Round up the usual suspects (updated)

As my GetReligion colleagues and the media (particularly the Brits, of course) have again and noted this week, again portrayed Pope Benedict’s move to create a personal ordinariate for conservative Anglicans as a bold move to poach members from the world’s third-largest denomination. Terry had praise for a story in the New York Times which noted that accepting Anglican priests into the Catholic Church was by no means without precedent.

If you want a look at the history, here’s how it came down. What Pope Benedict seems to be doing is institutionalizing the process already in existence in the Roman Catholic Church and given a more explicit papal seal of approval by Pope John Paul II.

More interesting, and less explored, is the effects it will have on relations between the Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams — or on the Church of England itself, currently in turmoil over the issue of women bishops. For an article with some good gossipy quotes from a former AOC, read this one by Ruth Gledhill. My reaction — nice house, Lord Carey of Clifton!

Enter, stage right, in a commentary in today’s New York Times the church historian, and fiction writer A.N. Wilson. Interesting chap, Mr. Wilson. The last time I remember reading about him, many years ago, he’d lost his faith. But, more recently he announced in an editorial in the Daily Mail that he had returned to Christian faith. Although it’s not directly related to the topic, it adds a fascinating note to a rich and complex brew.

Wilson points out that the Papal embrace of dissidents will allow large groups of Anglicans to cross the Tiber, if their priests are “retrained and reordinained.” I’m not clear that the Vatican has been explicit on that point, although Catholic convert Fr. George Rutler is proclaming it as Gospel. The news clip above is as remarkable for what it doesn’t say as for what it does.

UPDATE: Yeah, I know, this post has been up a bit more than a hour or so. But this commentary, sent to us by a reader in the Washington Post was too good to pass up. In pondering potential changes in Catholic doctrine and ecclesiology as a result of the outreach to Anglicans, commentator David Gibson asserted that Benedict, in making concessions to traditionalists, is actually inauguarating a form of liberalism (change) in the Catholic Church:

…with the latest accommodation to Anglicans, Benedict has signaled that the standards for what it means to be Catholic — such as the belief in the real presence of Christ in the Mass as celebrated by a validly ordained priest — are changing or, some might argue, falling. The Vatican is in effect saying that disagreements over gay priests and female bishops are the main issues dividing Catholics and Anglicans, rather than, say, the sacraments and the papacy and infallible dogmas on the Virgin Mary, to name just a few past points of contention.

I don’t get it. What do Rutler, Wilson and Gibson know that the rest of us don’t? Anglicans have been battering down the door for more than a century trying to get Rome to recognize Anglican orders or a view of the eucharist that is much closer to Catholicism than to most Reformation denominations. In case no one has noticed, Rome hasn’t budged. Is it really possible that Roman Catholicism under a pope with years of experience as doctrinal defender will, within a year or two, make de facto changes that make the church look quite different?

Back to England, where some sort of change is already a given. These paragraphs in Wilson’s commentary are sure to set the cat among the pidgeons:

There is talk in England of as many as 1,000 clergy members taking this offer. Even allowing for the numerical exaggeration, which always occurs when enemies of liberalism congregate, this is a huge potential figure. Let us say 500 Anglican priests and perhaps 10 bishops joined the new arrangement. Let us suppose they took with them plausible congregations. This would deliver a body blow not just to the Church of England, but to that whole intricately constructed and only semi-definable phenomenon, the British Establishment.

Ah, there’s the rub. Over at the Reuters blog FaithWorld, editor Tom Heneghan has detailed the reasons why the new model might present challenges for some Anglicans. But it could be most appealing to British Anglo-Catholic conservatives appalled by the fruit of the decision to ordain women, first as priests, and now as bishops.

For Wilson, the perfect storm means the end of the Church of England — and an opportunity for the country to embrace its secular identity. That’s a good thing, he argues.

How will it all work? Will the English Catholics, always hard pressed for cash, be in a position to take over the running of our medieval churches? What will happen to the cathedrals? As fewer and fewer real Christians exist in England, will the church buildings be taken over by some secular conservation group like the National Trust? Probably. And for the 55 million or so Britons who don’t regularly attend services — some 90 percent of the population — it is all rather unimportant.

But it is nevertheless a landmark. The Church of England has been the religious expression of that independent national identity which signaled the rise of Britain as a significant world power. Hatched by Henry VIII and nurtured by his daughter Elizabeth I, the Church of England was an expression of that combination of tolerance and arrogance that marked the English governing class. It sat light to doctrine, and tried to accommodate many. But while that seemed a gentle thing to do, it did so because it actually laid claim to governing and controlling all.

I had to grin when I read “sat light to doctrine” — that’s a good way of summing up more than 500 years of controversy and muddle, or, in a more positive note, “via media.”

Clearly, we can’t tell if Wlison’s dire prediction is correct. It’s a compelling one. And it’s rather too bad that the media hasn’t spent more time examining the actual effect this is going to have on the country where Anglicanism was born. Is the sun truly setting on this last vestige of empire? Brew up some tea, put out some biscuits and think about it. Or perhaps you’d like something stronger. And then please get back to us.

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  • Lori Pieper

    I would say that the TAC Bishops themselves would strongly disagree with the contention that it’s all about women priests and gay bishops. In their meeting in October 2007 in Portsmouth England, the bishops voted unanimously to seek reunion, and at the same time signed the complete Catechism of the Catholic Church, which they took to Rome and presented to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Coming over to Rome for them was evidently not just a matter of finding a place, any place, that would not have gay bishops.

    Anglican-turned-Catholic Fr. Ernie Davis put all this and much more on his blog. He said he needed to be Catholic, thought the Anglicans were that, realized he wasn’t Catholic after all, and joined the Catholic Church. Read his eloquent post here:

    The media really isn’t reporting on, and definitely doesn’t get, the real heart of the question about the nature of the Churh.

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  • MaximusNYC

    A.N. Wilson’s obituary for the Anglican Church is amusingly premature. I wouldn’t actually take Wilson as much of an authority on all of this — his personal religious history is so erratic.

    According to Wikipedia, he’s gone from Anglican to Catholic to Anglican to atheist to indeterminate Christian… always with great vehemence and self-assurance. By his own admission, his latest turn toward faith is as much motivated by his desire to annoy smug atheists as by genuine devotion.

    The confident predictions of such a person on the future of religion in England are not particularly meaningful.

  • E.E. Evans


    Oh, good point. A.N. Wilson recalls to me Evelyn Waugh — hard to sort out (God knows) how much of his devotion was to a romantic vision of religion or in Waugh’s case, Catholicism. Wilson may be trying to annoy folks like Hitchens and Dawkins, in which I wish him very well.

    That being said, I still think his focus on the English church is the correct one.

  • tioedong

    you missed the WaPo’s real error:

    Benedict has signaled that the standards for what it means to be Catholic — such as the belief in the real presence of Christ in the Mass as celebrated by a validly ordained priest — are changing or, some might argue, falling

    There is no way for the pope to change belief in “the real presence”, whose basis goes back to biblical days and was defined a thousand years ago.

    Isn’t this the same paper that wrote about Sally Quinn’s receiving the eucharist is okay because it made her feel good?
    They needs to get a Catholic on their staff…

  • Julia

    What has been in existence since the early 1980s is the Anglican Use – which is only in the US. No doctrinal changes involved there. None expected with the Anglican Provision that is meant to be available world-wide, not just in the UK.

    The TAC has half a million members, few of which are in the UK. It’s amazing to see all the predictions for huge change in the UK where most people don’t go to church anyway.

    This announcement, which was very bare bones, is proving to be a Rorshach Test. Interesting to see all the crazy things that are being read into it.

    BTW Most of the number predictions are coming from Anglican sources, not from Catholics. The offer has been made and now the ball is in the other court; I didn’t sense any mind-reading going on in the announcement. And the analysis in Catholic blogs I read have included number predictions cited from Anglican sources and the press.

    tioedong: You’re right. The WaPo definitely needs some Catholic staffers.

  • Julia

    Mr Wilson says:


    the pope looks to put an end to this facet of Britain’s character

    Some Anglicans have been pounding on the door of the Catholic Church asking to be let in without having to leave behind their Englishness and this announced response is an attempt by the Pope to change Britain’s character? What?
    It was mostly folks from Australia who have been negotiating with the folks in Rome.


    The Catholic recusants, who huddled in priest-holes rather than acknowledge the monarch as supreme governor of the church

    It was the priests who hid in the priest holes, not the recusants. Doh.

    After reading all the links in this post, I’m puzzled at why people think the announced provisions will entail changes in doctrine. Also, the Notes explaining the announcement say clearly that being ordained as a Catholic priest will be determined on a case by case basis – it’s not automatic.

    And – I have been in the choir for many, many Easter Eve Masses where converts are received into the Church. All are required to say that they accept all the teachings of the Church. If they don’t – then they shouldn’t even think about becoming Catholic just because they don’t like women priests or bishops.

    Another thing I noticed in the Reuters article – the writer was concerned whether Anglican priests accepted and ordained as Catholic priests would also be acceptable in regular Catholic parishes. It was the Anglicans who said they didn’t want that – they wanted their own group. People can also just convert the old-fashioned way.

  • Herb Brasher

    Well, over the weekend Maureen Dowd weighed in on this from a feminist perspective, so I’m looking forward to your coverage on that.

    • E.E. Evans

      Mr. Brasher –

      We saw that commentary, too. But generally we don’t cover commentary unless there is a news angle to it that isn’t getting a lot of coverage elsewhere. And I didn’t see one in Ms. Dowd’s commentary, did you? What did seem interesting was having 2 commentaries on Catholics and Anglicans on a Sunday — a day when many readers would turn to the grey lady.

  • Jerry N

    Another angle that would be fun to follow is to see what the Polish National Catholic Church (which broke off from the RC’s in the early 20th Century). This could form a precedent to welcome them back into the fold. I know there is at least one PNCC parish around Pittsburgh (and the head of the PNCC is in Scranton, PA), so maybe Ann Rodgers could cover this!

  • Jay

    Elizabeth, Thanks for such great coverage. I’ve been reading articles religiously (!) since last week, but most were either a) written on deadline and jumped to conclusions b) lack the understanding of Anglicanism as a doctrine light denomination defined by liturgy (we don’t have creeds, we have a prayer book) or c) had their realism blinded by the thought that the world’s most powerful Christian had slapped down PB KJS and her allies.