Charlemagne and the Pope
Pope Benedict announced yesterday that the Vatican is establishing a way for disaffected Anglicans to become Catholics.
By means of a decree known as an apostolic convention, the Pope has created a new structure allowing Anglicans to join the Catholic Church while maintaining their own liturgy – in particular the historic Book of Common Prayer – and in some cases having their own bishops.
Reaction has been, to my mind, confused and wishywashy, but several points seem obvious and need to be made. (And I write this with some reluctance: after the publication of my book in 2006 about Bishop Gene Robinson and church politics, especially with regard to homosexuality, I felt very weary of the entire subject, and have largely stayed on the sidelines of the ongoing debate. However...)
1) This is a calculated economic and strategic move. Pope Benedict may be retrograde, but he is also shrewd. As Catholic parishes dwindle, and his insistence on "holding the line" against progressive movements that would bring Catholicism into the 21st century fails to result in Catholics "returning to the fold", the Vatican is looking elsewhere to fill its pews, clergy lists, and coffers. Many of the disaffected Anglican parishes are both conservative and wealthy. A drop in the bucket, in international terms, perhaps, but every bit helps. I'm quite sure the Vatican looked around and said, "If these parishes are leaving and aligning with African Anglican bishops, why shouldn't we try to get them to come over to us?"
2) Contrary to sentimental Anglican notions, the Vatican doesn't care about closer ties. Throughout the history of the Anglican Church, a portion of Anglicans have sought to reunite with what they see as "the one true church." These Anglo-Catholics have sought closer ties with Rome but have been repeatedly rebuffed; instead they have formed parishes which have, in many cases, refused to use the revised Book of Common Prayer (revised especially to use inclusive language) and steadfastly opposed the ordination of women. Even so, the Vatican has not made any offers until now - when it sees these parishes leaving the Anglican Communion anyway because of the ordination of gay bishops and priests. This isn't about closer ties that might ultimately lead to a rapprochement with Rome, which would, in fact, require ideological movement by both churches toward one another: it's an acknowledgment of irreconcilable differences and an indication that no movement by the Catholic Church is forthcoming whatsoever.
3) Therefore, the Vatican is essentially saying "welcome" to homophobic, anti-female, anti-progressive Anglicans: you're just the kind of Catholics we want -- rather than seeing what's happening in the Anglican Communion as an indication that fundamental change is required within Catholicism. It may also be a silent tit-for-tat reaction to Catholic defection by progressives and gay people to the Episcopal and Anglican churches.
4) Racism. Anglican and Episcopal leaders have reacted vaguely, but generally positively. I find that extremely disturbing, for the following reason. Besides the AngloCatholics, the other group outraged by gay ordination have been the evangelicals, led by bishops of the so-called Global South, particularly African bishops from provinces such as Uganda and Nigeria. When these Anglican bishops wooed American bishops, held illegal ordinations for new bishops, and circumvented Anglican rules of behavior, it was rightly called "poaching." Now we have Anglican spokespersons making statements like "there's no reason to see the Vatican's move negatively," (Canon Eric Beresford of Canada) or as "a comment on problems within Anglicanism" (Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams).
The black African bishops spoke openly about the end of the colonial legacy, and triumphally about the success of evangelical Anglicanism in the developing world, where the numbers are greatest and the church is actually growing. That attitude didn't go down well in North America and Europe, but a white European pope, wearing the same outfit and saying the same mass and preaching in the same restrained way? Well, this is something familiar; he is, for all intents and purposes, one of us - we northerners are all, so to speak, cut out of the same ecclesiastical cloth, and so we'll extend professional courtesy to one another. In my opinion, that's racist.
5) why should anyone care? A good question, and on that has been brought up in the comments in every article I've read about this development. The answer is that there are still people who find comfort and faith in the liturgical tradition maintained by Catholicism and Anglicanism, and - as Canon Eric Beresford so rightly pointed out, "people need to find a home." Here in Quebec, where the Catholic church has been so discredited, and deserted by the French Canadians who once filled every parish pew and balcony, we have an example of what the future looks like if churches refuse to acknowledge the past and look toward a future that keeps pace with the world. In our Anglican parish, the largest group of newcomers are gay former Roman Catholics who have found a home where they are welcome as full participants in the mass, and in the life of the parish. I've writtten already about the enormous damage done to gay men and women who were refused communion and rejected by priests and, in some cases, their own Catholic families as unredeemable sinners. Their personal stories are well known to me now, as is the pain that they've endured and their relief at finding a place with a different message, but the same basic liturgy of the mass. I understand why simply rejecting the church and leaving for good was not an option for many of them (and I also see why this is hard for people to understand who weren't raised in a Catholic tradition.)
Finally, what disturbs me the most is the Anglican leadership's equivocation when they act as if these two divides are somehow equal, natural and right. All that says is "what we care about is not truth, not the existence of moral principles and justice, but the preservation of the institution by whatever means are necessary." Breaking into multiple divisions rather than struggling together is the easier way out, but even if that happens, why should we sidestep what it really means and what we are saying when we support it? Are women and gay people to be endlessly excluded from full participation, or do we actually stand for something? If we do, then it should be said courageously, with no mincing of words, and lived out as fact. Without this, is it any wonder people who can detest hypocrisy are deserting the church in droves?