Robert Webber, a professor at the evangelical Wheaton College, chronicled the phenomenon in a book called “Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail,” co-written with Lester Ruth, while noted evangelical scholar Thomas Howard gave his own witness on the trail in his now classic “Evangelical is Not Enough.” Disenchanted with the limitations of American evangelicalism and attracted by the literary heritage of Anglicanism, the rich culture of England and a fresh interest in church history, liturgy and the beauty of Anglican worship, many young American evangelicals turned toward Anglicanism.
I was one of them. After attending Bob Jones University, afflicted with a severe case of Anglophilia, I had the chance to study theology at Oxford, in England, and was ultimately ordained as a priest in the Church of England. Fifteen years later, I and my family were received into full communion with the Catholic Church. For me the road to Canterbury continued on to Rome.
The same adventure is being embarked on by a new generation of evangelicals. Drawn by the thought of C.S. Lewis and the cultural richness of Anglicanism, evangelicals go looking for the simple historic faith in the Anglican church, but are soon disappointed. The church of Lewis, T.S. Eliot, Charles Williams and Dorothy Sayers no longer exists. In the 50 years since their departures, the churches of the Anglican Communion in the developed world have gone the route of all the major Protestant denominations, into a radical modernist religion influenced more by the spirit of the age than the Holy Spirit. A good example of this was the vote in July 2015 by the Episcopal General Convention to approve church weddings for same-sex couples, with the provisions that clergy may for now refuse to perform same-sex services and that bishops may prohibit them in their diocese.
Should these sincere evangelical seekers find their way to a Catholic Church in the United States they will be disappointed for different reasons. The Catholic Church in America has its own history and traditions which are totally alien to the great Anglican tradition. Furthermore, in too many U.S. Catholic parishes, the essentially conservative, Bible-centered evangelical will find a form of Christianity loaded with cultural accretions, Catholic devotions and customs that most evangelicals will find strange and alienating.
This is where the Anglican Ordinariate can come into its own.
The Anglican Ordinariate is 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 Anglican Ordinariate is best understood by remembering that the Catholic Church includes many different groups and organizational systems. We know the typical diocesan structure, but there are other forms of church within the Catholic Church. The ancient churches of the East — such as the Chaldeans, Maronites, Melkites, Copts and others — retain their ancient liturgies, cultural customs and their own hierarchy. Many of them permit married men to be ordained and their traditions, music, vestments, art and architecture are unique to their particular cultures.
A New Step Forward
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 Latin-rite Catholic Church.
The background for the formation of the Anglican Ordinariate is one of individuals stepping out in faith with the Catholic Church responding with creativity and trust. In response to women’s ordination in the Episcopal Church in 1977, a group of Episcopal priests petitioned Rome asking for dispensations from the vow of celibacy and allowing them to be ordained as Catholic priests.
In 1980, Pope St. John Paul II responded positively to their request and established the process called the pastoral provision, opening the door for married former Anglicans to be ordained. At that time, Rome also allowed parishes to be erected in which an Anglican-style liturgy, authorized by Rome, could be used.
When women were allowed to be ordained in the Church of England, beginning in 1994, 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 witnessed married former Anglican priests knocking on their door seeking Catholic ordination.
Despite these provisions, groups of Anglicans still asked the Pope 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 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 that Pope Benedict XVI established the Anglican Ordinariate in 2011 with the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus.
Once Anglicanorum Coetibus established the framework, Anglicans and former Anglicans around the world began to make 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 (since 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 with the name 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 and an innovative move toward church unity, as well as a controversial action on the part of Rome.
Division Leads to Division
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. The national churches each express their own type of Anglicanism depending on their culture and history. The Anglican church in Nigeria, for example, is very different than the Anglican church in Canada or the United States. Within these self-governed, national churches there is also a broad range of theological opinions, worship styles and spiritualities.
In addition to the wide spectrum of theological views and worship styles within the established Anglican church, there are also more than 120 separate “continuing Anglican churches.” These are small groups of Anglicans who have broken away from the main Anglican establishment. These groups represent the same breadth of opinion within Anglicanism. Some are Anglo Catholic, some Protestant Evangelical.
Some are charismatic, others staid Calvinists. Some are wildly radical in their liberal views, others wildly radical in their conservative opinions. Anglicanism has never been more divided.
In addition to the continuing church movement something new has developed. The convergent church movement is a group of former evangelicals who have walked the Canterbury Trail in a different way. Instead of becoming Episcopalian or Anglican, they have forged their own new church communities, adopting and adapting Anglican-style liturgies, getting their leaders ordained as bishops and instituting new forms of church that aims to be at once innovative and up-to-date while also embracing the best of historic Christianity with an Anglican flavor.
A New Reach for Reunion
The ordinariate movement may be a way to draw these vastly diffuse strands of contemporary Anglicanism together into unity with one another and with the Catholic Church. To do this, the members of the ordinariate will need to be fired with a strong evangelical sense of mission, not waiting for others to come to them, but ready to reach out and build bridges and new communities of unity.
The great strength of the Anglican tradition is to meld the different streams of Anglicanism together into a form of churchmanship which is evangelical-charismatic-Catholic.
Unfortunately, that diversity is also Anglicanism’s greatest weakness. The Anglicans break and divide because they lack an agreed upon, central authority. Without a head the body crumbles.
If the leaders of the ordinariate can succeed in bringing together and holding in balance the best of the different streams of tradition, they will have a strong appeal not only to existing Anglicans, but also to other non-Catholic Christians and members of the convergence movement.
By coming into full communion with Rome the Anglicans in the ordinariate will retain their unique heritage and contribute their gifts to the whole Church while being drawn together into the stability, communion and unity of Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.