The Real Obstacle for Anglo-Catholics

One of the three “flying bishops” – given the task, after the 1992 Church of England vote to ordain women, of ministering to traditionalists who objected to the move – says he wants to cross the Tiber. The Daily Telegraph reports that the Bishop of Ebbsfleet, the Rt Rev Andrew Burnham, hopes entire parishes under his control will cross with him, but be allowed to remain worshipping in their existing churches.

He is the first of the Anglo-Catholics to announce his ambition to become Roman Catholic since the Church of England’s governing body voted last Monday to press on with the consecration of women bishops. The Synod’s decision brought an early response from the Vatican which suggested that this made the Church of England Protestant. The Russian Orthodox Church has since said something similar – that the vote “is further alienating the Anglican community from the Apostolic tradition."


Bishop Burnham has spelled out what he wants in a British Catholic newspaper article.

What we must humbly ask for now is for magnanimous gestures from our Catholic friends, especially from the Holy Father, who well understands our longing for unity, and from the hierarchy of England and Wales. Most of all we ask for ways that allow us to bring our folk with us.

In the same newspaper, this provokes excited speculation from one commentator that Rome could agree to an "apostolic administration" under a Catholic bishop to offer pastoral care to former Anglican priests and their parishioners, who would in turn form a “Fellowship” of parishes consisting largely of ex-Anglicans.

But this is extremely unlikely if it would require the Church of England to release a tranche of its properties. The Catholic bishops of England and Wales have already poured water on the idea: parishes cannot convert en masse, according to a spokesman.

The real obstacle does not lie in Rome’s willingness to accommodate liturgical and other differences, for there is already a variety of rites and systems of canon law in the Catholic Church. Nor does it lie (although this is much more awkward) in questions about property.  

The difficulty lies in the Anglo-Catholics’ objection to Rome’s refusal to recognise them as already Catholics.

Consider this paragraph from a recent letter from the chairman of Forward in Faith, the main Anglo-Catholic grouping, which makes clear why Rome is not (at least yet) an option for him. In a letter to his members the Bishop of Fulham, John Broadhurst, says:

There has been speculation in the media about contact with Rome. I am strongly committed to Christian unity and, as many of you know, I was involved in the talks with the Roman Hierarchy in 1992 and later spent a considerable time with the then Cardinal Ratzinger in 1996. My problem then was that, although there was great generosity, there was no offer of an ecclesial reconciliation. In other words, our common Eucharistic and spiritual life was not recognised. That remains a problem for me.

Note the complaint that Cardinal Ratzinger failed to offer “ecclesial reconciliation” and the indignation at Rome’s refusal to acknowledge that Anglo-Catholics and Roman Catholics have a “common Eucharistic and spiritual life”.  

By "going over" to Rome, many Anglo-Catholics feel that they would be conceding that Rome had been right all along about them. They may dislike intensely the liberal-Protestant direction of the Church of England, but their dislike of what they see as Rome’s erroneous rejection of their validity is just as intense. The push factors may be strong, but the pull factors remain distinctly weak.  

So even though the Bishop of Fulham is explaining why he is not planning to move, and the Bishop of Ebsfleet is explaining why he would like to, both are highlighting the same difficulty – Rome’s refusal to recognise the validity of Anglican orders.

Bishop Burnham is asking for “magnanimity” from Rome; he does not speak of his desire to “be received into full communion” but of his “longing for unity”. What he means is that Pope Benedict should make a gesture that amounts to disowning Leo XIII’s 1896 bull ApostolicaeCurae, “On the Nullity of Anglican Orders”.

Anglo-Catholics want to be reconciled to Rome, but they see it as Rome’s duty to recognise them as already Catholic. That is the nub of their reservations, one that is even more glaring for not ever actually being said. And because it is a very awkward condition, the chances of an Anglo-Catholic exodus to Rome en bloc remain, even now, very remote.  

Pope Benedict could be preparing a substantial declaration   on the validity of orders aimed at Anglican waverers, which could help to reshape Anglo-Catholic thinking about Rome. There are plenty of theological insights to draw on in more than 30 years of Catholic-Anglican (ARCIC) dialogue after the Second Vatican Council. There is certainly no better time -- although the Pope would want to leave a decent interval before making it, lest he be seen to be exploiting the Anglican crisis.

But without such a major development, there will remain only one route for Anglicans to become Catholic --- the traditional way: one by one. And it is likely to remain a trickle, not a flood.

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