ORLANDO, Fla. — The bishops of the Anglican Church in America have voted to accept Pope Benedict XVI’s invitation to bring their 3,000 members into the Catholic Church.

The unanimous vote of eight members of the House of Bishops, who met in Orlando, Fla., brings 120 parishes in four dioceses across the country into the Church.

Also present at the March 3 vote and in support of it were representatives of “Anglican use” parishes admitted on a one-by-one basis to the Catholic Church in accordance with the Pastoral Provision of Pope John Paul II in 1980.

The move is seen as significant for both the “Anglo-Catholics” in the Anglican Church in America and the worldwide Traditional Anglican Communion — and the Catholic Church.

“We are returning to the Roman Catholic Church as community with a common past and a common future,” commented Christian Campbell, a Florida lay member of the Anglican Church in America and coordinator of a blog called TheAngloCatholic.com.

Allies in Orthodoxy
Campbell believes that Pope Benedict intends for the Anglo-Catholics to be allies in his struggles to raise the quality of liturgy in the Catholic Church as well as reinforce orthodoxy: “Maybe some elements of the sacred have been lost in recent years and he wants us to help wage the battle against all the defects.”

Father Dwight Longenecker agrees. “That’s exactly what Pope Benedict is doing,” said the onetime Anglican priest, who converted to Catholicism 15 years ago and has been a Catholic priest for three and a half. “I think the Pope sees the Church divided into two: not between Roman Catholics and Protestants, but between those who believe the Christian faith and those who do not. He is trying to gather all those who believe in the Christian faith into communion with the Holy See.”

“There is a lot of talk about ecumenism,” declared the Most Reverend John Hepworth, primate of the 300,000-strong worldwide communion, shortly after the historic vote. “But this is true ecumenism.”

Archbishop Hepworth’s home community of Australia has already voted to accept Pope Benedict’s historic invitation, outlined in the November 2009 apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus. The Pope’s invitation opened the door for disaffected Anglicans to join the Catholic Church while retaining what the Pope terms their distinct “spiritual and liturgical patrimony,” including their liturgy, married priests and distinct parishes.

Hepworth, a onetime Catholic seminarian, says there has been an Anglo-Catholic minority in the Anglican Church working for reunification for centuries. This “high church” movement gained adherents in the 19th century. One of them, John Henry Newman, ultimately converted on his own and became a cardinal of the Catholic Church. (Pope Benedict XVI will beatify Cardinal Newman this September during his visit to the United Kingdom.)

In the early 20th century, says Archbishop Hepworth, reunion talks began with Rome, but these foundered during the Second World War.

Subsequently, talks resumed, but the Anglican Communion’s ordination of women and acceptance of homosexuality made unification increasingly unlikely.

The ordination of women (which first took place in 1976 in the U.S.) provoked the breaking away of large numbers of Anglo-Catholics worldwide into several groups, the largest of which is the Traditional Anglican Communion led by Archbishop Hepworth. Traditional Anglican Communion members not only agreed with the Catholic Church that women could not be priests but also feared that this move would forever block reunification.

No longer saddled with the liberal views of the mainline Anglican-Episcopal Churches of England, America, Australia and New Zealand, the Traditional Anglican Communion determined to approach Rome.

While Pope John Paul II was sympathetic to Anglo-Catholic aspirations, he would leave the details to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, limiting himself to the encouragement to “be generous.” 

“If you want action, we found, the CDF was the place,” said Hepworth. The cardinal was more than sympathetic. A man who shared Anglo-Catholics’ emphasis on the sacredness of liturgy, Cardinal Ratzinger even assisted them in developing their own hymnal.

On his advice, the Traditional Anglican Communion issued a formal statement of their wish to reconcile with Rome three years ago. Last November came Pope Benedict’s much-anticipated response laying out the rejoining process and the structure awaiting the returnees.

“Doctrine was not a problem with those of us in the Anglo-Catholic tradition,” commented Archbishop Hepworth. But some of the people who joined the new Church did need persuading, he added.

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, for example, has been reflected for centuries in the Anglican calendar of saints by the feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. “Wickedly,” jokes Hepworth, “we have asked our Catholic brothers, ‘What took you so long?’” (The Catholic Church has celebrated the feast day of the Immaculate Conception since the late 1400s but defined the doctrine only in 1854.)

As for papal infallibility, says Hepworth, Traditional Anglican Communion members see it as an authority issue. But they have witnessed the Anglican Communion’s notable failure to stop some churches in North America from blessing homosexual partnerships and accepting homosexual clergy, even though the majority of Anglicans, in Africa and India, condemn both. So they realize the need for a single authority, says the archbishop.

“The doctrinal test that Rome put to us was acceptance of the Catholic Catechism. We have accepted it,” said Hepworth.

The Catholic Church, says Hepworth, has in turn accepted Anglo-Catholic liturgy and spirituality, its approach to theology, and its “discipline,” which involves married clergy.

In the new Anglo-Catholic “ordinariates,” as the national groupings will be called, while married bishops are not allowed, married priests are. Moreover, the ordinaries (heads of the ordinariates) can be priests rather than bishops and will be accorded all the authority of bishops, except the power to ordain priests. These ordinaries will be nominated by a council of clergy and approved by Rome.

Designed to Last 300 Years

Moreover, the married priesthood is no “grandfather” institution. It will persist with new ordinations of married men, says Hepworth, though each married candidate for ordination must be approved on a per-case basis by Rome. “This is designed to last 300 years,” said the archbishop.

Individual Anglo-Catholics will have to sign a document agreeing to the reunion and accepting its doctrinal implications, but will be admitted to the Catholic Church in corporate, parish ceremonies at which neighboring Roman Catholic parishes will be welcome.

Campbell says that Anglo-Catholics in the U.S. are aware of the Catholic Church’s struggles and flaws. “We know this is not a panacea. But, for us, there really is no choice. We have always believed that Christ instituted the ministry of the bishop of Rome to be fundamental to the Church. We are obliged to seek communion with him and with the bishops who are in communion with him.”

At a practical level, he noted, Traditional Anglican Communion congregations are spread thinly. Once reunited with Rome, Anglo-Catholics can receive the sacraments at Catholic churches when they travel or move from their parishes. As well, they can welcome Roman Catholics to receive the sacraments at their hands.

Once all the bishops worldwide have voted, says Archbishop Louis Falk, primate of the Anglican Church in America, the next step is for the Traditional Anglican Communion to canvass its diocesan synods for a response to the reunion and then for the communion’s worldwide college of bishops to meet with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to iron out the details. Archbishop Falk hopes this will happen shortly after Easter.

Finally, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will proclaim the existence of each Anglo-Catholic ordinariate, and the process of re-ordaining bishops and priests and admitting parishes can begin.

“The Pope’s invitation just blew us away,” said Archbishop Falk. “It was so pastoral, so gracious and so charitable. Let’s go!”

Father Longenecker, who began his spiritual life as an evangelical Protestant and is a priest in a parish deep in the Bible Belt, hopes the Anglo-Catholic ordinariates will prove a bridge for evangelicals to move towards the Catholic Church.

“Many educated evangelicals are dissatisfied with what I call big-Baptist evangelical Christianity. They’ve discovered the historical Church and liturgical worship. So they try the Episcopal Church and run screaming away when they find lesbian bishops and ‘gay marriage.’ Or they try a Catholic church and find people kissing statues of the Infant of Prague or Our Lady of Guadalupe.”

The ordinariates, on the other hand, might provide a less shocking way of connecting with the Catholic faith.

Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.