want? What kind of society do they want for their children? His contention was that pluralism needed to be generous and informed by mutual respect, and this was heard well beyond the Roman Catholic community. It was clear Benedict shared common ground with Prime Minister David Cameron’s vision for the Big Society.

It means that politicians may well read more carefully what churches offer in their social teaching. Christian political activists will be less worried about being labeled “nutters” and they will enjoy greater leverage if the British electoral system is reformed enough to allow fairer play for minority interests.

There will be more confidence in questioning the rhetoric of aggressive secularists. Stephen Hawking may have achieved headlines, but there are influential scientists, encouraged by Benedict, who worry about atheism and science being conjoined. Hawking’s dogmatic certainty, they say, is not in harmony with scientific method.

Another achievement, due in part to Benedict’s willingness to meet leaders of other faith communities, as well as Christian leaders, is that as never before Roman Catholics will have increased confidence to believe they have a rightful place in the nation where they were once a persecuted, marginalized minority.

How much it will energize conservative Anglicans to seek the Roman fold is still an open question. What is certain, however, is that should they go to Rome they will not be choosing the social backwater that John Henry Newman entered when he gave up his comfortable Oxford living to become a Roman Catholic.

That is not to say that Benedict’s papacy represents the finished article of the new universal primacy which Robert Runcie sought. But the U.K. visit was a personal triumph, in no small measure thanks to Benedict himself. He does not possess the charisma of his predecessor, but as one Catholic commentator has said, he managed to dispel an image of being God’s Rottweiler, instead coming across as a gentle German Shepherd.

John Martin, in London