In a historic and astonishing announcement, Pope Benedict XVI paved the way Tuesday for the largest influx of Anglicans into the Catholic Church since the Reformation of the Middle Ages.
The Pope approved new structures to allow potentially hundreds of thousands of Anglican clergy and faithful to be received into the church. It means that whole parishes and dioceses now have the possibility of becoming Catholic while retaining their churches and Anglican identity.
The new structures are likely to have major implications on the 77 million member worldwide Anglican Communion.
At a Vatican news conference, U.S. Cardinal William Levada, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said the decision was taken in response to “many requests” from groups of Anglican clergy and faithful wanting to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. These requests have increased as the Anglican Communion has been torn apart over homosexual clergy and same-sex, and the issue of women priests and bishops.
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The new Catholic Church entities, called personal ordinariates, will essentially be "churches within the church," headed by former Anglican prelates. Married former Anglican clergy will be allowed to be priests, but in common with Eastern-rite Catholic Churches, married clergy will not be allowed to be ordained bishops. Former married Anglican bishops will not be allowed to be bishops in the new structure.
The provision will be open to members of the Episcopal Church in the United States, otherwise known as TEC, which is the main American branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion. The new structures will help regularize Pope John Paul II’s 1982 Pastoral Provision, a forerunner to the proposed structure, which allowed former Anglican parishes in the U.S. to come into communion while retaining their Anglican liturgies.
Even though the momentous decision had been expected for some time, it still came as a surprise as the Vatican gave little forewarning. Even the bishops of England and Wales and the archbishop of Canterbury were taken unawares, partly because the Vatican was wary of upsetting its partners in dialogue over such a sensitive issue.
Yet as pressure grew from an increasing number of disgruntled traditionalist Anglicans for the Catholic Church to accommodate them, the Vatican felt compelled to act decisively. Several Anglican dioceses in India, for example, have been making requests to come into communion every month, traditionalist Anglican sources told Newsmax. Increasing numbers of other traditional Anglican dioceses in Africa and Central America have also been expressing a wish to come into communion.
Growing numbers of Anglicans in Britain and the United States also have been looking toward Rome as the Anglican Communion verges on the brink of schism.
The need to respond urgently to these requests therefore received crucial sympathy from the Catholic bishops in England and Wales. How they feel is important, owing to the central role of the Church of England in the Anglican Communion. In the past, they have been reticent to support such moves for fear of upsetting the established Church of England. But American Archbishop Augustine Di Noia, a senior Vatican official who played a key role in drafting the new structures, pointed out that a “tremendous shift” in the ecumenical movement during the past 10 years has made this new provision possible.
Benedict XVI has been firmly behind this decision for a number of years. But the development has met strong resistance from some quarters. Sources say that Dr. Rowan Williams, the head of the Anglican Communion, was unhappy but has put on a brave face on the move, saying he did not think it was a “commentary on Anglican problems.”
One major practical concern for the Anglican Communion is the loss of property rights to those parishes and dioceses that come into communion.
But criticism of the decision also has emanated from within the Vatican. Officials at the Vatican’s department for promoting Christian unity conspicuously declined to take part in the news conference, concerned that the new structures undermine their dialogue with those Anglicans who remain part of the Anglican Communion.
Last week, the department’s head, Cardinal Walter Kasper, stressed that the Catholic Church wasn’t “fishing in the Anglican lake,” but conceded there was an agreement between Williams and the Vatican that individual consciences must be respected.
Much is still not known about the precise form of these new structures. More work and consultation still needs to be undertaken before the apostolic constitution is published – probably in the next fortnight, Levada said.
One large group that stands to gain from the announcement is the Traditional Anglican Communion, which is said to number 400,000 worldwide. Its leader, Australian bishop John Hepworth, has waited patiently for the decision for more than a decade and petitioned the Vatican two years ago, along with his fellow bishops, to draw up such a structure.
They already have their sights on establishing an English national church by restoring a former monastery in Lincoln. Once complete, the place of worship will witness its first ordination to the Catholic priesthood since 1532.
But most importantly for the Catholic Church, the decision further represents another push by Pope Benedict XVI to recover church traditions that became obscured or abused after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Anglican liturgies, after all, sometimes are described as more Catholic than Catholic worship. It’s time, the Pope believes, that these Christians returned to their spiritual and liturgical roots.
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