A bridge across the Tiber

In November 2009, I was traveling to a retreat with fellow pastoral provision priests. We are the married former Anglican and Episcopalian priests who function as Catholic priests in the United States. While we were on our way, the news broke that Pope Benedict XVI had established a personal ordinariate for former Anglicans. 

We discovered that the Anglican ordinariate was to be a unique structure within the Catholic Church that allows Christians from the Anglican tradition to come into full communion with the Catholic Church while retaining many of their customs, worship traditions and distinctive liturgy. The document establishing the ordinariate was called Anglicanorum Coetibus.

Having arrived at the retreat center, the talk was all about this exciting new step toward church unity taken by Pope Benedict. Msgr. William Stetson, the coordinator of the pastoral provision, was present and questions were whizzing back and forth. Would the former Anglicans have their own bishops? Would married priests be allowed? How would conversions be dealt with? Who was going to be in charge? How did the Anglicans and Episcopalians feel about it?

Extraordinary ordinariate

Anglicanorum Coetibus marks its fifth anniversary this month. To understand just what the personal ordinariate is, we have to remember that the Catholic Church includes many more groups and organizational systems than the typical Latin diocese. There are the ancient churches of the East like the Chaldeans, Maronites, Melkites, Copts and many others. These churches retain their ancient liturgies, cultural customs and their own hierarchy. Many of them permit married men to be ordained, and their traditions, vestments, art and architecture are unique to their particular cultures.

The Anglican ordinariate is best understood within that context. It is unique, however, because it is the first Catholic subgroup to derive its history from the churches of the Reformation. This means it is not an ancient historical church like the Eastern Rite churches, because the Anglican Church was formed as a breakaway from the Roman Catholic Church.

It is called an “ordinariate” because the head of the group is the “ordinary.” A bishop is usually called the “ordinary” of his diocese, and the ordinariate is like a diocese, but functioning over a group of people rather than a geographical territory. The ordinary is not a bishop because the post is open to a married man, and following the tradition of the East, while married men may sometimes be ordained as Catholic priests, they cannot be made bishops.

Once Anglicanorum Coetibus got the ball rolling, Anglicans and former Anglicans around the world began to make their plans for the formation of ordinariates in different parts of the world. Functioning in England, Wales and Scotland, the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham was the first to be established in January 2011. A year later, the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter was established in the United States. Also open to former Methodists (because they are an offshoot of Anglicanism), the American ordinariate covers both the United States and Canada. In June 2012, the ordinariate for Australia was formed as the Ordinariate of Our Lady of the Southern Cross.

The Anglican ordinariate is an extraordinary and unexpected creation. Never before has a pope established a new ecclesial structure like it. It is a brave experiment — an innovative move toward church unity and a controversial action on the part of Rome. By some accounts, its creation was greeted with dismay by the Anglican leadership. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was surprised by the move, while other Anglican leaders said it was insensitive, predatory and unnecessary. They could not help but perceive it as an attempt by the pope to steal sheep from their flock.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster prays as former Anglican bishops John Broadhurst, Andrew Burnham and Keith Newton lie prostrate during their ordination as Catholic priests at Westminster Cathedral in London in 2011. CNS photo

Why this, why now?

The Anglicans’ reaction was understandable. For some time now in England, the numbers of Catholics at Mass on a Sunday far surpass the number of Anglicans at church. Despite the fact that the Church of England owns all the ancient cathedrals, colleges and churches that were once Catholic, the number of English people who worship in the Church of England is far smaller than the number of Catholics. Pope Benedict’s move seemed threatening.

What the Anglicans did not understand is that Pope Benedict was not actively reaching out to convert Anglicans, but was responding to repeated requests from Anglicans around the world for a way to become Catholic while retaining their beloved traditions. These requests had been arriving in Rome with regularity since the late 1970s. 

When the Episcopal Church of the United States ordained women for the first time in 1977, a group of priests from the Episcopal Church petitioned Rome, asking to receive dispensations from the vow of celibacy, allowing them to be ordained as Catholic priests. In 1980, Pope St. John Paul II established the process called the pastoral provision, opening the door for married former Anglicans to be ordained. At that time, Rome also allowed Anglican Use parishes to be erected. These were parishes that used an Anglican style liturgy authorized by Rome. While they had their own liturgy, they remained part of established Catholic dioceses.

lighting candles
Marc Fisher watches his daughter, Mary Margaret, 5, light a candle at Mount Calvary Church in Baltimore in 2012. CNS photo

When women were ordained in 1994 in England and Wales, the Holy See extended the pastoral provision to that country. It was also quietly extended to bishops in other parts of the world who had married, former Anglican priests knocking on their door seeking Catholic ordination. Now there are about 500 married former Anglicans serving as Catholic priests around the world.

Despite these provisions, groups of Anglicans still came to the pope asking for another way to come into full communion. The most prominent voice was that of the Traditional Anglican Communion. The TAC is a confederation of the “continuing Anglican” churches that had broken away from the Anglican Communion under the Archbishop of Canterbury. In October 2007, the leader of the Traditional Anglican Communion, along with his college of bishops, voted to seek full communion with Rome. It was in response to this appeal by a global Anglican communion of churches that the Vatican began to explore the possibility of a personal ordinariate for Anglicans. Once it was established, however, the TAC split and most of them decided to reject the Vatican’s offer.

The Anglican ordinariate should be seen, therefore, as an attempt by the Catholic Church to offer a way forward for a particular group of Christians separated from full communion with the Catholic Church. 

The sad truth is that Christians who worship in the Anglican tradition are now disastrously divided. The Anglican Communion is made up of national, self-governed churches from around the world. In addition to the Anglican Communion, there are more than 120 separate Anglican-style denominations and individual churches. They range from very modernist and liberal to archconservative, and from very Protestant to very Catholic in their theology and styles of worship. While it was established as a response to a small minority of Anglicans, the Anglican ordinariate could be a bridge across the Tiber not only for Anglicans, but for many other non-Catholic Christians.

The ordinariate now

The Anglican ordinariate is now five years old. Where is it now and what does the future hold? For many reasons, the ordinariate has not been as immediately popular or successful as first hoped. It must be admitted that a good number of the Anglicans who say they want formal communion with the Catholic Church too often want to retain not only their Anglican traditions, but their church buildings, their positions as bishops and clergy, and their independence. A good number who were on the shore of the Tiber decided not to cross over after all.

In England and the United States, parish groups that wished to leave the Anglican Church have failed in their attempts to keep their buildings or even to use Anglican church buildings for worship. In most cases, the American Episcopal Church has hit back hard with lawsuits against those parish groups that wish to leave their jurisdiction. The Anglican hierarchy has been quieter but just as resistant to ordinariate groups worshipping in Anglican buildings. One of the treasures of the Anglican tradition is the beautiful buildings, and some Anglicans who thought of joining the ordinariate find it too difficult to leave their beautiful churches.

There are other problems: The Anglican Use liturgy is based on the 17th century Book of Common Prayer. The modern Anglican and Episcopal liturgies, however, have been in a process of revision since the 1970s. Most Anglican and Episcopal clergy and people have never used the Book of Common Prayer from 1662. The Anglican Use liturgy is for them an archaic part of the Anglican patrimony and not necessarily something they treasure. Adapting to the Anglican Use liturgy therefore seems difficult and unreasonable.

The ordinary in the United Kingdom, Msgr. Keith Newton, has admitted that the ordinariate has not grown as much as they had hoped and that they are having serious financial difficulties. In the United States, Ordinary Msgr. Jeffrey Steenson presides over about 35 communities, but financial problems also beset the American ordinariate. There are a good number of convert clergy — and more in training — but the ordinariate is in the unusual situation of a Catholic group in the United States having more clergy than congregations to support them. Consequently, most of the priests ordained for the ordinariate serve in support posts like chaplaincies within Latin Rite dioceses while they also try to build up their small flock of former Anglicans. The Australian ordinariate has about a dozen congregations. 

The first five years for the ordinariates have been a time to establish foundations, overcome teething problems, find their identity and forge their mission.

‘Quo Vadis’ Anglicans?

Quo Vadis?”—“Where are you going?” — was the question Peter was supposed to have asked Jesus. After five years, it is important for the members of the Anglican ordinariate to ask themselves where they are going.

The weakness of the Anglicans is the weakness of all Protestants: Lacking a central authority, they are too often a law unto themselves. Tending toward division and individualism, there are too many different strands of Anglicanism, and this same division can be an unfortunate part of the ordinariate movement. Members of the ordinariate may have an identity problem. They love the Anglican traditions, but just what are they exactly? Are they supposed to be traditional high-church Anglicans with “bells and smells,” or are they Evangelical “low-church” Anglicans? Are they supposed to embrace charismatic worship and spirituality, or are they more staid and conventional?

All the different streams can be strengths, but the different tendencies can also cause division.

The great strength of the Anglican tradition is to meld the different streams of Anglicanism together into a church which is Evangelical-Charismatic-Catholic.

If the leaders of the ordinariate can succeed in bringing together and holding in balance the best of the different Anglican streams of tradition, they will have a strong appeal not only to existing Anglicans, but also to other non-Catholic Christians and to members of the convergence movement: former Evangelicals who have founded Anglican-style churches.

If the ordinariate movement is to survive and thrive, it will need to develop its own strong identity — an identity that will help with the work of evangelization, and an identity that will draw many from the differing streams of non-Catholic Christianity into the full unity and communion of Christ’s one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church.

Father Dwight Longenecker is a former Anglican priest ordained under the Pastoral Provision. Visit his blog and browse his books at dwightlongenecker.com.

Anglican Church Timeline
1529: Henry VIII breaks with Catholic Church over his divorce, establishes the Church of England.
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