Over Christmas, a college student told me that he had read a book about England’s King Henry VIII, who separated English Christianity from Catholicism 500 years ago. He said it was because the king wanted to divorce his wife.
I told him that Henry wanted to be rid of his wife, but he was not looking for a divorce. Henry was seeking an annulment. When the pope denied him, Henry left the Church.
I asked this young man if he had ever heard of a more recent English king, Edward VIII. He had not. Edward, I explained, renounced the throne in 1936 to marry Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced woman. The Anglican Church refused to accept this marriage, and the Anglican Church won.
The Anglican Church in Britain, parent of the U.S. Episcopal Church, not only has accepted divorce but also now approves of many practices unimagined at the time of Henry VIII. Eighty years ago, it accepted, as a last resort, artificial birth control. Today, the last resort has become the routine.
It has approved of divorce and remarriage. More recently, the Episcopal Church approved same-sex marriage, for all practical purposes. It tolerates cohabitation without marriage and intimacy between persons with same-sex attractions.
More than a few Episcopalians have found that enough is enough. Some have become Roman Catholics, including many Episcopal clergy and a bishop.
The latest chapter in the story is the disciplinary action by all the world’s Anglican archbishops to exclude the American Episcopal Church from any decision-making in the Anglican Communion for three years.
This most recent move, and the drift away from the denomination by many members, is no reason for Catholics to cheer. It means that one more Christian group is losing ground, and this weakens the force of religion in our culture already so secular and becoming more so.
Instead, Catholics should stop to think.
The Episcopal Church is in its present fix ultimately because it has no settled overall authority, and it redefines tradition, even the most ancient Christian tradition, at the will of a majority of members at any given time. Thus it was with its shift regarding divorce, and then artificial birth control, and then homosexuality, and so on.
It does not a theological genius take to see that if one ancient traditional belief can be radically changed by majority rule, then nothing is sacred, and nothing therefore is sure.
Catholics cannot point at the quarrelling Episcopalians. All too many Catholics are falling into the same trap. Artificial birth control has become a way of life, so why do not the pope and the bishops get in line?
For the Catholic Church, its most precious possession is the revelation of reality given it by Jesus, reality as it pertains to human life given it by the Son of God and so intently preserved over the century.
The Church, nor Catholics individually, can never exclude anyone, but it cannot dilute or change what Jesus taught.
Over the recent past, the Episcopal Church had tried to compromise, hold to tradition but make exceptions. The Anglican Church would not officially witness the wedding of Prince Charles, heir to the British throne and Edward VIII’s grand-nephew, to a divorced woman. To confuse its position, however, it allowed him to come to a church — after his marriage before a civil magistrate — “to be blessed.”
His mother, Queen Elizabeth II, head of the Anglican Church, refused to attend his wedding but went to the blessing. What did that say? He could not marry anyone divorced, but then again, it was fine.
Watching this argument among Anglicans, Catholics should learn.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.