VATICAN CITY — As the Anglican Communion threatens to break up, one large group of Anglicans is blazing a trail to Rome, and another could follow suit.
The Traditional Anglican Communion, an autonomous group of 400,000 clergy and laity separate from the Anglican Communion, has drawn up detailed plans on how to come into full communion with the Holy See.
After 12 years of consultations, both internally and informally with the Vatican, the group — with the help of a Catholic layman — is preparing a “Pastoral Plan” asking the Vatican for an “Anglican Rite Church” that would preserve their Anglican heritage while allowing them to be “visibly united” with Rome.
The Traditional Anglican Communion's worldwide primate, Archbishop John Hepworth, hopes the group's College of Bishops will approve the plan at a possible Rome synod in February 2006. The church's members are so far reported to be unanimous in their desire for full communion.
If formally agreed, the proposal would then be presented to Vatican officials. If Rome approves, the Traditional Anglican Communion, a worldwide ecclesial body based in Australia, would become the largest Anglican assembly to return to the Church since the Reformation.
In a statement released earlier this year, Archbishop Hepworth, a former Catholic priest, said the denomination had “no doctrinal differences with Rome” that impede full communion. “My broad vision is to see the end of the Reformation of the 16th century,” he said.
The denomination has pursued unity with Rome since the Anglicans started ordaining women as priests, a move that, Archbishop Hepworth says, was the “ultimate of schismatic acts” and irrevocably “fractured” the 1966 Common Declaration between Rome and Canterbury. The historic agreement, made between Pope Paul VI and then-Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey, obliged both communions to work towards unity through serious dialogue.
During recent informal talks, Vatican officials advised TAC to grow in numbers, become better known by forming friendships with local Catholic clergy and laity, and build structures through which they can dialogue with other churches.
“We've now done that,” Archbishop Hepworth said. “By next year's synod, our conscience will have brought us to a certain point — it will then be for the Holy See to decide what to do.”
Meanwhile, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales have warned the Church of England that going ahead with women bishops risks destabilizing both the Church of England and the whole Anglican Communion. In a report, the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales referred to “tremendous and intolerable ecclesiological risk” involved in ordaining women bishops.
The Church of England is considering whether to allow women to become bishops, with a debate expected at its general synod in February. Ordaining women as bishops is particularly contentious for those opposed to women priests as they would be unable to recognize or accept the authority of all priests, male or female, who were ordained by female bishops.
For Forward in Faith, a worldwide association of Anglicans who remain part of the Anglican Communion but are unable to accept the female ordinations, the situation is somewhat different than that of the Traditional Anglican Communion. They remain committed to being Anglicans, so communion with Rome “is not on the agenda,” according to Stephen Parkinson, director of Forward in Faith in the United Kingdom.
However, the group is sympathetic to the Traditional Anglican Communion and is likely to move closer to that denomination's position if women are ordained bishops in England and Wales. Currently, Forward in Faith-UK is negotiating with the Church of England for a “structural solution” that would enable its members to belong to a separate province within the Anglican Communion should the church decide to consecrate women as bishops.
But greater independence for Forward in Faith members might open the way for the group to move unilaterally towards Rome. “We could then pursue our own agenda,” said Parkinson. “Ecumenism could then become an imperative for us.”
Not If But When?
The Vatican is monitoring the current problems besetting the Anglican Communion. Not only do the communion's member churches have divisions over ordaining women as bishops, but Anglicans continue to be torn apart by the consecration in 2003 of Gene Robinson, the openly homosexual Episcopalian bishop of New Hampshire.
At a Church of England synod in London in November, Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, was strongly criticized by nearly half the church's presiding archbishops over the issue of homosexual clergy. In the same week, the archbishop of Nigeria, Peter Akinola, announced that he was aligning the country's 17 million Anglicans with the breakaway United States Episcopal churches. His church has already severed constitutional ties with the Church of England over Robinson's consecration.
For Anglicans like Archbishop Hepworth and Parkinson, it is a question of not if but when the Anglican Communion will fracture. But even if they're right, the Vatican is not inclined to work out precise plans for receiving large groups of Anglicans. Each case is likely to be different, which precludes forward planning.
The Vatican is, however, understood to be urging those groups wishing to come into communion with it to demonstrate they are comfortable with Church teaching, and that they aren't motivated solely by disillusionment with the Anglican Communion.
The two departments responsible for group conversions, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, are keeping a low profile for now. Cardinal Walter Kasper, the president of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity, has been focusing on issues that unite the churches and urging Anglicans to strengthen bonds that unify the communion, particularly those surrounding the Anglican Communion's traditional teaching on human sexuality.
In the meantime, both Rome and the estranged Anglicans are waiting to see what the Anglican hierarchy does and how national Anglican churches and individual Anglicans respond.
“If many come over to Rome at the same time, then they're still all treated as individual conversions,” said Dominican Father Charles Morerod, a member of the Anglican/Catholic International Commission. “But it's different if a whole province wants to come into communion.”
Religion News Service contributed to this report.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome