These are interesting times for Anglican-Catholic relations in the United Kingdom. Four and a half centuries after the historic Act of Supremacy, by which Henry VIII effectively made himself pope of England, Britain has more active Roman Catholics than active Anglicans, and the Church of England seems to be threatened with step-by-step disestablishment within England itself.

There is talk that in a reorganized House of Lords, the “Lords Spiritual”—the Anglican bishops—might lose their automatic seats. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair has quietly converted to Roman Catholicism. One hears rumors that Queen Elizabeth might lift the ancient ban on royals marrying Catholics. In this context, one would think that a small gesture or two from the Vatican side, offered in a conciliatory spirit—perhaps a concession that British Catholics wedded to Anglicans at Anglican ceremonies would not be regarded as having impaired their membership in the Roman Catholic Church—might carry the process to virtual completion, helping the United Kingdom finally separate its church from its state.

But provocation seems to have trumped conciliation in Rome. Last June, on the five-hundredth anniversary of the coronation of Henry VIII, the Vatican published a lavish facsimile edition of Causa anglica, the 1530 letter denying Henry’s request for a papal annulment of his first marriage, and slapped a trophy price of £43,000 on it. And now comes Benedict XVI’s apostolic constitution Anglicanorum coetibus, establishing “personal ordinariates” by which Anglican priests and bishops can more easily become Roman Catholic priests and bring their flocks with them. The invitation has frayed nerves and predictably made the British balk at the prospect of seeming to capitulate to the wishes of an ambitious pope (and a German at that). One senses repercussions of protocol at the highest levels as well. It had been expected that Benedict would be lodged at Buckingham Palace during his upcoming visit to the United Kingdom. True, the visit was not a state visit—it was Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and not Queen Elizabeth, who had issued the invitation—but this bit of punctilio seemed likely to be ignored. Not now, however. The queen made no mention of the pope in her speech at the recent opening of Parliament, and it was later reported that she would receive him not at Buckingham Palace but in Scotland. In effect, by not receiving Benedict as head of state, the queen would be receiving him as head of church. Perhaps in the exchange of gifts, he will give her a personal copy of the Causa anglica facsimile.

Political finesse, in short, seems not to be Benedict XVI’s strong suit. The pope notably failed to keep the archbishop of Canterbury informed as he developed his plan to encourage Anglican clergy and laypeople to disaffiliate from Canterbury and reaffiliate with Rome. Deucedly unsporting, old chap, a stage Englishman might say. And rather counterproductive as well. Benedict is known to have encouraged the archbishop’s tentative moves to make the Anglican Communion—currently a fraternal alliance of historically rather than administratively linked national churches—into a full-strength supranational church on the Roman model. That accomplished, the next step could conceivably be for this greater neo-Anglican church to become a patriarchate within the Roman church, on the model of the “uniate” patriarchates such as the Armenian, the Maronite, the Coptic, and others that retain their rites but subject their bishops to papal authority. Yet this path to reconciliation becomes less and less conceivable as the pope continues to erode the authority of his most eminent and plausible potential collaborator in such an effort.

In the United States, whose Episcopal Church resembles the Church of England about as much as the United States resembles the United Kingdom, the papal invitation has come and gone much more quietly than it did across the Atlantic. Fr. George Woodward III, rector of St. Edmund’s Episcopal Church, San Marino, California, of which I am a member, wrote in “Edmund’s Notes” for the week of October 25, 2009, that "Roman Catholics who can’t any longer abide the teachings of the Church of Rome on women’s ordination, contraception, gay folk, and the remarriage of divorced persons have been moving into the Episcopal/Anglican sphere for years, so it seems to me reasonable that those who can’t abide our more progressive stance on these matters be given a home in Rome."

Fr. Woodward did lament that the archbishop of Canterbury was “blind-sided” by Benedict’s announcement, deeming it “not a very ecumenical manner in which to proceed.” He went on, however, to call the departure of conservative Anglicans for Rome “especially good news” for a Church of England eager to make women bishops, but hard-pressed to “accommodate their Anglo-Catholic wing, who will now probably just pack it up and look to Italy for marching orders.”

If the Episcopal Church were in a tit-for-tat mood, it could issue its own marching orders. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who occupies the same position within her church that Rowan Williams occupies within his (and who happens to be the daughter of Catholic converts to Episcopalianism), might issue an open invitation to the member groups of the Roman Catholic Leadership Conference of Women Religious to disaffiliate from Rome and reaffiliate—as religious congregations, not individual women—with a church where they would be welcomed for their often superior education as well as their selfless charity, rather than suspected of...well, whatever it is that the Vatican suspects them of. (Of the papacy’s warm embrace of right-wing Anglicans as compared with its cold scrutiny of American nuns, America magazine asked sourly on November 9, 2009, why the Vatican has “lowered the canonical bar” for entrance into the Roman Church by traditionalist groups, while “raising more hurdles for progressives...who have spent their entire lives working for the Catholic Church and have accepted Vatican discipline on controversial matters.” Keep this up, America, and you may soon be looking to replace yet another editor.)

The fact is, religious women in the U.S. Catholic Church are often better educated than the priests and bishops who have jurisdiction over them—a subtheme in John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer-winning play, Doubt—and the leaders among them would be at ease with their counterparts in the Episcopal hierarchy. Jefferts Schori, for instance, has a doctorate in oceanography and is an airplane pilot. Canon Diane M. Jardine Bruce, a former Catholic and the first woman bishop in the history of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, speaks Mandarin as well as Spanish, had a career as a bank executive before entering the ministry, and was elected as suffragan (assistant bishop) partly because of her financial acumen. Indeed, one may glimpse in her story the enormous potential of the Roman Catholic Church if and when it decides fully to valorize the talents and training of its women.

More than a year ago, I predicted in Commonweal (“Anglican Disunion,” September 12, 2008) that some secessionist Episcopalians would find their way back to the Episcopal Church, others would be absorbed into the Roman Catholic Church, and the remainder would continue as secessionists, with a membership in the middling tens of thousands. On the whole I stand by that view, but two subsequent developments do qualify it. First, Anglicanorum coetibus may well hasten the departure of a few Episcopalian social conservatives of Anglo-Catholic inclination. There are far fewer of these in the United States than in the United Kingdom, but whatever their number, the months-old breakaway “Anglican Church in North America” (ACNA) could lose them to the pope. Second, the judicial award of control of Episcopal Church property to the ECUSA rather than to the breakaway congregations may induce some fence-sitters to hop off on the Episcopal side of the rail. (There is a huge property question in Britain, too, of course.) Ironically, the creation of ACNA has had the effect of weakening the Anglican Communion more than the Episcopal Church, where the majority in favor of open accommodation of gay Episcopalians is stronger than ever, now that the bar-the-door conservatives are gone. A day after the election of Diane Bruce as the first woman bishop in Los Angeles, the Rev. Canon Mary D. Glasspool, a Maryland priest and a lesbian, became the second.

Amid all this change, the Episcopal serenity regarding the prospect that some of its clergy and laity might decamp for the Catholic Church surely owes something to American religious culture; 40 percent of Americans, after all, have changed denominations or religions at least once. But this serenity is not to be mistaken for simple nonchalance. There is a theology behind it. Before distributing Communion at my church each Sunday, Fr. Woodward announces, as do his counterparts in other Episcopal parishes, that all baptized Christians are welcome at our Communion table. I know this well from my own experience. When I left the Roman Catholic for the Episcopal Church, in a process that began in 1968 with Humanae vitae, all I had to do at first was show up and receive the sacrament. I was “in” from the first day. Getting deeper in meant simply continuing to show up, eventually introducing myself, and finally becoming a pledging member. (Some kind of second confirmation does exist as an optional further initiation.) Sophistication and serenity, in other words, arise from a theological recognition that Christianity exists in various versions, of which one’s own version is merely one. Yes, numbers do matter; but Jesus said, famously, “Wherever two or three are gathered...” and when Fr. Woodward observes that the Roman way is the right way for many, he speaks from the depths of the American Episcopal tradition, not the shallows of American indifferentism.

The Rev. Canon Colville Smythe, a retired priest who generously volunteers his services at St. Edmund’s, spoke wisely, I thought, in a sermon on the Feast of Christ the King, when he said that Holy Communion, rather than Baptism, is the sacrament that nowadays typically begins a seeker’s journey toward sacramental Christianity. Baptism, in our time, typically comes later. In Smythe’s view, we should thus welcome all visitors—not just visiting baptized Christians—to receive the sacrament. As it happened, his sermon was delivered on the day when the New York Times reported that Catholic Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Rhode Island had asked Representative Patrick J. Kennedy not to receive Communion because of his position on abortion. Not long before this, Archbishop Raymond Burke, who in 2004 took a cue from then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and led the way in denying Communion to presidential candidate John Kerry, had denounced Boston’s Cardinal Seán O’Malley for allowing the late Ted Kennedy to receive a Catholic funeral.

How strongly tempted will Episcopal priests be to exchange their theology of the Eucharist for this notably less serene one? Time will tell, and the answer, as so often, may remain elusive. Would the history of English-speaking Christianity as a whole have been very different had Pope Clement VII responded as favorably to Henry way back in 1527 as John Paul II did to Ted Kennedy’s request for an annulment of his first marriage? We shall never know. An English Reformation of some sort would surely have happened anyway, but perhaps some of the horrors of the English Civil War—which cost Britain and Ireland more lives, proportionately, than they lost in World War I—might never have occurred. Sunt lacrimae rerum, and hindsight sometimes seems a kind of wanton cruelty. Be all that as it may, what was moderately big news on one side of the ocean has been small news on the other; and at least as the matter looks to a convert now nearing his thirtieth year of regular attendance, the Episcopal apple seems actually to have fallen rather far from the Anglican tree.

Funding for this essay has been provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

More responses to 'Anglicanorum coetibus': "Business As Usual?" by the Editors
"Anglican Annex" by John Garvey
"A New Ecumenism" by Russel Murray


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Jack Miles is the author of several books, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning God: A Biography and, most recently, Religion as We Know It: An Origin Story (W. W. Norton).

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Published in the 2010-01-15 issue: View Contents
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