No questions about Anglican bishops

  • November 11, 2010
 Rt Rev'd Andrew Burnham SSCWith the stroke of a pen, the Catholic Church gained five new shepherds on Nov. 8 when a quintet of Anglican bishops resigned from their troubled Church to be welcomed by the Vatican.

We often see athletes change teams, musicians change record labels, tycoons change banks, but bishops don’t change churches. Not usually. So what should we make of this bold decision?

In announcing their resignations, the bishops expressed collective “dismay” and “distress” at a liberal storm that has howled through the Anglican Church. Recent years have seen Anglican ordination of women and a move towards female bishops, blessings of gay unions and a softening of positions on  issues such as abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide. It became a Church divided and, said the unhappy bishops, a Church that lost sight of its Catholic heritage.

The bishops therefore took advantage of a special structure established a year ago by Pope Benedict XVI that allows disaffected Anglicans to join the Roman Catholic Church yet retain a distinct religious identity. More are expected to follow.

Speaking to the BBC, Bishop Andrew Burnham said his dissatisfaction with the modern Anglican Church went beyond the ordination of female priests and future bishops. “It’s about whether the Church of England is faithful to the undivided Church of the first thousand years, and faithful to its faith and orders, or whether it feels it can make things up and change things as it goes,” he said.

Catholics need to hear Burnham’s words and take note. The Anglican crisis erupted out of a split between modernizers and traditionalists. The modernizers believe Church teaching should conform with social attitudes; traditionalists believe social attitudes should conform with Church teaching. That clash is splitting the Anglican Church in two.

Nothing so dramatic has beset the Catholic Church — not openly, at least —  but that doesn’t mean friction is absent between modernizers and traditionalists, between the so-called left and right. In comportment and language, the two camps can resemble continental plates inching towards a collision.  

The problems begin when Catholics forget they are part of one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church and start espousing that Church teaching, particularly on issues such as abortion, euthanasia, divorce and same-sex marriage, is open to interpretation. Or when they question celibate priesthood or female ordination or the sacredness of sacraments.

Burnham compared the Anglican Church to a chain of coffee shops that share a name but have different menus. After a while, when people don’t know what they’ll see on the menu they find somewhere else to eat. Another bishop lamented that many Anglicans think that right and wrong are matters of individual conscience. Sound familiar? Some call it cafeteria Catholicism.

So let’s welcome the bishops with open arms — and abundant humility.

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