Desperate bishops invited Rome to park its tanks on Archbishop’s lawn

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Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent

Rome has parked its tanks on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s lawn after manoeuvres undertaken by up to fifty bishops and begun two years ago by an Australian archbishop, John Hepworth.

As leader of the Traditional Anglican Communion, a breakaway group claiming to represent up to 400,000 laity worldwide, he went to Rome seeking a means to achieve full, visible unity for his flock.

As a former Catholic priest himself, divorced and remarried with three children, he would be unlikely to be recognised by Rome as a priest or bishop, even under the structures brought in by the new apostolic constitution. He has nonetheless always received a warm welcome in Rome — in particular from Cardinal William Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who has made the running in Rome with the backing of his predecessor at the Congregation, Pope Benedict XVI himself.

In England, negotiations with the Vatican have been led by two of the “flying bishops” — the AngloCatholics sanctioned to provide pastoral care for opponents of the ordination of women as priests. The Bishop of Ebbsfleet, the Right Rev Andrew Burnham, and the Bishop of Richborough, the Right Rev Keith Newton, visited Rome at Easter last year for talks with Cardinal Levada.

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Then in July last year Cardinal Levada wrote to Archbishop Hepworth assuring him and his flock “of the serious attention which the Congregation gives to the prospect of corporate unity” and promising that “as soon as the Congregation is in a position to respond more definitively concerning the proposals you have sent, we will inform you”.

Later that month, the by now desperate flying bishops appealed again to Rome for help. The General Synod of the Church of England had voted to consecrate women bishops without providing statutory protection for traditionalists. A synod revision committee overturned that this month, but too late to shut the gate.

At the start of this year Vatican sources began predicting that the announcement of some form of accommodation for Anglicans was close. But it never came, and less optimistic Anglicans assumed the whole thing was no more than a puff of grey smoke.

They dismissed the hopes of the traditionalists too soon. The reason for the delay was twofold.

Within the Vatican City’s frescoed ceilings and marbled corridors, in the Curia itself and in particular in the College of Cardinals, there were — and there remain — deep divisions about the appropriate response to Anglicans and former Anglicans seeking some form of corporate unity.

The liberals, among them Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, who at the time was Archbishop of Westminster, were reluctant to open the door wide to the traditionalists, partly because of their “more Roman than the Romans” style of churchmanship, but also for fear of upsetting Anglicans and the Church of England in particular.

In the US, where a similar “Anglican usage” model has been in operation for years and will now be incorporated into the new ordinariate structures, there are 77 million Catholics alongside a mere 1.8 million Episcopalians. A few incoming conservative Anglicans have made little difference.

In England and Wales, the proportions are reversed, with 25 million baptised Anglicans but four million Catholics. Not only would a big influx of traditionalist ex-Anglicans undermine ecumenical harmony, it could challenge the identity of the Catholic community itself. Set against this, however, is the more confident American-style Catholicism that this initiative represents.

And while the shortage of Catholic priests would be alleviated by the influx of so many Anglicans, the acceptance of married clergy with families would inevitably shift the focus to a questioning of the insistence that cradle-Catholic priests be celibate.

The Orthodox Church, with which the Pope is also desperate to achieve unity, does not demand a celibate priesthood although its bishops cannot marry. Celibacy is a requirement that is becoming increasingly hard to justify.

So it seemed as though nothing would happen. But in May, with the retirement of Cardinal MurphyO’Connor, who is in Rome this week, Archbishop Vincent Nichols was installed as his successor.

Archbishop Nichols is a priest in the same mould as the late Cardinal Basil Hume, who led the moves to welcome in opponents of women priests back in 1994. It was predicted then that 1,000 would go but in the end a mere 441 took the financial compensation package on offer. A priest of remarkable charisma, Archbishop Nichols could easily end up in a senior position in Rome himself, if not the most senior.

He was clearly “in charge” at the joint press conference at the Catholic Church’s Eccleston Square administrative offices yesterday, at one point interrupting to answer a question addressed to the Archbishop of Canterbury. He appears to have no compunctions about unsettling a few Anglicans.

Many Catholics believe that their churches and cathedrals were “stolen” from them at the Reformation and want them back.

Although the established status of the Church of England means this could never be a straightforward process, Rome’s new move undercuts all that by allowing for unity to evolve upwards organically, from the grass roots, as forseen by an ecumenical report produced a few years ago.

Every church leader speaks about unity, but they all want it on their terms. Pope Benedict XVI is the first since the Reformation who seems to have hit on a realistic way of turning the clock back by moving it forwards.

As evangelicals defect in one direction and traditionalists in the other, and disestablishment beckons with the reform of the House of Lords, the Archbishop of Canterbury faces being left with a dwindling number of liberals in the centre struggling to maintain a heritage of ancient, Grade I listed churches.

Church-sharing already takes place between Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, the Orthodox and others. The Catholic Church could, through its new Anglican ordinariate, find itself repossessing its churches, almost by default.

There was bewilderment yesterday among Anglicans as they struggled to make sense of Rome’s initiative.

It was left to the National Secular Society to say publicly what many Anglicans would only admit privately. “This is a mortal blow to Anglicanism which will inevitably lead to disestablishment as the Church shrinks yet further and become increasingly irrelevant,” it said. “Rowan Williams has failed dismally in his ambitions to avoid schism. His refusal to take a principled moral stand against bigotry has left his Church in tatters.”

Thanks, Ruth, for a great article on this subject.

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