New era begins as Benedict throws open gates of Rome to disaffected Anglicans
The Pope is now offering Anglicans worldwide “corporate reunion” on terms that will delight Anglo-Catholics. In theory, they can have their own married priests, parishes and bishops – and they will be free of liturgical interference by liberal Catholic bishops who are unsympathetic to their conservative stance.
There is even the possibility that married Anglican laymen could be accepted for ordination on a case-by-case basis – a remarkable concession.
Both Archbishop Vincent Nichols and Archbishop Rowan Williams are surprised by this dramatic move. Cardinal Levada, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was in Lambeth Palace only yesterday to spell out to Dr Williams what it means. This decision has, in effect, been taken over their heads – though there is no suggestion that Archbishop Nichols does not fully support this historic move.
Incidentally, I suspect that Rome waited until Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor’s retirement before unveiling this plan: the cardinal is an old-style ecumenist who represents the old way of doing things. His allies in Rome, and many former participants in Anglican-Catholic dialogue, are dismayed by today’s news, which clears away the wreckage of the ARCIC process.
The Archbishop of Canterbury is unlikely to be pleased, though he was vigorously concealing any displeasure at a press conference this morning. (There was a lot of spin about this decision “arising out of dialogue”.) The truth is that Rome has given up on the Anglican Communion. With one announcement, the Pope has given conservative Anglicans a protected route to union with Rome – and promised that, even once they are members of the Catholic Church, they will be offered a permanent structure that allows them to retain an Anglican ethos.
Thousands of Anglicans who reject women bishops and priests and liberal teaching on homosexuality are certain to avail themselves of this provision. Within a few years, there will probably be “Anglican ethos” Catholic parishes in England and Wales (and one wonders how many conservative cradle Catholics will gratefully start attending Mass there).
Under the supervision of a “Personal Ordinary”, who can be a priest or unmarried bishop, ex-Anglicans will be able to put forward their own candidates for ordination. In the short term, there will be no difficulty in ordaining married former Anglican clergy.
The Vatican would not use the phrase, but this is very close to the setting up of a “Church within a Church”. Yet that is not as unusual as it might seem: Eastern-rite Catholics have their own liturgy and church structures, and in America a small number of ex-Anglicans use service books that borrow from the Book of Common Prayer.
Anglicans will have to request their own “Personal Ordinariate”, to use the Vatican’s clunky term. How might that play out in England? This is just a guess, but the most pro-Roman C of E bishop, the Rt Rev Andrew Burnham, Bishop of Ebbsfleet, could submit a request to Rome. He would be ordained a (married) Catholic priest, and might himself be made “ordinary” (bishop in all but name) of ex-Anglican clergy and lay people who have been received into the Catholic Church together.
This unprecedented canonical structure will affect different countries and dioceses in different ways. But we are not talking about the creation of an “Anglican-Rite” Catholic Church. Although some parishes will want to use the Anglican-usage liturgy, in England many ex-Anglican congregations will be only too happy to avail themselves of the new English translation of the Roman Rite, to be introduced next year.
This is a decision of supreme boldness and generosity by Pope Benedict XVI, comparable to his liberation of the Traditional Latin Mass. The implications of this announcement will take a long time to sink in, but I suspect that this will be a day of rejoicing for conservative Anglo-Catholics and their Roman Catholic friends all over the world.