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The Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham took shape in Holy Week in the United Kingdom when some 950 laypeople, together with 64 members of the clergy, all former Anglicans, were received into the Catholic Church. This new canonical structure allows them to preserve their spiritual and liturgical “patrimony.” The idea of the ordinariate—a kind of extraterritorial diocese announced in Pope Benedict XVI’s unexpected apostolic constitution “Anglicanorum Coetibus” (“Groups of Anglicans”) of November 2009—is that people and priests can enter into communion with the Holy See together and stay together. Some 33 groups did so in Holy Week during low-key ceremonies separate from the reception of catechumens at the Easter Vigil.

The jurisdiction, a novelty in canon law, was created by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith following requests from the five former Anglican bishops, now married Catholic priests, who make up the leadership of the new Personal Ordinariate. The former bishops approached Rome after the 2008 General Synod of the Church of England passed two significant motions: first, to proceed to the ordination of women as bishops; second, to refuse to allow a “third province” of traditionalist Anglicans with their own separate episcopal oversight. The Anglo-Catholics, whose ambition since the Oxford Movement of the nineteenth century has been corporate reunion with Rome, were now forced either to continue to lead a futile battle within a liberal-Protestant Church of England, or be accepted as individuals into the Catholic Church, which to many of them amounted to an abjuration of their lives as Christians and the integrity of their previous ecclesial existence. The Ordinariate, on the other hand, would make possible a form of corporate reunion with small beginnings but could swell over time.

Mark Crane, a 23-year old trainee lawyer who was received on Wednesday of Holy Week at Newman House in central London, said that when “Anglicanorum Coetibus” appeared he realized he would have to choose. “I remember sitting and reading it and thinking: I can no longer stay in the Church of England and call myself Catholic if the Pope is now offering what we’ve always been praying for.”

The members of the central London ordinariate group were keen to dispel the media portrait of them as “disaffected Anglicans,” turning their backs on the Church of England because of its positions on women and gay clergy. The debates and votes on these were the “presenting issues” which “showed the Church of England had lost its anchor,” according to another of the ordinariate’s new members, Diane Morphew. Although they value Anglican spiritual traditions—Rome is expected in the Fall to approve liturgical books which draw on the Book of Common Prayer—they are quite at home with modern Catholic liturgy, a fact likely to disappoint British conservative Catholics wishfully seeing them as reinforcements in their own battles over liturgy.

During his visit to the U.K., Pope Benedict XVI told bishops the ordinariate was a “prophetic gesture” which could advance the eventual prospects of Anglican-Catholic unity by allowing for a “mutual exchange of gifts.” This depends, said Msgr. Andrew Burnham at the reception of former Anglicans into the Oxford ordinariate group at Easter, on its members not simply “melting into the crowd” but becoming a means of articulating Anglican patrimony to the Catholic Church and vice-versa. No-one is daring to make predictions about future numbers, but the central London group was optimistic that by this time next year its numbers will have doubled as the reservations of Catholic-minded Anglicans are gradually overcome.

Catholic and Anglican bishops have meanwhile set up a joint commission to discuss practical questions relating to the implementation of the scheme. Although media reports suggest the creation of the ordinariate has chilled relations between the Anglican Church and the Catholic Church, there seems little sign of this. ARCIC III, the third stage of the 40-year-old official Catholic-Anglican dialogue, begins in late May. Christopher Hill, the Anglican bishop of Guildford, said that where groups had decided to go to Rome, there was sadness but also “a sigh of relief that a decision has been made.” That relief was expressed by the new members of the central London group, who spoke of a “great peace,” of “coming home” and of being freed, now, for ordinary Christian life after years of exhausting battles.

Note: In the photo above Ian Hellyer and his wife, Margaret, with seven of their eight children at their home in southwest England. Hellyer, an ex-Anglican rector, will be ordained a Catholic priest in June.

<p><em><strong>Austen Ivereigh</strong></em> <em>is </em><strong>America</strong><em>’s European correspondent.</em></p>

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