Understanding, respect

  • October 23, 2009
{mosimage}Talk about timing. As the stunning news of Pope Benedict XVI’s bold initiative to bring traditionalist Anglicans into the Catholic Church was starting to spread on Oct. 20, the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada was rising to address the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Anglican Archbishop Fred Hiltz had been invited to the annual Bishops’ Plenary in Cornwall, Ont., to reflect on ecumenism. He applauded the progress over the years in inter-faith relations, affirmed his personal commitment to the cause of ecumenism and spoke optimistically of a future in which Anglicans and Catholics would work more closely together because the theology and history of the two churches share much in common.

But that was before Anglicans and Catholics worldwide were dissecting the Vatican announcement of an  apostolic constitution aimed, it would seem, at Anglicans dismayed by the widespread adoption of women clergy, gay unions and openly gay bishops in their church. These conservative Anglicans are to be welcomed into the Roman Catholic Church in a way that preserves many of their traditional forms of worship. The New York Times called the Vatican initiative an extraordinary bid to lure traditional Anglicans en masse. The Vatican called it a natural outcome of 40 years of interfaith dialogue, dismissing suggestions it “was fishing in the Anglican lake.”

There will no doubt be naysayers decrying what they will interpret as Catholic poaching and proof that the Vatican’s end game is wholesale conversion, not good-faith dialogue and unity between equals. But much of the sting of that argument was removed by the head of the Church of England, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. He said that, rather than an “act of aggression,” it was a sign of maturity and understanding between the two faiths, and that the close co-operation “will continue to grow.”

But even if Benedict’s outreach poses a risk to ecumenism, it is a risk worth taking. The Vatican had a pastoral responsibility to respond to the entreaties of conservative Anglicans who could no longer abide the liberal theological reforms in their church. Bishops from the Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC), a breakaway group of some 400,000 members, had petitioned Rome two years ago seeking full communion with the Catholic Church. In their values and beliefs, the TAC had too much in common with Catholicism to allow some differences to keep them apart.

The unique solution from the Vatican preserves much of the rich Anglican history and culture — including liturgical traditions, prayers, hymns and married clergy — within their own dioceses, called  “personal ordinariates,” while bringing former Anglicans into full sacramental union with the Catholic Church. The details are still to be revealed but it seems clear a framework has been erected on a foundation of understanding and respect.

It is a good day for the church.

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