October 30, 2009


Anglicans becoming Catholics

As reported in our Oct. 23 issue of The Criterion, Pope Benedict XVI has established a special structure for Anglicans who want to be in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church while preserving aspects of their Anglican spiritual and liturgical heritage.

Why would Anglicans want to do that, and isn’t this a case of the Catholic Church stealing members of the Anglican Communion?

It’s hardly a secret that Anglicans have experienced much controversy among its members during recent years. Those controversies include the ordination of women as priests and bishops, the ordination of an openly gay bishop, and the blessing of same-sex unions. The controversies have caused divisions in the Anglican Communion, especially in Africa, with many Anglicans turning to the Catholic Church, where they believe they will feel more comfortable.

As for stealing members, Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, head of the Anglican Communion, has given his blessing to the new structure.

In a letter to top Anglican leaders, he said that “this new possibility is in no sense at all intended to undermine existing relations between our two communions or to be an act of proselytism or aggression.”

It is, though, recognition of the fact that the recent changes within some of the Anglican provinces makes the possibility of full unity between the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church highly unlikely anytime soon.

The principal problem that Archbishop Williams has had in holding the Anglican Communion together is the fact that there is no binding authority in the Communion. There is no single Anglican Church with universal authority. Rather, it is an association of 38 provinces of national or regional churches that are in communion with the Church of England. The Episcopal Church is the Anglican province in the United States.

The Church of England began in 1534 when King Henry VIII declared himself head of the Catholic Church in England, and separated the Church from the pope in Rome. It was reunited with Rome in 1553 under Queen Mary I, and then separated again in 1559 under Queen Elizabeth I.

Catholics were persecuted in England under Queen Elizabeth I. In 1558, priests were required to leave England or face capital punishment, and 128 of them were put to death, along with 93 others. (During Queen Mary’s five-year reign, 276 Protestants were burned at the stake.) Persecution continued under Oliver Cromwell, who ruled England from 1649 to 1658.

Without going into the whole history of Catholicism in England, suffice it to say that, by 1702, Catholics in England had dwindled to less than 1 percent. It wasn’t until 1778 that a law was passed that permitted Catholics to acquire, own and inherit property. The Catholic Emancipation Act was passed in 1832, and dioceses were re-established by Pope Pius IX in 1850. But it wasn’t until the Catholic Relief Act in 1926 that virtually all legal disabilities of Catholics in England were finally repealed.

Today there are about 4.5 million Catholics in England and Wales, about 9 percent of the population. The Catholic Church has continued to grow as Anglicans have been switching membership. Meanwhile, churchgoing in the United Kingdom, including the Church of England, has been declining steadily. In 2008, the Church of England said that 1.7 million people attend its services each month.

The Church of England describes itself as “Catholic Reformed” rather than Protestant—Catholic in that it views itself as part of the universal Church of Christ in continuity with the apostolic and medieval Church, and reformed in that it has been shaped by some of the doctrinal principles of the Protestant Reformation. In practice, Anglicans often refer to themselves as high church (Anglo-Catholic), low church (evangelical) or broad church (liberal).

When the new structure was announced, Cardinal William J. Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said that a new apostolic constitution establishing the structure, and norms to implement it, would be published soon. It will establish personal ordinariates to oversee the pastoral care of those who want to bring elements of their Anglican identity into the Catholic Church with them. Anglican priests who are married may be ordained Catholic priests.

Perhaps we will comment again after the apostolic constitution is published.

—John F. Fink

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