Anglicans meet Rome’s Big Ben

Father Peter Toon is a strict traditionalist in all things liturgical, which is fitting since he leads the Society for the Preservation of the Book of Common Prayer.

Thus, the Anglican priest has little sympathy for those who want to wiggle out of translating the Latin word “Credo” — the root for “creed” — as “we believe” instead of the more personal and definitive “I believe.”

“Of course ‘Credo’ means ‘I believe.’ … And it’s the same thing in the Greek Orthodox liturgy, because ‘Pisteuo’ can only mean ‘I believe,’ ” he said.

These liturgical wars have been going on for decades and the combatants are always seeking allies at other altars. This is how Toon began corresponding with the leader of the Vatican’s influential Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany — now Pope Benedict XVI.

The cardinal agreed that it wasn’t heresy to translate “Credo” as “we believe.” But Ratzinger also said that this error would eventually need to be corrected in the Roman Missal, said Toon. They had a friendly series of exchanges.

Now that Ratzinger is pope, contacts of this sort have gained symbolic weight. Toon and others in the balkanized Anglican Communion have good reason to wonder if this articulate, outspoken Catholic intellectual may soon play a role in their tense debates about sex, worship and doctrine.

Progressive Episcopalians certainly remember a stunning letter that Ratzinger sent soon after the 2003 election of the openly gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

Writing to a Texas conference held by the conservative American Anglican Council, he wrote: “The significance of your meeting is sensed far beyond Plano, and even in this City from which Saint Augustine of Canterbury was sent to confirm and strengthen the preaching of Christ’s Gospel in England. … In the Church of Christ there is a unity in truth and a communion of grace which transcend the borders of any nation.”

The address on the envelope was even more symbolic than the text, with its familiar John Paul emphasis on truth as a source of unity, not division. What mattered most was that Ratzinger sent the letter directly to the Episcopal traditionalists, bypassing the office of U.S. Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold in New York City.

Symbolic gestures of this kind are taken seriously in marble sanctuaries. If there is anything that Anglican prelates understand it is the subtle politics of protocol.

Thus, it was significant that Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams attended the inaugural mass for Benedict XVI, becoming only the second occupant of the throne in Canterbury to witness such a rite since the Reformation. Afterwards, the former Oxford don greeted the pope in German and presented him with a pectoral cross.

Ah, yes, but journalists and photographers paid close attention to the precise details of this rite of reception.

“Symbolism is everything,” opined David Virtue, a conservative Anglican whose Internet reports circle the globe. “When the new pope met with the patriarchs from the Orthodox churches there were public embraces and kisses, but when Benedict XVI met Williams there was only a handshake. … Williams edged forward perhaps hoping for a papal embrace but it was not forthcoming.”

Then the London Times reported that, behind the scenes, Vatican authorities had been corresponding with the Traditional Anglican Communion inside the Church of England, discussing the possible formation of an Anglican-rite body in communion with Rome. This network claims the loyalty of more than 400,000 Anglicans around the world and perhaps 500 parishes.

Who was the key Vatican official behind these talks? According to Archbishop John Hepworth of Australia, it was Cardinal Ratzinger.

It is easy to make too much of these contacts, said Toon. After all, Benedict XVI supports traditional Anglicans in the Third World and elsewhere on many issues, but he disagrees with some of their compromises — such as a softened stance against divorce.

“The new pope will continue to be a gracious friend,” said Toon. “But I think he will be much too busy — for some time — handling events in his own church to have more than a few words to say about all of these little Anglican groups and their affairs.”

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.


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