Pope Benedict XVI sprang a big surprise on both the Roman Catholic Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion. He announced the setting up of what amounts to a church within a church for Anglicans who reject the ordination of women priests and bishops and liberal teachings on homosexuality.
If they choose, these disaffected churchgoers will soon be able to worship together in full communion with Rome but with their own Anglican-flavoured liturgy, their own married priests and their own bishop or senior priest.
The details of the Pope##s very grand decree on the Anglicans, called an Apostolic Constitution, were communicated to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, only a couple of days earlier. The Pope##s chief doctrinal adviser, Cardinal William Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is thought to have paid a secret visit to Lambeth Palace to brief Dr Williams. It cannot have been an easy conversation; sources in Rome claim that the Archbishop and his advisers had been “implacably opposed” to the Pope##s scheme.
Then came the headlines and media reports that Dr Williams dreaded. The position of the Church of England “has been dangerously weakened”, declared The Times. Religious correspondents announced the end of the Anglican Communion – not as speculation, but as fact.
The anger of many Church of England bishops is widely shared by Catholic bishops of England and Wales – and not just because they feel that the Anglicans have been insulted by the Vatican. Pope Benedict XVI decided not to consult the English Catholic bishops about his dramatic offer.
But it is precisely the exclusion of liberal Catholic bishops that has delighted traditionalist Anglicans. It helps explain why Forward in Faith, the umbrella group for conservative Anglo-Catholics, welcomed the Pope##s decision effusively. They do not know how this arrangement will work in practice – “A lot depends on the fine print but so far there is no fine print,” says Stephen Parkinson, director of Forward in Faith.
Anglican congregations who pride themselves on being more Catholic than the Pope will be able to carry on celebrating Mass in antique vestments, in sanctuaries behind traditional altar rails, to the accompaniment of motets sung by a professionally trained choir.
These details may seem trivial, compared to the mighty theological disputes that have divided Rome from Canterbury. They are not. For well over a century, hardline Anglo-Catholics – many of them occupying grimy Victorian Gothic buildings in inner-city parishes rather than medieval rural churches with lovely rectories – have accepted nearly all the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Increasingly, as the authority of successive Archbishops of Canterbury has crumbled, they have been won over to papal supremacy.
The biggest stumbling blocks are not doctrinal; nor does the question of married priests loom large, since the Vatican is happy to ordain married former Anglican clergyman. Intriguingly, under the new arrangements, Rome may agree to ordain some married laymen – a startling departure from tradition, unknown in the West since the Middle Ages.
At a conservative estimate, about 1,000 of the Church of England##s 12,000 serving priests have seriously contemplated conversion to Rome. (Many years ago, before he was ordained, Rowan Williams flirted with the idea himself.)
As Cardinal Ratzinger, the Pope made friends with High Church Anglicans; he is the first Pope in history to understand their concerns. He watched in dismay as liberal Catholics and liberal Anglicans engaged in ecumenical dialogue that led nowhere: the Church of England voted to ordain women priests in 1992, and now seems certain to ordain women bishops, too.
Last year, Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican##s chief ecumenist, desperately pleaded with the Lambeth Conference to pull back from ordaining more women bishops or openly gay men. But Pope Benedict had already made up his mind. A succession of Anglican bishops had asked for a new home, free from interference by Catholic liberals. Now he has given them what they wanted – and more.
How will the Apostolic Constitution work in practice? No one knows: it is not even published, and even then the outcome will depend on local negotiations. Several hundred Church of England clergy are likely to join the scheme, but will their congregations follow?
The legal complexities facing Dr Williams will only add to the sadness he feels at the prospect of losing so many of his priests, and at least three Church of England bishops. But as George Pitcher, The Daily Telegraph##s religion editor and himself an Anglican priest, pointed out, the exodus of Anglo-Catholics opposed to women bishops will make unity on this subject easier to achieve across the Anglican Communion. “Ironically, the Pope has given disaffected traditionalists the province they always wanted from the Church of England,” he says. “But it would be a great pity if some Anglo-Catholics did not feel they could remain Anglicans, because that rich tradition has so much to offer us.”
Some Anglicans are unimpressed by what they interpret as an attempt to park Roman tanks on the Anglican lawn. Professor Diarmaid McCulloch, a leading Church historian at St Barnabas, Oxford, describes the Pope##s offer as “a storm in a teacup, a gesture based on a fundamental misconception of how religion works in England”.
But Forward in Faith is delighted by what it regards as an act of great boldness and imagination by the Pope. Three of its bishops are likely to take up the Pope##s offer, since they (unlike the Archbishop of Canterbury) seem to have had a very clear idea that it was coming, and helped frame its terms. Most traditionalists, however, are as surprised as anyone else.
The Daily Telegraph (abridged)