I feel almost obligated to say something about a “breaking” Anglican story, if for no other reason than that it has shown up on the CNN crawler (and other secular media sources), necessitating a measure of spin control, since secular news outlets invariably get church-related stories really, really wrong, either in the headlines, or in the details, or both. (This, of course, leads me to wonder what else they get wrong in areas where I have no particular expertise or inside knowledge, but that’s another story.)
The Vatican has announced an arrangement by which Anglican Christians may enter into full communion with the Bishop of Rome (aka the Pope), and do so in groups that maintain their collective identity (like parishes and dioceses). They would then be allowed to continue liturgical and spiritual practices that are identifiably Anglican (such as using texts from the Prayer Book and music from familiar hymnals). Moreover, their clergy could become Roman Catholic priests, and, if married, remain so as they continue to pastor their congregations.
The technical name (and a hugely awkward one, I must say) for the new sort of jurisdiction is “personal ordinariate.” An “ordinary” is a cleric who has a sort of authority that is usually associated with the office of Diocesan Bishop, but may also be held by a Dean (of a seminary) or an Abbott (of a monastery). The personal ordinariates under this plan would be defined by and accountable to each (national, in most cases) Bishops’ Conference. The ordinaries themselves may, in fact, be bishops (though not former Anglicans, apparently) but will in most cases, at least in the near term, be priests (i.e. former Anglicans, probably married) who have the administrative authority and responsibility of a bishop without the sacramental peculiars—ironically, ordinaries who cannot ordain.
The media are treating this announcement as something new—indeed, something shockingly new. The truth is—it isn’t. From early in the papacy of John Paul II, there has been something called the Pastoral Provision in effect that allows married Anglican clergy, after undergoing mutual discernment and screening, to be ordained as Roman priests. There has also been something called the Anglican Use, which permits congregations of former Anglicans to remain stylistically Anglican while jurisdictionally Roman Catholic. There are a handful (well, maybe two hands-full) of Anglican Use parishes in the U.S., and have been for a number of years.
What is different about this new initiative? Two things, mainly: First, it applies worldwide, whereas the Pastoral Provision and Anglican Use were confined to the United States. So the most dramatic impact will no doubt be in England, where there are thousands of laity and hundreds of clergy who have been chomping at the bit for something like this. It comes at a particularly sensitive time politically, as the leadership of the Church of England has been trying to find a way to move forward with consecrating women bishops and still hang on to its Catholic wing, which is more numerous percentage-wise than it is in the Episcopal Church. Will the personal ordinariate arrangement siphon off Anglo-Catholics (who pretty much already worship according to the Roman Rite in toto), and not only make it politically easier to have women bishops but also radically shift the delicate balance-of-power in the church? Time will tell.
Second, the new arrangement takes something that has been tentative and somewhat fluid and gives it the character of something that is effectively permanent. It takes an anomaly and institutionalizes it. There is even talk of personal ordinariates (presumably, groups thereof) operating their own seminaries. One of the implications is that Anglicanesque (for lack of a better term) parishes would be in the local Latin Rite (i.e. mainstream Roman Catholic) dioceses in which they are geographically located, but only partially of them. The diocesan bishop’s authority will not extend to anything that pertains to the distinctively Anglican character of these congregations. Such matters would come under the purview of the “personal ordinary.”
There are, of course, some unanswered questions. So far, I’ve only seen second-hand reports and announcements, not any official documents that spell out the details, and we know who lives in the details. For instance, are married priests a one-generation “grandfathered-in” deal, or are we looking at an enduring element of an ecclesiastical sub-culture being created? Will the personal ordinaries be permitted to arrange the ordination of married men who have never been Anglican priests? If the answer to either of these questions is affirmative, then what we are witnessing is the de facto creation of an Anglican Rite within the Catholic Church (despite all Vatican protestations to the contrary) alongside the Melkite (Greek), Maronite (Lebanese) and other Uniate churches. And what effect is this all likely to have on the many, many Latin Rite priests who would dearly love to be married (or married laicized priests who would love to resume their ministry)?
Speaking personally, does this get my attention? Yes, it does, in the same way that a man whose generally happy marriage is going through a rough patch might have his attention arrested by an attractive potential alternative. I believe the See of Rome to be God’s gift for the unity of Christ’s Church, and it would give me great joy to die at a ripe old age in full sacramental fellowship with the church founded by Peter and Paul. It is a prospect dear to my heart. From the day the Bishop of Los Angeles laid hands on me in Confirmation in 1975, I have considered myself, as an Anglican, fully a Catholic, no hyphens or qualifiers. Since the eve of St Thomas’ Day 1989 I have known myself to be a Catholic priest, a Catholic priest who has said Mass well over two thousand times, and has pronounced God’s absolution on dozens of penitent sinners. And it is precisely because I know these things about myself and my ministry that, with some measure of sadness, I do not foresee myself serving under a personal ordinary in an Anglicanesque parish. To do so would require me to say—not in so many words, perhaps, but with devastating clarity nonetheless—that I have never been a priest, that all the Eucharists over which I have presided have been make-believe, and that my absolutions have been mere aspirational hopes. I could never say those things and live with my conscience.
There will doubtless be much more to say on these matters as events unfold.