Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Postscript: Reactions across the spectrum to Vatican's bid to lure Anglicans

Was it such a big earthquake? A number of my conservative friends think not (and, yes, I have a few conservative friends and they try very hard to keep me honest, thank you very much). I thought I'd offer a roundup of reactions across the board from the last few days, some that agree with mine and some that don't.

To back up, as you may recall, last week the Vatican did an end-run around its own ecumenical office and announced it was establishing a new office to receive disgruntled Anglicans into the fold of Roman Catholicism.

For a factual summary of the Vatican's move, a good place to start is with a Q&A published by the UK Independent. You can read it by clicking HERE.

Now to the commentaries and analysis:

A few friends tell me they believe that the Pope's offer is a needed pastoral response by the Vatican, and they believe it was graciously accepted by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Vatican's move, they believe, will allow for a more orderly exit of "traditionalist" Anglo-Catholics than we have heretofore seen (subtext, they had planned to go anyway). They may be right, and I applaud their willingness to find pastoral concern, not politics, as the primary motivation for Benedict's move.

That said, most commentators are finding this thick with church politics, and a few are finding a subtext of politics beyond that.

Oddly enough, much of the commentary in the Anglican world is consistent across the liberal and conservative divide. Many, but not all, are blasting Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams for allowing himself to be roped into a joint press conference with a Roman Catholic archbishop announcing the move.

Martin E. Marty, the preeminent Lutheran theologian of our time, said in a column Monday that the Vatican "blindsided" Williams, and Martin characterized the episode as "anti-ecumenical" by seeking to "pluck" Anglican priests. Martin nonetheless has sympathy for Williams' predicament:
Archbishop Rowan Williams, though embarrassed by the surprise announcement of dealings behind his back, was characteristically Williamsian and old-style Anglican, as he reacted not in anger but with patience. The Anglican communion for centuries aspired to promote “comprehension,” doing what it could to prevent heresy and schism but in a spirit of openness. The papal visit next year will occasion fresh thinking and policies.
To read Martin's full column, click HERE.

Rowan's participation in the press conference, and his tacit endorsement, seems out of character with his usual emphasis on exhaustive dialogue and careful process, leaving him open to charges that he is far more concerned with placating Rome than in talking with members of his own communion. The UK Financial Times' correspondent David Gardner had this to say:
As takeover bids go, it cannot be said to lack ambition. In some
respects it bears more the hallmarks of a coup d’├ętat than the
acquisition of market share. Pope Benedict’s all-but-unilateral
publication of an Apostolic Constitution to bring high church
Anglicans into full communion with the Roman Catholic church should
“in no sense at all” be seen as “an act of proselytism or aggression”
said Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, his body
language belying his soothing tone.
Yet, this head of a church that withdrew from the Catholic fold nearly
five centuries ago was not given even five days warning of the papal
decree. “I was informed of the planned announcement at a very late
stage”, he told the Anglican faithful apologetically. No one saw the
Roman tanks until they had ringed Canterbury.
To read Gardner's full analysis, click HERE.

By most reports, the Vatican move may have its biggest impact in luring Church of England priests to Rome. The impact on luring Episcopalians in the United States appears considerably less. As one of my conservative friends said to me, "We are closer to Dallas than to Rome," a reference to a meeting many of them attended in the Dallas suburb of Plano a few years back that set them on their current course. A number of former Episcopalians have set up their own church structures, they are fighting hard in courts across the land to keep Episcopal church property, and they do not appear enticed to go under the cloak of Rome.

And then there are those persnickety issues of the Reformation. Most of my conservative friends are quite Calvinist and evangelical. While they may agree with Rome on a few (but not all) social issues, most of them fundamentally disagree on deeper theological issues of salvation, the nature of the sacraments, and ecclesiastical issues about the structure of the Church.

Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, the most visible of the "global south" of Anglican bishops dissatisfied with the U.S. Episcopal Church and the Archbishop of Canterbury, reportedly slammed the door shut on the Vatican's offer over the weekend. You can read about his response by clicking HERE.

Other African bishops are also rejecting the offer. You can read the reaction by the Kenyans, for example, by clicking HERE. Dissing both the Vatican and Canterbury, the All Africa News put it this way:
[Archbishop Eliud Wabukala] added that the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams had sent letters welcoming the offer but he was essentially dealing with local England context and does not apply to other provinces.
For some conservatives, it comes down to ordination -- who gets ordained, who doesn't, and who controls it. I am not prone to promoting David Anderson, the rightwing ex-Episcopal priest who received an irregular ordination as an Anglican bishop and who heads up the American Anglican Council. But Anderson had this to say about the Vatican's move and he urges everyone to examine the fine print:
The details are still sketchy, and much finally depends on the details, but there are clearly some trouble spots even for those Anglicans who are keen about the idea. Those clergy who were baptized and confirmed as Roman Catholics, then left Roman Catholicism for Anglicanism, were then ordained in Anglican orders, and are married, will probably find it difficult if not impossible to bring their Anglican orders into the new Roman Catholic option. In the past, married Anglican priests who were originally baptized and confirmed as Roman Catholics haven't been able to bring the orders and a wife into Rome. The issue is having a wife and a prior relationship with Rome.
Another sticking point is for married Anglican bishops who may wish to take advantage of this new option. Pending disclosure of the new rules and the small print, neither Eastern Orthodoxy nor Rome currently have married bishops, and haven't had for most of their history. Anglican bishops who are married and have no earlier sacramental relationship with Rome may only be able to take the new option as a priest.
There has been considerable commentary in recent days in various secular publications. Martyn Minns, leader of the Virginia breakaway Episcopalians, was quoted in The New York Times and The Washington Post as saying, "I don't want to be a Roman Catholic... There was a Reformation, you remember."

Maureen Dowd, the veteran columnist of The New York Times who was reared Catholic, commented that the Vatican's move should be seen as part of a wider campaign to reign in nuns and fight feminism in the pews. Dowd noted this on Sunday:
As the Vatican is trying to wall off the “brides of Christ,” Cask of Amontillado style, it is welcoming extreme-right Anglicans into the Catholic Church — the ones who are disgruntled about female priests and openly gay bishops. Il Papa is even willing to bend Rome’s most doggedly held dogma, against married priests — as long as they’re clutching the Anglicans’ Book of Common Prayer.

“Most of the Anglicans who want to move over to the Catholic Church under this deal are people who have scorned women as priests and have scorned gay people,” [author Kenneth] Briggs said. “The Vatican doesn’t care that these people are motivated by disdain.”
To read the rest of Dowd's column, click HERE.

Another commentator in The New York Times, A.N. Wilson, opined that Benedict's move will be the death knell of the Church of England. I think he overstates the case (The CofE has a habit of hanging on despite reports of its demise), but his point is worth noting:
The numbers of practicing Catholics in England is greater than the number of practicing Anglicans. Within a generation, there will probably be more Muslims than practicing Anglicans in the British Isles. Britain will no longer be able to endure the absurdity of the laws relating to the religion of the monarch, the Act of Settlement and Royal Marriages Act, which among other things forbid the sovereign to marry a Catholic. Or the Coronation Oath, which promises to uphold the Protestant religion.
To read the full column, click HERE.

Other commentators see it quite differently, not as the demise of the Church of England but as something more ominous in larger geopolitics. In a column the The New York Times Sunday, columnist Ross Douthat began by noting:
The Church of England has survived the Spanish Armada, the English Civil War and Elton John performing “Candle in the Wind” at Princess Diana’s Westminster Abbey funeral. So it will probably survive the note the Vatican issued last week, inviting disaffected Anglicans to head Romeward, and offering them an Anglo-Catholic mansion within the walls of the Roman Catholic faith.
Douthat wrote that Benedict's real agenda is confronting Islam in Europe, and to do so he is willing to gloss over differences among Christians:
But in making the opening to Anglicanism, Benedict also may have a deeper conflict in mind — not the parochial Western struggle between conservative and liberal believers, but Christianity’s global encounter with a resurgent Islam...
There are an awful lot of Anglicans, in England and Africa alike, who would prefer a leader who takes Benedict’s approach to the Islamic challenge. Now they can have one, if they want him.

This could be the real significance of last week’s invitation. What’s being interpreted, for now, as an intra-Christian skirmish may eventually be remembered as the first step toward a united Anglican-Catholic front — not against liberalism or atheism, but against Christianity’s most enduring and impressive foe.
To read Douthat's column, click HERE.

Author James Carroll, a former Catholic priest, writes in The Boston Globe that the Vatican's move is part of its larger war on the modern world and science:
Last week’s anti-Anglican salvo from Rome shows how far the Catholic leadership has fallen from the heights of Vatican II. The invitation to “disgruntled’’ members of the Church of England’s extended family to abandon the Thames for the Tiber is a rejection of contemporary human experience, a resounding response of “No!’’ The church against the modern world, after all.
To read Carroll's column, click HERE.

On the other hand, a few media commentators, and a few friends, have noted that Benedict's move could have the unintended consequence of allowing Protestantism to creep in under the Catholic tent, and in the long-run, that may prove more revolutionary than the short-term earthquake in Anglican-Roman Catholic relations. The Washington Post ran a lengthy analysis on its op-ed page Sunday that is far more nuanced than anything I have written. Headlined "Is Pope Benedict a closet liberal?" author David Gibson, who has written a book about Benedict, makes the following point:
More important, with the latest accommodation to Anglicans, Benedict has signaled that the standards for what it means to be Catholic -- such as the belief in the real presence of Christ in the Mass as celebrated by a validly ordained priest -- are changing or, some might argue, falling. The Vatican is in effect saying that disagreements over gay priests and female bishops are the main issues dividing Catholics and Anglicans, rather than, say, the sacraments and the papacy and infallible dogmas on the Virgin Mary, to name just a few past points of contention.

That is revolutionary -- and unexpected from a pope like Benedict. It could encourage the view, which he and other conservatives say they reject, that all Christians are pretty much the same when it comes to beliefs, and the differences are just arguments over details.

And that could be the final irony. For all the hue and cry over last week's developments, Benedict's innovations may have glossed too lightly over the really tough issues: namely, the theological differences that traditional Anglicans say have kept them from converting, as they could always do.
You can read Gibson's full column by clicking HERE.

Also, some in the secular press see this as part of the larger struggle for gay and women's rights. Notably, the Los Angeles Times gave that assessment in an editorial last week, marking it as the position of the newspaper:
This week's announcement that the Roman Catholic Church will welcome disaffected Anglicans en masse is of primary interest to members of the two Christian communions. But this religious realignment is also a reminder to supporters of equality for women and gays and lesbians that they must literally preach to the converted if they are to win believers to their cause.
To read the editorial, click HERE.

Finally, there is Bishop Dan Edwards of Nevada, who may be the wisest among us. He had this to say Monday:
I am just emerging from Diocesan Convention, so this is my first chance to respond to those who have wanted to hear my thoughts on the Vatican Statement inviting disffected Anglican congregations to become Roman Catholics, but the priests can still be married and they can use Anglican liturgies.

I really think it's perfectly fine. Some disaffected Anglicans are focused on issues where they will line up better with the RC Church -- particularly those who are opposed to the ordination of women. They will have to come to terms with some of the hot button issues in the RC Church, but if they can do that, their unity with a larger group of Christians will sustain their faith, help them be financially viable, and generally promote the gospel mission. We wish them well. We wish the Roman Catholic Church well. It is a good thing.

Other disaffected Anglicans are of a more evangelical persuasion and may not find the RC Church to be a good home. That will be for them to discern and not for us to judge.

Meanwhile, we will continue to seek reconciliation and greater unity with all our fellow Christians.

Lastly, if you are new to this blog, you may want to read my commentary on this HERE. Or maybe you've had quite enough of this, thank you, and it is time to move onto a poem or Autumn leaves something else. I couldn't agree more.

1 comment:

Paula said...

Well, having said all that, maybe it was all just a case of bad manners. I believe it was the Pugh Trust survey that showed that a large percentage of Americans change denominations at least once. Let's all find our spot and then get back to work doing the really important work of being Christlike and loving.