What would it mean if 100 Anglican parishes in the United States were to become Catholic virtually overnight? That question is not so speculative after the Anglican Church in America voted earlier this month to seek to join the Catholic Church under provisions set up late last year by Pope Benedict XVI. 

If the Anglicans’ petition is accepted — as is expected, though the process will take at least a year — these parishes will retain much of their Anglican character. Their liturgy and spirituality will remain much the same as it has always been. 

For the Anglicans involved, it will mean new doctrinal depths, say Anglicans who have trod that path before. But it will also mean attachment to Rome, and a change in their identity. 

For the Catholic Church, it will mean new liturgical vistas that some Latin-rite Catholics have found they prefer to the predominant liturgy of the West. But it will also mean an increase in the practice of the married priesthood. 

For both groups, there are also questions about ownership of church buildings and land. 

Rich cultural patrimony 

Pope Benedict’s apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus gives “groups of Anglicans” the opportunity to enter into full communion with the Church through the creation of personal ordinariates, structures similar to dioceses. In Orlando, Fla., March 3, the U.S. branch of the Traditional Anglican Communion became the third group to request an ordinariate. 

Father Dwight Longenecker, a former Anglican priest who was ordained a Catholic priest in 2006, said the pope’s outreach is “a positive and creative way to take ecumenism with Anglicans to the logical next step.” 

“Although no one is saying so,” he said, “I think at a very high level members of the Catholic hierarchy realize that ecumenism with the other Anglicans will be increasingly difficult and fruitless.” 

Father Longenecker, a parish priest and Catholic school chaplain in Greeneville, S.C., said Catholic reaction to their new co-religionists “remains to be seen.” He hoped Catholics could learn to appreciate “the rich spiritual, musical, liturgical and cultural patrimony of the Anglican tradition.” 

More formal liturgy 

If Dr. Marc Pecha is any indication, Catholics might learn to do just that. He attends Our Lady of the Atonement Parish in San Antonio, perhaps one of the best-known “Anglican-use” Catholic parishes. Pecha grew up as a Latin-rite Catholic in Tennessee but appreciates the Anglican-use liturgy. 

“We enjoy the use of more formal, older English language and how that reorients our thoughts to Christ,” he said. “One really gets a sense from the words of the canon and the priest or deacon’s sermons that we are present at Calvary, at the sacrifice of the Cross which is the Mass.” 

Father Longenecker stressed that the liturgy “conforms fully to Catholic doctrine and discipline,” and is based on the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, but adapted to conform to Catholic beliefs. 

Better, he said, the liturgy might even attract lapsed Catholics and Protestants. 

Catholics who may have “drifted from parishes which are heterodox and liturgy which is banal and full of abuses,” might appreciate the formality of worship in Anglican-use parishes. 

Protestants “who are looking for a liturgical, historical and beautiful church, but who find the typical Catholic parish difficult for whatever reasons” also might benefit. 

Even Pecha’s Colombian-born wife, Margarita, has grown to love the liturgy. 

“She is very happy with the sense of seriousness in the priests and deacons and the lack of ‘silliness’ seen in other parishes,” he said. “For example, in many parishes, there is an attempt toward the informal — dress, language, laughter, felt banners — and it distracts from the Body of Christ on the altar. Somehow the more formal and lofty language of the Anglican Use and the traditional statues, pictures, etc., serves as a bulwark against such informality.” 

And then there’s the music. The Anglican hymnal is “far superior in both music and text to what passes for sacred music in most English-speaking Catholic parishes today,” said Father John Jay Hughes, the son and grandson of Anglican priests who was an Anglican priest for six years before he became Catholic in 1960. He’s now a St. Louis archdiocesan priest. 

“The use of older hymns has had an astounding effect on the sense of holiness during the Mass,” Pecha said. “I feel robbed of the rich history of such beautiful music — I was never exposed to such music as a cradle Catholic; I never would have thought such well-ordered [and] sung music could add so much to the sense of mystery present in the Mass.” 

Sigh of relief 

Doctrinally, some bigger changes might have to be made — on the part of the Anglicans. “If they have not done so already, they will have to accept the fullness of Catholic doctrines,” said Father Longenecker. 

Nonetheless, the decision will be literally a godsend. “They will experience a great sense of relief in not having to fight their fellow Anglicans anymore simply because they want to hold to the historic faith,” he said. “They will also breathe a sigh of relief because they are no longer just another Anglican schism church. They will now fully be part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” 

Father Hughes concurred. 

Anglicans who become Catholic will find they have moved “from an atmosphere of almost anything goes to a spacious home where the faith once delivered to the saints is taught with authority and lived with joy. They will be able to receive the sacraments in any Catholic Church the world over.” 

But will these new communities increase the call for married priesthood in the Church? 

“That has not proved the case with the more than 100 married men who have been ordained Catholic priests, almost all of them former Episcopalian,” said Father Hughes. “That has been accepted as an exception.” 

Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.

Into Communion (sidebar)

The Traditional Anglican Communion, with its primatial see headed by Archbishop John Hepworth in Adelaide, Australia, has been in talks with the Vatican for decades about entering into full communion. It has 44 national churches, and 500,000 to 1 million members (compared with the Anglican Communion’s 90 million members). 

The Traditional Anglican Communion’s U.S. branch is the third group to respond positively to the Vatican’s invitation. (The first was the United Kingdom branch and the second was the 16-parish Australian branch of the Forward in Faith traditionalist group.) 

Not long after the Americans, the Canadian-branch of the Traditional Anglican Communion also started the process of joining the Catholic Church.