“I am sorry that there has been no opportunity to alert you earlier to this,” the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, wrote in an October 20 letter to fellow Anglican bishops. “I was informed of the planned announcement at a very late stage.”

Williams was writing about the Vatican’s proposal, announced that day, to allow groups of Anglicans to enter into full communion with Rome via newly created “ordinariates” that would resemble military dioceses. Williams’s letter briefed Anglican leaders on his response “in the hope of avoiding any confusion or misrepresentation.” Yet the circumstances of the Vatican’s announcement made confusion all but inevitable. At a press conference called on short notice, officials from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith were vague about the details of the pope’s forthcoming apostolic constitution. With no document yet in hand, neither they nor commentators in the media could answer questions about how the proposed ordinariates would operate, what would be required of members, and which aspects of Anglican practice might be retained.

The CDF’s announcement described the move as “a reasonable and even necessary response to a worldwide phenomenon.” The necessity was far from obvious, and the “phenomenon” of Anglo-Catholic groups seeking reunion with Rome was news to many reporters (and many Catholics), particularly in the United States. Divisions within the Anglican Communion, on the other hand, are well known, and reporters predictably interpreted the news in that context: the New York Times labeled the move “an extraordinary bid to lure traditionalist Anglicans en masse,” and a columnist for the Times of London declared, “Rome has parked its tanks on the archbishop of Canterbury’s lawn.”

The martial imagery was at odds with official statements from the Vatican and from Rowan Williams, who appeared with the Catholic archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, in London the day the news was announced to affirm that the relationship between their communions was “business as usual.” But Williams’s obvious surprise reflected badly on Rome, suggesting insensitivity to the ecumenical context in which the announcement would be received. Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, was left out of the Vatican’s announcement completely—he was in Cyprus when the CDF press conference was held. He later said that Williams had called him there in the middle of the night, having just heard the news and looking for an explanation.

The years since the Second Vatican Council have seen enormous progress in relations between the Catholic Church and other Christian churches—progress that is very much reflected in the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum coetibus, which was finally issued in English on November 9. The document refers to the need “to maintain the liturgical, spiritual, and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion within the Catholic Church, as a precious gift nourishing the faith of the members of the ordinariate and as a treasure to be shared.” Such generous praise for the “treasure” of non–Roman Catholic Christianity would have been impossible without the past four decades of Vatican II–inspired dialogue. Yet the abruptness of the announcement, and the Vatican’s unwillingness to discuss its ecumenical impact, have sent a less positive message, especially to members of the Anglican Communion who do not think they need to be rescued by Rome. At the same time, despite the Vatican’s insistence that the apostolic constitution “does not create a new structure within the current canonical norms,” the personal ordinariates it establishes are a distinct novelty with potentially dramatic consequences. The result, as theologian Nicholas Lash wrote in the London Tablet, is astonishment in many quarters that “a major structural innovation in Roman Catholicism is being introduced without consulting the bishops of the Catholic Church.”

Benedict XVI has spoken often about the need for strong Christian witness in the midst of an increasingly secular culture. He may see the new ordinariates as a way to strengthen that witness while promoting unity within the church. In that respect, this innovation resembles other controversial gestures of his papacy: his outreach to the Society of St. Pius X; his “liberation” of the preconciliar Latin Mass. Unfortunately, as in those cases, the execution of the proposal threatens to diminish its positive potential. In announcing Anglicanorum coetibus, the Vatican did far too little to avoid confusion in the media and within the church. Worse, while the apostolic constitution demonstrates great respect for the Anglican tradition, the process by which it was created and announced suggests a certain impatience with ongoing ecumenical efforts and established norms of collegiality within the Catholic Church.

Archbishop Williams spoke in Rome on November 19 as a guest of the Council for Christian Unity (see www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/2616). His address offered a challenging analysis of the possibilities for Christian unity and the obstacles that remain. Of Anglicanorum coetibus, Williams said, “It is an imaginative pastoral response to the needs of some; but it does not break any fresh ecclesiological ground.” It remains to be seen, he added, whether the “flexibility” of the Vatican in this instance could lead to greater ecumenical breakthroughs. Williams’s gifts as a bishop and theologian are evidence of the riches of the Anglican tradition, and Benedict’s explicit acknowledgment of those riches is encouraging. But the Vatican will need to show patience and sensitivity, as well as flexibility, if the ecumenical progress of the past forty years is to continue.

More responses to 'Anglicanorum coetibus': Russel Murray, "A New Ecumenism"
John Garvey, "Anglican Annex"

Jack Miles, "Trading Places"

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the 2009-12-18 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.