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Will Anglicans Cross Benedict’s Bridge?

Is this the end of a 500-year division that began with a king’s adultery? The announcement—made simultaneously in London and in Rome in October—of a dramatic offer from the Catholic Church made headlines everywhere.

The language of the official announcement was formal: “Pope Benedict XVI has approved, within the Apostolic Constitution, a canonical structure that provides for personal ordinariates, which will allow former Anglicans to enter full communion with the Catholic Church while preserving elements of distinctive Anglican spiritual patrimony.” The headlines, on the other hand, were lurid and in many cases unfriendly: The Times in London referred to the Catholic Church “parking its tanks on the Anglican lawn.” Initial reactions from mainstream Anglican sources were distinctly chilly: Words like “poaching” were murmured and accusations made that this was a Vatican move to weaken the Anglican church at a time when it is already deeply divided.

Anglican Commotion

Despite its current confused state, with some bishops openly supporting homosexual marriage, and many members—both clergy and lay—unwilling to commit themselves to traditional Christian doctrinal and moral teachings, the Anglican church still commands some loyalty and can rally a certain sense of national identity.

It is five centuries since Henry VIII made the formal break with Rome and announced himself head of the English church. In fact, his own beliefs and liturgical ideas were rigidly Catholic. He could never have imagined, for example, a vernacular Mass or the culture of 19th-century Anglicanism. If Henry were alive today he would almost certainly be cheering for the traditional Catholic liturgy. Despite his personal behavior with regard to matrimony, he was no theological or liturgical liberal, rather the reverse. No guitars or happy-clappy sing-alongs for him.

But he ushered in something that became Anglicanism. The structures that he created became entrenched in British life and spread across the world through the British Empire. Anglicanism retains loyalties that will not be suddenly dissipated, and it is inaccurate to suggest that there will be a sudden, or even a gradual, exodus of massive numbers of Anglicans to Rome.

However, that does not mean that this new move is not hugely important: We are seeing something large—much larger than some commentators have grasped—and its impact will grow as the details emerge of what could be achieved. Anglican groups such as Forward in Faith which oppose the ordination of women and support traditional moral teachings (for example, on homosexuality) were jubilant as the news broke. Forward in Faith spoke of its “hope and fervent desire” to unite with Rome. Its spokesmen, Rev. Geoffrey Kirk and Dr. John Broadhurst, the Anglican Bishop of Fulham, released a statement:

We rejoice that the Holy Father intends now to set up structures within the Church which respond to this heartfelt longing. Forward in Faith has always been committed to seeking unity in truth and so warmly welcomes these initiatives as a decisive moment in the history of the Catholic Movement in the Church of England. Ut unum sint! [that they may be one!]

For groups such as Forward in Faith, the Vatican announcement provoked a flurry of activity as they, like everyone else, were taken somewhat by surprise. These traditional Anglican associations were due to hold their annual conference on the very weekend following the announcement, and said that they were going to have to “tear up the agenda” and discuss the new plan. Meanwhile the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, was also surprised by the announcement. He made this clear—albeit in a tactful way—in his statement at the joint press conference held with Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster. In a letter to his clergy, Dr. Williams said that he was sorry not to have given them more notice of the announcement, but he had only heard of it himself some two weeks beforehand. There was a gentle but definite “harrumph” in that.

Members of the Church of England who oppose the ordination of women have long been marginalized within the Anglican communion. When the Church of England Synod in London voted in 1992 to ordain women, the church made arrangements for clergy who wanted to leave. They were allocated funds to support themselves while working out what to do next. Those who chose to stay negotiated for themselves an enclave in the Church of England with two bishops to minister to their needs. These two “flying bishops” went to parishes which were affiliated with Forward in Faith for confirmations and other ceremonies. But plans to consecrate women bishops in the Church of England meant this arrangement could not be sustained, and the future looked confused and uncertain. Offered a voluntary code but with no safeguards, members of Forward in Faith and their associates made it clear that this was inadequate: “A code of conduct will not do!” With this background, they began looking with increased fervor towards Rome.

Mixed Feelings

Not all will come. It is a myth that there are huge numbers of clergy waiting, bags packed, ready to hop on a ferry across the Tiber. Anglicans who desire reunion will face difficult decisions. Some clergy recognize that women cannot be priests but believe they can be deacons—and have wives who are Anglican deacons. Some disagree with the Catholic Church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage and are themselves in second marriages. Some would love to be part of the Catholic Church but just won’t quite feel able to bring themselves to make the leap—and, whatever arrangements are made, it will be quite a leap.

Exquisite old churches are found throughout Britain, many empty or half-empty but some with congregations that can muster reasonable numbers for Christmas, for Remembrance Sunday, for services connected with local events, for concerts, for ecumenical gatherings on special occasions. Ministering in such a church brings a community spirit, a sense of unity with England’s history. It is most unlikely that even the most dedicated and enthusiastic Catholic-minded clergyman with a parish united with him in belief and commitment would ask that the church building be handed over, in effect, to the Roman Catholic Church. And would the Catholic Church want it? Glorious medieval buildings require massive funding: Repairs and upkeep cost millions, and heating costs are huge.

Clergy working in such an environment will have mixed feelings about overtures from Rome. “I’m just too old to change now” one said to me. He opposes the ordination of women and holds fully orthodox Christian views, but he loves the Church of England and is especially committed to the (small) rural congregations in the moorland parishes where he works. “And the C of E isn’t dead yet—we got some 40 people recently to a deanery meeting, and last Sunday there were children in church, taking part in the service and even doing the readings.” His view of the Catholic Church is benign, but distant, even though he has Catholic friends and knows Catholic clergy well. Somewhere, perhaps, is still a feeling that Catholicism is red-brick Victorian churches or ugly modern ones, a strong Irish influence and some kitsch statues, jostling with slightly superstitious notions about relics. He likes its certainty on doctrine and admires the pope’s theology but wonders if he could really cope with a sudden change of loyalties.

Men who left the Church of England back in the 1990s tend to take a brisk approach. “I’ve never looked back” says Fr. Peter Geldard, a former leading Anglo-Catholic spokesman who has now been a Catholic priest for over a decade. “All I ever wanted to be was a Catholic priest, and now I am one.” Following the 1992 Synod vote for women’s ordination, he said, “The scales sort of fell from my eyes. I had thought I was in a Catholic Church with some Protestants in it. I saw that I was in a Protestant one with some Catholics in it.”

Other former Anglicans believe that those who really seek unity with Rome have had ample opportunities to make the decision and that not many are left to be tempted by the new arrangements. “Quite honestly, why have they waited?” said one. “It has been clear for a long time now what the true position is.” On the other hand, these Anglican converts will certainly welcome any new additions to their ranks. The 500 or so Anglican clergy who have joined the Catholic Church over the past two decades have undoubtedly enriched the Church. They now include a good number of parish priests, several university chaplains, a bishop, and a number of men who elected to remain as Catholic laymen and who serve as writers, teachers, or leading figures in Catholic charities and organizations.

What, then, will happen as a result of the new announcement? The Catholic bishops of England and Wales will play a key role. Will they genuinely be glad to see a sudden influx of clergy offering beautiful Anglican-style liturgies and a new zest for orthodox doctrine? Will they feel encouraged and excited by the new possibilities opened up for reaching the souls of the nation? Or will there be a sense of losing their own status, of being overwhelmed by events, of having to tear up the rather cozy plans for church closures and “priestless parishes” that have been around for some time now?

The Best of Both Worlds?

Pope Benedict has thrown a lifeline to Anglicans—but he has also, effectively, issued a challenge to Catholics, and especially to Catholic bishops: This is no time for complacency, and the attitude that the future of the Church in the West is simply one of “managed decline” must go. God calls us to face new opportunities and accept new responsibilities.

Partly because of this, it may be that the biggest impact of this new “personal ordinariate” will be felt not in England, where Anglicanism first began, but in places that Henry VIII did not even know existed—Papua New Guinea and the parts of Africa colonized by the British in the 19th century. Here is found devotion to Catholic beliefs and practices, vigor, evangelization, a sense of missionary zeal, large congregations and a strong affection for the pope. Whole dioceses—and certainly notable numbers of clergy and lay people—might go over to Rome.

One thing seems certain to emerge: As the Anglican church at home in Britain looks set to continue on the path of liberalism, with women bishops, acceptance of same-sex unions, a lax theology, and a diminishing sense of its own identity exemplified in its liturgy and customs, it will fall to the Anglicans who join the new Roman option to cherish and uphold the last of these while sticking firmly to fully orthodox Catholic doctrine.

What an irony: The best of Anglicanism, the hymns, the rubrics, the language and style of the Book of Common Prayer, the traditions and the sub-culture that has forged and framed English life, in village and suburb, cathedral city and market-town, preserved through Rome, under the guidance and through the initiative of the pope who, in the language of the Prayer book, “hath no jurisdiction in this realm of England.”

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