When disgruntled Christians want to leave their particular flock, it helps to have another flock with the gate open.
This week the Vatican opened the gate and hung up a sign. “Come home to Rome.”
Traditional Anglicans (some call themselves Anglo-Catholics) within the 77-million worldwide Anglican Communion have for some time been unhappy with the advent of gay priests and female bishops. Some have already jumped the fence and formed their own conservative Anglican arrangement. The Traditional Anglican Communion, for instance, which split from the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1990, claims to have spread to 41 countries and have 400,000 members, even if only half of them actually attend church.
Many have wanted to keep their prayer book and married priests and still have a place to call home. This week’s offer from the Vatican may be too good to refuse. Feeling marginalized and betrayed by the Anglican Communion’s readiness to massage ancient dogma to fit modern sexual mores, they have an exit strategy into the Roman Catholic Church.
This week’s option of unity in diversity tries to show respect for the tradition from which new Catholics come.
Other Anglicans see the move as audaciously opportunistic, taking advantage of a deeply-divided church to attract new members and jeopardizing dialogue between Catholics and Anglicans by implying that it is more interested in attracting the disgruntled than working for reconciliation. To be fair, the door is being opened to those who are already knocking.
Conservative Catholics are not enthusiastic. “Cafeteria Catholics” is the epithet hurled by conservatives against those who opt for grazing rather than fidelity to orthodoxy.
But now the Vatican has shown that rules can be bent. If you can bend the rules to welcome conservatives is there a reason that you can’t bend the rules to welcome divorced faithful to the Communion Table or priests who chose to marry?
They would love a chance to come home to Rome.
Bob Ripley is a United Church minister in London, Ont.
In the giddiness of the moment, some may see this as part of the goal of Christian unity, albeit a small step towards healing the rift that began when Henry VIII broke England from Rome in the 16th century over a divorce not granted; setting himself up as the head of the Church of England and persecuting Catholics in the process. Anglicans will now be able to set up parishes or diocese where they would be Roman Catholic but not divorced from their roots. Priests could marry but bishops would have to be celibate. Former Anglican prelates chosen by the Catholic Church would oversee Anglicans seeking to convert. The authority of the Pope is, of course, non-negotiable.
It is likely that many Roman Catholics are smiling but not just because of the numbers and revenue. Many hold that the Anglican Book of Common Prayer is the English languageís most sublime expression of the Christian faith. Catholic music directors may welcome the rich Anglican choral tradition.
But not everyone is smiling and for good reasons.
For starters, many breakaway Anglican groups are solidly Protestant and Evangelical and could never embrace the authority of the Pope and the veneration of the saints, not to mention the Roman stance on divorce and contraception.