Thursday, October 22, 2009

Rome Absorbing Anglicans: Unintended Consequences for Both Communions?

Multiple outlets are carrying the news that the Vatican is planning to create new church structures that would absorb disaffected Anglicans but allow them to retain their distinctive liturgy and spiritual practices, including at least some married priests. The outlets include the National Catholic Reporter, CNN, USA Today, the Associated Press, and the Toronto Star.

The news was most unsettling in London. There The Times has run several articles about it in the last two days, including two in banner headlines at the top of its front page, along with numerous commentaries.

Wednesday's front page screamed "Papal gambit stuns Church" and included the picture of a very distraught-looking Archbishop of Canterbury in the middle of the page. The online version was entitled "Pope's gambit could see 1,000 quit Church of England." It suggested as many as 1,000 priests could leave the Church of England, and perhaps thousands more from Anglican churches in Australia and America. It said Pope Benedict's planned decree "is a serious blow to attempts by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, to save the Anglican Communion from further fragmentation and threatens to wreck decades of ecumenical dialogue." The Times characterized Dr. Williams' at a joint press conference with the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster as "uncomfortable," and said that in a letter to Anglican bishops and clergy Williams acknowledged being blind-sided.

A related article published online the night before said "Vatican moves to poach traditional Anglicans." The Times said the Vatican made its decisions after secret negotiations in Rome with at least six traditionalist Anglican bishops and with no direct discussion with the Archbishop of Canterbury--not alerting him to the radical nature of the changes until two weeks ago, not giving him formal notice until last weekend, and basically roping him into a hastily called joint press conference with the Archbishop of Westminster.

Thursday's front page had a huge picture of Pope Benedict, under a headline that read, "When in Rome: 400,000 Anglicans plan to convert." The online version was entitled, "400,000 former Anglicans worldwide seek immediate union with Rome." It reported: "Archbishop John Hepworth, the twice-married Primate of the Traditional Anglican Communion, who led negotiations with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, said he was 'profoundly moved' by the Pope’s decision and would immediately seek the approval of the group’s 400,000 members worldwide to join."

Obviously the move is a big deal for the Anglican Communion--and perhaps Rome's most effective challenge to the Church of England in the 450 years since Henry VIII. But it is important for both communions to recognize that the papal initiative may have several unintended consequences for Catholics as well as Anglicans--consequences that may prove far more significant and even more enduring than whatever Benedict may gain in the short term.

The official Vatican announcement, made October 20, 2009, portrays Rome's move as a pastoral response to Anglicans who are distressed about specific recent developments in their communion and who "have declared that they share the common Catholic faith as it is expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and accept the Petrine ministry as something Christ willed for the Church." The announcement added: "At the same time, they have told us of the importance of their Anglican traditions of spirituality and worship for their faith journey." Evidently the Vatican considered accommodating the latter a small price to pay for gaining these Anglicans' adherence to official church teaching.

The document is not coy about which Anglican developments caused the distress Rome wants to relieve: "In the years since the Council, some Anglicans have abandoned the tradition of conferring Holy Orders only on men by calling women to the priesthood and the episcopacy. More recently, some segments of the Anglican Communion have departed from the common biblical teaching on human the ordination of openly homosexual clergy and the blessing of homosexual partnerships." The immediate impact of absorbing Anglicans who cannot abide these positions will be to increase the ranks of Catholics who support the Roman alternatives.

Those are the intended consequences, at any rate. Yet other consequences can be envisioned which Rome clearly does not intend.

One is that it will strengthen the more liberal position of those who remain in the Anglican Communion, not only in the Church of England but also in Canada and in the Episcopal Church USA. Rowan Williams may end up presiding over a considerably smaller Anglican Communion, but it will be comprised of Christians who are firmly committed to changes they believe God's Spirit has inspired. They will no longer feel the drag of those who believe otherwise.

The Times of London articles already speculate that it will accelerate the ordination of female bishops in the Church of England, which had been on hold in deference to those who already disapproved of female priests. It should also strengthen the existing practice in the United States. It will also embolden bishops and national Anglican churches who strongly believe that blessing same-sex unions is an important matter of justice and equal treatment of baptized Christians.

It should also strengthen those in other Protestant denominations that have adopted the controverted Anglican practices, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which in August decided to accept noncelibate clergy members and lay leaders who are in "lifelong" and "monogamous" same-sex relationships. Bilateral agreements between American Lutherans and Episcopalians will take on new importance and additional ones would become more likely.

By allowing married Anglican priests to serve as Catholic priests in its new Anglican ordinariates, Rome's move may actually strengthen the tradition of married clergy in the Anglican Communion. The message Rome is conveying, after all, is that Christians have found some value in married clergy. How can this not increase the commitment to married clergy among Anglicans who remain?

It should also give new impetus to their objection to Rome's earlier declaration that Anglican orders are "null and void." The Anglican clergy have long held that Rome's position was historically inaccurate in the first place, that it was eclipsed by subsequent events, and that even prominent Catholic bishops no longer consider it appropriate. Even though the Vatican is insisting on re-ordination of the Anglican clergy before they can function as Catholic priests, the fact that this apparently will be done with ease and with no additional doctrinal formation will tend to reinforce the Anglican position that their priests and bishops have always been validly ordained.

It may also impact the celibacy policy of the Roman church itself. The Vatican is at pains to distinguish the status of married Anglican clergy who now wish to profess allegiance to Rome from Catholic priests who vowed celibacy and then married. But allowing married former Anglican clergy to serve as married Catholic priests is sure to modify Catholics' perception of what a Catholic priest needs to be, and to highlight that celibacy is a policy choice and not the unchangeable essence of the priesthood.

The Vatican announcement implied that seminarians trained for the Anglican ordinariates would continue to be allowed to marry. However, an article today from Religion News Service waffles on that: "Cardinal William Levada, head of the Vatican's doctrinal office, suggested on Tuesday that the new dioceses will not ordain married men unless they have already started their preparation in Anglican seminaries, or permit unmarried priests to take wives after ordination." The article implies that if that Vatican does not make provision for a permanent married priesthood in the Anglican ordinariates, it will be a deal-breaker for some Anglicans. But even allowing existing seminarians to marry before ordination means that Rome will face pressure to allow more marriages when new seminarians are recruited for the Anglican structures.

A scenario that could result from Rome's new policy would place Rome in an interesting quandary. It is unlikely but not unthinkable that there are female Anglican priests who (obviously) favor ordination of women but not ordination of gay people or the blessing of same-sex unions. If such a female priest were to apply for admission as a Catholic priest, Rome would not be able to accept her because of its position that ordaining women is impossible. Yet Rome would be turning down an Anglican who professes everything else required by the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It would also face pressure from Catholic women who would regard the Anglican female priest as the embodiment of what is indeed possible in the Catholic church. Clearly the Vatican does not intend by this initiative to strengthen the women's ordination movement in Catholicism. But that result may not be avoidable.

Nearly everyone will agree that Pope Benedict's gambit is a game changer for Anglican-Catholic relations. But what Benedict wants may not be what Benedict gets. There are other players with other agendas in both communions and in the other Christian churches. It will be interesting to see if Benedict has out-maneuvered them, or just out-witted himself.

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