Bridge Over The River Tiber: What will come of the Vatican's invitation to Anglicans?

Papal Gambit Stuns Church” was how The Times of London headlined its front page Oct. 21. Inside, an editorial thundered that Rome’s newly announced legal structure allowing Anglicans to join the Catholic Church without giving up their rites and traditions had “dangerously weakened” Anglicanism. The editors said that Pope Benedict XVI stands accused of damaging church unity and ecumenical cooperation.

It was gloriously retro, as if out of an 1850 Punch cartoon showing a sinister pope and cardinal trying to force their way through a door over the caption: “Daring attempt to break into a church.” The Times’s metaphors—Rome was “annexing” parts of the Church of England, parking its tanks on Lambeth’s lawns, fishing in troubled Anglican water—glossed over important facts. The move was announced by the archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster together; the pope was responding to insistent requests from disaffected Anglicans who had decided in conscience they could no longer remain in the Church of England; he had not done so before out of fear of undermining Anglican unity; and he was doing so now with an imaginative piece of canonical engineering that could do more to thaw relations between the Catholic and Anglican churches than anything since their official unity talks began in the 1970s.


Still, the sense of violation was real—not least because the papal bombshell had dropped out of a clear blue sky with little warning. The former archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, was outraged that his successor, Rowan Williams, learned of the move only two weeks previously and had been notified formally only when the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal William Levada, visited London the weekend before. But even Lord Carey admitted that the proposal had vast potential. “Straightforward ecumenism at the theological level is going nowhere,” he said. “This fresh initiative could have surprising consequences.”

For his part, Archbishop Williams appeared noble but uncomfortable at the joint press conference he held in London with Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, timed to coincide with the announcement in Rome. Few believed them when they sought to reassure the world that it was “business as usual” in relations between their churches. Although it is normal for conversion and dialogue to be kept separate, commentators pointed to the absence of Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Vatican’s Council for Christian Unity, from the press conference. This move outside typical Catholic-Anglican channels, made by the pope and his canonists in the C.D.F., was some time in preparation—certainly since 2008, possibly since 2006—and kept under wraps.

What Is a Personal Ordinariate?

By announcing a forthcoming apostolic constitution that would allow the creation of quasi-separate canonical jurisdictions, known as personal ordinariates, for defecting Anglicans, the pope appeared to remove at a stroke the fences holding back Anglo-Catholics. He was doing so at a time when they faced being made homeless. The General Synod of the Church of England voted in July 2008 to consecrate women bishops without providing statutory protection for traditionalists. Some Anglo-Catholic bishops were seen leaving the synod hall in tears. At least two of them went to Rome to plead for a means of corporate reception.

The delighted response to the pope’s offer by dozens of traditionalist bishops, clergy and faithful seemed to demonstrate the wisdom of the move. Yet as the excitement recedes—one should not overstate the story, which played seventh on the main BBC television evening news that day—the incoming tide swirls with difficult questions. What exactly is being proposed? Will it really lead to an exodus across the Tiber? If so, is it desirable for either church? If not, will the damage to Anglican-Catholic dialogue be worth it? And what does it tell us about Pope Benedict’s priorities?

A personal ordinariate, according to Cardinal Levada, “will allow former Anglicans to enter full communion with the Catholic Church while preserving elements of the distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony.” It would allow for their “pastoral oversight and guidance” under an ordinary to be appointed from among former Anglican clergy—either an unmarried bishop or a married or celibate priest. Within this structure, with boundaries like that of a bishops’ conference, Anglicans seeking Petrine authority without renouncing their traditions can do so corporately, continuing to use the High Anglican liturgy, subject to Rome’s approval of specific texts. The ordinariate would have its own formation houses for seminarians, and if these seminarians will be able to marry, the proposal would guarantee in perpetuity the continuation of a distinct Anglican-Catholic structure.

It falls short of a uniate church, which has its own canon law, rite and authority structure, but is a “cumulative jurisdiction” within the Latin Rite, much like a military ordinariate, Archbishop Nichols told journalists. The constitution would be an attempt to achieve a “balance between a corporate identity and the need to be embedded locally,“ he went on, adding that the details could only be worked out once an ordinariate were established following an application to the relevant bishops’ conference. Whole dioceses or parishes could transfer, but not with their buildings, which in the British case would remain property of the church “by law established” in England.

Divisions and Dialogue

Cardinal Basil Hume, archbishop of Westminster at the time of the Church of England’s decision to ordain women as priests in the early 1990s, would not countenance corporate reception at that time. He was happy to reordain Anglican married clergy but not to sanction a distinct Anglican structure under a separate bishop. The four English and Welsh bishops who went to negotiate with the C.D.F. at the time agreed that such a move would be divisive and would undermine the efforts of the official Catholic-Anglican dialogue process toward unification. In the end, some 480 Anglican priests crossed over. Many became parish priests and bishops in the Catholic Church. About 80 later crossed back. The married former Anglican priests were generally parked in chaplaincies, away from mainstream parish life. The path of conversion was individual, not corporate, leaving the Church in England and Wales enriched but unaltered.

The current proposal, by contrast, establishes a universal juridical structure that could see ordinariates in Papua New Guinea and Australia as well as England and Wales. It is a response as much to the 400,000-strong Traditional Anglican Communion—which does not recognize Canterbury—as it is to the Anglo-Catholics in the Church of England (although no one doubts that the latter are the true prize). It appears to remove the difficulties that have held back hundreds of Anglo-Catholic priests from crossing the Tiber; 600 recently gathered at a conference of the main clerical group Forward in Faith, which claims more than 1,000 members.

And what of the validity of Anglican orders? There was a time when this question could have been revisited by Rome, but the ordination of women made that impossible. The Anglo-Catholics have been careful to establish validity of orders by being ordained by certain bishops; but that does not mean every Catholic-minded Anglican is included in that effort. Rome remains skeptical. The Bishop of Fulham, John Broadhurst, chairman of Forward in Faith, says he thinks Rome is wrong not to recognize the validity of their orders, but he understands the need to be re-ordained “for the avoidance of doubt.”

For most, papal authority is not the issue, nor is it the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The difficulty is with abandoning the robed choir, the elaborate liturgy and the cadence of the Book of Common Prayer; it is leaving behind traditional English Catholicism and making the leap into the liturgical and cultural world of postconciliar Roman Catholicism. When the C.D.F. quotes Pope Paul VI’s reference to “the legitimate patrimony of the Anglican inheritance” and the need to safeguard it, Rome is speaking directly to Anglo-Catholic concerns.

Because of the possibility that whole congregations, even dioceses, may find a home in the ordinariate, Anglo-Catholic priests need not abandon their flocks when they enter into communion with Rome. Corporate reception meets the Anglo-Catholic need to be recognized as a body, an ecclesia, that over the centuries has established valid orders and authentic communion. Their dream is unity of the Church of England with Rome, and they have watched it shrivel. They want to be united, not absorbed.

Will the forthcoming apostolic constitution meet these needs? It is not yet clear. The two traditionalist Anglican bishops who in July last year asked the pope for such a scheme say they are delighted by its scope and generosity. But they know that accepting the invitation is a journey, and not all will want to uproot themselves. “Some Anglicans in the Catholic tradition understandably will want to stay within the Anglican Communion,” they said in a statement. “Others will wish to make individual arrangements as their conscience directs. A further group of Anglicans, we think, will begin to form a caravan, rather like the People of Israel crossing the desert in search of the Promised Land.”

Amid the gratitude and praise for Pope Benedict’s offer are notes of caution. Bishop John Hind of Chichester told the Forward in Faith conference that the announcement begged the question of whether it was “an ecclesial proposal” or “rather an opportunity for individual Anglicans organised in groups.” Was the offer of “pastoral provision” an “honoring of Anglican ecclesial experience”? He said he wanted “to be assured that they will provide a real opportunity for a continued ecclesial existence as distinct from a museum of nostalgic items.” One Anglo-Catholic priest who has long considered his position was unsure about who the ordinary would be. “For us, being a Christian means being under a bishop,” he told me. “A semidiocese not headed by a bishop would be incomprehensible to us.”

Future Effects

Years of negotiation lie ahead. Although Cardinal Levada has spoken of 20 to 30 Anglican bishops seeking such a home, most will wait to see what an ordinariate looks like before they leap. But if dozens do, followed by many hundreds of priests and thousands of laypeople, what effect will it have on Catholic life and on the future prospects of Anglican-Catholic unification?

Cardinal John Henry Newman was skeptical about an idea for an Anglican uniate church in his own time. In 1876 he warned that “it would be very difficult to avoid perpetual collisions between the two bodies.... The Roman priests would be complaining that the rich splendid Anglican Church in their mission was drawing away at least the young generation.” Imagine a visitor to London on a future Sunday choosing among Roman Catholic liturgies—one “Vatican II,” another “Tridentine,” another “Anglican”—and ponder the effect of such market competition on our sense of church.

It is hard not to wonder, too, whether the existence of a large number of married priests celebrating at the altar, with their wives and children in the pews, will hasten the ordination of married men in the Latin Catholic church, especially if the separate houses of formation envisaged in the ordinariate scheme allow future priests, as well as current ones, to be married. And what happens when a large group of very conservative clergymen enters the life of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, a group defined by an embattled struggle against gay and female ordinations in their own church? What happens when we solve our priest shortage with such men?

There are no easy answers to these questions. But one thing is clear. The process of negotiating the terms of the ordinariate—finding the balance between the local and the universal—will be crucial for future Catholic and Anglican understanding. As the ordinariates come into being, Roman Catholics and Catholic Anglicans will begin to know and understand each other better: Anglican fears of Rome will subside, and Roman ignorance of Anglican riches will be overcome. (One could loosely define those riches as the music, rites and liturgical practices of the English Catholic tradition, many of them dating from before the Reformation.) Such cross-fertilization can only affect for the better the long-term possibility of unification of Catholics and Anglicans.

Progress in the dialogue between the two churches can continue. The current logjam is less over women priests or gay bishops than over the disintegration of Anglican ecclesiology. Rome has long complained that the official Anglican-Roman Catholic International Conmmission agreements are worth little when the Church of England’s general synod later repudiates them. Rome wants a church it can deal with. That means backing Archbishop Williams’s attempts to introduce a tighter ecclesiology into the Anglican Communion while accepting that this necessarily means that the communion can no longer walk a tightrope between incompatible theologies and ecclesiologies. Archbishop Williams currently shows signs of succeeding in his efforts to persuade the fragmented members of his communion to adopt common structures, laws and agreed doctrines, which many have likened to an attempt to introduce a more “Catholic ecclesiology” but without a papal magisterium. The result of this “covenant” process, which is being resisted by liberals in North America and evangelicals in the developing world, could be a smaller but more coherent communion in which authority is more clearly defined—and with which Rome can do business. The departure of the Anglican Catholics would not adversely affect this process and could make it simpler.

Cardinal John Henry Newman disliked corporate unity schemes. In the end, all conversion is individual. But he also foresaw that the advance of secularization would cause the Christian bodies to converge over time and that part of that process would necessarily be the integration of Christians corporately into the life of the Catholic Church. Perhaps the pope had recently read Newman. At the London press conference Archbishop Nichols noted that the pope thinks Christians urgently need to unite in a rapidly secularizing Western culture—hence this extraordinary move. The paths of the Reformation have never been stranger.

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8 years 11 months ago

"They want to be united, not absorbed." Precisely. "The Anglican Church united not absorbed" was the title of a famous paper read by the Belgian Benedictine Dom Lambert Beauduin at the Malines Conversations (between Catholics and Anglicans) in 1925. Paul VI echoed this idea when he canonized the English martyrs in 1970, saying that “when the unity of faith and life is restored ... there will be no seeking to lessen the legitimate prestige and usage proper to the Anglican Church ... [our] ever beloved sister.” We have said for decades that the only prerequisite for unity is agreement in faith. Once that is achieved, everything else is negotiable. Hitherto this has been just talk. With his bold move Pope Benedict has made it a reality. Will the response of Anglicans who have declared that they are already one with us in faith (the only ones to whom the Pope's offer is addressed) be equally bold?

8 years 10 months ago

It's hard for a Catholic not to be happy about the inclusion of even a minority of Anglicans into the Universal Church. One can't help recalling Jesus' exquisite prayer in John 17: "Let them all be one just as, Father, you are in me and I am in you so that they also may be in us." Such a fulfillment of Jesus' priestly prayer-even partially-is a very sweet moment indeed in salvation history. But there's a bitterness too. I'll give two examples from my own family. My parents lived across the hall from an episcopalian family with two teen-age girls. My mother found them terribly entertaining and always loved them. But years later when both girls were married and my sister and I were born, they couldn't be our godmothers. So, my mom did the next best thing: she insisted that their Catholic husbands be our godfathers. And so it was, and two Catholic sisters who had also lived on that floor were our godmothers. My mother had welcomed the Armstrong girls, but the church kept them at arms length. When I was little, I'd stay with my Catholic godfather and his Episcopalian wife and kids for a couple of weeks every summer. I went to church with Ginny Murphy (nee Armstrong) and my "cousins," and even though the liturgy was almost identical, I always felt like I didn't belong there. But I think I always knew why. It wasn't because I understood transubstantiation or the controversy over the validity of holy orders. I was only seven or eight. It was something much easier for a kid to grasp: It was because my Godfather wasn't there. He was at the Catholic parish across town, and I knew that if he was there then I was suppossed to be there too 'cause I was a Catholic. The separation between Catholics and Episcopalians hit yet closer to home when my eldest sister married an Episcopalian back in the '60s. The priest would not allow Patty and Roger to make their vows in the sanctuary. They wed at the end of the aisle. My brother-in-law never forgot that, and my sister's attempts to raise the kids Catholic suffered for it. We've made accommodations in many such areas today, but we are not doing a very good job-at least at the parish level-of ensuring that Anglicans feel welcome in our churches.
I applaud both the Holy Father's initiative and the Archbishop of Canterbury's calm and productive reponse. But I hope we can do more to welcome Anglicans and Episcopalians into the Universal Church by responding not only to those dissaffected Anglicans who've knocked on Rome's door but to all the Anglicans and Episcopalians who, for whatever reason, come into Catholic parishes. How we treat Episcopalians at the parish level is critical if Jesus' priestly prayer is to be truly fulfilled.


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