How many Anglicans will take the dip in the Tiber?

  • November 6, 2009
The shock-waves set in motion by Pope Benedict’s invitation to Anglicans to convert en masse, bringing their legacy of spiritual thought and worship with them, continues to ricochet throughout the world.

Some Anglican prelates, most notably in the large churches of Africa, have dismissed the call out of hand. At least one sizable group of dissident Anglicans — the Australia-based Traditional Anglican Communion, which claims some 400,000 adherents worldwide — has announced its eagerness to “swim the Tiber,” as Anglicans say, as soon as possible. But at the time of this writing, no observer or Anglican leader is in a position to make any move, since the Vatican has yet to announce the terms and time frame of its surprising offer.

Only this much is really clear at the present time: Married Anglican male clergy who convert will be eligible for ordination and ministry as Catholic priests in the new ecclesiastical structures, which will take the form of non-territorial dioceses. It is not clear, however, whether these married priests will be allowed to serve outside that structure, in “ordinary” Catholic parishes, or whether Catholic laypeople who did not come over from Anglicanism will be welcomed in the new Anglican rite parishes. (I think it likely that both things will eventually happen: the first, because of the shortage of priests in Latin rite parishes; the second, because of the fluidity of parish affiliation that already exists in Catholicism.)

Also in need of clarification is exactly what the Vatican means when it offers to create this new space within the Catholic Church for “distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony.” This “patrimony” is, after all, one reason individual converts from Anglicanism before the present moment — I count myself among them — have decided to switch to Rome.

Take liturgy, for example. Though rightly renowned for its stately and exalted language, the Book of Common Prayer, in both its 16th-century versions and its numerous modern updates and revisions, is deeply tinted by the anti-Catholicism of its Reformation origins. The theology of the book is vague and contradictory, which is what we might expect from a text shaped by political and intellectual compromise and meant to accommodate everyone on the traditional Anglican spectrum, from Bible-thumping evangelical to smells-and-bells Anglo-Catholic. We can hope the Anglicans bring with them a higher standard of English in the liturgy, but they will surely have to leave much of the Book of Common Prayer behind.

And what are we to make of the ceremonial “patrimony” with which this liturgy is celebrated? As everyone knows, nobody can do a “Solemn High Mass” more gloriously than the high-church Anglicans who, by every estimate, will make up the majority of group converts to Rome. Clouds of incense, shimmering vestments, imposing processions, brilliant music: It can all be thrilling, like liturgical celebrations in the Eastern rite churches already in communion with Rome.

Latin rite Catholics should welcome this elaborate mode of worshipping God, while not letting it go to our heads. Latin rite vernacular worship since the Second Vatican Council, done well and seriously, is theologically and liturgically sound, and its ritual simplicity and clarity of presentation should be treasured. But it will be interesting to see what effects, if any, modern Catholic understandings of the liturgical life of the church have on the ritual practices of the new Anglican rite communities — or, as may be the case, vice-versa.

More problematic than either liturgy or ceremonial, however, is the spiritual legacy the Anglicans will bring over. The most famous aspect of the Anglican tradition is a reluctance to make sharp definitions in matters of faith and morals — something that stands in sharp contrast, of course, to Rome’s vigourous readiness to declare its views on both. I suspect this vivid difference in style is one reason that many Anglicans have already turned down the invitation without waiting to assess its full implications.

On the other hand, it seems to be exactly Rome’s unbending positions on women priests and the blessing of same-sex unions (and other topics) that are the principle attractions of Catholicism for disaffected Anglicans. In the end, Anglicans will perhaps be able to carry with them less than they think, and they will have to contend with much that is unfamiliar. How many of them will actually swim the Tiber, once the Vatican has made its terms of reception clear, remains to be seen.

(Mays is a Toronto author and journalist.)

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