Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Swimming the Tiber Anyone?

Today's paper has a front page story about big news in the area of Anglican-Roman Catholic relations. The Vatican has dramatically and suddenly announced a new provision which will permit Anglican laity (and clergy) to form church entities within Roman Catholicism that are independent of the regular chain of oversight but still ultimately under the oversight of the pope. In other words, in addition to the regular diocesan arrangement of the Roman Catholic Church in which archbishops oversee bishops who oversee parishes which are seen by priests -- there will exist an additional type of arrangement in which former Anglican clergy have oversight of units peopled by former Anglicans. These "personal ordinariates" -- as they are called in the mystifying jargon of catholic Christianity (which we Anglicans also share) -- will follow certain Anglican liturgical traditions and customs.

How will this look on the ground? Very likely in the United Kingdom -- let's say in London -- there will be a bishop who was once a cleric in the Church of England who now oversees a cluster of missions/parishes/chaplaincies led each by clerics who were once in the Church of England, and they will be largely peopled by laity who were once in the Church of England. They will all ultimately be considered Roman Catholic now, and the leadership will of course be reporting up to the Vatican hierarchy.

Interestingly, all of the clergy who leave the Church of England for this new Anglican Rite (or whatever it will be called) will have to be reordained. Since Pope Leo XIII declared in 1896 that Anglican holy orders are "utterly null and completely void" -- in the eyes of Rome we don't have valid deacons, priests or bishops anyway. Moreover, those former Anglican clergy who are married, will be able to become Roman Catholic priests -- but -- they will never be allowed to be bishops while married.

Does this mean that Church of England cathedrals, parishes or dioceses will all of sudden possibly become Roman Catholic again (after more than five centuries of independence)? Almost certainly not. The Church of England is still the established church of the realm, and it will still be around. Does this mean that a great many Anglicans in Britain will become Roman Catholic in this way? I rather doubt it. Lay people have always been free to switch churches and those that have long wanted to be Roman Catholic probably have already made the switch. On the other hand, those clergy who feel they must leave the Church of England because of its inclusion of women into ordained ministry, and its debate over the inclusion of gay clergy and couples, may be end up going this route. Indeed, for those Anglican clergy who cannot abide women or openly gay persons as colleagues, this may be the best choice for them. That is, of course, unless they are primarily evangelical in theology.

Yes, the old split in Anglicanism -- long before struggles of egalitarianism emerged in the past century -- has always been between evangelical/protestant-minded folks and catholic-minded folks. Those Anglicans who identify very much in terms of catholic history, theology and practice, won't have a huge problem switching to a Vatican-based church. Those Anglicans who identify very much with protestant history, theology and practice -- they would have a huge problem. Indeed, until fairly recently, evangelical Anglicans have been as anti-Roman Catholic as anybody -- and virulently so in the past century.

To be sure, most of the Anglicans who have the biggest difficulty with women's ordination and the inclusion of gay persons are not 'Anglo-Catholics' but Anglican evangelicals. This group latter group dominates the various breakaway movements we have seen in recent years, especially in the United States and Canada. As one leader of this movement is quoted as saying in today's News and Observer, Martyn Minns, "there was a Reformation."

So what will this look like on the ground in the United States? Probably not much. I have friends who have already left the Episcopal Church and become Roman Catholics -- one has already returned! Either way, this development won't have much impact on such decisions. As well, there is already a substantial alternative to the Episcopal Church for those more protestant-minded folks who have problems with the ordination of women or the inclusion of openly gay people into the church and its leadership. In Raleigh alone, there are some five different churches with the word Anglican in the name. One meets downtown near Peace street and Glenwood, and another meets on Dixie Trail, near to us. As far as I can tell, these two - All Saints and St. George's -- tend to be a bit more catholic-minded in their liturgy and practice. Another, Holy Trinity Anglican, meets at St. David's School. This congregation as best I can tell has both a fairly mainstream Book of Common Prayer type worship service, as well as a more contemporary one. It's clergy leadership have always been rooted in the Anglican evangelical tradition. Another still, Church of the Apostles, meets in a new facility not far from North Hills, and is primarily rooted in the contemporary evangelical tradition. Yet another, Holy Cross, meets in a property formerly owned by the Episcopal Church on Millbrook Road near Crabtree - I believe they too are rooted in a more contemporary evangelical tradition of worship and theology.

I have friends and family who are Roman Catholic (including my father, stepmother, and two aunts who are nuns) -- and I have always assumed the posture that despite our differences of history and practice and some theology -- we are all disciples of the One Christ Jesus. I have the same exact posture towards my friends in the different variations on Anglicanism which have emerged recently.

What does this mean historically? Hard to say. My first impression is negative. I think that the Pope is doing something, both in terms of its timing, immediacy and surprise-factor, which doesn't seem quite gracious. Most interpreters in England seem to see it as a shot across the bow, a parking of tanks in the lawn, or a plain-faced insult to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the process of ecumenical relations between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. Despite the Archbishop's own statement downplaying any sense of insult yesterday, I'm not sure I believe it. Certainly, it doesn't change that much -- all of these Anglican clergy will still have to be ordained again -- as if for the first time -- by a Roman Catholic hierarchy which does not recognize the validity of the ordination they have already had in the Church of England. To many of us clergy, who see ordination as a parallel to the vows people take in marriage, this is quite an insult. To tell me I am not a valid ordained priest of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church -- in the apostolic succession through the past two millenia -- would be the same as to say my marriage wasn't valid either. As well, if formerly Anglican laity and clergy are to operate in small ecclesiastical peculiars -- with their own liturgical customs and practices, and not as part of the wider Roman Catholic diocese in their given region -- one can imagine a tendency toward isolation within the wider church.

Only time will tell what all this means -- and I will be interested to follow it. But, it certainly doesn't worry me too much.


  1. Thanks for a very well-balanced piece. As an ex-RC, I have a strong sense of "ships passing in the night". Except that most of the Anglican ships passed a long time ago.

  2. I should think it is not going to worry you to much. I don't know if more evangelical Episcopalians or the more Anglo-Catholic will jump ship, but I don't think it will be that many. As for the See of Peter, I think this was that surprising, as Rome has always and will continue to want the "wayward" children to "come home" after the rebellious period has run its course. I think the Mother Church is too often categorized as the Roman Church of the Latin Rite in the media and popular culture, whereas there are at least 23 churches in communion with her with distinctive liturgical differences and in regards married clergy. As long as the theology and doctrine is not in direct contrast with what Rome has said and says, then the differences will be tolerated more and more--at least it seems that way to me. I think this pontiff is more concerned with orthodox belief and practice, rather than grabbing for more souls to line the Vatican's pockets, like so many bloggers are screaming about.

  3. When are you going to separate church and state? Isn't this anachronistic? You and Iran and the VAtican are the only countries that have clergy in government automatically.