VATICAN CITY — It appears to be the calm before the storm for the Anglican Communion.
Amid much debate and controversy, last month the Church of England decided to allow women to become bishops in the next two years.
The move greatly upset traditionalist Anglicans, who are now expected to leave the Anglican Communion in large numbers — although not just yet.
All of the traditionalists’ wishes were rejected at a heated July 9-13 meeting of the Church of England’s General Synod in York, England. The traditionalists had sought an amendment for alternative male bishops. The amendment would have allowed parishes unwilling to have a woman bishop to call upon a male alternative who would have his own autonomy and “joint jurisdiction” over those parishes.
But the synod narrowly voted against the compromise, despite it being supported by Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, and John Sentamu, the archbishop of York. Instead, it was decided that women bishops should be able to decide the identity and functions of any alternative bishop, and they would only have to consult a code of practice in dealing with traditionalists.
The ruling will now be put to the Church of England’s 44 diocesan synods before returning to the General Synod, where it must receive a two-thirds majority. It must then receive parliamentary approval before being granted royal assent.
But these are mere formalities, and the decision is effectively passed, bringing to an end years of debate over women bishops in the Church of England.
Forward in Faith, the Anglican Communion’s largest traditionalist group with about 10,000 worldwide members, including more than 1,000 clergy, said the move will prompt large numbers of Anglo-Catholics to consider conversion to the Catholic faith.
Speaking to the Register July 28, Bishop John Broadhurst, chairman of Forward in Faith International, said there was now “no question” that as an individual he was interested in joining the new personal ordinariate announced by Pope Benedict XVI last October.
The ordinariate, announced through the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus, is a canonical structure which will allow former Anglicans to be received en masse into the Catholic Church but retain elements of their distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony.
Bishop Broadhurst said the General Synod vote came as no surprise and that even with the archbishop of Canterbury’s amendment, the synod’s proposals were “totally unacceptable” to him and other Anglo-Catholics. “It was a complete denial of all the promises they’ve made since 1994,” he said.
Stephen Parkinson, Forward in Faith’s U.K. director, told reporters after the synod, “They are saying either put up or shut up and accept innovations, however unscriptural or heretical, or get out.”
Crossing the Tiber
But so far, there are no signs of the predicted exodus of traditionalists into the Catholic Church. “We’re waiting to hear any signs of life,” said one Vatican official, “but we’re not hearing much yet.”
Numbers interested in the ordinariate are also said to be very small, and so far they have only been from Australia, England, Canada and America. “They’re an umbrella group of people mostly disaffected with other churches,” said the official. “The Vatican takes them seriously but is looking carefully into who they are and what needs to be done.” He said it’s currently a case of “wait and see” to find out how many choose to cross the Tiber, although he thought it “all the more strange” that so few are coming over when there were said to be “repeated requests” for the ordinariate.
Traditionalist sources, however, say priests are already applying. The delay is being put down to the synod ruling not being definitive (due to the need to be voted upon within dioceses and Parliament).
Pope Benedict XVI’s state visit to Britain in September is also an important consideration. Traditionalists, in the U.K. at least, are unwilling to make any conspicuous moves until the visit is over to avoid embarrassing the Holy Father.
But the main reason for the delay is that the structures for the ordinariates have yet to be set up, a responsibility solely belonging to the Vatican, and which is being carefully worked out.
“You can’t join what’s not yet established,” said Bishop Broadhurst, adding that when it is, he expects a healthy response. “Initially, not many will come over,” he said, “but, ultimately, it will be a large number.” Forward in Faith will be holding a third and crucial meeting to discuss the ordinariates in the fall.
Regarding North America, the situation is somewhat different, as Anglican-use parishes have long existed within some dioceses, and some breakaway Anglican groups are not so clearly defined (among their members is a wide range of theological views and not all are Anglo-Catholics). But Bishop Broadhurst is confident that even in North America a significant number of traditionalist Episcopalians will cross the Tiber, noting that many are currently in a “holding pattern” waiting to see how the ordinariates will evolve.
Meanwhile, despite these ructions in the Anglican Communion, ecumenical dialogue continues. The next stage of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission is going ahead, and both churches are drawing up teams of theologians ahead of the discussions.
The Vatican is confident dialogue can proceed, and it is still committed to helping prevent the Anglican Communion from fragmenting. It says the current troubles in the Church of England will only affect the dialogue if there is a mass exodus of Anglo-Catholics from the Anglican Communion. Then the Vatican would be talking with a different kind of Anglican Communion, one much more Protestant than it was in the past.
Just how Protestant depends on how severe the impending storm between Anglican traditionalists and their opponents proves to be, a tempest that’s likely to break out in the fall.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.