In 1997, William Oddie, a former Anglican priest who had converted to Catholicism, published a little book called The Roman Option. In it, he predicted that the Anglican Communion— then still reeling from the 1992 decision to ordain women—would experience a further series of “convulsions.”
These ecclesiastical seizures, he argued, would, through the tumult and tribulations of time, lead to a fundamental “realignment” of the Christian faith. Oddie foresaw on the one hand “a movement of Catholic-minded Anglicans into the Catholic Church,” and on the other a “convergence of Methodists and Free Churchmen around the Church of England.”
These shifts, Oddie believed, would eventually result in the formation of two great Christian traditions:
The Catholic and the Reformed. As the wounds of the past healed, these blocks would gradually grow together until, possibly in only a century or two, error and apostasy would fall away like dead skin cells, making way for the union of all Christian peoples.
This was bold stuff. Oddie didn’t go for any softly-softly come-together ecumenism. His tone was almost apocalyptic. “There will be further, and deeper crises,” he wrote in his conclusion,
That is how the great clarifications of Christian history unfold. Events will be infinitely more complicated than any of the scenarios I have outlined. There will be more pain and more healing, more petty stupidity and more inspired vision; ancestral insecurities and resentments will again manifest themselves on the Church’s unimpressive human face: but in the end all this will be cast aside by the glorious Grace of God, sweeping through his people and bringing them at last safe home.
The Roman Option provoked some controversy in England, but Anglican and Catholic authorities strongly dismissed Oddie’s work, and his book was quickly forgotten. The Anglo-Catholic world had experienced a dynamic shudder in the 1990s, as conservative Anglicans, aghast at the progressive direction in which their church was heading, reached out to Rome. But relations soon settled back to the norm—a gridlock of mutual and prickly disagreement.
Some 480 Anglican priests, a few of them married, did dash across the Tiber to escape the dog-collared women. Their reception into the Church was cordially arranged by Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Basil Hume, the archbishop of Westminster. Yet Christian life in the Anglosphere did not change radically. The world was growing increasingly secular, anyway, and Anglo-Catholic tensions looked less like the epic struggle of Oddie’s imagination than the petty squabbles of a dwindling bunch of difficult old men.
This autumn, however, Englishspeaking Christians sensed another seismic wave. On October 20, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) held two simultaneous press conferences, in Rome and London, in order to announce that Pope Benedict XVI had approved an apostolic constitution which offered a new legal structure for Anglicans seeking “corporate reunion” with Rome.
The document, the CDF confirmed, would allow the establishment of “personal ordinariates,” similar in form to those adopted in military and other unusual dioceses, to enable disaffected Anglicans to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church.
The announcement hit the Anglo- Christian world like a bomb. Commentators and pundits, many with but the slightest background in religious affairs rushed to their keypads and microphones to pronounce on the implications of Rome’s sudden initiative. Evidently something very big was happening— but what?
For some, the answer seemed obvious: this was a Roman power grab. The Anglican Communion had imploded under the weight of modernism, tearing itself to pieces with its quarrels over gay bishops, women bishops, and so on. The Vatican had swooped, vulture-like, to feast on the Anglican corpse, hungrily fastening on any traditional flesh it could find on the bones of its old enemy. “Look,” observed Hans Küng, the dissident liberal theologian, in a widely quoted line, “the fisherman is fishing above all on the ‘right’ side of the lake.”
This notion of a traditionalist Pontiff reaching out to like-minded Anglicans prompted a fierce rash of anti-Catholic hysteria in the media. According to the London Times, Benedict XVI was “annexing” the Anglican right, “parking his tanks” on Lambeth Palace’s lawn. Controversialists began fantasizing about a possible head-of-faith showdown between Queen Elizabeth II, supreme governor of the Church of England, and Pope Benedict during the Pontiff’s scheduled visit to the UK next year.
Leading pope-haters were summoned to the fray. The Washington Post invited the fanatical atheist Richard Dawkins, of all people, to pass judgment on this complicated ecumenical initiative. “What major institution most deserves the title of greatest force for evil in the world?” he asked. “The Roman Catholic Church is surely up there among the leaders.” “The Vatican is welcoming extreme-right Anglicans into the Catholic Church,” sneered Maureen Dowd in the New York Times.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster had tried to preempt such unpleasantness by pointing out that the Catholic Church was in fact responding to the repeated approaches of disgruntled Anglicans, rather than carrying out some sort conservative coup against a hapless Church of England. “[The apostolic constitution] has a particular purpose,” he said in a prepared statement. “To permit those who wish to live their faith in full visible union with the See of Peter to do so while also preserving elements of the distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony.”
But appeals for calm were little use. The “Vatican raids Anglican cookie jar” headlines were not going to be stopped. Besides, for all the archbishop’s sober intervention, there was no denying that the Vatican’s move was a dramatic, even stunning, one.
Take away the sensationalism, and this was still a sensational story. Pope Benedict XVI had, it could not be denied, by-passed the usual channels of Anglican-Catholic dialogue—namely, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC)—and used the CDF to open a new doorway between his Church and the Church of England. The notoriously “arch-conservative” Pontiff had thus committed a radical act, breaking out from the strictures of intra-Christian politesse to plop a giant ecumenical Alka-Seltzer into the long stagnant waters of Anglo-Catholic dialogue.
The Anglican establishment was shocked. As the news broke, Dr. Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, who had only learnt about the apostolic constitution days before it became public knowledge, tried to say that it was merely “business as usual” in Anglo-Catholic life. It clearly was not. That morning, Dr. Williams had fired off a letter to his fellow bishops about Rome’s move, the tone of which was more than a little testy. “I am sorry that there has been no opportunity to alert you earlier to this,” he wrote. “I was informed of the planned announcement at a very late stage.”
Lord Carey, the former archbishop of Canterbury, described the Vatican’s sudden springing of its constitution as “inexcusable.” “[Dr. Williams] should express his unhappiness with the process,” he said. Carey conceded, however, that “straightforward ecumenism is going nowhere” and that Rome’s “fresh initiative” could yield “surprising consequences.”
Yet for all the drama and anticipation, nobody had much of an idea about exactly what the apostolic constitution implied for Anglican-Catholic relations. Would it prompt a mass exodus of disaffected Anglicans, or just a small dribble? Do the proposed ordinariates mean that married former Church of England priests and bishops would be granted full sacramental authority within the Catholic Church? Would the reform create a parallel Anglican church within the Roman bosom?
Weeks after the publication of the apostolic constitution, Anglicanorum Coetibus, these questions remain unanswered. In particular, the knotty issue of what happens to incoming Anglican married clerics has yet to be unpicked. Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the CDF, has insisted that the document does not mean the discipline of clerical celibacy was being further compromised. He added, however, that married men could be ordained on a case-by case basis. “In other words,” said canon lawyer Edward N. Peters on his blog, “former Anglican ministers seeking Catholic ordination will be required to observe celibacy. Unless they won’t be required to observe it.”
The confusion doesn’t end there. At one level, Anglicanorum Coetibus appears to say that ordinaries—heads of ordinariates—could be married Anglican bishops. They would possess not only “pastoral oversight and guidance” of their sub-dioceses (or parallel dioceses), but also a “public juridic personality in their own right.” Subject to Rome’s approval, they would also be allowed to keep their episcopal insignia, such as their crosiers or their mitres. Doesn’t that suggest married Catholic bishops in everything but name?
“That’s exactly what it doesn’t mean,” insisted Archbishop Nichols in an interview with the London Times. “The exercise of ordinary jurisdiction isn’t confined to the bishop.” He explained that the two key functions of episcopal ministry—the ordination of priests and the consecration of the chrism, the sacramental anointment of holy oils—could not be extended to any married man. “There won’t be married bishops, there haven’t been married bishops,” he said. “That’s not going to be changed.”
Archbishop Nichols advised Anglo- Catholics to be patient in their desire to understand what Anglicanorum Coetibus meant for them. “There’s a lot to study, there’s a lot to look at, there’s a lot to work through,” he said Archbishop Nichols. “There’s no rush.”
The document is hardly likely, at least in the short run, to become clearer as canon lawyers and ecclesiological wonks begin poring over its technicalities. Still, its potential significance is undiminished. The establishment of “personal ordinariates” offers Catholic- minded Anglicans an opportunity, should they wish to take it, to establish their own official apostolic groups under the jurisdiction of the Petrine Church.
The most striking element of Pope Benedict’s provision lies in its attempt to accommodate Anglican methods of worship. Anglicanorum Coetibus goes far beyond the usual courtesies of ecumenical etiquette: it is deliberately designed to enable converts from Anglicanism to keep elements of their liturgies. The constitution permits, for instance, the celebration of the Holy Eucharist and other sacraments “according to the liturgical books proper to the Anglican tradition which have been approved by the Holy See, so as to maintain the liturgical, spiritual, and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion within the Catholic Church as a precious gift nourishing the faith of the members of the ordinariate and as a treasure to be shared.”
Anglicanorum Coetibus stops short of creating an autonomous Anglican Uniate Church in the mould of the Eastern Catholic Churches—Armenian, Chaldean, and others—which have their own rites, liturgies, and systems of canon law. Indeed, the document explicitly states that all professed members of an ordinariate will fall under the Latin Rite, and they must accept The Catechism of the Catholic Church as the “authoritative expression” of their faith.
So far, however, the official responses of Anglo-Catholics have been mixed and muted. The Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC), a group of rebel conservatives who have already left official Anglicanism, has been the most eager to accept Rome’s proposal. On October 29, its leading members voted to accept the Pope’s offer of a personal ordinariate. Archbishop John Hepworth, TAC’s leader, spoke of his “overwhelming joy” at the Pope’s provision. “We’ve been asked to show the rich heritage to the whole church, not just to ourselves,” he said.
But Hepworth is a former Catholic priest who became an Anglican, married, divorced, and then married again. He would probably not qualify as a suitable candidate for re-ordination under the terms of the constitution. It is unlikely, though, that many members of the TAC share the same impediments.
Other mainline Anglo-Catholic organizations have reacted more ambiguously to Pope’s offer. The Rt. Rev. John Broadhurst, the Anglican bishop of Fulham and leading spokesman for the group Forward in Faith, called the new provisions “extremely impressive” and suggested that he would be happy to be re ordained a Catholic in the near future. Broadhurst hinted, however, that many disgruntled Anglicans might find it difficult to take the final step to Rome. “For some of us, I suspect,” he opined, “our bluff is called.”
Certainly, for many older Anglicans raised in Britain and America—societies that until relatively recently still harbored blatant anti-Catholic prejudice— the Roman option remains a troubling one, a desperate last resort in the face of lesbian bishops and overbearing liberalism. As one Anglican priest, Father David Houlding, put it last month after the Church of England ruled against allowing special safeguards to protect traditionalist members from women bishops: “We didn’t want to go to Rome, but now have been left with no choice.” This is hardly an attitude to endear him to long-standing Roman Catholics.
Anglo-Catholics pondering Pope Benedict XVI’s offer are bound to face considerable pressure from their peers not to betray their church. The vicar of one Anglo-Catholic parish, who had made noises about accepting the personal ordinariate structure, recently found the notice board in front of his church daubed with “C of E No Pope” in white paint. He also received a threatening telephone call. Evidently, the spirit of the Reformation is not extinct.
Dr. Williams has been busy trying to smooth over Anglo-Catholic tensions. During a visit to Rome in November, he calmly defended the Anglican position on women priests and attempted to damp down excitement about Anglicanorum Coetibus. He also tried to refocus ecumenical attentions on ARCIC, which is about to enter “its third phase.” “The constitution did not represent any change in the Vatican’s attitude to the Anglican Communion as such,” he said after a meeting with the Pope. “The next round of the… ARCIC procedure should go on.”
Dr. Williams’ insistence that the essential structure of ecumenical cooperation remains unchanged, combined with the instinctive reluctance of Anglicans even to consider Roman Catholicism, means that the initial excitement over the constitution has quickly subsided. It is tempting to conclude that the story will prove to have been just another storm in the Anglican teacup.
Yet, even if only a handful of Anglicans take up the offer, Anglicanorum Coetibus will not be forgotten. Benedict XVI has laid the foundations for the great realignment that William Oddie anticipated in 1997.
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