Vatican clears way for conservative Anglicans to return to Rome
The Vatican on Oct. 20 took the bold step of announcing a new and simplified process for thousands of disaffected conservative Anglicans to join the Roman Catholic Church en masse.
In a news conference held in Rome, Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Archbishop Joseph Augustine Di Noia, secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, announced that Pope Benedict XVI had approved an “Apostolic constitution” to streamline the conversion of Anglicans.
The document will permit traditional Anglicans — many of whom reject female bishops and priests as well as the growing acceptance of homosexuality in the 77-million-member Anglican Communion — to maintain their liturgies and their clergy if they swear allegiance to Rome.
“The Catholic Church is responding to the many requests that have been submitted to the Holy See from groups of Anglican clergy and faithful in different parts of the world,” a Vatican statement said.
“The Apostolic constitution seeks to balance on the one hand the concern to preserve the worthy Anglican liturgical and spiritual patrimony and, on the other hand, the concern that these groups and their clergy will be integrated into the Catholic Church,” it continued.
The Rev. James Massa, ecumenical director for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, pointed out the details will not be clear until actual text of the Apostolic constitution is released in a week or two.
“We had procedures in place for individual Anglicans converting, but this is something new because it allows for corporate transfer of networks of Anglicans,” he said. “It’s not a matter of the Catholic Church poaching from the Anglican Communion. These folks have been on a journey of faith for many years, and they came knocking on our door.”
One such group is the Traditional Anglican Communion, headed by Australian Archbishop John Hepworth. The 400,000-member group formally petitioned to join the Catholic Church on Oct 16, 2007.
The new development could sway members of the AngloCatholic wing of the U.S. Episcopal Church who have been thinking of converting, said David Mills, a Pittsburgh-area columnist who taught at an Episcopal seminary before becoming a Catholic in 2001.
“The offer to move into the Catholic Church is a bigger jump than they expect,” he said. “It really is a different mind, not just Anglicanism with extras.”
The new structure allows married Anglican clergy to become Catholic priests, which the Catholic Church has allowed since 1982. However, married Anglican bishops would have to give up their positions and revert to clergy status. Only unmarried Anglican bishops will be allowed to oversee the new convert communities of former Anglicans who will place themselves under Pope Benedict XVI.
Bill Tighe, a Catholic histo- rian at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., whose doctorate was on the English Reformation, called the new structure “generous” for Anglicans, especially its provision allowing married priests.
For that same reason, “many” American and British Catholic bishops aren’t happy, he explained.
“They’re asking, ‘Why cut special deals for Anglicans?’ “ he said. “We don’t do that for Baptists and Methodists. And won’t a lot of our priests be annoyed? They have to be celibate while these Anglican priests do not.”
The announcement was the Vatican’s attempt to heal a rift that began almost 500 years ago, when King Henry VIII broke with Rome and installed himself as head of the Church of England.
Even though secret talks between Anglican traditionalists and the Catholic Church have been taking place for years, the pace intensified last summer when the Church of England Synod gave preliminary approval for female bishops.
Nevertheless, the Vatican announcement seemed to surprise Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. He acknowledged in an Oct. 20 letter to the world’s Anglican bishops that “I was informed of the planned announcement at a ver y late stage.”
But, “in the light of recent discussions with senior officials in the Vatican,” he added, “I can say that this new possibility is in no sense at all intended to undermine existing relations between our two communions or to be an act of proselytism or aggression. It is described as simply a response to specific [inquiries] from certain Anglican groups and individuals wishing to find their future within the Roman Catholic Church.”
However, the effect was one more vote of a lack of confidence in the leaders of the world’s third-largest Christian denomination, which has been racked with dissent over the 2003 election of an openly gay U.S. bishop and Archbishop Williams’ seeming inability to discipline those responsible.