Friday, March 30, 2007

When Friends Go Swimming

There is a euphemism popular among Anglicans for those of their number who choose to embrace the obedience of the Roman Catholic Church--"swimming the Tiber" (the Tiber being the river the runs through the city of Rome). Yesterday it was announced that Dan Herzog, the recently retired Bishop of Albany, has taken the plunge. (In his case, it's a reversion to the church of his youth, but he was an Episcopalian for more than 35 years, and is a graduate of Nashotah House, my own seminary alma mater.)

I had the privilege of spending some time with Bishop Herzog on two occasions--when he conducted a retreat for San Joaquin clergy about three years ago, and at a meeting we were both attending in Pittsburgh last summer. I like and respect him. I found the news of his departure from the Anglican fold depressing and demoralizing, though only a little surprising, and it seems like the reasons for this reaction on my part are worth unpacking.

One's own autobiography, I have found, is a good place from which to start the process of understanding things like this. Having come at Anglicanism from the opposite direction that Bishop Herzog did, I had the sense, when the Bishop of Los Angeles laid hands on me in Confirmation in 1975, that I was embracing the fullness of the Catholic faith. That is what I was taught, that is what I believed, and though I have both a more nuanced and a more jaded perception of the matter now than I did then, it is what I still believe.

For an Anglican of a Catholic persuasion, such as myself, there is naturally a push-pull relationship with the Church of Rome. If we possess within our own ecclesial life the fullness of Catholic faith and practice, of course, we don't strictly "need" Rome in any way. They are who they are and we are who we are, both parts of the larger whole. It's even easy to be a little bit snobbishly elitist about it: "We're Catholics with taste," I have often jokingly replied to casual inquirers about "What's the difference between your church and the Catholic Church?"

At the same time, Anglo-Catholics are keenly aware that Rome is the 900 pound gorilla in the ecclesiastical jungle, and that they supply us with the norm, the template, for the practice of our religion, not only in an historical sense, but in an ongoing way as well. From a strictly liturgical perpective, one could even say that there are two kinds of Anglo-Catholics: Those who take their cue from Roman practice before Vatican II and those who model themselves on Roman practice after Vatican II. These are two very different liturgical paradigms, but it cannot be denied that they have the same mother.

Anglicans who tilt more toward Rome than toward Geneva would generally agree, then, that it is an anomaly for us to not be in full communion with the Bishop of Rome. After all, the Roman church was founded by not just one, but two apostles, and has been the primary keeper of the flame in western Christianity since sometime in the second century, at least. The burden is on us, not on them, to justify continued separation. The fact that their liturgy is usually...well, tacky...is not a sufficient excuse. So, for more than a century, Catholic-minded Anglicans have cherished a fantasy that involves some sort of organic reconciliation between Rome and Canterbury--not mere capitulation and absorption, and not simply a wave of individual conversions either; that is, something corporate and of a sort that would allow Anglican churches to maintain a visible continuity with their own past, even as they enter full communion with the Holy See. This has been the Omega Point of official ecumenical discussions as long as they have existed.

And this is precisely why actions such as Dan Herzog has taken are so discouraging. Going back as far as John Henry Newman in 1845, there has been a steady procession--never a throng, never a rush, but a steady procession--of Anglicans whose sense of the imperative nature of fellowship with the Roman church, aided by the inherent instabilities of Anglicanism, has overtaxed their patience and led them to "swim the Tiber." (The very reason that led to my holding the paying day job I've had for twelve and a half years is because my predecessor became a swimmer.) I am not without empathy for them. I very regularly experience the same urge. (And, yes, there are overt reasons why I am an Anglican.) But every time somebody dives into the Tiber alone, it weakens the energy behind a truly corporate reconciliation between churches, which is, somehow, a richer and more compelling sign of gospel unity and the re-melding of fragments of the broken Body of Christ than a horde of individual "submissions."

I would passionately love to die (at a ripe old age, of course) in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. But I would like to achieve that reconciliation in a way that does not compel me to either deny or abandon the "real churchiness" of the tradition in which I have been formed my entire adult life, and which it is my daily joy to serve as a Catholic priest.

Am I just being stubborn?

5 comments:

Fr. Jim said...

I am thinking of some Anglicans for whom I have great admiration - Evelyn Underhill and Dorothy Sayers among others who answered the question, "Why don't you go to Rome?" with the simple response, "God hasn't asked me to." I realize the perils of making a decision on such a individualized basis, but in the turmoil of today's ecclesia, it should be easy enough to hope that God would give individual guidance. Choosing to trust that the Herzogs are acting in obedience, I don't find this sad. But it is one more reason for me to ask why I stay. Can you hear me asking God?

unklephil said...

As a Lutheran who has more than once considered a dip in the Thames, I can't help but wonder if perhaps there is a profound feeling that TEC has left them rather than vice versa. As TEC becomes progressively less Anglo-Catholic in polity and practice, I would not be surprised to see increasing numbers seeking the spiritual comfort of the Roman tradition.

Anonymous said...

Have you heard of the Pastoral Provision promulgated by JP2? It provides for a whole congregation and priest to come as a body into the RC Church and retains a prayer book very similar to the BCP.
Check out: http://anglicanuse.org/

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