Tony Palmer – the New Face of Anglicanism

Yesterday, in the midst of a busy day as a parish priest I hammered out a post about Tony Palmer–Pope Francis’ friend who presented the Pope’s message to American Pentecostals. I pointed out the problems with Palmer’s credentials and message, and also pointed toward some potential ways forward.

I hope the post did not come across as totally negative. While I wanted to make a critique of Tony’s message, I also want to make clear my underlying interest and excitement at this very interesting and historic development. To understand exactly why this is so historic one needs to understand what is happening in the Anglican world.

The most remarkable thing about the Pope’s message to American Pentecostal leaders was not the cordial, open-armed welcome from the Holy Father to a group of separated brethren–in their own way all the popes in the last fifty years have done the same. Okay–the informal use of a cell phone video was pretty amazing, but the real news story in all of this is not so much the moving welcome from the Holy Father, but the appearance of Bishop Tony Palmer on the world stage as an “Anglican bishop”.

This has been missed by every other commentator because I think they are unaware of the huge shifts within the world of Anglicanism. To understand this one has to first understand historic Anglicanism. We all know it was started by King Henry VIII because he wanted a divorce and Pope Clement wouldn’t give him one. Well, it was more complicated than that, but the fact is, this crisis precipitated the foundation of the Anglican Church. In the centuries to follow wherever the English went they took their church with them. Thus we find the Anglican Communion all over the world in what were English colonies.

The Anglican Communion consists of a formal confederation of national churches historically linked to England and therefore to the Church of England. So, for example, the Episcopal Church of the USA is the American branch of the Anglican Communion. The Church of Canada for Canada etc. Each of these national churches is self governing. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the figurehead leader, but he has no power over the national churches. He is not an “Anglican pope”.

Beginning in the 1870s with the foundation of the Reformed Episcopal Church in the United States, and then tumbling on and accelerating through the twentieth century, there began a movement of  what is now referred to as “the continuum” or “continuing churches”. These consist of people who have, for a whole range of different reasons, broken away from their national church of Anglican Communion. This webpage lists them. These “churches” are hugely disparate. Some have broken away over liturgical matters, some over moral teachings or theology. Some are Calvinistic. Some are Anglo Catholic. Some are radically progressive. Some are just cantankerous.

As the mainstream Anglicans moved forward with their progressive agenda of women priests and same sex marriage all these groups also faced the same issues and many came to varied solutions. When I spoke to one “continuing” Anglican priest some time ago I asked him why some of the different groups couldn’t get together. “We are in discussions with — but they are charismatic, and then we were in discussions with — but they insist on using the 1928 prayer book, and — were in discussions with — but they are Anglo Catholic and use incense. Everybody agrees about some things but nobody agrees about everything.”

To complicate matters further, as mainstream Anglicanism disintegrates some of the bishops and people who are faithful to the historic Christian faith are saying that they are not going to move out of the Anglican Communion, but they are going to stay within it, but forge new alliances between themselves. So you will find parishes and Dioceses in the United States who are establishing authority links with African Anglican bishops who they deem to be faithful on key issues. This is a new kind of schism–a schism within the establishment.

Now add to this heady mix a new stream of Anglicans.  These are Evangelical Protestants who never were Anglicans, but who have come into the Anglican tradition as converts. However, instead of joining an existing church of the Anglican Communion, they have simply started their own Anglican styled Church. My friends Mike Cumbie–the Catholic Evangelist, and Fr Randy Sly–a priest in the Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter–were both members of the Charismatic Episcopal Church. In the early 1990s this was a new church start up in which Evangelicals who were inspired by various church fathers and contemporary writers wanted a “historic church” that was not part of the Anglican Communion, had no historic links with England and was independent of Rome and Orthodoxy.

Then here comes the Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches. Also established in the early 1990s the CEEC was another fresh start. Clearly distancing themselves from the “continuing” Anglican churches, the CEEC (here’s their website) was founded not only by Anglicans, but a whole range of Protestant leaders who see themselves as part of a “convergent church” movement. In a step away from the traditionalist slant of many continuing groups, the CEEC used the 1978 Episcopal liturgy and were happy to ordain women as deacons and priests.

This is the group that Tony Palmer belongs to and this is why he is what I call “the new face of Anglicanism”. One has to ask, when Tony Palmer presented himself therefore as “an Anglican Bishop” did Archbishop Bergoglio of Argentina have any idea that this was the background and was he aware of this rapidly shifting identity of Anglicanism? I suspect he did not. How was a Catholic bishop in Argentina expected to be aware of the mushrooming complexity of Anglicanism? No doubt as their friendship developed Bishop Bergoglio became aware of the real situation.

This post is not an attempt to judge Tony Palmer or the convergent church movement or the continuing Anglican movement. What I am most interested in is that these movements are growing and that they are clearly fresh starts within Protestantism. That they see themselves as “convergent” means they must eventually come face to face with the reality of the Catholic Church and decide what to do about it.

What is also remarkable is the willingness of the Vatican to talk to representatives of these groups and to accept them. Pope Francis is not the only one to welcome them as brothers in the Lord. It was Pope Benedict who had his own remarkable interaction with the continuing Anglicans. In 2007 a group of Anglicans from the Traditional Anglican Communion ( a confederation of continuing churches) presented a signed Catechism of the Catholic Church to Vatican official asking to come into full communion. This led to the establishment of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham and then the establishment of the American Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter and then the Australian Ordinariate of Our Lady of  the Southern Cross.

Within the so called “Anglican Ordinariate” former Anglicans (and now by decision of Pope Francis) other Catholics, members of other denominations and non Christians, may join the Ordinariate. They may worship in an Anglican style and enjoy a certain amount of autonomy. Their married priests may be re-ordained and they will be in full communion with Rome.

The Ordinariate was first established for continuing Anglicans, but if we may call the start up groups the ‘convergent’ Anglicans then the Ordinariate could also be a home for what is clearly a dynamic and growing Christian body.

Of course individuals will have to decide if they want to really come into full communion through this option. They will need to make sacrifices. The ordained men will have their credentials examined. Some will have to go through further training. They will have to take doctrine seriously and grapple with the fullness of Catholic beliefs. Marriages will be examined. If there are women priests and deacons they will need to be guided into other forms of ministry.

Tony Palmer, with his Catholic wife, English-South African international background, mixture of Charismatic, Evangelical and Catholic theology and sympathies, enthusiasm and willingness to walk by faith is a perfect ‘face’ for this new Anglican movement.

I have walked this journey myself. Starting as a fundamentalist Evangelical American, I made my own way through the Anglican ministry and then to the Catholic church and finally to Catholic priesthood.

Despite my critique of Tony Palmer, I wish him and the movement well and I hope the Spirit guides more and more into full communion with the Catholic Church in ways that we cannot yet foresee.