Posted by: Titus Presler | October 31, 2009

Rome luring Anglicans offends mission as well as ecumenism

What does the Vatican’s recent move to receive Anglicans have to do with mission?  A fair amount, and it is not good news.

The official Oct. 20 Vatican “note” about the forthcoming apostolic constitution about “personal ordinariates” for Anglicans seeking full communion with the Roman Catholic Church observes that the “The expansion of the British Empire, together with Anglican missionary work, eventually gave rise to a world-wide Anglican Communion.”  This is an accurate statement of the history, though assessments differ even among Anglican missiologists as to whether imperial expansion or missionary work was the crucial factor in the emergence of the Anglican Communion.

The more pressing missional issue is whether the Vatican’s decision represents simply a pastoral policy for groups of Anglican Christians who have inquired about possible union with Rome, or whether it is a self-aggrandizing move by one Christian communion to capitalize on the discord being experienced by another Christian communion.  The former would resemble the business-as-usual of all churches as they receive inquiries from Christians seeking to change church affiliations.  The latter would resemble the kind of aggressive “sheep-stealing” that most or all Christian churches at least make a show of opposing.  One reason for such opposition is that it blurs the distinction between genuine mission, which reaches out to the wounded of the world and to those who have not embraced the gospel, and bogus mission, which increases a church’s numbers by drawing in people from other churches by means of various inducements.

The Vatican’s move is simply self-aggrandizing.

Marriage provision is the giveaway

The giveaway is that in making provision for married Anglican clergy to become Roman clergy the Vatican is compromising a tenet of its theology of ordained ministry that it has strenuously defended as essential in any number of other contexts over the decades and centuries.  The Vatican’s official announcement of the new policy states, “It [the Personal Ordinariate] provides for the ordination as Catholic priests of married former Anglican clergy. Historical and ecumenical reasons preclude the ordination of married men as bishops in both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The Constitution therefore stipulates that the Ordinary can be either a priest or an unmarried bishop.”

Advocacy for married clergy is grounds for severe marginalization in the Roman Church, as many advocates have found.  Yet here Rome is welcoming married Anglican clergy under the rubric of “establishing Personal Ordinariates, which will allow former Anglicans to enter full communion with the Catholic Church while preserving elements of the distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony” (from the Oct. 20 Vatican announcement).

The expressed pastoral concern for disaffected Anglicans functions as a sleight of hand by which Rome appears to hope that the world, both Christian and non-Christian, will not notice that they have compromised and abrogated one of their major tenets of church polity – the celibate unmarried clergy – around which they have spun a dense web of biblical, historical and theological reflection and polemic over the years – all for the sake of trying to stimulate a significant influx into their communion.  The Vatican says that ecumenism precludes married bishops, out of consideration for the Orthodox, but it is willing to abrogate its own historic commitment and offend Anglicans by making a public invitation to married Anglican clergy.

”It’s a question of education, of the reasons for this kind of a disposition among our faithful,” said Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  ”And I think that experience has already shown us that if an explanation is given, that people understand that and accept it as an exception.”  This is an extraordinarily weak rationalization of the new Vatican policy.  Moreover, Levada is naive in thinking that the faithful will affirm incoming Anglican married clergy as an “exception” alongside the disciplining of Roman clergy who have been outed as having had longstanding quasi-marital relationships, with children.  It is striking that as long as these relationships remain out of the public eye, Roman dioceses and religious orders retain the clergy in their positions and often support the quasi-wives and children financially, but lower the boom when the relationships become public.  Incoming Anglican married clergy may shorten the duration of the Roman faithful’s toleration of such hypocrisy.

Yes, the Vatican’s move has prompted many Roman advocates of a married clergy to take heart, and it has even stirred hope that the day of women’s ordination in the Roman Church may be closer than 200 years down the road – and progressive Anglicans will cheer those advocates on.  But that is not the point.  And yes, it is possible that the actual number of Anglicans going to Rome under this provision will not be large.  But neither is that the point.

The point is that Rome’s move lacks integrity.

Those thinking of moving to Rome would do well to consider what other sacrifices of integrity might follow, and whether next time around they might be victims rather than beneficiaries – as they now imagine themselves to be.

Lack of consultation with Anglicans

Another giveaway as to the true nature of the new policy is the fact that there was no consultation with Anglican authorities beforehand.   On Oct. 20 Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams wrote to primates of the Anglican Communion and to bishops of the Church of England: “I am sorry that there has been no opportunity to alert you earlier to this; I was informed of the planned announcement at a very late stage, and we await the text of the Apostolic Constitution itself and its code of practice in the coming weeks.”  Amid the long history of ecumenical conversation, especially the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Consultation (ARCIC), for which Williams has been a strong advocate, it is shocking that the Vatican would put Canterbury in the position of having to make such a humiliating acknowledgment.

Clearly, Rome wished to make a preemptive strike.

Yes, it is true that in North America Anglican clergy have been received into the Roman Church since 1980, but that has been under a case-by-case policy, similar to that by which a large number of Roman clergy have been received as clergy in Anglican provinces worldwide over the years.  The “personal ordinariates,” by contrast, are devised specifically to publicize the encouragement of groups of Anglicans to go over to Rome together with their leaders.  That is an egregious offense to inter-church relations, ecumenical cooperation, and shared mission.

A major missional reality related to the Vatican announcement is mission undertaken by and to homosexual Christians, both lay and ordained.  The Episcopal Church’s affirmation of homosexual persons in all orders of ministry is not simply or even primarily a matter of justice.  For advocates, it is rather a matter of recognizing authentic Christian identity and spirituality through the witness of the Holy Spirit.  Many gay Anglicans have been passionate about evangelizing homosexual persons and participating in the whole mission of God through the church.  Obviously, the Vatican announcement dismisses and ignores that missional opportunity.  That is to be expected given its position on the issue of homosexuality.  Practice in many Roman jurisdictions, however, raises issues of hypocrisy similar to those raised by the already quasi-married Roman clergy, and the new policy is likely to make the Roman faithful similarly restive.

Anglican bishops offer limp responses

Some Anglican bishops, including some in the Episcopal Church USA, have been startlingly mild in their response to the Vatican announcement.  Rowan Williams’ own initial statements may have unfortunately set the tone that others have felt they should follow. “I can say that this new possibility is in no sense at all intended to undermine existing relations between our two communions or to be an act of proselytism or aggression,” Williams said in his Oct. 20 letter.  “It is described [by Rome] as simply a response to specific enquiries from certain Anglican groups and individuals wishing to find their future within the Roman Catholic Church. . . . Meanwhile our ecumenical relationships continue on their current cordial basis, regionally and internationally” (from Williams’ Oct. 20 letter to primates and bishops).

Williams even agreed to a joint press conference in London with the Roman archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, on Oct. 20 to discuss the announcement, during which he said, “It would not occur to me to see this as an act of aggression or a statement of no confidence, precisely because the routine relationships that we enjoy as churches will continue” (New York Times, Oct. 20).  Other bishops have echoed these kindly sentiments.

Either Anglican bishops are not seeing the issues clearly, or they are cowed by the Vatican’s self-confidence and calculate that taking public offense at Rome’s move is not worth the frostiness that might ensue in their relationships with local Roman bishops.  Both are possible, but the latter is more probable, and it is a mistaken response.  Authenticity in ecumenical relationship depends on candor, and when important considerations are sidelined for the sake of keeping  peace, authenticity is sacrificed and the residual “cordial relationship” is worth little.

Secular press sees issues more clearly

Meanwhile, back on the mission front, the secular press, unlike various Anglican dignitaries, is seeing and articulating the issues quite clearly.  The missional dimension is obvious to commentators, and they see it in terms of the sheep-stealing that has given mission a bad name in many contexts over the centuries.

The New York Times story on Oct. 20 is illustrative: “In an extraordinary bid to lure traditionalist Anglicans en masse, the Vatican said Tuesday that it would make it easier for Anglicans uncomfortable with their church’s acceptance of female priests and openly gay bishops to join the Roman Catholic Church while retaining many of their traditions. . . . It was unclear why the Vatican made the announcement now. But it seemed a rare opportunity, audaciously executed, to capitalize on deep divisions within the Anglican Church to attract new members at a time when the Catholic Church has been trying to reinvigorate itself in Europe.”

The Associated Press wrote similarly on Oct. 22 in referring to the “surprise offer made earlier this week in a bold bid by Pope Benedict XVI to capitalize on sharp divisions within the Anglican community over the proper role of women clergy and the acceptability of openly gay priests.”  The Washington Post‘s Oct. 21 story was headlined, “Vatican fishing for disgruntled Anglicans.”

The language of fishing, luring, bidding, audaciously executing, and capitalizing is not a matter of journalists unfairly sensationalizing the news, or trying to drum up conflict where there is none.  No, this is accurate language, and alert Anglicans should take note.  The world is accurately seeing the world’s largest church focusing on luring members from another church, rather than focusing on the real needs of wounded humanity.

The suffering world is where the mission is.  Christians should be uniting in that mission.  Everyone can see that.  Rome’s move is a scandal.

Footnote: In an article filed, ironically in view of the above, under the category of “Mission,” Episcopal Life Online on Oct. 30 had a piece passing on the gist of the bland press release from the latest meeting of the official USAmerican Anglican Roman Catholic dialogue.  The most substantive statement was from the soon-to-retire ecumenical officer for the Episcopal Church, Bp. Christopher Epting: “Most everyone seemed clear that there were negative as well as some positive aspects to the Vatican’s initiative.  We thought it was important to wait until we’ve seen the actual text of the constitution before saying much more, but wanted to affirm both churches’ decisions to continue formal dialogue – through ARC-USA – with the only recognized province of the Anglican Communion in the United States (the Episcopal Church) and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. That’s the official ecumenical dialogue, and that’s what’s important.”  It’s hard to see what positive aspects Anglicans would have been able to note – except that perhaps Rome could have behaved even more poorly than it did – but it’s good to know that negative aspects were recognized.  The dialogue might have been an appropriate occasion on which to articulate a formal protest against the Vatican policy.  That would have been a different kind of dialogue but signally important in the present circumstance.



  1. ( Anglican Rite in full union with Rome )

    Catholic Verse Finder $2.75 (505) 327-5343

    “St Peter lives in Rome” by Robert A. Stackpole
    (former Anglican priest)

    “Catholic Doctrine in Scripture” by Gregory Oatis

    • Thank you for this!

      With the Telegraph trumpeting the “Pope-ing” of 5200 US TAC-ites [Traditionalist Anglican Communion], the Catholic media blitz seems to be on. The Episcopal Church’s response seems to be to keep one’s head buried in the sand ~ as if this was ever *really* just about a sect of long-time former Anglican schismatics.

      It’s a shame *we* don’t “get” the long term implications.

      … a mission-minded Anglo-Catholic in TEC

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