I was going to preach a rather nice little sermon on Our Lord’s compassion on us in our spiritual blindness (c.f. Mk 10:46:52, today’s Gospel), but, the last few days everyone who has seen me has asked, “What about this business with the Vatican proposal on Anglicans coming into the Church, eh?”
If you’ve not heard the news, there was a major press conference this week (curiously, presented by both the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster and the Anglican Rowan Williams of Canterbury), in which it was announced that the Vatican is setting up a new organisational structure to receive Anglicans into Full Communion with the Catholic Church.
This comes in the general context of a century of ecumenism, a century of hoping, praying and working for the return of the corporate unity in the Church, in the hope that those in schism or heresy will come back to union with the See of Rome. In this task, as the Second Vatican Council reminded us, Catholics must also be willing to change, to reform and purify ourselves so that we are more perfectly what we should already be, so that what non-Catholic Christians object to in us should not be those things that should never have been there. Now, the vision of what corporate re-unification would look like has always been somewhat unclear, but Catholics have insisted, on one hand, that it must be unity in doctrine, in morality, and recognition of the authority of the See of Rome. While also, on the other hand, allowing diversity in certain traditions and rituals, for example: the Greek Catholic Rites (not the Greek Orthodox) believe in seven sacraments like we do, believe in the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady etc, believe in the Pope, but use their own rituals with piles of incense, very long liturgies, and major liturgical action happening behind an iconostasis (like a Western medieval rood screen). So it is possible to have unity, real unity, i.e. in faith and morals, while also having diversity in liturgical practice.
But, in the midst of the working for unity among the churches there have also been divisions and changes, in particular with how the churches relate to modernity: how much they reject modern thinking as the cause of the modern problems, and how much they embrace it. The most recent issue in this regard is homosexuality, with the Anglican Communion now having an American bishop who is a practicing homosexual, while the Catholic Church will always teach that deviant behaviour remains deviant and is not only bad for society but, tragically, is bad for the individuals who follow those inclinations.
For many Anglicans, this and similar issues have caused them to re-consider the claims of the Church of Rome. While others seem to be losing their nerve, the Catholic Church is keeping steady, we are not attempting to change right and wrong. In short, we are manifesting what our claim of infallibility claims: that Rome cannot help but stick to the truth, even when it might seem ‘convenient’ to do not do so.
In the last few years “over 50 Anglican Bishops” have approached Rome and asked about being received into Full Communion. More specifically, they asked not that they be received into the Catholic Church as individuals but that these Anglican bishops can be received along with their congregations, as a group, retaining some form of ‘Anglican’ identity, but in Full Communion with Rome. Something similar happened over a decade ago when 6 Anglican parishes in America became Catholic but were allowed to continue largely as they were, adhering FULLY to Catholic doctrine but using a newly modified version of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, a version purified to be made in keeping with Catholic doctrine.
The Vatican has responded to this request by issuing a new Apostolic Constitution that will create a new structure in canon law, a 'personal ordinariate'. People and priests in it will both relate to their local Catholic Bishop and to their new “Personal Ordinary” (“Thus the arrangement is different from the Uniate Churches in that the Personal Ordiariates are canonically within the Western Rite”). In addition, they will be allowed to keep certain aspects of their Anglican liturgy and traditions. We don’t know the details of the yet-to-be-issued “Code of Practice”, and we don’t know if many or any English Anglicans will join it (probably more in Africa, judging from certain reports).
What does this mean for us? Probably little change in Shaftesbury. But it is a call for us to be generous in our attitude, welcoming. A call for us to remember that we can differ in some significant liturgical practice and yet still be fully Catholic. This generosity must include a refusal to delight in the difficulties within the Anglican Communion –it is only a twisted mind that rejoices to watch a tragedy unfold. But, this is all also a reminder of the importance and joy of being ‘Roman’: for 4 centuries the Church of England has tried to be ‘catholic’ without being ‘Roman’, they have tried and failed, As the Anglican Bishop of Fulham John Broadhurst said recently, "the Anglican experiment is over". It has tragically failed because such an attempt is a contradiction –you cannot be in Communion with the worldwide Church without being in Communion with its head, without being united to the Vicar of Christ, the Successor of St Peter, the Pope, the visible head of the Church on earth –that others should seek this union should remind us of the importance of being in it.
Some web articles in descending order of being sympathetic:
The new “ordinariate” would permit a “pattern of Catholic life” with space for some of the patrimony of the Anglican community that was “consistent with the Catholic faith”.
“A further group of Anglicans, we think, will begin to form a caravan, rather like the People of Israel crossing the desert in search of the Promised Land.”(Anglican Bishop of Ebbsfleet, Andrew Burnham)