The pope makes it easier for Anglicans to convert to Catholicism en masse—but creates a rod for his own back
SINCE the Church of England voted 17 years ago to admit women to the priesthood, disenchanted individual members of the 80m-strong worldwide Anglican Communion have been quietly converting to Roman Catholicism.
Since 2003, when the Episcopalian church, the American branch of the Communion, first ordained an openly gay bishop, the number of alienated conservatives has been swollen by those dismayed by their Church’s growing tolerance of homosexuality.
Many traditionalist Anglicans, nevertheless, have held back, reluctant to sacrifice their liturgy and heritage. On October 20th Pope Benedict offered them a way out of their unease and into the Catholic church. In so doing, he created a new headache for the beleaguered Anglican leadership—and resuscitated an old conundrum for the Vatican.
For years, the pope’s officials have been mulling over what to do about Anglican splinter groups which sought to join the Catholic church as a body. Foremost among these is the Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC), led by an Australian archbishop, John Hepworth. It had been thought the pope might offer the TAC a status within the Roman Catholic Church like that given to the conservative fellowship, Opus Dei—one that gives its members their own pastors rather than putting them under the local diocesan bishop.
But the papal decree goes much further. It enables not just the TAC, but any Anglican group—community, parish, even an entire diocese—to enter into communion with Rome without sacrificing its traditions. The so-called Apostolic Constitution (the highest form of pontifical ordinance) creates a new entity that transcends diocesan boundaries: the “personal ordinariate”, similar to the “military ordinariates” for Roman Catholics in the armed forces. In charge of each will be a former Anglican prelate.
The Vatican has already taken, following reordination, several dozen rebel Anglican priests, some of them married. It makes a similar exception to its rule of priestly celibacy for the Eastern Catholic churches (which recognise the pope but use their own rites). The Vatican does not, however, permit married bishops. So the pastors of these new “personal ordinariates” must either be unmarried bishops or married priests.
Archbishop Hepworth declared himself “profoundly moved by the generosity” of Pope Benedict. But Rowan Williams, the leader of the Anglicans’ mother Church, seemed stunned. Writing to his bishops, he complained he had been informed only at “a very late stage”.
No wonder he was shocked. The pope’s scheme will make it even harder for the Anglican leader to sustain an already difficult balancing act. To keep his worldwide Communion together, he is hewing to a relatively conservative line on homosexuality that would involve gay-friendly Americans settling for a sort of associate status.
But in his own Church, he has gone along with a liberal policy on women. Preparations are in train for the ordination of female bishops. And there is likely to be an end to the procedural devices allowing traditionalist clergy to avoid serving alongside (or, in future, under) women. That may have persuaded the Vatican to act: it had to decide how to respond to conservatives who felt the Church of England was about to make their position untenable.
Hitherto, an uneasy alliance of low-church evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics has struggled to resist liberal Anglicanism. “This will change the balance in the Church of England in favour of the liberals,” says Jonathan Bartley of Ekklesia, a think-tank. “The evangelicals won’t go to Rome and they may now be abandoned by their Anglo-Catholic allies.” Some think (or fear) that as many as one in seven Church of England priests could convert.
The effect on the Catholic church may also be far-reaching. With the pope signalling a readiness to give married prelates the authority, if not the status, of bishops, it may be asked how long he can hold the line on priestly celibacy in the Western Church. Celibacy is widely ignored in Africa and Latin America. And it is an obstacle to Benedict’s dream of re-evangelising Europe, as it is the leading cause of the collapse in the numbers of Europeans studying for the priesthood.
As Richard Chartres, the Anglican bishop of London, commented, the pope’s initiative “sounds to me like a vindication of the idea of married priests, which was one of the achievements of the Reformation.” He was being ironic. Probably.
Oct 22nd 2009 | ROME
From The Economist print edition