Getting the Anglican timeline right (hurrah)

Back at a high point of the Anglican wars, your GetReligionistas could have written a post a week noting how mainstream journalists were chopping multiple decades off the timeline of the conflicts in the Episcopal Church.

The basic idea was that liberal Episcopalians ordained a gay bishop in the tiny diocese of New Hampshire in 2003 and all heckfire broke loose. The essential timeline of the homosexuality conflict alone, meanwhile, would almost certainly have to begin in 1979, when 21 liberal bishops openly rejected the church’s traditional teachings on marriage, sex and ordination — including the bishop who would soon become America’s presiding bishop.

It’s a complicated story and journalists have long struggled to get some of the key facts right.

However, it’s time to celebrate a quiet victory. You see, the latest New York Times piece on an issue related to the Anglican wars gets all kind of things right — including key elements of that complicated timeline. The piece could have gained more clarity by using a few more direct references to dates for pivotal events, but the facts are here for those with the eyes to see them.

The lede, in this report on Rome’s new home for Anglo-Catholics:

Opening its doors more widely to disaffected Episcopalians, the Roman Catholic Church has established the equivalent of a nationwide diocese in the United States that former Episcopal priests and congregations can enter together as intact groups, the Vatican announced Sunday.

Converts who join the new entity will be full-fledged Catholics, expected to show allegiance to the pope and oppose contraception and abortion. But they will be allowed to preserve revered verses from the Book of Common Prayer. And, in what one Catholic leader called “an act of generosity,” priests who are married will be exempted from the Catholic requirement of celibacy, though they may not become bishops.

The new grouping, called the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, will have its headquarters in Houston and be led by Jeffrey N. Steenson, a former Episcopal bishop and father of three who left the church in 2007 and became a Catholic priest in 2009, under an existing exemption for converting Anglicans.

The story could have mentioned that, in effect, the existing ordination structure of the Eastern rite churches had been extended over to the former Anglicans. Married men may be ordained. Once ordained, men may not marry. Bishops are drawn from the ranks of celibate clergy.

All of this is nothing new. Note that the Times mentions that Anglicans had already been entering the Catholic priesthood under similar rules — since 1980.

And the timeline issue? Here is a key paragraph:

The Episcopal Church is the main American branch of the Anglican Communion, a loose global body whose symbolic head is the archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Church of England. It has been shaken by discord from conservatives who object to the ordination of female priests, the acceptance of bishops with homosexual partners and changes in the liturgy.

It would have been nice to have noted that the ordination of women caused divisions in the ranks in the mid-1970s. The “changes in the liturgy” reference is from the birth and acceptance of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The dates would have helped set the framework for these discussions, but at least the facts there there.

Later on, the story establishes another important claim linked to this Vatican action:

Father Steenson said he expected more former Episcopalians to join after they saw how the new group operated. He said that he personally had always longed for closer ties with the Catholics, a feeling that only intensified as the Episcopal Church broke with tradition on female priests and acceptance of homosexuality, dividing the churches further. But he is also overjoyed to preserve elements of the Anglican liturgy, he said. The expectation is that this parallel structure will continue indefinitely.

When the Vatican authorized creation of these entities in 2009, some Anglican leaders, especially in England, expressed concern that it was trying to take advantage of their turmoil. In England, where a similar grouping was formed last year, about 60 priests and more than 1,000 members have joined so far.

But Cardinal Wuerl and Father Hurd said that the system was developed in response to a growing demand.

“There have been Anglican groups requesting this for 30 years,” Father Hurd said. “This is not an effort at poaching or sheep-stealing.”

Now, the Times did elect to base this claim for a 30-year framework on quotes from Catholic officials — the cardinal and Father Scott Hurd, a former Episcopalian who is already a Catholic priest. That makes it appear, again, that Rome, alone, is claiming this to be true. It would have been easy to have quoted specific actions and dates linked to appeals to Rome by Anglo-Catholics as individuals and groups. The dates on the timeline are well known to leaders on both sides.

However, the key facts are present in this story. The bottom line: Small numbers of Anglicans have appealed for help over several decades. Rome finally responded with a full-fledged, permanent plan for responding.

In other words, this is not a new story. It’s an updated entry in a long, long timeline.

PHOTO: Former Episcopal bishop Jeffrey N. Steenson is ordained as a Catholic priest.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • The_Archer_of_the_Forest

    Actually, according to the official Ordinariate website, Steenson is going to be the Bishop Ordinary, though he is married. How exactly the Catholics are going to square this with their celibacy for bishoprics canons, I have no idea.

  • Mike Hickerson

    I’m surprised you gave them a pass on the description of “full-fledged Catholics” as those “expected to show allegiance to the pope and oppose contraception and abortion.” Somehow, I think this doesn’t really describe the totality of Roman Catholicism very well. :) However, it does raise some interesting questions. I am not very familiar with the Anglo-Catholic tradition, so I would have liked to know a lot more about these “expectations.” For evangelical Episcopalians, item #1 (allegiance to the pope) would be the major sticking point, I think, while opposition to abortion (and maybe birth control) would actually be attractions. Are the papacy, abortion, and birth control really the key defining issues of Catholicism for Anglo-Catholic Episcopalians?

  • Rick

    The ordinariate wesite refers to Steenson as the Ordinary–not as the bishop. He will sit on the Bishops Conference, but he is an Ordinary not a Bishop. In some articles it does state that the Ordinary is a former Episcopal bishop.

  • Will

    As opposed to one of those diaconal bishops?

  • http://!)! Passing By

    A Washinton Post story that pushes the borders of snide, but at least includes a few facts amid their talk of married priests and gay ordinations.

    A Catholic News Service article with more facts and quotes.

    Compare the quotes from Fr. Steenson in the CNS article and this AP piece.

    From CNS:

    The time came, he said, in 2007 when he felt the bishops of the Episcopal Church had decided to give priority to their autonomy rather than to unity with the larger Anglican Communion.

    Father Steenson said that for him, gay people were not the issue. “It was the way the decisions were made and the way they were defended,” placing the local church and modern cultural sensitivities ahead of the universal church and fidelity to tradition, he said.

    The priest said that while the Episcopal Church spoke of the importance of Christian unity, it continued to approve practices — ordaining women priests and bishops, ordaining homosexuals and blessing same-sex unions — that everyone knew would be an obstacle to Christian unity.

    Here’s from the AP:

    Steenson stepped down in 2007 as the Episcopal Bishop of Rio Grande, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, after the Episcopal Church elected the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Steenson had said he was “deeply troubled” about the direction of the U.S. denomination and he described the Catholic Church as the “true home of Anglicanism.”

    Of course, [Fr.] Steenson stepped down four years after the election of Bp. Robinson, so clearly they were connected. ;-)

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Forgot to link to Fr. Steenson’s own statement.

  • WhollyRoamin

    I think the real Anglican “liberalizing Marriage” issue began before 1979.

    I’d put it at 1534.

  • Jimmy Mac

    And the difference between being an Ordinary and a Bishop is what? If Steeson will be treated as a bishop and be entitled to wear certain (all?) garments associated with a Catholic bishop, and have essentially the same power over the Ordinariate as a bishop has over a diocese – ??? If it looks like a rose and smells like a rose —–

  • Fralupo


    The difference is sacramental. Only bishops can ordain deacons, priests, and other bishops. Bishops are the ministers of Confirmation (though in extreme circumstances a priest can be deputized for that role, using oil blessed by the bishop).

    A priest or a lay abbot can’t do those things.

  • Rick

    In the Catholic Church an Ordinary isn’t necessarily a bishop. An ordinary includes the vicar of a diocese (who is not a bishop), it includes abbots, priors and the heads of male and female religious congregations. The head of a congregation of sisters is the Ordinary for that congregation. In the Episcopal Church Ordinary refers only to bishops–that’s not true in the Catholic Church. The Franciscans, for example, are not under the jurisdiction of a bishop–they have a Provincial. The Provincial is the Ordinary. The Bishop is not allowed to interfer in the workings of the order. Something similar will be happening in the Ordinariate: the Ordinary can wear a miter and sits on the Council of Bishops–but he is not a Bishop. Other Bishops cannot interfere in the functioning of the Ordinariate–because the Ordinary is the legitimate authority. To make things more complicated not all Bishops are Ordinaries, since not all Bishops head up a See. Ordinary and Bishop are not synonyms.

  • Rick

    One more thought about Bishops and Ordinaries. Abbots and abbesses have a croiser, pectoral cross and a ring. An abbot can wear a miter. Although abbots and abbesses wear similar clothing to a bishop, they do not have jurisdiction over a diocese, they have jurisdiction over an abbey. The ordinary is the person who has legitimate authority to make decisions and to teach.

  • Julia

    It’s my understanding that an Ordinary for the Ordinariate will have the same status at a meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops as a Bishop Emeritus (a retired bishop).
    That will affect his voting and what positions he might hold.

  • Hector

    Re: Are the papacy, abortion, and birth control really the key defining issues of Catholicism for Anglo-Catholic Episcopalians?

    Yeah, I thought that was a particularly dumb line in the article.

    I’d assume that just about everyone who called themselves Anglo-Catholic would oppose abortion. The Anglo-Catholic clergy that I know certainly do (in the case of my priest, at an A/C parish in Boston, quite strongly so: abortion is a frequent theme in his pastoral letters). Opposition to birth control is, I think, much less common. I would expect that anyone seriously drawn to the Catholic Church (such that they were seriously willing to convert) would have already thought about and come to accept the RC teaching on birth control. It’s not as though the RC conceals what it thinks about birth control, after all: its teaching and the reasons for it are out there in the open for every to see, whether or not they agree with it.

  • teahouse

    A small but nonetheless telling wording is this:

    The Episcopal Church … has been shaken by discord from conservatives who object to the ordination of female priests, the acceptance of bishops with homosexual partners and changes in the liturgy.

    So of course all the discord comes not from those introducing innovation on various issues but only from those evil conservatives that have the gall to oppose them.

  • northcoast

    I think the timeline should include something about 2006. Not so much that Bp. Schori was elected Presiding Bishop of TEC, but that the climate toward more conservative Episcopal clergy turned colder.

  • Jimmy Mac

    Interesting the distinction between ordinary and bishop. So who will ordain future (celibate, of course!) priests for this hybrid organization? Will vestries continue to exist and will they have the same authority over their parish that they did in the ECUSA? In whom will title to the properties reside? And on and on and on.