With the ordination of Libby Lane as the first female bishop in the Church of England we finally have closure over the vexed question of the identity of the Anglican Church.
Since the Oxford Movement in the nineteenth century members of the Church of England have tried to claim that the Church of England was “Catholic”. As a sideline it is interesting to note that for about 350 years before the Oxford Movement the Church of England was quite clear that it was NOT Catholic. They were a Protestant church. They resisted all signs of papacy, Catholic worship or Catholic theology. There were riots if a priest wore a surplice–much less Eucharistic vestments. If a priest put candles on the alter he could be ousted for being papistical.
Then in the mid nineteenth century John Henry Newman and his chums started to read the church fathers and lurched toward Rome. Newman–who was the brainiest among them followed the logic and became Catholic. Many others remained in the Anglican Church and pretended to be Catholic.
When I say they pretended to be Catholic, they did a damned good job of it. They promoted Catholic spirituality. They were expert liturgists. They revived the ancient choral tradition. They built beautiful churches. They started religious orders, did missionary work, started seminaries and for a hundred years really did seem to be bringing the Church of England around to being Catholic once again.
Their work continued and in the 1960s liturgical reform in the Catholic Church and Anglican church meant that the two churches seemed to be converging. The result of this is that in most Anglican churches things look very Catholic. Most of the ministers wear Eucharistic vestments. They foster Catholic devotions and the modern Anglican Eucharistic liturgy is very similar to the Catholic Novus Ordo.
Alas, the seeming convergence of the two churches was to be holed below the waterline by the troublesome issue of women’s ordination. When the Episcopalians ordained the first women in the 1970s Pope Paul VI said, “Sorry. That’s not Catholic. No can do.” Then when the Church of England finally took the step in the early 1990’s Pope St John Paul II said firmly, “The Catholic Church does not have the authority to ordain women as priests.” Then Archbishop of Canterbury, but great bumbler George Carey muttered, “We need to seek further clarification.” Indeed.Clarification? At each step along this path the Eastern Orthodox and Catholics said very clearly to the Anglicans, “Do not take this step. This will be a grave obstacle to unity.”
The Anglicans did it anyway. In doing so they were really saying, “We are a Protestant church. All that Catholic stuff was all form and no content. It was just dressing up. We were kidding with you. We didn’t really mean it.”
Now that they have ordained Libby Lane the final nail in the coffin has been hammered in. In doing so the Anglicans have said to the Eastern Orthodox and to the Catholics. “You’re right. You were right all along. We’re not Catholic nor do we wish to be.”
By ordaining Libby Lane they have said, “Some of us thought the Anglican Church was Catholic. They were mistaken. They thought the Anglican Church was one of three branches of the ancient apostolic church. They were wrong all along.”
In ordaining Libby Lane the Church of England have said to the Catholic Church, “There was some question about the validity of our orders, but we now realize that Pope Leo XIII was correct when he said that our orders were ‘utterly null and void’. We now accept that our bishops are not within the apostolic succession because we have broken irrevocably any bond we might have had with that living tradition as it remains in the Catholic and Easter Orthodox churches. We accept that and are determined to throw in our lot with the other modernist Protestant churches. That is our history and that is our destiny.”
What remains? I suspect the ecumenical discussions will continue because we’re Catholic and that’s what we do. Archbishops of Canterbury will make increasingly infrequent visits to the reigning pope. They will shake hands and smile grimly for the cameras. It will be like those years of detente between American and Russia where the leaders would meet and accomplish nothing and shake hands, smile for the press, make a bland statement while they waited for the other side to cave.
Does this mean that all Anglicans are vile, awful and un Christian people? Of course not. They are still our brothers and sisters in Christ. We still work with them in shared ministries where we can. We respect them and value much from their traditions and patrimony. We admire the wonderful way they have looked after our ancient buildings in England. We admire the beauty and dignity with which they worship God. Do we say that Libby Lane is a terrible person and she will be a horrible minister? Of course not. She is probably a very nice person, effective Christian minister and for all I know are darned sight better Christian than I am.
It’s just that when it comes to them calling themselves Catholic we need to politely remind them that saying it is so does not make it so.