Whither the Anglo-Catholics?

Anglican drama moves this week to the northern English campus of York University, where the five-day Synod is deliberating on the traditionally divisive issue of women bishops. There is no question that the Church of England will shortly have them; the issue this week is whether traditionalist Anglicans who object to them can still be accommodated.  If not, by the end of the week – or possibly after the Lambeth Conference -- Rome could have Anglicans knocking on its door.

According to the Telegraph, four Anglican bishops have been holding “secret talks” with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in Rome. When the reporter, Jonathan Wynne-Jones, called me about this story last week, I told him I wasn’t surprised: these so-called “secret talks” have been going on for years, and sometimes turn on the possibility of an “English” or “Anglican-rite” Church in communion with Rome that would allow Anglican traditionalists to retain their identity. This is what Bishop Kieran Conry, quoted in this report, surely means when he says that some Anglican bishops “are hoping for accommodation with the Catholic Church, but yet maintaining their Anglican identity."


Wynne-Jones quotes me as saying that these talks only began in earnest after the crisis in the Anglican Communion began after 2003. What I went on to say is that Rome has traditionally been reluctant to offer an Anglican-rite Church, because it would threaten the ambition of the ARCIC Anglican-Catholic dialogue to seek the eventual unity of both Churches. “Poaching” a part of the Anglican Church would chill that dialogue, and make unity much harder. Think of the nervousness of Cardinal Hume, who oversaw the influx of Anglicans in 1994. He worried endlessly that it would “break” the Church of England. It didn’t. But how much more worried would Catholics be at the effect of an “Anglican-rite” Church on the Church of England.

But now the ARCIC process is all but dead. The splits in the Anglican Church worldwide have grown deeper since 1994, and the centripetal forces in Anglicanism are stronger than ever. Now that there is little Rome can do to keep the Anglican boat afloat, it has little to lose by offering a dinghy to those who, seeing only liberal Protestantism ahead, are willing to jump.

The difficulty is that the Forward in Faith Anglo-Catholics are deeply conservative, especially in liturgical matters, while remaining very wedded to their Anglican traditions.  They would want rights and privileges similar to the Eastern-rite Churches:  wives, liturgies, and their own bishops too. What would be the effect on the English Catholic Church of co-existing with a large number of wealthy, traditional “Anglican-rite” Catholic churches, answerable to their own bishops? And where would it leave priestly celibacy, when to the ex-Anglican married Catholic priests from the 1994 influx would be added married Anglican-rite Catholic priests?

Much depends on what happens this week in the Synod. More than 1,300 traditionalist clergy -- including 11 serving bishops -- have written to the archbishops of Canterbury and York warning they will have to "think very hard" about their futures in the Church if there is no "structural" accommodation of their objections to serving under women bishops. They represent about 10 per cent of Church of England clergy, and are mostly Anglo-Catholics associated with Forward in Faith [http://www.forwardinfaith.com/]. Their letter is here.

What is important for Forward in Faith, as they say in their letter, is “the need to discern the mind of the whole Church Catholic in matters touching on Faith and Order”.  That is a very different reason from the objection of (some) evangelicals to women bishops on scriptural (St Paul: “man is the head of the woman” etc.) grounds. Expect some common cause between Anglo-Catholics and traditionalists, ma non troppo.

A clear majority in the Church of England  -- especially among the bishops, who are more liberal than either clergy or laity -- favor consecrating women to the episcopate, and they are getting ever more impatient with what they see as traditionalist truculence. Some 1,276 women clergy, 1,012 male clergy and 1,916 lay church members who support women bishops have signed a statement objecting to the prospect of “discriminatory” legislation to safeguard opponents. They want to repeal the Act of Synod which created the "flying bishops" following the ordination of women in 1992.  Their view is that the Act was a temporary measure to allow traditionalists to come round to the idea of ordained women. Now that women are headed for the episcopate, many liberals believe now is the moment to call time on the parallel jurisdictions.

With both sides having upped the ante, it may well be that Synod decides not to decide. The Times is reporting that the House of Laity may well choose to delay the move to consecrate bishops. Sometimes, doing nothing is the best policy.

Austen Ivereigh

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