On September 22 The New York Times reported in some detail on the visit to Britain by Pope Benedict XVI. The high point of the visit was Benedict praying side by side at Westminster Abbey with Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. This was indeed an expression of ecumenical amity. Less amicable was Benedict’s proclamation, on the same visit, of the beatification (one step away from sanctification) of John Henry Newman, the most famous Anglican to return to the bosom of Rome. Also less amicable was the wonderfully understated observation Rowan Williams felt constrained to make, to the effect that there are some differences of opinion concerning the status of the bishop of Rome. But the tensions which surfaced here came from an earlier action by Benedict which (quite accurately, I think) has been seen as an attempt to fish in troubled waters. This was the offer by the Vatican to set up an Anglican rite within the Roman Catholic Church for priests leaving the Church of England because of gay bishops and other objectionable innovations. Such priests would be allowed to keep their wives and some parts of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Rome interpreted this move as coming out of pastoral concern for priests left ecclesiastically homeless. Needless to say, the view from Canterbury is rather different.
At first glance the arrangement proposed by the Vatican for fugitive Anglican priests seems to be very similar to the long-standing institution of Eastern rites for Orthodox church bodies (so-called Uniat churches), whose priests are allowed to be married and to keep using the rituals of traditional Orthodoxy. But there are also important differences. Eastern rites are accorded to entire Orthodox church bodies, while the envisaged Anglican rites are offered to individuals. A rough analogy would be if amnesty were granted to an entire Mafia family, as against individuals deserting the family. More importantly, the ordination of Orthodox priests is considered valid by Rome; Anglican ordination is not. Another rough analogy: A doctor moving from New York to Boston would not have to renew his credentials as a practitioner of medicine; a doctor moving from Russia would. Thus, as far as I understand the esoterica of Roman canon law, the beneficiaries of the new Anglican rite would have to be re-ordained.
The issue is not new, though it emerges now in a new context. The Anglo-Catholic movement, which arose in England in the nineteenth century, emphasized the Catholic roots of Anglicanism. It added incense and other liturgical extravagances to the ritual, and it re-established monastic institutions. Most Anglo-Catholics have remained in the Church of England and its overseas sister churches (such as the Episcopal Church in the United States), becoming one of three versions of Anglicanism—the Anglo-Catholic “high church” (also known as “high and crazy”), the deliberately Protestant “low church” (“low and lazy”), and the biggest in-between “broad church” (“broad and hazy”). It could be argued that the last most clearly expresses the mellow genius of Anglicanism. As an agnostic but nominally Episcopalian friend of mine said, when I looked surprised that he kneeled at a wedding we attended: “I don’t know whether I believe in God. But I know that I believe in the Church of England.”
But some adherents of the Anglo-Catholic movement were not satisfied by being accommodated in this big tent. John Henry Newman was not the only one to “go swimming in the Tiber” (a few became Orthodox, “swimming in the Bosphorus”). The ambition by Anglo-Catholics to be recognized by Rome (regardless of whether they themselves ended up there) induced Pope Leo XIII in 1896 to issue the bull Apostolicae Curae, which declared Anglican ordinations to be “absolutely null and utterly void” (Rome at her most august does not mince words). Curiously, the reason given for this position was not that the Church of England had ceased to stand in “apostolic succession” after Henry VIII severed it from Rome in his noble project of legitimizing his occupancy of Anne Boleyn’s bed. “Apostolic succession” refers to the claim that the Apostles established a line of bishops continuing uninterrupted through the centuries—a claim as dubious historically as the claim that Jesus established the papacy. It is doubly dubious in the case of the Church of England. Who was left after Henry VIII executed bishops who refused to acknowledge him as head of that church, after Queen Mary executed those who had, and Queen Elizabeth I did away with those who wanted to stick with Mary’s project to return to the church’s allegiance to Rome? I suppose that diligent historians could find a couple of bishops who survived these massacres—probably masters of the art of accommodation.
Anyway, Leo XIII did not focus on “apostolic succession.” Rather, Anglican orders were invalid because of a “deficiency of intention”—that is, the Anglican understanding of priesthood was not based on the full Catholic doctrine of the priest’s power to accomplish the sacrifice of the mass. Recent developments have worsened the “deficiency”—the ordination of women, the consecration of gay bishops, intercommunion with Lutheran churches with highly “defective” views on everything, and various moral aberrations (such as tolerance of abortion).
Benedict’s program to welcome Anglican refugees faces a number of problems. Recent dissidents come from two very different groups: the aforementioned Anglo-Catholics, who have always flirted with Rome, and Evangelicals, who have never been tempted to go there. Be this as it may, some priests have apparently been considering the offer. One such individual, Geoffrey Kirk, a priest in London, is quoted by The New York Times as having pithily described the difficulty: “We are a country of Protestant atheists. Most people don’t take religion very seriously. The one thing they do take seriously is how dreadful the Catholic Church is.”
The Vatican understands the world. The papal visit to Britain must be understood as part of a global strategy and Europe’s part in it. Despite the confrontation with Islam and the challenge of Evangelical Protestantism, the Catholic Church is doing quite well in the Americas (North as well as Latin), in sub-Saharan Africa, and in such Catholic outposts as the Philippines. The principal problem is secular Europe. Thus it is logical that Benedict has declared the “evangelization of Europe” to be a principal aim of his papacy. It is too early to assess the result. There are formidable obstacles. European secularity has become culturally entrenched. The mega-scandal of sex abuses by Catholic priests has not helped. But Benedict’s visit to Britain has once again made clear that there are other churches on the ground in Europe—churches who do not look kindly on being made objects of evangelization.