/ 23 October 2009

O come all ye Anglicans

Tens of thousands of disaffected Anglicans could become Catholics following this week’s decree by Pope Benedict to poach whole Protestant communities for the church for the first time since the Reformation.

The move surprised many, as it was unveiled simultaneously in the Vatican and in London, where the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, was forced to admit that he had not known about it until a fortnight ago.

Pope Benedict’s initiative — set out in an apostolic constitution, the highest form of pontifical decree, and unveiled by a senior Catholic cardinal — allows Anglicans worldwide, both clergy and worshippers, to convert en masse while maintaining part of their spiritual heritage.

Both Williams and the Catholic archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, who was sitting next to him in a show of unity, refused to concede that the Vatican was passing judgment on the troubles in the Anglican Communion.

”It’s not an act of aggression, it’s not a statement of no confidence. It’s business as usual,” said Williams, who apologised to Anglicans that there had not been prior debate.

The papal decree comes after many years of approaches to the Vatican from Anglicans unhappy with the ordination of women and gay people.

There was scarce detail about how the new structure would work — there could be separate services in Catholic churches for breakaway Anglicans, though control would lead back to Rome.

The most significant part of the decree is that it will allow married Anglican clergy to be ordained as Catholic priests, waiving the requirement of celibacy.

The pope’s chief theological adviser, William Levada, an American cardinal, said that he would put the number of Anglican bishops in the world who were poised to become Catholics ”in the 20s or 30s”. Later, Joseph Di Noia, the deputy head of the Vatican’s liturgical department, said he believed the figure was closer to 50.

This week Williams appeared alongside Nichols in Eccleston Square, the London administrative headquarters of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, and there were awkward moments. Asked if the Vatican move was a ”massive vote of no confidence” in Williams’s leadership, Nichols jumped in with an answer.

Several times they both said the apostolic constitution was not a commentary on the internal disputes ravaging the world’s second-biggest Christian denomination — despite years of Catholic consternation over the ordination of women and gay people.

At an Anglican conference last year several cardinals swooped into Canterbury to air their concerns about the effect such innovations would have on relations between the two churches and how undesirable an Anglican schism would be.

Faced with the press this week, Williams was optimistic and resolute, though his complexion reddened. ”I do not think this constitution will be seen as in any sense a commentary on Anglican problems offered by the Vatican. It is a response to this range of requests and inquiries from a very broad ­variety of people.”

Williams was forced to reveal his ignorance about the announcement to Anglican bishops and archbishops, a number of whom are dissatisfied with his leadership. In a letter he wrote: ”I am sorry that there has been no opportunity to alert you earlier to this; I was informed of the planned announcement at a very late stage and we await the text of the apostolic constitution … in the coming weeks.”

Two bishops from Forward in Faith, a prominent Anglo-Catholic movement in the UK, welcomed the apostolic constitution, but said it was not a time for ”sudden decisions or general public discussion”.

The bishops of Ebbsfleet and Richborough, who provide spiritual care for people opposed to women bishops, confirmed their 2008 meeting with Vatican officials, an event previously denied by Lambeth Palace.

They said some would want to stay in the Anglican communion, and others would make arrangements according to their conscience.
The initiative is not without problems for the Vatican. By accepting married clergy, some with the status of bishops, the Vatican risks reigniting the debate among Catholics over its insistence on celibacy for the vast majority of its priests who belong to the Western, or Latin, rite. —