VATICAN CITY — The Vatican has officially welcomed the decision by primates of the Anglican Communion to restrict the participation of the U.S. Episcopal Church for three years, following that church’s unilateral decision to authorize same-sex “marriages,” but behind the scenes it believes it will have little bearing on Catholic-Anglican relations.
Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said he was grateful the primates, who lead the 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion, had opted for temporary sanctions, rather than any more permanent divisions that could hinder the search for reconciliation between the two churches.
“We are working for unity and not for divisions,” he told Vatican Radio Jan. 15, “but we continue our dialogue.”
A predicted schism was avoided after the “vast majority” of Anglican primates voted to strip the Episcopal Church, the American branch of Anglicanism, of decision-making powers on “doctrine or polity” and from representing the Anglican Communion on ecumenical and interfaith bodies.
In a statement issued Jan. 15 at the end of a weeklong summit in Canterbury, England, the primates said recent developments “represent a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching” held by the majority of the provinces of the ecclesial community.
The statement said the Anglican leaders upheld “the traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture,” re-stating that marriage is “between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union” and that “the majority of those gathered reaffirm this teaching.”
The archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Justin Welby, repeatedly insisted that the Episcopal Church had not been punished, but was facing “consequences” for its actions. He told reporters Jan. 15 that the Anglican Communion has no authority to impose punitive measures on its members, but added, “If any province is out of line, there will be consequences.”
He also apologized on behalf of the primates present for the “hurt and pain” the Anglican church had caused to lesbian, gay and transgender people.
For its part, the leadership of the Episcopal Church was wholly unrepentant of its stance on same-sex marriage immediately following the Anglican Communion’s disciplinary action.
Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church who attended the summit, said he told the other participants specifically that there would be no backtracking by the Episcopalians, The Associated Press reported.
“They heard from me directly that that’s not something that we’re considering,” he said.
Little Effect on Dialogue
Overall, the Vatican sees the move as a good step and the “desired outcome,” largely because it means the Anglican Communion will, for now, stay as one. This makes dialogue possible, the Vatican argues, and at the same time, it allows the possibility for bonds to strengthen between Catholics and Anglicans.
The development is unlikely to have any significant bearing on future relations, however. The sanctions were simply a concrete manifestation of “endemic divisions in the Anglican Communion that we have known about for years,” a senior Vatican official told the Register on condition of anonymity. “If the heterodoxy of various branches of the communion has not altered our official dialogue engagements with these churches, then these measures will have no particular additional consequences.”
Furthermore, he reminded that any tradition-minded Anglicans “can be reconciled with the Catholic Church any time through local parishes and dioceses,” adding that the ordinariates “are also a possibility.”
But the Anglican struggles also have other implications for Catholics. The parallels in the Catholic Church “are a little uncomfortable,” said Msgr. Andrew Burnham, a former Church of England bishop, who now serves as a Catholic priest for the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham in England.
Anglicanism, he told the Register, lacks the authority of the Petrine office as a guarantor of doctrine, but he argued that the similar causes, such as women’s ordination, same-sex “marriage” and married clergy, are seen as a “series of arguments to be won” in the Catholic Church, too.
Supporting “liberal agendas” is something the “press at least attributes to Pope Francis and his house theologian Walter Kasper,” he observed, adding that liberalism’s “success of past battles” over “modernism, democracy, biblical scholarship and liturgical reform all suggest the natural conservatism of the Petrine office may yet give way on a number of issues.”
As for the Anglican Communion’s future, he thinks the outcome in Canterbury was a “good one,” as it continues to exist, despite predictions of its imminent demise. But the underlying troubles remain because of the Communion’s synthesis of “catholic-liberal-reformed theologies” and the absence of the “necessary authority to resolve the disputes that arise,” he said.
Only a Brief Respite?
The three-year sanctions may also only offer Anglicans a brief respite from the current tensions. The Most Rev. Stanley Ntagali, the Anglican archbishop of Uganda, who was outspoken in calling for “Godly order” to be restored to the Anglican Communion prior to the summit, said it was “too soon” to say whether the primates’ decision resolves matters or is simply a stay of execution.
He called it a “very important, symbolic vote” and told the Register the primates had “given a strong rebuke” to the Episcopal Church. But he did “not know” what will happen after three years and said “only time will tell” if the Episcopalians accept the disciplining in “love, repent and show amendment of life, or whether they disregard the rebuke and persist in their false teaching.”
Returning the Anglican Communion to tradition and Scripture was the intent of the primates’ decision, he said, but it’s too early to say if it marked a “turning point.”
One possible hindrance could be Archbishop Welby himself. In a statement on arrival back in Uganda, Archbishop Ntagali said the archbishop of Canterbury, who chaired the primates’ meeting, failed to take seriously Archbishop Ntagali’s resolution to ask the Episcopalians and Canadian Anglicans to voluntarily withdraw from all Anglican Communion groups.
“He simply moved on to another matter without ever allowing any discussion on it,” the Ugandan primate said. “At that point in the meeting, I realized that the process that had been set up would not allow us to accomplish the purpose for which we had come.”
Archbishop Ntagali, therefore, walked out of the meeting at the end of the second day, but his fellow primates from the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), a group concerned that Anglicanism is departing from biblical teaching, remained and two days later agreed with the resolution suspending the Episcopal Church’s full participation.
‘Schism Is Unavoidable’
Father Ed Tomlinson, a former Anglican vicar and now a priest of the ordinariate of Tunbridge Wells in England, is skeptical the Episcopal Church will take the suspension well. “The liberal voices within the Anglican communion are predictably rigid in the face of the slapdown,” he said. “We see haughty pride and indignation and defiance. There is no sign of lessons learned or any apology whatsoever.”
He believes “long-term schism is unavoidable” but that the Anglican Communion will probably “limp along for a couple of years yet.” He also believes Catholics “may get sucked in too” because the Church is suffering from similar divisions.
The personal ordinariate for former Anglicans, however, is “well placed to find some healthy middle ground amid the mess,” he believes. The ordinariate “will pick up more people” as the Church of England is “torn apart by a fracturing of the global communion,” he predicted.
Father Tomlinson also believes Archbishop Welby would never have been chosen to lead the Anglican Communion had he not “signed up” to the “gay agenda.” “That is a fact,” he said. The archbishop himself appeared to acknowledge some unease with the primates’ vote, telling reporters at the end of the meeting: “I don’t agree with everyone around the communion, and they certainly don’t agree with me.”
“Don't be fooled by his evangelical background,” Father Tomlinson said. “Evangelicalism itself is in crisis, having long since caved in on remarriage after divorce, and is not the orthodox force it once was.”
He said he strongly suspected the primates’ decision was taken to try to keep the Anglican Communion together no matter the short-term political cost “because once the Communion unravels, then the Church of England itself can only implode. The only thing holding together deeply divergent parishes is the crown, after all.”
The Perils of Decentralization
A further concern that the Anglicans’ struggles have brought to the surface is the chaotic division that can arise from a decentralized ecclesial community. The Catholic Church has the unifying strength of the papacy, but speculation that Pope Francis’ upcoming apostolic exhortation will devolve certain doctrinal matters such as admission to the sacraments for civilly remarried divorcees to bishops is seen as a very risky move within the prism of Anglican events.
“If the Holy See wishes to head down the road of decentralization, there is plenty of evidence from Orthodoxy and Anglicanism of the perils of a) not being able to change anything at all — will the Orthodox even manage to meet? And b) being at the mercy of secular liberalism and/or illiberal societies,” Msgr. Burnham said.
Catholic Archbishop Matthew Ndagoso of Kaduna, Nigeria, stressed that decentralization can only consist of “universal pastoral principles in different cultural settings” and should have “nothing to do with doctrinal matters.”
In comments to the Register, the archbishop, who was a father at last year’s synod on the family, stressed the Catholic Church “can only end up like the Anglicans if the so-called decentralization is done regardless of the existing structure of the Church. And this is why we have the Petrine ministry, to guard, lead and moderate.”
The Anglicans, meanwhile, continue to struggle without that important unifying force, and similar to the Catholic Church, it is African Anglicans who are principally leading the charge for orthodoxy.
On arrival in Kampala, Archbishop Ntagali was at pains to point out that although he withdrew from the primates’ meeting, Ugandan Anglicans have not withdrawn from the Anglican Communion. “We are the Anglican Communion,” he said.
Asked if Africa holds the future for both Anglicans and Catholics, he told the Register it was not really for him to say, but added: “What we know is that, in our context, both churches are growing; and our people have a hunger and thirst for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
“The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” he said, “is satisfying them with peace, joy, hope and a vibrancy in their faith.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.