The headline Ruth Gledhill chose to describe yesterday’s breaking news was ‘Rome parks tanks on Rowan’s lawn’. The phrase is both eye-catching and apt. Nevertheless, I have adopted a headline of my own, first because Apostolic Constitutions are, apparently, issued in the form of a Papal Bull and, secondly, because the approach from Rome is to be made to Anglicans globally, not just —as some of the newspapers seem to be assuming —to those in England.
But what exactly is on offer, why is it being offered and what does it mean for the future?
The first question is difficult to answer, quite simply because what has been announced is the preparation of an Apostolic Constitution, not the Constitution itself. Furthermore, the structure of what will be on offer is something unfamiliar to most Anglicans, namely a ‘personal ordinariate’.
An ‘ordinariate’ is presided over by an ‘ordinary’ —someone who has ecclesial jurisdiction. The bishop of an Anglican diocese is thus the ‘ordinary’. However, in the newly-proposed body, the ordinary will not necessarily be a bishop. The proposed Ordinariates will be ‘personal’, in the sense that they will not be defined by persons, not geographical areas. The parallel suggested on the Vatican’s own website is with a Military Ordinariate which cares for members of the armed forces and their dependents. However, these particular Ordinariates will be formed in consultation with the local Conference of Bishops, so they will be set up wherever there is demand in a particular area.
It is clear that in some sense these Ordinariates will have an Anglican element —not least in their being made up of former Anglicans. Nevertheless, insofar as the Vatican website itself uses the word ‘former’, there is going to be some discontinuity with their present identity. However, what is envisaged is evidently not the same as Anglicans simply ‘becoming Roman Catholics’. Perhaps the most significant element is that married Anglican priests will be able to be ordained as priests in the Roman Catholic Church (though they will not be able to become bishops). Everyone in the Ordinariate will thus be in full communion with Rome, and the liturgies they use will be subject to approval by the presiding Conference of Bishops, but they will not be entirely subject to Roman discipline and will thus in some respects remain distinct.
That is as much as I have been able to glean, and given that we still await the Apostolic Constitution itself, that is perhaps as far as it is wise to go. What, however, might it all mean?
I was talking earlier on the phone to an Anglo-Catholic friend (who, incidentally, knew several days ago that this was coming) and his opinion was that in the immediate short-term this was of ‘atomic bomb’ proportions, but that the really important question in England was how Forward-in-Faith and others would react in the long term.
Significantly, he did not foresee immediate large-scale defections. Indeed, he observed that there are many Anglo-Catholics who, like himself, view Rome as simply wrong on some points, for example in insisting that certain beliefs (including papal infallibility) are salvation issues. In this and other ways they regard themselves as authentically Anglican members of the Catholic church, in no need of ‘reception’ into Rome’s branch of the same (although very happy to recognize Rome as special).
There is also the vexed question of money. It was quite one thing, as he put it, to ‘take the money and run’ back in the early nineties, when clergy who left the Church of England over the ordination of women received a reasonable compensation package. It would be quite another thing for them to leave now when the Roman Catholic church in this country is in no position to offer them either posts or funding. Of course there is nothing to stop a congregation funding its own minister, but that is, as the Australians say, ‘a big ask’.
Nevertheless, we both agreed that the nature and timing of this announcement is highly important. First, in his view, it is an indication that Rome’s patience with Canterbury has run out. The ecumenical discussions of recent decades have been conducted with the hope that something was achievable through official negotiating channels. One result of this was that ‘private’ approaches to Rome were politely rejected. The recent actions of Anglican bishops, and the decisions of the English General Synod, however, have suggested that Anglicans are saying one thing but doing another. Consequently, Rome has decided it is time to listen to and deal with individuals rather than the institution.
Secondly, we both feel this speaks volumes about Rome’s attitude towards Anglicanism, where it is no longer felt necessary to keep Anglican ‘officialdom’ onside. Despite references on both sides to ecumenical negotiations, the Apostolic Constitution is not the result of a ‘deal’ but rather is an offer which the Church of England literally cannot refuse. And as in the culture from which that phrase comes, the maker of the offer by that action indicates a sense of strength with relation to the one to whom it is made. In other words, Rome must feel it has nothing to lose and a lot to gain from this.
Personally, I likened it to the Argentinian landings on South Georgia which preceded the Falklands War. From a military point of view, the landings were an irrelevance, and in a similar way, I doubt that numerically the Apostolic Constitution will have much impact on global Anglicanism. But as an indication of the Argentinian view of the balance of power in the South Atlantic, the invasion of South Georgia was crucial. In the same way, Rome now clearly feels it can act unilaterally to invite existing Anglicans en masse back into the fold — and the fact that this can be done at a press conference alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury on English soil surely signals that in the eyes of Rome, Anglican fortunes are approaching their nadir.
In this respect, Ruth Gledhill’s comment is entirely right. This is, indeed, a tank on Rowan’s lawn. And the sheer fact that it is sitting there is enough. The big question now is not so much how many Anglicans will leave, as how Anglicanism will regard itself. It will be very difficult to continue with the notion that it is a ‘world player’ of which Rome must take note. Rome has taken note, and its verdict is clear: the door is open, you’re welcome any time.
Andrew Brown in the Guardian is probably over-stating things when he says this is the end of the Anglican Communion, but it is clearly the end of Anglicanism’s previous relationship with Rome —first as an enemy, then as a cautious, but mutual, friend. From now on, Anglicanism vis à vis Rome is a leaking balloon.
What, finally, of the Evangelical response? Reform has issued a press release which says, rightly in my view, that, “It is illusory to pretend that this development is an outcome of ecumenical dialogue.” Rather, it suggests that this “illustrates the difficulties the C of E faces.”
However, I suspect that the release is over-optimistic when it asserts that, “Anglicans concerned about protecting the basic Christian faith need not go to Rome, because we now have the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (FCA (UK)) which holds together those who want to stop the orthodox faith being eroded.”
The reality is that FCA UK is neither as widespread nor as coherent as this might suggest, and in any case the Apostolic Constitution will prove a considerable distraction to at least some of those whom FCA UK has sought to embrace. At least a proportion of these will ask why one should look to doubtful support from overseas Anglican bishops when one can join a community within England backed by the not-inconsiderable might of Rome.
Whatever else happens, this has undoubtedly sown confusion in the ranks. Of course, I have been arguing for years that Reform-type Evangelical Anglicans should seek episcopal oversight under the provisions of the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod 1993, and thereby create the pressure for an Evangelical ‘flying bishop’ (or three), with the aim of getting for themselves what the Anglo-Catholics have enjoyed for a decade and a half. But that would be too obvious!
Perhaps I may close with another military analogy. It is a generally acknowledged fact that a successful internal insurgency in any country requires a powerful outside backer. The IRA had the Americans and the Libyans. The Vietcong had North Korea, China and Russia. The Iraqi insurgents had Syria and Iran, and so on. The Apostolic Constitution may therefore have precisely the opposite effect to what some people imagine —rather than encouraging defections, it may encourage Anglo-Catholic internal ‘insurgency’ in the Church of England. But if that is the case, the Conservative Evangelicals are left high and dry. They have no friend in Rome, and they have few friends amongst their own bishops. Of course, they may feel they have enough of a friend in Jesus, and in soteriological terms that is true. But in ecclesio-political terms it may only be enough to sustain them as an isolated and beleaguered minority.
John RichardsonAnonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select the 'Anonymous' profile, then type in a couple of letters, select 'preview', then close the preview box and delete these letters.
21 October 2009
21 October 2009
When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.