Just weeks after the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, the death knell may have been struck for his original idea of the Church of England as a middle way between Protestantism and Catholicism. This notion, which he subsequently disowned, became the basis of the Anglo-Catholic wing within the Church of England.
Newman himself realized that this experiment was impossible, hence his reception into the Catholic Church. And it now appears to be at an end. The announcement that five Church of England bishops are resigning to take advantage of Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic constitution, Anglicanorum Coetibus, indicates that fence-sitting is no longer an option.
Last year, Pope Benedict’s unprecedented initiative paved the way for Anglican ordinariates to be set up within the Catholic Church. As the accompanying note from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith made clear, the ordinariate will allow “former Anglicans to enter full communion with the Catholic Church while preserving elements of the distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony.” Anglican clergy will be re-trained and re-ordained as Catholic priests on a case-by-case basis, a special dispensation being granted to those who are married, though they will not be allowed to be bishops. This provision allows for whole parishes and even dioceses to enter into unity with the Catholic Church. Such communities will be overseen by specially appointed ordinaries.
Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has commented: “The unity of the Church does not require a uniformity that ignores cultural diversity.”
At the heart of the five bishops’ announcement lie concerns about the general undermining of traditional Christianity. The five in question are Bishop Andrew Burnham of Ebbsfleet, Bishop Keith Newton of Richborough, Bishop John Broadhurst of Fulham, emeritus Bishop Edwin Barnes of Richborough and emeritus Assistant Bishop David Silk of Exeter.
In a joint statement, they said: “We have been dismayed, over the last 30 years, to see Anglicans and Catholics move further apart on some of the issues of the day, and particularly we have been distressed by developments in faith and order in Anglicanism which we believe to be incompatible with the historic vocation of Anglicanism and the tradition of the Church for nearly 2,000 years.”
The message could not have been clearer. For all the secular media’s focus on the issue of women bishops, the five expressly said that the reason behind their decision is the accumulative jettisoning of tradition by the Church of England.
Bishop Burnham went further, commenting that the Church of England is “going off in its own way and making up its own rules.”
Is the departure of these bishops a disaster for the Church of England? Three of them — John Broadhurst, David Silk and Andrew Burnham — were among the key figures who remained after the ordination of women. With their resignations, the Anglo-Catholic wing loses clerical credibility and support. Their departure actually gets rid of a “problem party” for the Anglican Communion. As such, it is a disaster for the Anglo-Catholics, as three of the four departed were “flying bishops” specially commissioned to care for Anglo-Catholics in various dioceses.
From the Catholic Church’s viewpoint, the move has been welcomed with justified sensitivity rather than jubilant celebration. The bishop with responsibility for the ordinariate, Bishop Alan Hopes, an auxiliary of Westminster and himself a former Anglican clergyman, welcomed the move and commented that the bishops’ conference will now “be exploring the establishment of the ordinariate.”
The Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, echoed Bishop Hopes’ views, commenting “that the constitution of a first ordinariate is under study.” At the time of writing, English Catholic bishops were not issuing further statements.
Details are understandably sketchy, as major questions have to be considered. Whose churches will the ordinariate use? Will converted clergy join a Catholic diocese, as has always happened previously, or will they join the ordinariate? Considerations will also have to be given to the practical workings of the situation in order to avoid parallel “Catholic Churches” in competition.
All these are difficult issues but, as of Dec. 31, these five bishops will be stepping down and waiting. They have not been “poached” by the Vatican: The establishment of the ordinariate was the result of Anglo-Catholic requests. The Pope responded, as he must, out of charity.
This is genuine ecumenism. Pope Benedict has made a huge move to achieve Christian unity, without insisting on uniformity of rites and customs. What happens over the next few months will test whether this approach is workable.
James Kelly, Ph.D., is a columnist for The Universe, the biggest-selling Catholic weekly in Britain and Ireland, and a researcher at the University of London.