As one who inhabits the Catholic end of the Anglican theological and liturgical spectrum, I am not unaccustomed to hearing from time to time about an Anglican taking the step--a relatively short one in many ways for an Anglo-Catholic--into what was once referred to as "the Roman obedience." Precisely because I am a Catholic (in my own mind--full-stop, no qualifiers, upper-case 'C', and all that as an Anglican), I always have an ambivalent response to such news.
On the one hand, I am not without sympathy for the concerns that can lead one to just give up on sustaining the notion that the Anglican churches are a full and integral part of the "Church Catholic," no less so than our Roman cousins. There are so many Anglicans who seem hell-bent on contradicting that very notion that one wonders, along with Newman, "What's the point? Why not just join up with what is clearly the mainstream of Catholic Christianity and let all the Evangelicals and Liberals get on with their "private judgment in gorgeous apparel" (per Cardinal Manning, one of the early Tiber-swimmers) party?"
On the other hand, the news of another "poping" is always disconcerting. It means there is one less ally to contend for Catholic truth and order within Anglicanism. But more to the point, it accomplishes piecemeal and individually--by mere attrition, as it were--what an earnest Catholic Anglican always hopes to accomplish overtly and corporately--that is, reunion with the See of Rome. The best construction one can place on the state of affairs since 1532 (0r 1559, or 1570, depending on how you parse the historical data) is that it is a necessary but unfortunate anomaly that needs to be cleared up ASAP.
But never in my 33 years in the Episcopal Church have I witnessed such a steady stream of high profile Anglican conversions to Rome as has taken place in the past several months. No fewer than four members of the House of Bishops--one long retired, two very recently retired, and one incumbent diocesan--have announced their embrace of Roman Catholicism. The latest, just revealed today, is John Lipscomb, recently retired Bishop of Southwest Florida. All four are prominent simply on account of their status as bishops. But they are not mere abstractions to me personally; I know and have interacted in significant ways with all four. Their departures are big news to me. I cannot help but "take it personally."
The news from Southwest Florida came just as I was perusing a thread on the General Convention listserv this morning. The question on the floor was "How does the Church discern new insights from the scriptural witness in the light of the changing circumstances of human existence?" Here is the response I posted:
Plowing through this morning's HoB/D messages in chronological order, I read ******'s queries right after reading the news of Bishop Lipscomb's crossing of the Tiber. Seeing the two in the context of one another gave me an insight (reminding me of something I already knew, actually) that I think is serendipitous. The key word in *******'s question is "we"--i.e. who is the "we" that should be engaged in "redefining what WE understand..."? My observation after some 33 years in TEC, most of that in some form of leadership, is that the "Catholic" strand in our ecclesial DNA is susceptible to a sort of mutation that leads us to see ourselves more as a microcosm of the whole Church Catholic than as a broken fragment of the whole. This mutation shapes (distorts, IMHO) our approach to all sorts of questions, including the articulation of boundaries for sexual morality. Lee Shaw complains in a recent post of what he considered an over-esteem for the authority of Lambeth I.10, reminding us that the Lambeth Conference is not a council charged with defining doctrine. Perhaps not. Yet many of us in TEC act as though General Convention is precisely that. We behave as though GC possesses the authority of an Ecumenical Council, when in fact it represents only a broken fragment of a broken fragment. Now, to apply this insight to the question on the floor: TEC in entirety--let alone as it is represented by General Convention--lacks the authority to undertake change of the sort advocated by "progressives." Any such re-evaluation of the received moral tradition must be undertaken at a much higher level--yes, a level that does not presently exist in any constituted canonical form. This is why, as Bishop Lipscomb points out, the unity of the visible Church on earth should be of paramount concern, trumping other agendas and causes that may in themselves be quite worthy. We are trying to live and move and have our being with our hands tied behind our back. We are incapable of addressing a re-evaluation of sexual morality (among other tasks) until we have addressed the issue of unity.