Monday, October 26, 2009
Last week, the Vatican made a proposal to Anglicans unhappy about their church's moves toward accepting female and gay bishops: reunite with the Roman Catholic Church.
In a surprise announcement from Rome last Tuesday, Pope Benedict XVI approved a provision to create a new church entity that will allow Anglicans to join the Catholic Church in a format similar to Ukrainian or Eastern Rite Catholics, keeping their liturgy and married priests, but not married bishops.
According to USA Today, the announcement stunned many in the 77-million worldwide Anglican Communion, particularly the Church of England, where the Archbishop of Canterbury has wrestled for years with factions that oppose female bishops.
Meanwhile, several church officials and commentators have been weighing in on the Pope's announcement. One Anglican group, known as the Traditional Anglican Communion, opposes female bishops and has made public its bid to join the Catholic Church. The fellowship, which split from the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1990, says it has spread to 41 countries and has 400,000 members. In a similar vein, the Rev. Kendall Harmon, canon theologian for the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, sees the Vatican's announcement as a global event, "maybe one of Benedict's biggest moves."
"Rome is trying to find a structural solution to an unbearable pastoral problem," Harmon said in a statement reacting to the Pope's invitation. According to him, Vatican leaders "clearly feel that if they don't intervene now, it will get worse. Their motive is the reunification of Christianity. If Anglicanism wasn't going to provide a catholic solution, the worldwide church would fracture even more."
Still, Harmon does not expect to see any "snap moves" — particularly because most traditionalist bishops in the USA are married.
Across the border in Canada, some Anglicans have rebuffed the Pope's invitation. Canadian Anglican parishes dissatisfied with their church's new approach to female bishops and gays have broken away from the Anglican Church and formed the Anglican Network in Canada. According to the Network's website, the group "embrace[s] Anglican orthodoxy — the biblically faithful, authentically Anglican way of following Jesus … defined by and centered on the … foundational principles of the Anglican tradition in Canada." No evidence exists that the breakaway parishes will now reunite with the Catholic Church. In fact, CBC News reported on Thursday that Kevin Flynn, director of Anglican studies at Saint Paul University in Ottawa, said he does not think Rome's offer will change much between Anglicans and the Catholic Church. Flynn also thinks the Pope's attempts to woo disaffected Anglicans might alienate some Catholics who want to see their church adopt more liberal views.
"For those Roman Catholics, … I'd say, 'Well, come and be an Anglican.' "
In an op-ed published in Saturday's New York Times, British commentator A. N. Wilson opined that the Pope's overture is actually good news for Britain:
It will formally bring to an end the idea of the Established Church, and of the monarch as that Establishment’s symbol and head. Whatever our private religious allegiances, we Britons no longer want to force our royal heads of state to jump through those impossible hoops. The paradox is that a move by a conservative pope to ease the tender consciences of conservative-minded Anglicans will actually be a move toward the complete secularization of Britain, and an acceptance of its new multicultural identity.
In yesterday's Times, Ross Douthat took a different approach. According to Douthat, the Pope's invitation "represents an unusual effort at targeted proselytism, remarkable both for its concessions to potential converts — married priests, a self-contained institutional structure, an Anglican rite — and for its indifference to the wishes of the Church of England’s leadership."
This is not the way well-mannered modern churches are supposed to behave. Spurred by the optimism of the early 1960s, the major denominations of Western Christendom have spent half a century being exquisitely polite to one another, setting aside a history of strife in the name of greater Christian unity.
This ecumenical era has borne real theological fruit, especially on issues that divided Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation. But what began as a daring experiment has decayed into bureaucratized complacency — a dull round of interdenominational statements on global warming and Third World debt, only tenuously connected to the Gospel.
At the same time, the more ecumenically minded denominations have lost believers to more assertive faiths — Pentecostalism, Evangelicalism, Mormonism and even Islam — or seen them drift into agnosticism and apathy.
Nobody is more aware of this erosion than Benedict. So the pope is going back to basics — touting the particular witness of Catholicism even when he’s addressing universal subjects, and seeking converts more than common ground.
Along the way, he’s courting both ends of the theological spectrum. In his encyclicals, Benedict has addressed a range of issues — social justice, environmental protection, even erotic love — that are close to the hearts of secular liberals and lukewarm, progressive-minded Christians. But instead of stopping at a place of broad agreement, he has pushed further, trying to persuade his more liberal readers that many of their beliefs actually depend on the West’s Catholic heritage, and make sense only when grounded in a serious religious faith.
At the same time, the pope has systematically lowered the barriers for conservative Christians hovering on the threshold of the church, unsure whether to slip inside. This was the purpose behind his controversial outreach to schismatic Latin Mass Catholics, and it explains the current opening to Anglicans.
Douthat then makes an interesting comment:
...in making the opening to Anglicanism, Benedict also may have a deeper conflict in mind — not the parochial Western struggle between conservative and liberal believers, but Christianity’s global encounter with a resurgent Islam.
Here Catholicism and Anglicanism share two fronts. In Europe, both are weakened players, caught between a secular majority and an expanding Muslim population. In Africa, increasingly the real heart of the Anglican Communion, both are facing an entrenched Islamic presence across a fault line running from Nigeria to Sudan.
Hence, Douthat concludes, what is being interpreted, for now, "as an intra-Christian skirmish may eventually be remembered as the first step toward a united Anglican-Catholic front — not against liberalism or atheism, but against Christianity’s most enduring and impressive foe."
The debate will no doubt continue for a while. We shall keep you posted as warranted.