There’s plenty of room for more

  • February 19, 2007
Last month in Ottawa, the Anglican Catholic Church — not to be confused with either the Anglican Church of Canada or the Catholic Church — consecrated two new bishops. According to all reports, it was a moment of celebration for the small denomination, which, some 30 years ago, split off from mainstream Anglicanism over the ordination of women.
For Roman Catholics interested in ecumenical matters — more of us should be — the Anglican Catholics hold special interest. They are actively and officially pursuing reunion with Rome. They believe, in the words of their primate, that “there are no doctrinal or moral matters of such significance that they would prevent unity between this Communion and the Holy See.”

Whether or not this claim is true is a question I gladly leave to the theologians to decide. Meanwhile, Catholics should welcome to the negotiating table everyone who comes knocking on our door, for whatever reason and with whatever historical baggage — but especially Anglicans of any stripe.

Alone among the churches of the Reformation, Anglicanism has always been graced, from the 16th century onward, by thinkers and leaders who genuinely desired to end the schism with Rome that Henry VIII inaugurated. Such people were often eclipsed, of course, during the centuries that British authorities, good Anglicans all, persecuted and violently suppressed Catholicism within the boundaries of England, Scotland and Ireland — but never mind. The promoters of unity have always been there in Anglicanism, and still are, witnessing to what they believe to be the Anglican communion’s continuity with Catholicism in matters of faith and practice. One hears in the pleas for unity coming from the Anglican Catholic Church a very old melody.

While I know little about Anglican Catholics in particular, I know quite a bit about Anglicanism, having been a happy member of that communion for most of my adult life before my conversion to Roman Catholicism.

However passionate they are about reunion with  Rome — and the Anglican Catholics seem passionate indeed — ecumenically minded Anglicans of whatever sort, in my experience, are understandably apprehensive about being squashed by the huge Catholic Church. They are especially concerned lest some much-valued item of Anglican Christian experience — the splendid English liturgy, for instance, or the relative independence of bishops — be abolished by the Vatican bureaucracy or overwhelmed by the polyglot, multinational character of the Catholic Church itself. More seriously, despite all the good will and doctrinal agreement in the world, most Anglicans can’t really stomach the practical reality of the modern, centralized papacy. And the very notion of having a universal moral arbiter installed at Rome runs counter to the nationalistic, democratic British history that has so deeply coloured the culture of Anglicanism in Britain and beyond. The barriers to Catholic-Anglican unity are higher now than ever, given mainstream Anglicanism’s stand on the ordination of women and openly practising homosexuals; but barriers were always there, and could never be downplayed.

But let’s suppose Canada’s Anglican Catholics are indeed agreeable with Roman Catholic faith and order, and are ready in every other way to join forces with the Catholic Church. Is there any way they could be allowed to keep what’s valuable in their traditions of worship and devotion? I see no reason why not. Anyway, the thing has been done.

In 1983, a group of former Episcopalians were received into the Catholic Church in San Antonio, Texas, and became the nucleus of Our Lady of the Atonement  Church. This Roman Catholic parish is unique in its archdiocese, inasmuch as it has permission from Rome to worship according to rites drawn from the great Anglican source, the Book of Common Prayer. This parish has an active ministry among Texas Episcopalians who have become disenchanted, for whatever reason, with their church; and, in the midst of Catholicism, they bear witness to Anglicanism’s best traditions of prayer and worship.

Armed with this precedent, the Canadian Anglican Catholics could quite possibly ask for the privilege of conducting their worship by the Prayer Book, and I see no reason why they should be refused. Though it can look like a monolithic entity from the outside —that’s surely the way many Anglicans see it — the Catholic Church is a very big tent, with space for numerous rites and usages. Perhaps it’s time we moved over and made room for one more.

(Mays is a Toronto author and journalist.)