Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Vatican trying to lure Anglicans: What does this mean to us?

Church politics is like geology: the deep earth plates grind slowly, and eventually they set off earthquakes. What is on top of the earth is left crumpled and is never the same again.

This week we've seen another earthquake in the Church, and it is probably 7.2 on the Richter Scale. The aftershocks are continuing, and it will take years before we fully see what this quake hath wrought.

Pope Benedict XVI announced Tuesday he has formed a special office to receive disgruntled Anglicans into the Roman Catholic Church. Under the pope's scheme, Anglicans may keep their distinctive form of worship, and men priests may keep their wives. Such priests must be re-trained and re-ordained since the Vatician has always considered Anglican orders to be "absolutely null and utterly void."

Amplifying the earthquake, the Vatican got Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to participate in a press conference announcing its move to scoop up Anglicans. You can read about Williams' participation and the reaction to Williams by clicking HERE.

Williams' participation must rank as one of the most boneheaded moves of his troubled episcopate. He said later he had been warned only a short time before by the Vatican about what it intended to do, which means he had more than an inkling of what was to transpire. In the very least, he should have declined to participate until fully understanding what Rome was up to. There are already calls in Britain for his resignation, and those calls may soon reach a roar across the Anglican globe, and rightly so.

To have lured the Archbishop of Canterbury to such a press conference was clearly intended to show at least tacit approval by the archbishop. The Vatican should be roundly criticized not just for this breach of Christian unity, but for taking advantage of Williams' best intentions of creating unity. The Vatican made him look gullible and spineless.

The Pope's move is predatory. Though advertised as pastoral, the timing betrays its intent. The Church of England is soon to vote on ordaining women bishops; a report recommending such ordination was issued only last week. The Vatican is clearly seeking to capitalize on the divisions within the Church of England, the Anglican Communion and our own Episcopal Church (the Diocese of South Carolina is set to vote on leaving the Episcopal Church this weekend). Some Catholic commentators (see The Washington Post on Wednesday by clicking HERE) are speculating that this is a sly way for the Vatican to pick up some married priests and thus fill a few of its empty pulpits (and I doubt the Vatican is looking to pick up property; it has plenty of buildings that need clergy).

None of this should surprise us. This move is coming from a Roman Catholic Church that is charging backward at warp-factor speed to pre-Vatican II liturgy and theology. The Roman Catholic Church still officially considers Protestants to be heretics; the incumbent pope, with none of the pastoral or public relations touch of his predecessor, dredged up the official Catholic stance that Islam is a "Christian heresy" (think of the audacity of that position for a moment: Islam is not even its own religion according to this pope). This also comes from a pope who welcomed back into the fold a Catholic bishop who denies the Holocaust. Benedict has demonstrated that he has no intention of ecumenical or interfaith dialogue except on his own terms. Meanwhile, the once vibrant theological and intellectual dialogue and scholarship within the Catholic church is heading underground. It was only recently that the Vatican repented of the wrong rendered to Galileo for having the audacity to prove that the earth is not at the center of the universe (and Rome is not at the center of the earth). Rome still has some catching up to do with the rest of us.

As for being Anglican, let us not forget that our church broke with Rome 500 years ago, and there were very good reasons for that beyond the divorce of King Henry VIII. We stood on the side of Martin Luther in our belief that we are saved by faith alone, not by our works. We are Protestants of the large tent who remain catholic in the sense of believing in the universal church that is truly universal.

Benedict is not our pope, and he is not one of our bishops, but he is our brother in Christ even if he does not recognize the same in us. We have long since moved on from Rome, and whatever illusions anyone had of reunifying with Rome will, at best, need to wait for another pope, perhaps in another century.

Where does this leave Anglicanism?

Benedict's move probably shreds Rowan Williams' effort to forge a "two-track" Anglicanism with the conservatives on one track and the progressives on the other. Rome just hijacked the first track, and bumped the archbishop off. Williams' effort at forging an "Anglican Covenant" now appears very hollow indeed. Perhaps we should thank Rome for putting the nail in this ill-conceived notion.

If anything, the Pope's move will have the unintended consequence of making it easier for us to move ahead with building an inclusive Anglicanism that truly embraces the gifts of all the baptized. An estimated 1,000 Church of England priests may soon leave for the Roman church, taking with them their votes, and that will make it easier on the Church of England to begin ordaining women bishops and openly gay people. Those whom Williams is desperately trying to keep are leaving, and that will make it harder for him to declare that the American Episcopal Church is "out of communion." If anything, the Church of England will look more like us. An inclusive Church of England might even grow when not dragged down by endless church infighting, and that can only strengthen our communion in the long run.

Meanwhile, what Benedict may soon discover is that a bunch of crabby Anglicans have now become crabby Roman Catholics. Those not satisfied with one church are not likely to be satisfied with another. It rarely works that way.

I don't know if anyone has kept track, but I would be willing to bet that in the last 30 years more Roman Catholic priests have become Anglican than the other way around. Benedict's move does nothing to stem that slide, and if anything, the continued rigidity of his church will only continue to chase people out. Perhaps we should set up a special Anglican office to receive Roman Catholics? Maybe Rowan Williams should have said something like that at the press conference. He is too decent to be that snide, but it would have made the point.

Interestingly, the news outlets in the United States report that none of the break-away bishops in the Episcopal Church are interested in joining Rome. They have gone too far down their own road, and I rather suspect they enjoy their new found independence and have no intention of handing it over to a headquarters in Rome. Why should they? They were never much interested in unity with those different from themselves to begin with. Quite probably, this move by the Vatican will only increase their isolation, rendering them neither Anglican nor Catholic, but rather a new denomination of Protestantism.

The Vatican will say that this move is pastoral in its intent. Let us pray it will turn out that way. It is my hope that our brothers and sisters who are unhappy with the Episcopal Church will find a home better suited to them. They are still our brothers and sisters in Christ. I have a very conservative friend in the Central Valley of California who renounced his Episcopal ordination to join the Roman Catholic Church as a lay person. He is still a friend and still a servant even if we disagree on many issues. The Central Valley desperately needs Roman Catholic priests. I hope he is able to reclaim his vocation. But he might have done that anyway without all the histrionics from Rome.

Finally, I am reminded of an amazing historical fact that I learned when taking church history from the Rev. Dr. Rebecca Lyman at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific. Here is that fact: For two-thousand years, despite all of the patriarchal church hierarchy, despite all of the church in-fighting and schisms, despite all of the tragedy, oppression, inquisitions, despite all of the malicious or merely stupid bishops, despite all of that, the Holy Spirit always finds a way to emerge in the hearts and minds of God's people. The Holy Spirit finds us in our every day life, and finds us in churches of every stripe and in faith communities of every sort. The Holy Spirit blows where it will.

All we need do is open our eyes to see and our ears to hear, and maybe stand somewhere to feel the breeze. The Holy Spirit is always in the midst of us, and is even in the Roman Catholic Church.

Photo of Archbishop Rowan Williams, left, and Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, right, at Tuesday's press conference. Photo by Matt Dunham, Associated Press.


Teri Gilmore said...

Well done Fr. Jim!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Mother Teri

Anonymous said...

Jim, Today's blog is brilliantly concise and to the point. I hope you reproduce it or at least send a copy to the PB and Bishop Johnston. Thank you. David Poist

Paula said...

I guess my question is do you think many priests will make such a move? We're not the only denomination in turmoil so I have to wonder if becoming Catholic is the solution that people are seeking. I'm aghast at Williams' lack of leadership, he has simply failed to meet the challenge.

The Rev. James Richardson said...

Thanks for your comments.
In reply to Paula, one of my conservative friends (I have a few) says he doubts many Episcopal priests will go to Rome. As he puts it "we are closer to Dallas." But the exodus in the CofE may be large, at least according to news reports in the UK. The Catholic Church is already larger than the CofE in England, and this is truly rubbing salt in the bleeding wound there.

William said...

Very incisive commentary. The best thing I have read on this is here:

This will be fascinating to watch . . .

Bill Bergen

mebrett said...

Thank you for this clear and considered post. When I first heard the news I was surprised and hurt.

The Catholic church does seem to be heading backward. Taking nuns to task over fulfilling the edicts of Vatican II, and now this? Hard as it might be, I can only hope that Episcopalians continue to move forward and pray that our Catholic friends in Christ can someday join us.

Janice Dean said...

Hi, Jim,
I absolutely adore your blog, and I think this is possibly your best post yet. I also felt shocked and betrayed when I heard about this, so I am really grateful that you gave it such thorough treatment. I truly hope that we will start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel soon (and that it's not a train on one of two tracks).

Susan Van Dyke said...

Jim -

This is the best reflection I have seen on this move by Benedict. You display your usual insight (and dry wit(right alongside your awareness that the worst of our human efforts can't slow the Spirit.

Shalom, Suusan Van Dyke

Titus Presler said...

Excellent commentary on the Vatican policy announcement. My own appears at,and I invite your response.