Telegraph: On Tuesday morning, Pope Benedict XVI sprang a big surprise on both the Roman Catholic Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion. He announced the setting up of what amounts to a church within a church for Anglicans who reject the ordination of women priests and bishops and liberal teachings on homosexuality.
If they choose, these disaffected churchgoers will soon be able to worship together in full communion with Rome but with their own Anglican-flavoured liturgy, their own married priests and their own bishop or senior priest (an «Ordinary», to use the Vatican’s arcane terminology).
The announcement was made at joint press conferences in Rome and London, the latter attended by the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Dr Williams looked uncomfortable at the press briefing: he said he was happy with the news, but his body language told a different story. And no wonder. According to reliable reports, the details of the Pope’s very grand decree on the Anglicans, called an Apostolic Constitution, were communicated to him only a couple of days earlier (and they have still not been made public).
The Pope’s chief doctrinal adviser, Cardinal William Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is thought to have paid a secret visit to Lambeth Palace to brief Dr Williams as late as Monday. It cannot have been an easy conversation; sources in Rome claim that the Archbishop and his advisers had been «implacably opposed» to the Pope’s scheme.
Yesterday came the headlines and media reports that Dr Williams dreaded. The position of the Church of England «has been dangerously weakened», declared The Times. Religious correspondents announced the end of the Anglican Communion – not as speculation, but as fact.
«The faces of many Church of England bishops have turned as purple as their cassocks,» said one commentator. They knew nothing about this Apostolic Constitution in advance: the first official notification was a letter from Dr Williams published yesterday, in which he apologised for the short notice but explained that «I was informed of the planned announcement at a very late stage».
This anger is widely shared by Catholic bishops of England and Wales – and not just because they feel that the Anglicans have been insulted by the Vatican. Pope Benedict XVI decided not to consult the English Catholic bishops about his dramatic offer. Indeed, the Vatican’s own professional ecumenists in the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity were also kept out of the picture until «a very late stage».
But it is precisely the exclusion of liberal Catholic bishops that has delighted traditionalist Anglicans. It helps explain why, yesterday, Forward in Faith, the umbrella group for conservative Anglo-Catholics, welcomed the Pope’s decision effusively. They do not know how this arrangement will work in practice – «A lot depends on the fine print but so far there is no fine print,» says Stephen Parkinson, director of Forward in Faith – but they know what it will not contain: any provision for a local Catholic bishop to make their services trendy and «relevant».
Anglican congregations who pride themselves on being more Catholic than the Pope will be able to carry on celebrating Mass in antique vestments, in sanctuaries behind traditional altar rails, to the accompaniment of motets sung by a professionally trained choir.
These details may seem trivial, compared to the mighty theological disputes that have divided Rome from Canterbury. They are not. For well over a century, hardline Anglo-Catholics – many of them occupying grimy Victorian Gothic buildings in inner-city parishes rather than medieval rural churches with lovely rectories – have accepted nearly all the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Increasingly, as the authority of successive Archbishops of Canterbury has crumbled, they have been won over to papal supremacy.
The biggest stumbling blocks are not doctrinal; nor does the question of married priests loom large, since the Vatican is happy to ordain married former Anglican clergyman. Intriguingly, under the new arrangements, Rome may agree to ordain some married laymen – a startling departure from tradition, unknown in the West since the Middle Ages.
At a conservative estimate, about 1,000 of the Church of England’s 12,000 serving priests have seriously contemplated conversion to Rome. (Many years ago, before he was ordained, Rowan Williams flirted with the idea himself.) When you ask them why they have not taken the plunge, the most common response is: «The English Catholic bishops are more wishy-washy and liberal than our lot.»
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