Archbishop of Canterbury acts to dissuade defecting Anglicans

At the time of Pope Benedict's September visit to the UK, the Archbishop of Canterbury joked that he and the Pope had two things in common: a fondness for cats, and a keenness to recruit Anglican clergy.

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Travelling in India this past week Dr Rowan Williams has had plenty of interesting things to say about pluralism, human rights, democracy, and so on. But it is his remarks on the forthcoming "exodus" of traditionalist Anglicans into the ordinariate that have attracted most attention in the UK.

He told the Hindu newspaper that he was “very taken aback” when Pope Benedict moved to establish ordinariates “without any real consultation” with the Anglican leadership. But now that the move has been made, he said, “we are trying to make sure that there is a joint group which will keep an eye on how it’s going to happen.”

“In England, relations between the Church of England and Roman Catholic bishops are very warm and very close,” he said. “I think we are able to work together on this and not find it a difficulty.”

It is a smart move on the part of the Archbishop. The group would smooth the transition for those who wanting to leave the Church of England to become Roman Catholics because of their opposition to the ordination of women bishops. But it would also flush out into the open the negotiations between disaffected Anglicans and the Vatican which have been taking place in secret for months -- often over the heads of the Catholic bishops of England and Wales. Dr Williams has, in effect, put the local Church -- both Anglican and Catholic -- into the heart of the process.

He also made clear that efforts to accommodate traditionalist Anglicans within the Church of England's structures of governance are far from over, despite the General Synod's rejection of his and the Archbishop of York's proposals. Referring to the decision by the leading Anglo-Catholic bishop John Broadhurst, head of Forward in Faith, to seek communion with the Catholic Church via the ordinariate, Dr Williams told the Hindu:

That's been the most difficult question: not whether or not we have women bishops but what will be the provisions made for the minority. This last summer, the synod declined to accept the suggestions made by the archbishops and I understand their reasons. But it's left us with quite a lot of work to try and do our best for that group as well as honouring the calling of women to the Episcopate. We are still trying to find a fair accommodation for people of his [the bishop's] conviction.

As traditionalist Anglicans wrestle with the decision of whether or not to cross the Tiber, the Archbishop of Canterbury is sending them a message that they should hold on for a while. The message is aimed above all at the Catholic Group in the Synod, which has said it is dismayed by Bishop Broadhurst's decision to go to Rome. 

Right now there are many more traditionalists who wish to stay in the Church of England than leave it. They are active in lobbies, existing and new, which are pressuring bishops for concessions in advance of the final legislation allowing women to be ordained as bishops in 2012.

Bishop Broadhurst, interviewed this morning on the BBC's Sunday program, said it was pointless to continue to fight for a place within the Church of England. "I said in 1994, when women priests were ordained, you can't with any integrity have women priests and not have women bishops -- whatever women are, they're not inferior to men". He said the "best hope" for the Church of England was "another ten years of battle" in an attempt to secure a living space for those who dissented from the decision to ordain women. "There's not much fun in that, is there?"

Bishop Broadhurst agreed that initially the numbers entering the new ordinariate in England and Wales - expected to be set up early next year -- will be quite small. "I know of other priests and indeed bishops who intend to take up this offer but it will be small initially because for many priests, if you've got a wife and family and you're living in a home, it's very hard to walk away from that in a rather insecure situation."

He said he had had many emails from lay people asking how to enter the ordinariate. But "until the ordinariate is up and running," he said, "nobody can be sure how many people will join."

A good example of some of the struggles ahead can be glimpsed in a parish church affiliated to Forward in Faith. The parish council has voted unanimously to join the ordinariate  -- but many in the congregation are opposed to the idea.

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