KERNS: Christian unity, starting with Anglicans

 

 

Bryan Kerns

“I am sorry that there has been no opportunity to alert you earlier to this; I was informed of the planned announcement at a very late stage.” Those words begin the second paragraph of a letter that Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, sent to all the bishops of the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Communion. The letter was transmitted shortly after Williams appeared at a press conference with Vincent Nichols, the Catholic archbishop of Westminster, where they announced to a stunned Christendom that Pope Benedict XVI would provide a canonical structure for traditional Anglicans to enter the Catholic Church.

Provision will be made to accept already-married Anglican priests into the Catholic priesthood as well as establish leadership of these traditional Anglican communities outside of the standard Catholic diocesan structure. For a pontiff such as Benedict, whose stated goals include encouraging union with various portions of Christianity that have fallen away since the East-West Schism of 1054, this is a massively important ecumenical step, perhaps the most important since the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

On past occasions, provisions have been made for very specific instances involving very specific problems. Here, however, the pope has created an open-ended process at the request of leadership of the traditional Anglican communion.

Simultaneous to the press conference in London with Williams and Nichols, an availability was held in Rome with William Cardinal Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – Rome’s chief doctrinal officer and Archbishop Augustine DiNoia, O.P., a scholarly Dominican and Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments – the No. 2 official responsible for all liturgical matters. Levada and DiNoia explained the process, years in the making, and how “intake” would occur.

Necessarily, the Anglicans who decide to join the Catholic Church will have to recognize the primacy of the pope, as opposed to the archbishop of Canterbury, whose leadership over the worldwide Anglican Communion has been tenuous at best over the past few years.

Fissures have been developing within this loose confederation of churches over issues such as homosexuality among clergy and the ordination of women. These defections by and large involve disputes over the failure of Anglican leadership to take strong stands on any side of these controversial topics.

After the announcement from Rome, one Anglican bishop in England went so far as to say, “The Anglican experiment is over.” Indeed, the bishop may be correct. Given the wide berth the pope has granted for Anglican churches to join the Catholic Church, there seems likely to be a groundswell within the traditional Anglican community, especially in the United States, that results in the large-scale acceptance of Anglicans into the Church. Some observers see it as an attempt by Rome to poach from the Anglican Communion, but it remains important to note that it is the Anglican leadership who approached the Vatican about “swimming the Tiber,” a reference to the river in Rome that surrounds Vatican City.

For a pope whose long career includes more than two decades as the Church’s top doctrinal official, this gesture is plainly indicative of his keen desire to bring about Christian unity. From his attempts to reintegrate traditionalist Catholics as well as ongoing negotiations with the Russian Orthodox Church, there has been much progress in the four years since Benedict ascended to the papacy.

Often derided as a reactionary conservative from another era, Benedict has made more ecumenical progress in four years than most popes have made over their entire tenures. Hopefully the irony that “God’s Rottweiler” has come closer to achieving true Christian unity than anyone else is not lost on the pope’s critics.

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Bryan Kerns is a junior honors and humanities major from Drexel Hill, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected]