What to do with Anglicans?

  • November 9, 2007
{mosimage}The long-standing conversation between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion about unity has been patient and respectful — and painstakingly slow. But recent events on the ground may be overtaking this genteel high-level dialogue of prelates and theologians, and lending fresh urgency to the question: Whither Catholic-Anglican relations?

In late September, the bishops of the Episcopal Church in the United States — the American branch of Anglicanism — issued a go-slow declaration on the ordination of openly gay priests and bishops that satisfied no one in the pews. Episcopalian gay-rights activists viewed the cautiously worded edict as a back-down of the church hierarchy, which approved the consecration of a gay bishop a few years ago. Meanwhile, conservatives were dismayed by the refusal of the bishops to proclaim an outright ban on such consecrations. For many influential Episcopalians in the latter camp, the September pronouncement gave new impetus to their threatened break with the Episcopal Church over the issue, and the establishment of a parallel Anglican association.

But this controversy is hardly limited to Anglicanism in  North America. The Church of England is being wracked by impending or actual defections of parishes. With the conflict over gay ordination (and old fights over the ordination of women) troubling the whole Communion, it now seems likely that these issues will dominate next summer’s Lambeth Conference, a once-a-decade meeting in England of the world’s Anglican bishops. A split may now be inevitable, with conservative-minded Anglicans in Europe, North America and  Africa departing the mainstream Anglican church and setting up a new organization.

But some Anglicans are not willing merely to live in an alternative structure outside the mainline church. Last month, the bishops and other leaders of the Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC), an umbrella group that claims 400,000 adherents in 12 countries, petitioned Rome for “full, corporate, sacramental union” with the Catholic Church. The full text of the petition has not been made public and Anglican leaders have declined interviews pending a reply from the  Vatican. It’s enough for now to note that, for the first time since the Reformation, hundreds of thousands of Protestants are now knocking at our door, asking to be admitted en masse.

But before shouting a merry “Welcome Home!” to them, it’s worth thinking about the pickle into which the recent tumults in Anglicanism are putting Catholic officialdom.

Up to this point, the Catholic Church’s talks with Anglicans have proceeded on the understanding that there was a single Anglican body in the conversation — the one made up of those churches who recognize the spiritual leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury. But should the Anglican Communion fragment into so many pieces, as now seems possible, who, exactly, will Catholics talk to? The liberal, mainstream denomination, which ordains women and (in the  United States, anyway) approves the ordination of openly gay priests and bishops? Or the breakaway Anglicans who do neither, and are therefore of one mind (in this respect, anyway) with Catholicism?

And what’s to be done about those Anglicans who are now seeking full union with the Catholic Church? For Catholics to treat with a whole bloc of disaffected Anglicans runs counter to Vatican policy regarding the Anglican Communion. Were the Vatican to admit the TAC to membership, the move would almost certainly be viewed by Anglican mainstreamers as gravely divisive to the up-to-now usual Catholic-Anglican relationship, and it might squash future ecumenical encounters altogether.

On the other hand, should ordinary Catholics really care about such bureaucratic matters? God is always leading His people, often a bit farther out front than the official structures of the church are willing or able to go. We may very well be witnessing an instance of such leadership.

Everything depends, of course, on what the TAC wants in return for membership in the Catholic Church.

In 2005, Australian archbishop and TAC primate John Hepworth said, “We are looking at a church which would retain an Anglican liturgy, Anglican spirituality and a married clergy.” It seems he’s talking about a uniate church, along the lines of eastern churches now in full communion with  Rome. Given the precedents, this does not seem like a huge thing to ask of the Catholic Church.

A uniate church with Anglican liturgy, Anglican spirituality? That doesn’t seem like a great leap. A married clergy? Millions of Catholics worship according to rites that approve the marriage of the clergy. Having one more rite of this kind in the Catholic Church would be hardly out of line. It may well be that the move by the TAC is God’s sign to the Catholic Church to open up and make room for these new people who share so many of our goals, values and beliefs.

(Mays is a Toronto author and journalist.)

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