First Anglo-Catholic ordinariate slated for England, Wales

When Pope Benedict XVI announced last year that he was creating a special enclave in the Catholic Church for former Anglicans, the reaction was initially muted. No one seemed quite sure what this new canonical creature, known as an ordinariate — similar to a military vicariate — would turn out to be.  

The document the pope issued in November 2009, Anglicanorum Coetibus (“Groups of Anglicans”), would allow Anglicans to enter into communion with Rome in groups, holding onto their “spiritual patrimony.” They would be full Catholics yet under a separate jurisdiction. Was this a bridge over the Tiber, or a boat still tied to the Thames? And who would take it up? 

Both critics and advocates could agree on one thing: The ordinariate would not, at first, be much of a big deal — not, at least, in the United Kingdom, where the Anglo-Papalists were said to be too busy fighting for their rightful corner in the Church of England to be distracted by Pope Benedict’s offer. The first ordinariate, it was widely assumed, would be in Australia, where the Traditional Anglican Communion was known to be one of those who had requested the structure. 

Big announcement 

But last month, at a press conference after a plenary meeting of the bishops of England and Wales, expectations were suddenly upgraded again. Not only would England and Wales create the world’s first ordinariate, it would do so as soon as January. And rather than a trickle of applicants, the first wave would include five bishops, dozens of priests and 30 groups of faithful (somewhere around 300-400 people), who will be received as Catholics as soon as next Easter. 

The numbers of clergy and faithful could not be specified, said Bishop Alan Hopes, (a Westminster auxiliary and a former Anglican) because none had yet publicly announced their intention to join. But it was clear from his remarks that dozens of clergy and hundreds of faithful had begun a period of instruction and formation. 

The timetable is tightly focused. The five Anglican bishops, who have been receiving “intensive instruction” from the Catholic Church, will resign Dec. 31. Three of them will be ordained as Catholic priests in early January (the other two are retired). Around the same time, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will issue a decree establishing the ordinariate — expected to be named after Blessed John Henry Newman — and the ordinary (assumed to be one of the three ex-bishops) will be announced. 

Then, before Lent, “those Anglican clergy with groups of faithful who have decided to enter the ordinariate will then begin a period of intense formation for ordination as Catholic priests,” Bishop Hopes explained. Along with the laypeople who have asked to join the ordinariate, they will follow a course of instruction leading to their reception into the Catholic Church at the Holy Week liturgies; at that point, the priest candidates will be ordained to the diaconate and will be ordained as Catholic priests at Pentecost. 

Clarifying the decision 

Why will the ordinariate be so much larger than at first thought? The answer lies partly in internal Church of England politics. Ever since the Church of England decided to proceed to ordain women as bishops, Anglo-Catholics have argued for a continuation of the special provision for those who object to the move, an extension of the separate episcopal oversight (“flying bishops”) of Anglo-Catholic parishes put in place after the decision to ordain women as priests in 1992. Knowing that this year the Church of England Synod would be passing various measures enabling female bishops, even those Anglo-Catholics who were delighted by the pope’s offer stayed quiet, not wanting to weaken their party’s bargaining power. 

After voting in February to proceed to ordaining women as bishops in 2012, the July synod delivered the final blow — a narrow but decisive vote against allowing exemption from the authority of a female bishop. In July, some 70 Anglo-Catholics met an English Catholic bishop, Malcolm McMahon of Nottingham, for “preliminary discussion” on applying for an ordinariate. Although many Anglo-Catholics remained determined to continue to play synod politics, the majority realized that the time had come to choose between a Church of England that had gone in a decidedly Protestant direction, and a place in the Catholic Church that would enable them to retain their sense of separate identity.  

Melding traditions

The choice having been clarified, there is little doubt that Pope Benedict’s triumphant September visit helped many to make it. The sight of the successor of St. Peter in the United Kingdom helped Anglo-Catholics overcome an inherited suspicion that Roman Catholicism and Englishness are in some way opposed. The pope was never short in his praise of Britain, and what made the English great; he began his sermon at the Mass to beatify Cardinal Newman by recalling the British battle against Nazism, and “the long line of saints and scholars from these islands”: Sts. Bede, Hilda, Aelred, and Blessed Duns Scotus. 

This idea of the ordinariate as the nursery of future Anglican-Catholic unity has been gaining ground since Pope Benedict described the ordinariate on his September visit as “a prophetic gesture that can contribute positively to the developing relations between Anglicans and Catholics,” one that helps toward the goal of “full ecclesial communion” by enabling a mutual appreciation of the gifts of the “spiritual patrimonies” of Catholicism and Anglicanism. Rather than a gesture that gives up on the dream of unity, the ordinariate can be seen as a way of melding the two traditions in a way that points to the future.  

Speaking at the press conference, Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster mentioned patterns of personal devotion, spiritual reading, a better sense of mission as well as “patterns of church governance” as being gifts the former Anglicans would bring to the Catholic Church through the ordinariate. “We will learn more about each other, and that will serve our wider purpose of full, visible communion,” he said. 

But all of that is in the future. What the ordinariate will become even over the next few years is not yet clear. Archbishop Nichols said he was “open to whichever way this develops,” either into “something significant” or “whether over time the groups … naturally absorb themselves into Catholic dioceses.” But one thing seems already clear: The ordinariate looks set to reshape the contours of Western Christianity.  

Austen Ivereigh writes from England.

What is an Ordinariate? (sidebar)

It is an extraterritorial jurisdiction, similar to a military vicariate, which provides for the pastoral care of former Anglicans. Its members are full members of the Catholic Church but belong to the ordinariate rather than a diocese.  

The document allowing for the creation of ordinariates, Anglicanorum Coetibus, provides for a governing council of six priests, presided over by an ordinary. The council’s consent is needed for the admission of candidates for ordination and other matters. The ordinariate also has a finance council and a pastoral council for consultation with the laity. The ordinary is appointed by the pope and exercises authority in his name.  

In addition to the Roman rite, the ordinariate will make use of liturgical books in the Anglican tradition that are approved by the Vatican.