Vatican proposal to welcome former Anglicans generates mixed reactions, commentary

October 21, 2009

The Oct. 20 announcement that Pope Benedict XVI plans to allow provisions to accept groups of former Anglicans who wish to join the Roman Catholic Church prompted a flurry of speculation and comment across the Episcopal Church and beyond.

While some applauded or panned the proposal, others cautioned that full details remain to be disclosed. The press release from the Vatican announced the preparation of an "Apostolic Constitution" to allow former Anglicans to enter full communion with the Roman Catholic Church while preserving elements of Anglican spirituality and liturgy, with pastoral oversight and guidance provided through a "personal ordinariate" and provisions for married former Anglican clergy to be ordained as Catholic priests.

"It is difficult … to make precise comment upon this until one has seen the actual text of what the pope is going to say," said the Rev. Robert Wright, professor of ecclesiastical history at General Theological Seminary in New York, in a telephone interview. "So far, all we have is a vague sort of press release. It leaves open a lot of questions. Does it mean that they are prepared to recognize the Anglican orders of priests who convert or not? … Anglican orders were called invalid in 1896 by a papal bull. Does this mean this invalidation is going to be lifted?"

Another question Wright asks is: "Does it mean that clergy would be taken in without a corresponding group of lay people, or is this something that is intended to apply primarily to … parish groups or even dioceses of people who want to convert, as it were, in groups?"

The offer to accept married priests is "nothing new," Wright also noted. "The Roman Church has been willing to accept married priests from the Anglican tradition for many years. What is not specified is what kind of training and examination they would have to go through."

In 1980, following controversies within the Episcopal Church over introduction of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the Roman Catholic Church offered a "pastoral provision" for individual U.S. priests interested in converting, Wright explained.

"Judging from what I know of the reception of former [Episcopal] priests after 1980, the probability is that there will be very strict guidelines of examination of such people and what they need to know and what they need to agree to," he said. "My impression about this [announcement] is that it is primarily aimed at England, rather than at America. I think it is significant that they chose to release it in England, not in the USA."

In a statement from the Episcopal Church, Bishop Christopher Epting, ecumenical and interfaith officer, said that the announcement "reflects what the Roman Catholic Church, through its acceptance of Anglican rite parishes, has been doing for some years more informally ... We are in dialogue with the [Archbishop of Canterbury's] office and will, in the coming days, continue to explore the full implications of this in our ecumenical relations."

Epting's statement notes that the Episcopal Church remains in dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church through participation in the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Consultation (ARCIC) and the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue in the USA (ARC-USA). "We in the Episcopal Church continue to look to the Holy Spirit, who guides us in understanding of what it means to be the church in the Anglican tradition," Epting said.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols released a joint statement at an Oct. 20 press conference in London. They said that the announcement of the Apostolic Constitution "is a response by Pope Benedict XVI to a number of requests over the past few years to the Holy See from groups of Anglicans who wish to enter into full visible communion with the Roman Catholic Church, and are willing to declare that they share a common Catholic faith and accept the Petrine ministry as willed by Christ for his Church. The announcement of this Apostolic Constitution brings to an end a period of uncertainty for such groups who have nurtured hopes of new ways of embracing unity with the Catholic Church."

Daniel Herzog, who converted to Roman Catholicism after retiring as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Albany, said in a telephone interview that he viewed the pope's offer as extending to Anglican clergy elsewhere in the world the option, previously available to U.S. Episcopal clergy, to become Catholic priests if they convert.

In the past, "Some Episcopalians who came in groups were allowed to retain a significant part of the Anglican liturgy and, except for the use of Roman eucharistic prayers, they would be able to use the bulk of the prayer book," he said, adding that he thought Anglican worship traditions would be "a great contribution to the life of the Catholic Church."

Herzog, who is a lay Catholic, said he expected former Episcopal clergy would be welcomed under the same process as the 1980 "pastoral provision."

"I think it's an openness to people who are already predisposed toward the holy see," said Herzog, noting that switching from being an Episcopal priest to a Roman Catholic priest is "not like changing a New York driver's license for a Connecticut driver's license.

"They're not just looking for people who are angry or unhappy," he said. "I think they're looking for people who are personally convinced of the primacy of the Holy Father and believe that ultimately for all Christians the center of unity is the see of Peter."

"Nobody knows the actual content of the document because it hasn't been released yet," he noted. "A lot of this is conjecture."

Welcomes in both directions
While the pope extended a welcome to former Anglicans, Episcopalians likewise welcomed former Roman Catholics.

"We appreciate the welcome the pope extended to those in the Anglican Communion who are disaffected," New York Bishop Suffragan Catherine Roskam said in an emailed statement. "We for our part continue to welcome our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, both lay and ordained, conservative and liberal, who wish to belong to a church that treasures diversity of thought."

Executive Council member Katie Sherrod of the continuing Diocese of Forth Worth is among the Episcopal Church's former Roman Catholics.

"I watch with bemusement as Episcopalians leave our church to go to one that's much more rigid and exclusive," she said in a telephone interview. "I hope they find what they're looking for there, but I have a feeling that some of the people who might think this arrangement will be different are going to be in for a surprise."

"It looks to me, just from all of the news coverage … it's going to have a bigger impact in the Church of England than it will in the Episcopal Church," she said. "At the heart of this, it comes down to the ordination of women in most cases. And even their objection to gays and lesbians, that's also rooted in sexism, if you trace it back to its roots."

She predicted it would form a split in the Anglican Church in North America, composed mainly of groups who have left the Episcopal Church, noting "cracks" already appearing in the group over differing views about ordaining women.

Local parishioners are unlikely to follow their priests into the Roman Catholic Church, she added. The movement to leave the Episcopal Church "has been totally a clergy-led movement here in our part of the church," she said. "Most lay people here said, 'I don't want to get involved in those politics. I just want to go to church.' … A lot of the people that are sitting in buildings that are occupied by non-Episcopalians here are in that building because it's always been their parish."

"When we get those buildings back, we'll get a lot of those people back," she added. "So what we've been trying to do is be as welcoming to them as we can be. They are welcome home at any moment."

Surprised by announcement
Not all applauded the news. The New York Times reported Oct. 20 that the Very Rev. David Richardson, the Archbishop of Canterbury's representative to the Vatican, said he was taken aback by the announcement.

"I don't see it as an affront to the Anglican Church, but I'm puzzled by what it means and by the timing of it," he said. "I think some Anglicans will feel affronted."

Others viewed the invitation more positively.

"I welcome the news," the Very Rev. Samuel Candler, dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta, wrote on his blog. "In the past 10 years, I have noticed many of my disenchanted Episcopal and Anglican friends drifting toward Roman Catholic structures. They have been arguing for more ecclesiastical order and authority. It has long been my prediction that our current Anglican controversies will be cleared up, finally, with a choice between distinctly Anglican and distinctly Roman ecclesiologies. Much of our current controversy, having been precipitated by sexuality issues (ordination of women and homosexuality), is more accurately about authority, uniformity and legal order. … [I]t is gratifying that the best centralized and universal jurisdiction in the world -- the Roman Catholic Church -- has been able to make provisions to welcome such disenchanted Anglicans."

"I believe there is room in the kingdom of God for various ecclesiastical styles," he concluded, "and I pray that God will direct us all to a place where we can more freely preach the Gospel and work toward the kingdom of God."