By Austen Ivereigh
Pope Benedict XVI’s out-of-the-blue offer Oct. 20 of a corporate home to Anglicans despairing of the direction of their church was a strategic act of brilliance that may turn out to be “the most explosive development in Anglican-Catholic relations since the Reformation,” as the London Times wrote.
The leader of Britain’s largest Catholic diocese, Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, and his Anglican counterpart, Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, appeared together at a press conference to reassure the world that as far as relations between their two churches were concerned, it was “business as usual.” But no one believed them.
It has always been open for Anglicans individually to seek communion with Rome, and traffic has been bolstered at times of crisis. But the notion that whole parishes or dioceses could come under Rome’s wing while retaining their liturgies and bishops was discounted by Cardinal George Basil Hume, partly out of a desire not to undermine the prospect of Catholic-Anglican unification.
Fearing that such would be the effect of the news that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) will allow precisely such “personal ordinariates” through a forthcoming apostolic constitution, Archbishops Nichols and Williams sought to play down the potential damage to that dialogue.
Yet Archbishop Williams looked uncomfortable, and admitted that he had first known of the move only two weeks earlier.
An “ordinariate,” the CDF’s note explained, “will allow former Anglicans to enter full communion with the Catholic Church while preserving elements of the distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony”; it would allow for “pastoral oversight and guidance” under an ordinary to be appointed from among former Anglican clergy. Within this legal structure, Anglicans who want to accept the authority of Peter without renouncing their traditions could do so corporately, as whole congregations.
The concessions are remarkable. Married Anglican clergy, as now, will be able to become Catholic priests, by means of a (re)ordination; but under the scheme their ordinary — equivalent to a bishop — would be a former Anglican priest or an unmarried bishop. Seminarians would even be trained in separate houses in order “to address the particular needs of formation in the Anglican patrimony” — and would be able to marry. Also, while separate approval would be needed, the former Anglicans would be able to keep their texts and choir dress, as happens now with the “Anglican Use” parishes in the United States.
But unlike the United States, where the impact of Anglican Use parishes on the life of the Catholic Church is minimal, the numbers taking up the offer in Britain could be huge. Forward in Faith, the umbrella group of traditionalist Anglicans, claims 1,000 clergy and 6,000 more followers — most of them in England. Others pondering the pope’s invitation will be thousands who have left the Anglican Communion, such as the 400,000 gathered in the worldwide Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC).
Not all will leap. “Some Anglicans in the Catholic tradition understandably will want to stay within the Anglican Communion,” the two “flying bishops” in the Church of England — responsible for overseeing those parishes that never accepted the Anglican decision to ordain women as priests in the early 1990s — said in a statement. “Others will wish to make individual arrangements as their conscience directs. A further group of Anglicans, we think, will begin to form a caravan, rather like the People of Israel crossing the desert in search of the Promised Land.”
Just how many will make that journey will depend on whether they believe they can glimpse the Promised Land from the staging post of the apostolic constitution. Even then, little will be clear until the personal ordinariate is established.
An Anglo-Catholic priest who has for some years been watching the Anglican crisis with mounting dismay told Our Sunday Visitor he was delighted by the generosity of the pope’s welcome, but could not be sure exactly what was being offered. “For us, being Christian means being under a bishop,” he said. “A semi-diocese not headed by a bishop would be incomprehensible to us.”
The take-up, in other words, will depend on the details to be worked out. Yet on paper it seems that Catholic-leaning Anglicans have been offered what they have long sought — a means of entering into communion while retaining high-Anglican ritual. For many, the obstacle has been the cultural and liturgical leap into post-Second Vatican Council Catholicism. By offering a halfway house, the apostolic constitution could well soften the landing enough for many to cross the Tiber.
If thousands cross, the Catholic Church in England and Wales will never look the same — not least because it would bring in potentially hundreds of married priests. The married Anglican priests who were reordained in the early 1990s were mostly sent to work as chaplains. The new influx will come over with congregations, and continue to minister to them.
The most enduring effect of Pope Benedict’s firecracker may lie in the discussions and negotiations that will now open up between Anglican traditionalists and Roman Catholics, deepening the bonds of understanding between them on which the success of this great experiment so depends. The outworkings of the English Reformation have never looked stranger.
Many groups have requested of Rome some form of corporate unification since at least 2004, when the crisis erupted in the Anglican Communion over the ordination of a homosexual bishop. Concerned that the crisis was driving Anglicans and Catholics apart, traditionalist Anglicans held meetings with Vatican officials.
The decision by the General Synod of the Church of England in July 2008 to proceed with the ordination of women as bishops, and to refuse a separate jurisdiction to Anglo-Catholics opposed to that move, was another turning point. Two bishops traveled to Rome that month to request a corporate reception. Yet Rome was anxious not to be seen as taking advantage of the crisis in the Anglican Communion.
Some also have speculated that the previous Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, one of the architects of the Catholic-Anglican dialogue (ARCIC), would have opposed the move. He retired earlier this year and was succeeded by Archbishop Vincent Nichols.
Another factor may have been the upcoming papal visit to Great Britain, likely in September 2010. Had the announcement come too close to the visit, the feeling of some Anglicans that they are being “annexed” by Rome would have been all the greater.
Austen Ivereigh writes from England.
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