There is no single point of view, it seems to me, which will do justice to this event. One has to put oneself into the different perspectives of the various Christians who will be affected by it, for better or for worse. This requires a little tour through the Christian universe: fasten your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen. Ready? Then let's be off.
Let's first look at the news from the point of view of those who have been asking and waiting for it the longest: Anglo-Catholics in the UK, particularly those in Forward in Faith UK (founded in 1992). Here was the reaction from their leadership:
It has been the frequently expressed hope and fervent desire of Anglican Catholics to be enabled by some means to enter into full communion with the See of Peter whilst retaining in its integrity every aspect of their Anglican inheritance which is not at variance with the teaching of the Catholic Church.Obviously, then, this should be seen as very good news by the members of FiF/UK, since it brings them closer to their ideal, expressed as follows in their 1994 Agreed Statement on Communion:
We rejoice that the Holy Father intends now to set up structures within the Church which respond to this heartfelt longing. Forward in Faith has always been committed to seeking unity in truth and so warmly welcomes these initiatives as a decisive moment in the history of the Catholic Movement in the Church of England. Ut unum sint!
We want a Catholic understanding of faith and morals, and the practice of Catholic sacramental discipline to flourish in our Church, for we are convinced that they are essential features in the presentation of the gospel to our nation. Remove these elements and our Church's witness will be greatly impoverished and weakened.At the same time, the move by the General Synod of the Church of England towards bringing women into the episcopate has been a source of grave concern for these folk. From their Statement, again, we read (with emphasis I have added):
1. The threefold order of bishop, priest and deacon, continued unchanged from the Apostles' time, as the Preface to the Prayer Book Ordinal makes clear, is a sine qua non of Anglicanism. This fact has very largely determined and continues to determine the relationship of the Church of England to other ecclesial bodies. Roman Catholics have denied the claim of the Church of England to have continued those orders, and so have declared them null and void. . . .From the perspective of FiF/UK, then, the Pope's offer solves two problems at once. It allows them a "safe harbor" from the recent advances by the Synod (which received, it is true, somewhat of a setback earlier this month) toward the ordination of women to the episcopate. Faced with the prospect of having to leave the Church of England to maintain what they regard as the true apostolic succession, they now have a place they can go to, without having to fend for themselves.
2. But the Apostolic Ministry is not an end in itself. It exists to authenticate the teaching and sacraments which it ministers. Within the diocese the bishop is the originator, regulator and guarantor of all ordained ministry. [Every bishop is within his diocese the principal minister, and to him belongs the right...of conducting, ordering, controlling and authorising all services... Canon C18 4.] He is charged to uphold the catholic faith and to ensure the reliability and validity of the teaching given and the sacraments celebrated by his authority. [ ..it appertains to his office to teach and to uphold sound and wholesome doctrine and to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange opinions Canon C18 1.] To this end all those who exercise a pastoral or parochial ministry in a diocese do so by license of its bishop and are said to exercise their function on his behalf [Receive the cure of souls which is both mine and thine] as his vicar or alternate.
3. The ordination of women introduces into this time-honoured pattern of relationships and guarantees, already threatened by unbiblical teaching, a new element of doubt. Not only do many faithful people in every diocese not accept that the Church of England and its General Synod have the ecclesial authority to authorize bishops to make this change, but the bishops themselves have expressed doubt about an action which they have nevertheless taken. . . . Believing as we do that in the administration of the sacraments the Church is always obliged to take the "safest" course, a degree of separation from those whose orders result from this principle of deliberate experiment and declared uncertainty is inevitable. . . .
The second problem the Pope has solved for Anglo-Catholics is the non-recognition by Rome of the validity of Anglican orders (due to an ill-considered -- but by Catholics deemed still infallible -- papal bull issued in 1896, which was thoroughly refuted by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York almost immediately afterward.) Although the Orthodox Church never agreed with the Roman Catholic Church on this point, it has been a sticking point between Rome and Canterbury ever since. Without drawing the infallibility of Pope Leo XIII into question, Pope Benedict XVI has now sliced through the Gordian knot by sanctioning the use of "Personal Ordinariates", non-geographical structures used by the Catholic Church previously to provide Catholic pastoral care to members of the military stationed abroad, for Anglicans. Each Ordinariate will be headed by an (unmarried) bishop or senior priest, appointed (naturally) by the Vatican, who may come from Anglican orders. And that solves that!
Anglican bishops and priests who are currently married will not be able to serve as ordinaries, but they may still be ordained as priests into the Roman Catholic Church, and serve under an ordinary. The geographical boundaries can be drawn very flexibly in relation to the boundaries of existing Catholic dioceses. We will have to await the publication of the Apostolic Constitution (currently under close review by Vatican canon law experts) for further details.
FiF/UK has been in the forefront of those requesting the Vatican for an accommodation like this, and so will probably be the first to respond. But there are a whole range of other Anglo-Catholics, both in the UK and in the United States and elsewhere, and not all of them are as delighted with the Vatican's move. Let's take a quick look at some of them.
Not all of Britain's Anglo-Catholics are conservative (apart from the issue of women's ordination, that is). Quite a few are rather liberal in other respects. In a very prescient article a few months ago, Catholic religion reporter Damian Thompson revealed the ongoing talks between the Vatican and FiF/UK, and in the course of the article made this observation:
It’s widely believed, among conservative Catholics and Anglicans, that the Church in England and Wales did not do enough to welcome refugees from the Church of England after the vote for women priests in 1992. On reflection, though, perhaps the time was not right. The Bishops of England and Wales were not well disposed to “misogynist” traditionalists, as they were unfairly characterised; the standard of English Catholic liturgy was at an all-time low; and Anglo-Catholicism, though divided and unhappy, still had the stomach for a fight.Thus some, and perhaps a considerable number, of Anglo-Catholics in the UK may stay in the Church of England, particularly if they already have a good living and a comfortable rectory. (But watch out for the threat of disestablishment, mentioned below.)
Now Anglo-Catholicism has fallen apart. Liberal High Churchmen have quietly abandoned their opposition to women priests, ditching their principles but keeping their chasubles; they include most of the practising gay clergy who were such a stumbling block in the 1990s. Conservative Anglo-Catholics, meanwhile, no longer identify with a C of E that treats them like batty aunts to be locked in the attic when the first woman bishop arrives, as she will soon. The question is how best to escape.
As for the United States, reactions among Anglo-Catholics have varied all over the map. Some, such as those in the Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC), are cautiously optimistic; others, like Bishop Jack Iker of the Diocese of Fort Worth, as well as fellow blogger Texanglican whom I link at the right, are much more reserved about the difficulties that remain with Roman doctrines (such as that darned infallibililty). Their reactions may be taken as typical of those Anglo-Catholics currently in ACNA, although it is not yet possible to ascribe a monolithic point of view to that group, which is still in formation. Nevertheless, for the reasons they indicate, I do not see any great numbers pulling out of ACNA any time soon to dance to the Pope's tune. (See also the comments by William Witt and others on this thread.) And still others, such as one of my favorite cerebral Anglo-Catholics, Father Robert Hart, declare unequivocally that the Pope has opened no path for them.
Now let us turn to one of the most fascinating aspects of this story. What does it mean for the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Church of England, and the Anglican Communion itself? Let's start at the center and work our way outward.
The Archbishop of Canterbury seems to have been taken somewhat by surprise by the Vatican's announcement, although he did manage to prepare a joint statement on it with the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster. (You can judge his reaction from the video of the joint press conference reproduced here.) And it is Ruth Gledhill ("Rome Parks Tanks on Rowan's Lawn") who supplies the reason:
One reason this has happened now, and not before, is that it was opposed by Nichols' predecessor Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, currently at the English College in Rome. He was worried about the damage such a move would do to Anglican-Catholic relations. He was right to be.You see, Anglicans and Catholics have been delicately at work forging a potential rapprochement ever since the heady days following Vatican II in the 1960's. Through various initiatives such as ARCIC and IARCCUM, intellectuals from both camps had been genteelly exploring the intricacies of the differences that separated them -- beginning with that nasty disagreement over the validity of Anglican orders. ++Rowan himself had been part of the discussions, and as late as last July, I pointed out how in his "two-tier" statement released after the close of General Convention 2009 he placed an inordinate stress on the difficulties which that body's decisions had caused for ongoing ecumenical relations.
Not only ECUSA's General Convention, but the Church of England's General Synod, as already mentioned, have been creating severe problems for the Archbishop of Canterbury. However, any effect the Vatican's announcement will have on ECUSA itself will be minimal. The statement issued from 815 reflects that reality almost perfectly when it reiterates the Gospel According to the President and Vice President of the Executive Council:
We in the Episcopal Church continue to look to the Holy Spirit, who guides us in understanding of what it means to be the Church in the Anglican Tradition.I bet you never knew that the Holy Spirit was an Anglican, as well as a traditionalist, did you? ECUSA is already doing a fine job of driving away its members and clergy, as documented in too many posts here to mention, and needs no help from the Vatican. (Contrast to 815's egocentrism the irenic response to the Pope offered by ACNA's Archbishop Duncan.) Many in ECUSA have a real antipathy toward Rome, despite the fact that Bloody Mary's reign was over 450 years ago. (See examples here and here, but see also this response as well.)
But the Church of England is another matter. Given that its women clergy threatened to leave en masse following the recent change in the draft legislation to enable the ordination of women to the episcopate, the Vatican's recent announcement will, as explained above, probably take the pressure off the legislators to make an accommodation for the Anglo-Catholics. To the extent the conservative Anglo-Catholics now follow Benedict's tune, there will not be enough of a faction left in the Church of England to ensure its protection. The news from Rome virtually guarantees that the CoE will have a woman bishop by 2012 or 2013. Thus it is ironic that by extending a helping hand to the CoE's distressed Anglo-Catholics, the Pope has done what the Church's own leader had not been able to do, which is to make it seemingly possible for the Church to remain a single entity.
But will it remain so? A year ago, in a post about the future of the Anglican Communion, I linked to an article which had some dire predictions for the future Church of England. The news from Rome changes the forecast somewhat, but the article is still worth reading today for its analysis and description of the various factions that make up the CoE, and how they are pulling the center apart. Moreover, as the author explains, the liberal trend in the clergy is at odds with the more conservative inclinations of the parishioners who have up till now filled the few occupied seats Sunday after Sunday. Thus it appears as though the announcement from Rome may only slightly hasten the eventual break-up of the Church of England, for the same ultimate reasons we have been seeing in the breakup of ECUSA. The factors so well analyzed by Bishop Allison are still hard at work in both churches, with consequences that are all too predictable. Ruth Gledhill even raises the spectre of disestablishment in the near future, given the left's anger at ++Rowan for not bowing to secular trends:
I wonder how many will agree with Keith Porteus-Wood of the National Secular Society, who said: 'This is a mortal blow to Anglicanism which will inevitably lead to disestablishment as the Church shrinks yet further and become increasingly irrelevant. 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. Time for him to go.'With the breakup of ECUSA and the CoE, where will that leave the Anglican Communion? The prospects for Lambeth 2018 are not very bright, I must say. If the Church of England is disestablished, not even the Compass Rose Society will be able to subsidize the cost of that gathering -- even if its invitees are greatly reduced. The other factions which are now more active -- GAFCON and the Global South -- will end up being the stronger survivor, and will be recognizable by the Covenant on which they will all agree. But neither ECUSA nor the Church of England will remain unified enough to want to sign on to any Covenant, let alone one that the Global South will sign. And under the current leadership of ECUSA and the CoE, but for very different reasons in each case, the implementation of a Covenant in those churches is simply impossible.
The move by the Vatican is thus very significant -- hugely significant -- in the overall course of things. But it is simply one shake of the shifting tectonic plates that are now reforming, at geological speed, the picture of Christianity on Earth today. The end picture will look nothing like it did over the last century. There will be the churches that float with the culture, and the churches that stand athwart it. Each will suffer gains and losses according to their ability to maintain their anchor with Jesus Christ.