For a good deal of my life I’ve known Episcopalians and especially high-church Episcopalians. I first encountered them when I was in high school, and it seemed to me that they fit very well with Catholics. Later on, when I was a young priest during the heyday of the ecumenical movement, I felt this again. I attended many ecumenical dialogues in Episcopal churches and always felt at home. I especially remember being in the Church of the Transfiguration in New York City. The only thing that gave away the fact that this church wasn’t Roman Catholic was that it was too traditionally arranged. I must confess that I liked that aspect of Episcopal churches; I liked the idea that they had not been swamped by the liturgical hurricane that had so affected Catholic churches during the seventies.
As of this writing, the word is that a good number of Anglicans, including priests and bishops, are coming into the Church through the new ordinariate set up by Pope Benedict XVI. This affects not only American Episcopalians but Anglicans in Britain and other places, as well. The ever-increasing liberalism of much of mainstream Anglicanism has left a good number of people in Anglican pews feeling that they no longer have a place in their church and have no choice but to leave.
If those who are “crossing the Tiber,” as Anglicans say about people who join the Catholic Church, are anything like the Episcopalians I used to know, their arrival could have some unexpected benefits. They are fleeing what they consider to be theological confusion, and they certainly will not find such confusion in the Catholic Church. What they will often find, however, is liturgical confusion — or at least a lackluster approach to liturgy. American Episcopalians and other Anglicans are used to a very stately and beautiful approach to the Eucharistic liturgy. They are also used to very high standards in regard to liturgical music. Unfortunately, we cannot say the same. I suspect that many former Anglicans will be somewhat shocked by the lack of liturgical propriety, the casualness, of many Roman Catholic parishes. I can imagine former Anglicans having to take a deep breath before facing some of the hymns we sing these days, not to mention some of the liturgical “goings on” of American Catholics. I have long suspected that there is a special room in Purgatory reserved for Catholics who are guilty of liturgical silliness and those who have abandoned the simple elegance and propriety that should characterize the liturgy in favor of meaningless innovations. The punishment of the poor souls in that room will doubtless involve listening to repeated recordings of the hymns from Glory and Praise.
The big question, of course, is why one Anglican leaves the church of his birth for the Roman Catholic Church while another is perfectly satisfied to stay where he is. What makes the theological innovations of contemporary Anglicanism unendurable to some and tolerable to others? A simple answer might be: the gift of faith. Obviously many Anglicans have a great deal of faith. I remember years ago knowing the Episcopal Sisters of St. Mary in Peekskill, New York. They were certainly women of deep faith. Their lives and their faith were and remain very Catholic. Despite this they have not (yet) joined the Roman Catholic Church. Yet another community of Episcopal sisters, the All Saints Sisters of the Poor, was received into the Church some months ago by Archbishop O’Brien.
What’s the difference? I believe that without the gift of faith — that final push from God — accepting the primacy of St. Peter and the dogmatic teachings of the Catholic Church may be seen as too great a leap for many Anglicans. Some are afraid of being stifled in the Catholic Church; they believe the Church to be too demanding; they think we will somehow take away their freedom of thought. They are awaiting that final grace that will enable them to put their fears, prejudices, and hesitations behind them and enter the Church.
Will they be saved even if they never convert? Of course they will. I’m sure we will find many people in heaven whose presence there will surprise us greatly. Baptism of Desire has long been a teaching of the Church, and I doubt that we can imagine the great number of people who have been saved through it. Yet this is a moment when a large number of Anglicans have received that final push. We should admire them for their faith and courage. We should also be welcoming. If we are, these new Roman Catholics may help us make our liturgical life more proper and perhaps even beautiful once again. TP